Paths of Life: Seven Scenarios

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"Her writing is lovely, and speaks to the nature of the human soul."--Newsday

From the world-famous Swiss psychologist whose book The Drama of the Gifted Child has become a classic, here are seven "life stories" exploring the countless ways in which our families and our childhood experiences form us and turn us into the people we are today.

How do early experiences of love or suffering affect our adult relationships? What effect is child abuse ...

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Overview

"Her writing is lovely, and speaks to the nature of the human soul."--Newsday

From the world-famous Swiss psychologist whose book The Drama of the Gifted Child has become a classic, here are seven "life stories" exploring the countless ways in which our families and our childhood experiences form us and turn us into the people we are today.

How do early experiences of love or suffering affect our adult relationships? What effect is child abuse likely to have on the victim's later life? How does hatred evolve and take root? How do people develop into cult leaders or political tyrants? Through the seven hypothetical scenarios and two essays that make up Paths of Life, Miller examines these questions and many others. Her narratives demonstrate that with knowledge and understanding of our past we have the power to change our future, freeing ourselves from the curse of repeating our parents' mistakes. In this, her eighth book, Alice Miller has given us yet another wise and profound study of the inestimable importance of childhood.

"Alice Miller wrote the book on narcissistic parents and the havoc they wreak on children. Twenty years later, she's still on the case with a new book and even more radical ideas."--Mirabella

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Psychoanalyst Miller's important message is poorly served by her choice of medium in this collection of composite dialogues intended to show the consequences of childhood abuse and neglect. In her introduction, Miller (The Drama of the Gifted Child) explains that people are marked for life by their family experiences in early childhood, and that knowledge of how childhood suffering affects us in our adult lives is crucial. Even violent offenders, says Miller, can learn empathy for their victims once they begin to understand how their own adult behavior is rooted in cruelty they experienced as children. To show how this type of understanding can develop, Miller presents seven "scenarios" in which fictionalized characters talk out their problems. Miller intends these as stories but they read more like lectures than narratives. Though they deal with significant issues--childhoods filled with neglect, physical cruelty, sexual abuse--they lack emotion, drama and concrete detail. The characters' voices are indistinguishable--perhaps because each is really the voice of the detached analyst herself. At times, the book's message seems overstated, as when a mother agonizes that a difficult childbirth could have been avoided if only she had received proper encouragement. But the section dealing with the parent of a girl with Down's syndrome is, ultimately, quite moving. The two essays with which Miller ends this slim volume, "Gurus and Cult Leaders" and "What Is Hatred?," offer more intellectual substance and engaging insights than do the scenarios. (Oct.)
Library Journal
A famed Swiss psychoanalyst offers seven stories that can help us understand our own lives.
Kirkus Reviews
A few good stories, but otherwise not much is new in these seven short fictions depicting characters struggling with, and sometimes growing beyond, 'traces of earlier fears, uncertainties and deprivations.' This is the first venture into fiction for the prolific, but increasingly repetitive Swiss psychoanalyst Miller (Breaking Down the Wall of Silence), and it's not a happy one. Her characters often come across as stilted, as if they were lifted from case reports. There's some real drama in their struggles to cope with the memory and the legacy of childhood—severe emotional neglect and, in some cases, physical or sexual abuse. But, as in many of Miller's other writings, an anti-parental bias is evident, and her characters sometimes express an unjustified sense that they have a complete understanding of what has happened to them. One, firmly convinced that her father sexually and physically abused her when she was an infant, actually informs her husband, 'I know the whole truth now.' Can anyone possess 'the whole truth' when it coma to interpersonal relations? Miller follows her seven fictions with a short, interesting essay, 'Gurus and Cult Leaders: How They Function,' and a considerably longer, reductionist one entitled 'What is Hatred?' In the latter, she claims without bothering to cite any evidence, that 'there was a universal abuse of infants' in Germany around the turn of the century and that one consequence of corporal punishment against children in that country was 'genocide and the toleration of genocide.' Her claim is a case of psycho-history at its most speculative and a-historical. In general, there is considerable evidence in the professional literature andin memoirs and biographies for what Miller writes about in that essay—a significant number of adults were emotionally neglected or abused as children—but romanticizing the victims, reducing history to one dimension, and otherwise overstating the case is a poor way of making the point.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375403798
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/13/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 188
  • Product dimensions: 5.84 (w) x 8.62 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Alice Miller lives in Switzerland.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Most people are born into a family. This family will mark them for life. Critical as young people may be of their parents, sometimes to the extent of breaking with them altogether, there is no way of escaping the more or less indelible imprint that these first family influences leave. Awareness of this fact becomes inescapable when we have children of our own.

Many people give the matter little thought. They simply put their own children through the same things they experienced themselves when they were young, and they feel they are quite right to do so. But one day they find to their amazement and dismay that it is precisely with their children and spouses or companions that they have the toughest time achieving the inner freedom they have been striving for since their youth. They are then quite likely to feel that they have reached an impasse. As they found no way out of that impasse when they were children, they had no alternative but to knuckle under, to grin and bear it. And for some adults it seems to be just the same.

