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Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child

Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child

by Alice Miller

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This groundbreaking classic of child-rearing, originally published in 1984, exploded Freud's notions of "infantile sexuality" and helped bring to the world's attention the brutal reality of child abuse.


This groundbreaking classic of child-rearing, originally published in 1984, exploded Freud's notions of "infantile sexuality" and helped bring to the world's attention the brutal reality of child abuse.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A provactive critique of traditional therapy's view of childhood . . . This is explosive stuff. I can't imagine anyone coming away from this book without several newfound discoveries about herself and her relation to her parents.” —Nancy Evans, Glamour

Thou Shalt Not Be Aware is that rarest of gems, a highly creative and exciting work which throws a multifaceted light upon the development of human nature in the Western World.” —Ashley Montagu

“Alice Miller is not out to 'hang the bastards,' but rather to help create a world of self-conscious and self-loving individuals who don't need, want or know how to abuse others.” —Sheila Koren, San Francisco Chronicle

“It is timely. It is powerful. It is painful . . . absorbing, enlightening and provoking.” —Louise Lione, Charlotte Observer

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Penguin Publishing Group
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6.12(w) x 8.94(h) x 0.80(d)

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Thou Shalt Not Be Aware

Society's Betrayal of the Child

By Alice Miller, Hildegarde Hannun, Hunter Hannun

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1981 Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-0677-1


Two Psychoanalytic Approaches

IT is of course not classical psychoanalysis alone that suppresses the question of how parents consciously, or more often unconsciously, treat their children in the first years of life; all the disciplines I know of that deal with the human psyche share this characteristic, including those with free access to the relevant facts, i.e., psychiatry, psychology, and various schools of psychotherapy. Probably the main reason I call particular attention to the phenomenon in psychoanalysis has to do with my belief that this discipline could bring about the deepest and most authentic understanding of the subject if its theories did not automatically and unconsciously act as blinders. In order to describe the mechanisms involved, I must go into some detail.

If I as an analyst direct my interest and attention to finding out what drive desires a person who enters my office for the first time is suppressing at the moment, and if I see it as my task to make this clear to him in the course of his analysis, I will listen sympathetically when he tells me about his parents and his childhood, but I will be able to absorb only that portion of his early experiences which is made manifest in his drive conflicts. The reality of the patient's childhood, which has been inaccessible to him all these years, will be inaccessible to me as well. It remains part of the patient's "fantasy world," in which I can participate with my concepts and constructs without the traumas that really took place ever being revealed.

If from the beginning, however, I confront the person who enters my office with questions having to do with what befell him in childhood and if I consciously identify with the child within him, then from the very first hour events of early childhood will open up before us that would never have been able to surface had I based my approach on an unconscious identification with the parents and their devious methods of upbringing instead of consciously identifying with the former child. In order to enable these events to come to light, it is not enough to ask questions about the past; besides, some questions tend to conceal more than they reveal. But if the analyst directs his attention to early childhood trauma and is no longer compelled to defend the position of the parents (his own and those of his patient), he will have no trouble discovering the repetition of an earlier situation in the patient's present predicament. If, for instance, the patient should describe with complete apathy a current partner relationship that strikes the analyst as extremely painful, the analyst will ask himself and the patient what painful experiences the latter must have had to undergo in early childhood, without being permitted to recognize them as such, in order to be able to speak now so impassively about his powerlessness, hopelessness, loneliness, and constant humiliation in the present-day relationship. It may also be, however, that the patient displays uncontrollable feelings directed toward other, neutral people and speaks about his parents either without any show of feeling or in an idealizing manner. If the analyst focuses upon the early trauma, he will soon ascertain, by observing how the patient mistreats himself, how the parents once behaved toward the child. In addition, the manner in which the patient treats the analyst offers clues to the way his parents treated him as a child — contemptuously, derisively, disapprovingly, seductively, or by making him feel guilty, ashamed, or frightened. All the features of a patient's early training can be detected in the very first session if the analyst is free to listen for them. If he is a prisoner of his own upbringing, however, then he will tell his supervisor or colleagues how "impossible" his patient's behavior is, how much repressed aggression is latently present, and which drive desires it emanates from; he will then seek advice from his more experienced colleagues on how to interpret or "get at" this aggression. But should he be able to sense the suffering that the patient himself is not yet able to sense, then he will adhere strictly to his assumption that his patient's overt attitudes are a form of communication, a code language describing events that for the time being can and must be reported in exactly this way and no other. He will also be aware that the repressed or manifest aggression is a response and reaction to traumas that at present remain obscure but will have to be confronted at the right moment.

