Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Alice Miller and Existentialism

Lots of people decry the horrors of the abusive family, and prescribe something different. Going back to The Drama of the Gifted Child, Miller is not doing this. Rather, she shows that at least often, people have children because of their own woundedness, the Narcissistic Wound. This idea is radical and threatening to most people. She is challenging something which is central to their systems of denial. She is not even suggesting that it could be any different, unless perhaps we were to come out of denial and start dealing with truth. Denial is both personal and societal, and so none of us are in a position to say what it would look like if this were not the case. None of us can claim access to some privileged realm of non-denial. Miller shows that all pedagogy is the product of this denial, as well as a means of propagating it.

Suppose someone tells me, "When you were a child, your parents abused you." What does this really explain? Why did they do this? Did I do something wrong? Was I unlovable? It still leaves one needing answers, and likely needing to recreate the situation to show that they now know how to handle it better. Or more often, they will recreate it placing themselves in the parental role. Saying that I was abused promotes the idea that there is some other standard of a non-abusive family.

Miller is not talking about abuse, about things widely recognized as wrong. She is talking about denial, people having a huge emotional stake in keeping their own experience repressed, and the means that they use to do this. One of the most pervasive of means is having their own children and dealing with them via a pedagogical system. This is a useful explanation because it not only explains my parents, it explains how all societies have worked going back to time immemorial. What shifts is our understanding of what tendencies lead people to having children. This is both radical and threatening. It exposes how pro-family ideology exists to let people stay in denial.

One of the most obtuse criticisms of Alice Miller that I have ever encountered comes from Robert Karen, in his Becoming Attached. Karen is a champion of the Nurturing Family and of the Mother Child Bond. Karen's reality revolves around this and it is necessary to his own system of denial. What Miller says is extremely threatening to Karen, and so he deligitimates Miller and anyone who listens to her by going ad hominem. Karen doesn't think adults should still be having issues with their parents. This exemplifies the opposition between Miller and the Liberal Pedagogues. What Karen is championing is regarded us an unquestionable and sacred truth by most.

I learned of Karen because of George Lakoff's Moral Politics. Lakoff is arguing that the discourses of the political right and the left both amount to the projection of a family metaphor on to the nation state. With the former it is the Poisonous Pedagogy model ( James Dobson's Focus on the Family ) and for the latter it is the Liberal Pedagogy model ( Benjamin Spock, and now Robert Karen ). Lakoff is not saying that he thinks it good to project these kinds of models onto the nation state, or that he supports either of them. Rather he is just showing that if you want to be effective in the political realm, you need to understand how people are already thinking. One will not be heard unless they are speaking to this.

Karen is an advocate for the Good Family. Miller, at least in her earlier writings, is not any such advocate. She denounces all pedagogy and all ideology. They are means of promoting denial. Miller is showing how very often people are moved to have children so that they can stay in denial. Miller is not making moral judgements about the things people do. Rather, she is working to expose societal lies. What Miller is saying was fore shadowed in Ellen Peck's 1972, "The Baby Trap". Peck explained that a girl who is unhappy is always finding herself steered towards maternity. It comes from family, friends, co-workers, doctors, and advertising.

The vantage point the early Miller spoke from is provocative, and it is hard to live from that place. Her contribution cannot be over estimated. Daniel Mackler has written about Miller as someone who's ideas are pivotal, and have been his primary influence. But he also shows how in more recent times she has tended to be more moralistic and to promote non-abuse over abuse. He shows that she has done exactly what she exposes. She has gone to her own children, looking for absolution, to fill her own Narcissistic Wound, and to legitimate her own socio-public identity. I am inclined to agree with Mackler on this. Though I also have to say that Mackler also gets quite moralistic in his prescriptions.

Limits of Alice Miller

Mackler explains why parents always want grandchildren. It means that they get exonerated from any taint. Once their children have children, they are no longer in any position to make deep criticism of their own parents. Mackler feels that in an Alice Miller inspired therapeutic context it is much more difficult, though not impossible, to work with people who already have children. Those who have children just have so much more invested in the denial system of pedagogical doctrine and justification.

Miller talks in terms of Truth and Self. I suggest here that this type of foundational thinking in Miller is simply the result of the fact that the world is living in lies and denial. She postulates a true world which underlies the false world. If it is taken beyond that, then her foundationalism becomes a liability. This is something to explore later, as it gets to the differences between Postmodernism and Existentialism.

One of the most useful texts for understanding the underpinnings of various view points is Within Nietzsche's Labyrinth, by Alan White. Read this chapter Nihilism, and follow White's analysis of religious, radical, and complete nihilism. You might also read more of the book to get a sense of what Alan White is like.

AM versus The Outsider

Essay Coming Soon!

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When Awareness is not a Choice