But it is not. For however much we may be the product of family background, of heredity, of upbringing for better or for worse, as adults we can gradually learn to recognize these influences. Then we are no longer under the compulsion to behave like robots. The greater our awareness of the way we have been conditioned, the more likely we are to free ourselves from our entrapments and be receptive to new information.

The reader will become acquainted with a number of personal stories in the following pages. One of the things they are designed to illustrate is that the traces left by our childhood accompany us not only in the families of our own we have as adults, they manifest themselves in the very fabric of human society, all the way up to those outsize personalities who again, for better or for worse have left their imprint on the course of history. In my closing reflections, I turn to the question of whether and how we can learn to gain a clearer understanding of the way hatred evolves and thus prevent it from taking root.

As every life is unique, people naturally differ in the way they integrate their childhood into their adult lives. But regardless of the way individuals may decide to go, sensitivity to the harm done by a cruel childhood is increasing and that can only be a boon for society as a whole. Child abuse in all its forms has always been with us and it is still widespread today. But only recently have the victims started realizing what has been done to them and talking to other people about it. Subjects rarely touched on before are moving into the foreground of discussion, a discussion which opens up new perspectives of greater fulfillment in life for many people.

This was brought home to me forcibly by a book I read recently. In it, fourteen fathers serving prison sentences for sexual abuse of their children and taking part in a carefully structured group therapy designed during their term of imprisonment tell the story of their crimes. It is encouraging to see how the mentalities of these men changed after they were given the opportunity to talk about what they had been through and thus felt understood and accepted. As was to be expected, they are without exception stories of horrible deprivations in childhood, scenarios full of sexual exploitation masquerading as a substitute for the love they were denied.

When I say encouraging, I am referring to the transformation undergone by these men on the basis of the counseling and guidance they were given. They had lived thirty, forty, fifty years without ever being given the opportunity to scrutinize and investigate what they had been through as children, much less identify it as a wrong that had been done to them. Compulsively and without qualms, they inflicted the same suffering on their own children as they had been subjected to themselves. As long as they had no grasp of the way these things related to each other, they were unable to free themselves from that compulsion. Only now are they ready and willing to acknowledge their responsibility, because they no longer regard what happened to them in early youth as just the way things happen to be but have learned to see it as an outrageous wrong inflicted on them. Armed with this knowledge they can now mourn that horrible, twisted mess in their early lives where their childhood should have been.

This apprenticeship in critical thinking has not driven them into self-pity. Quite the contrary. From their own sufferings they have learned to empathize with their children and to acknowledge that they have harmed them for the rest of their lives. They are doing their best to repair that damage, but they know that much of it is irreversible. Not all of them have already succeeded in freeing themselves from this impasse. Some still have a long and difficult process ahead of them.

The figures in this book are my own inventions. In the course of time, however, they developed a life and a set of dynamics of their own, which in its turn enabled me to expand on what I had learned over the last few years and give it a more graphic form. The persons described here are not intended as ideals to be emulated. They simply recount what has happened to them and how they have either succeeded or failed in coming to terms with it. In describing their destinies and their environments, I consciously decided to keep outward detail to a minimum and to concentrate on the relations between the figures, on their feelings and thoughts.

There is no ready-made recipe for handling life. The objectives we have and the capacity for realizing them vary from person to person. Even though we are not always able to live up to our potential in childhood, and though the traces of earlier fears, uncertainties, and deprivations stay with us in our later lives, there is still much that we can do to change things for the better because our awareness has become more acute. This new awareness is frequently a result of encounters with feeling individuals who have been lucky enough to grow up surrounded by love and respect, who have had a less troubled childhood, who could freely experience pleasures and joys and have thus been able to lead easier, happier lives.

The figures most closely matching that description in my stories are probably Daniel, Michelle, Margot, Louise, perhaps even Gloria. They are able to listen, to identify with others; they are outgoing, concerned, and usually less prone to illusions than the figures we see them encountering. As they have experienced honesty and unconditional affection in their early years, they are better able to cope with their lives than those who are fed on illusions and later have to fight to find out the truth about themselves, like Claudia, Sandra, Anika, Helga, or Lilka.

The informal, associative style of the book should not blind the reader to the fact that my intentions in writing it go beyond the issues involved in the individual biographies of these fictitious characters and seek to pose a number of more universal questions, most notably: How do early experiences of suffering and love affect people's later lives and the way they relate to others? There are modern branches of research into areas that would be part and parcel of any attempt to answer that question, for example, observation of life in the uterus, study of newborn babies and infants, the early lives of political dictators, statistics on genocide, and so forth. But as far as I know, research has yet to be done into the way the data already collected relate to the childhood experiences of the people actively involved. These stories and reflections are designed to provide a stimulus for organized inquiries in that direction.

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