Of Moms and Moses A Review of Alice Miller's book, The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting
For I would prefer to have
these [asthma] attacks and please you,
rather than displease you and not have them.
- Marcel Proust, in a letter to his mother
In his 1941 book "Generation of
Vipers", Philip Wylie highlighted how slavishly this culture
worships motherhood, scorned how soldiers spelled out
"MOM" on parade grounds, and coined the term
"momism". The book enraged many, but shook too few
awake. Today, Alice Miller would show us, in detail, how those
soldiers - and most of the rest of us - were, and are still
craving the approval, affection and love denied us by our parents
in our childhood. We are still caught in the illusion that we can
somehow win and/or earn the love from the source that so long
withheld it from us.
We have to break free of our (internalized) parents' grip on us, that of the biblical injunction, "Honor (obey, worship,) thy father and thy mother." Until then we, in a sense, feel and behave and think like the little children we once were; we cannot grow up. Worse, because as children we weren't accepted and loved for who we were, parents repeatedly punished us in attempts to force us into the imaginary mold they had prepared for us, i.e., what a child should be. Dr. Miller's message is that our bodies bear a detailed record of every childhood hurt and humiliation inflicted, every spank and slap, insult and indignity. And until or if those internal, psychic wounds remain unhealed, we can expect to continue to pay the terrible price in physical illnesses. Powerless to do otherwise, we suppressed our true and good authentic selves to win the love our emotional survival depended on.
Dr. Miller writes with astonishing and penetrating truth about the connections between childhood suffering at the hands of parents, and the physical consequences of obedience to the Fourth Commandment. The Biblical law, "Honor thy father and thy mother" is here challenged as the source of widespread - even universal - life-long suffering. As children we attempted to free ourselves from our feelings of fear, insecurity and confusion thru repression and dissociation/self-alienation. Whatever the cost (abandonment of our true selves), we persisted in loving and trusting our parents (we hardly had a choice) and strived to earn their approval, (and (thus) to please the Greater Parent in the Sky.)
Today, what stands between our bodies and the healing of those injuries is the hold the Fourth Commandment has on our minds. As we lie and breathe, the fear of parental rejection/punishment lurks within that fear. It has to be brought to consciousness and examined before healing can take place. We walk carrying a sack full of personal history, the burden of wounds inflicted by all the punishment and indignities that have ever happened to us. Until we heal those internal wounds, we daily pay a terrible price in suffering, much of it physical illness, and make others pay as well. Those others are most often our own children. The claim so often heard, "I got spanked and I turned out OK," cannot be upheld when it is understood how the denial of physical and emotional injuries are connected to present illnesses.
There are three sections to this book: first: illustrations from the lives of famous literary people; second, efforts made at overcoming traditional morality, i.e., effects of 4th Commandment; and third, an in-depth case study of truth suppression as manifested in anorexia. Alice Miller has expounded at length in earlier books about dictatorial megalomaniacs like Hitler and Stalin who directed their hate and violence toward others. In this book she shows how we direct ours toward ourselves. Examples are taken from the biographies of well-known people: Franz Kafka, Dostoevsky, Checkhov, Schiller, Rimbaud, Proust, Virginia Wolfe, James Joyce, et. al. Shown are the efforts of their respective parents to make them over into the child they wanted, and the consequences in the victims' lifelong illnesses and early deaths.
Dr. Miller repeatedly emphasizes the tragic effects, in the form of physical ailments, of the body's life-long yearning for parental love and affection. She touches on the way this suppression is expressed in religion: the command to love God, on pain of punishment when we fail to do so; the absurdity of inventing a parent-like creator, perfect and omnipotent, who craves our love. It is an odd god, an immensely dependent god, a Big Daddy who, if given the love demanded, will reward with an eternity in blissful heaven. (And the teenage suicide bombers of the Middle East are promised the bonus of 72 virgins to sweeten the deal.) Inasmuch as the Great Father is not loved, even worshipped, the alternative is agonizing punishment from now to the "end" of eternity.
We have to liberate ourselves from the propaganda imposed on us - and enforced on us on pain of punishment - by conventional morality. This book calls for a higher morality, as it applies to parenthood. We cannot truly love our parents, she asserts, until we are liberated from the infantile attachment, the idolatry, that trapped us in childhood.
Dr. Miller wants the reader to understand and accept that parents who abused us do not deserve our love and honor, regardless of a Moses-imposed commandment to do so. As we all must know, love is one thing that cannot be enforced. Like Sgt. Joe Friday, the body, in its wisdom, rejects illusions. It accepts only the facts, as higher morality is inherent not in the mind, but in our bodies. She takes to task all those friends and relatives and preachers and therapists who say, "Forgive your mother, forgive your father; they did the best they knew how. She changed your diapers, he sacrificed for you, and above all they loved you." Miller will not hear it: forgiveness is a crock and a trap, laid to continue the dependency, and preserve the hope, that somehow, sometime, we will finally bask in the love that was so long ago denied us. Reading Alice is like hearing someone whisper, "I know the secret you are hiding in your past, the feelings of hurt and fright and shame and humiliation at the abusive treatment you suffered at the hands of your parents. And I'm asking you - urging you, challenging you - to come out of that dark closet and face up to it."
In the valley where I live, the #1 fear at whatever age is parental punishment. And among adults, it's primary defense is Denial. Behind the denial of childhood mistreatment lies the fear of punishment, therefore acknowledgement or recognition of it in adulthood can approach terror. But the price for denial is paid in physical as well as mental illness. When aware of it we see it everywhere: the suffering in the bodies and minds of strangers and of those dear to us. But we must begin with ourselves, confronting the punishing parent within.
The Body Never Lies: The Lingering
Effects of Cruel Parenting