Some observations of Alice Miller's The Body Never Lies
In The Body Never Lies Alice Miller continues her analysis of the links between our experiences in childhood and their impact and value in our lives as adults. In this book she courageously explores two themes central to our individual, relational and political health: the connections between our adult body, mind and spirit and childhood, and the religious and cultural prescription to love and forgive our childhood oppressors found in the Fourth Commandment's mandate to "Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother".
I say Alice Miller is courageous because in this book she is willing to directly challenge the accepted wisdom of millennia based in our most cherished and powerful beliefs. By applying a child-centered perspective, Alice Miller's analysis of biographies and writings of well-known literary figures and everyday human experience unflinchingly turns our comfortable world on its head. In doing so, Miller provides a straightforward and powerful understanding of the transition from childhood to adulthood based in liberation psychology and authentic relationships centered on facing the emotional truth of childhood experiences.
Alice Miller describes the behavioral and relational 'truth' of childhood experience, both positive and negative, that neuro-biology and research on impacts of exposure to violence in childhood and adult health are demonstrating is stored in the body, in the cells and the neurons and their connections. No matter how much we deny, redefine or push from our memories the hurtful and damaging feelings of powerlessness and diminished human dignity we experienced in childhood at the hands of adults, the body does not forget. No matter how much we let moral precepts or normative social expectations tell our minds otherwise, the body knows the truth and reacts. When the 'truth', the subjective feelings and emotions linked to our experience (as Alice Miller uses the word 'truth') is denied, the body rebels, and illness in our body and in our relationships develops. When the 'truth' of our experience is acknowledged, confronted unapologetically and in an authentic way, our body and our relationships gain new health.
As always, Alice Miller's insights into the value and contribution of childhood experiences to our adult lives allow us to see where we previously were blinded, to hear where we were previously deaf, and to speak in voices that were previously silent.
What can we see when we learn that childhood experience stored in the body? We can see our adult health in the liberated and free expression of empowering love experienced in childhood. We can see bodily and relational illness as a reflection of the battle for the authentic self to escape from the oppression of the mandate to honor and love those who have hurt us.
What can we hear when we listen to the voice of childhood experience and its power in our adult lives? After reading The Body Never Lies we can, if we are fortunate to have positive enlightened witnesses direct their words to us, hear voices that confirmed our individuality and human dignity in our childhoods, voices that recognized our authentic selves and our subjective, emotional, experience based 'truths', and permitted us to express those truths in our bodily health and relationships.
All too many of us, however, can also hear those voices that forced us to silence our authentic selves and to belittle, deny and repress our 'truths'. Confronting the power of 'poisonous pedagogy', we hear those voices that drained the 'truth' of our feelings and emotions into their wills and wishes. We hear the voices of those who transformed our feelings of hurt and powerlessness, our truths, into the love and honor that our social and religious principles mandate we give our parents.
In our bodies and the voice of our bodies the reality of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect is stored. We cannot escape it, even when we become adults. When we do not hear the voice of this childhood truth, we struggle in inauthentic relationships and ill health as adults. Often, we pass such problems on to another generation. Alice Miller opens our ears to these abusive voices so that we can challenge them with the voices of our truth.
What does Alice Miller help us to say and do? The Body Never Lies empowers us to speak 'our truth'. We must feel and act on an understanding that we need to be and can be 'enlightened witnesses' to others and ourselves. Forgiving those who do not recognize the harm they caused us does not cleanse the body, because the 'truth' of the hurt remains unacknowledged. The lie of forgiveness remains in the body.
Alice Miller helps us to see the power and freedom in authentic communication, the frank exchanges that we desire. This is something that the traditional morality of therapy, religion and parenting expectations often hide in the disguise of 'honor thy father and mother' even when they dishonor you, the child. Alice Miller gives us way of understanding and acting that permits us to unflinchingly remove the disguise.
Though Alice Miller does not directly do so, The Body Never Lies offers us the possibility of rewriting the Forth Commandment from a Child-Centered Perspective. The new commandment would emphasize the parental duty to foster and respect the authentic personhood of children rather than the children's duty to submit to parental domination and personal self-denial.
If God had understood how Moses felt about his abandonment, perhaps parents would have a duty to be 'enlightened witnesses' for their children. Perhaps if God had recognized that God had a childhood, and perhaps if God had created Adam and Eve as children instead of adults, if God set their goal as the expression of self-knowledge and watched their progress, instead of forbidding them knowledge, perhaps the Fourth Commandment passed to Moses would have read:
Parents should honor and empower their children, so that they, their children and their children's children will live their own truths over long and authentic lives!
Then what would pass from generation to generation would be 'real love' and attachment based on the truth of experience rather than the façade of love based on guilt and attachment based on a morality of domination and control. Power would not mean, "to dominate and control", it would mean, "to empower". If we could apply to our own lives the understanding of the meaning of childhood experience that Alice Miller provides in The Body Never Lies, the personal, relational and political health of ourselves, our children, and all with whom we come in contact can be improved.
See also: The Child Trauma Academy
The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting
Lucien X. Lombardo, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University. See Dr. Lombardo's "Brief Thoughts on Reading the Works of Alice Miller".Articles by Alice Miller