I have outlined here two differing, indeed diametrically opposed analytical approaches. Let us assume that a patient or a training analyst in search of psychotherapy speaks with a representative of each of these approaches. Let us further assume that on the basis of the initial session a report has to be submitted, either for the clinic or for the supervisory committee. In itself this is of little importance, for such reports usually remain hidden away in a drawer. What is important is whether the people seen in these sessions are led to regard themselves as a subject or as an object. In the former case, they glimpse, sometimes for the very first time, an opportunity to encounter themselves and their life and thereby come closer to their unconscious traumas, a prospect that can fill them with fear as well as hope. In the latter case, their customary intellectual self-alienation prepares them to see themselves as the object of further pedagogical efforts in the course of which, to use the words of Freud's patient, they can paint themselves as black as necessary but must spare other people.

These differences in a patient's attitude toward himself strike me as having far-reaching significance, not only for the individual, but for society. The way a person perceives himself has an effect on those around him as well, particularly those dependent on him, e.g., his children or his patients. Someone who totally objectifies his inner life will also make other people into objects. It was primarily this consideration that led me to distinguish sharply between these two approaches, although I realize that the motives underlying the "cover-up" approach (defending the parents, denying trauma) have deep, unconscious roots and are unlikely to be altered by books or arguments.

There are other reasons as well that caused me to reflect on the differing approaches of analysts: I frequently encounter the view that analytic work on the self, as I understand the process, can be performed only within the framework of lengthy classical analysis, that it cannot be accomplished by another, perhaps shorter form of psychotherapy. I, too, was convinced of this at one time but no longer am, because I can see how much time the patient may lose if he has to defend himself against his analyst's theories, only to be forced in the end to give in and allow himself to be "socialized" or "educated." The same is true for group therapy. If the therapist assures the members of a group of their right to express their feelings, yet at the same time is afraid of possible outbursts against their parents, he will not be able to understand the participants and may even intensify their feelings of helplessness and their aggressions. He can then either let these feelings remain in a chaotic state or resort to more or less disguised pedagogical measures by calling upon reason, morality, a willingness for reconciliation, etc. The therapist's efforts are often directed toward reconciling patients with their parents because he has been taught — and is also convinced on a conscious level — that only forgiveness and understanding bring inner peace (which in the child's world is actually the case!). Possibly it is the therapist's unconscious fear of his repressed anger against his own parents that leads him to recommend reconciliation to his patients. In this way he is really rescuing (in the therapeutic process) his parents from his own anger, which he imagines to have a fatal effect, because he was never allowed to find out that feelings do not kill. If the therapist is able to relinquish entirely his unconscious identification with the parents and their methods of child-rearing and identify instead with the suffering child, serving as his advocate, in a short time his understanding, freed of anxiety, will set in motion processes that at one time were considered miraculous, because their dynamics had not yet been conceptualized.

The difference between the two approaches can be illustrated by a thoroughly banal example of so-called acting out, something every psychoanalyst is familiar with from his practice. Let us assume that a patient in a certain stage of analysis telephones the analyst at home at all hours of the day and night. An analyst with an unconscious pedagogical bent will see in this behavior "insufficient tolerance for frustration" (the patient cannot wait until the next appointment), a distorted sense of reality (the patient doesn't realize that the analyst, in addition to the hours spent with him, also has a life of his own), and other narcissistic "defects." Since the analyst himself is a "well-trained" child, it will be difficult for him spontaneously to impose limits on his patients. He will search for rules and regulations permitting him to eliminate the annoyance caused by the frequent telephone calls; in other words, to "train" the patient.

If, instead, the analyst is able to see in his patient's behavior the active reenactment of a situation passively endured in childhood, he will ask himself how the parents treated this child and whether the patient's behavior may not be telling the story of the totally dependent child, which lies so far back in the past that the patient cannot tell about it in words but only in unconscious behavior. The analyst's interest in the patient's early childhood will have practical consequences: he will not attempt to "take the proper steps" nor will he be in danger of giving his patient the illusion of constant availability, something that the patient never experienced with his parents and that he submissively attempted to offer them in the deluded hope of receiving it in return. As soon as both analyst and patient are able to perceive the latter's earlier situation, the analyst will have no need of pedagogical measures and will nonetheless — or for this very reason — be able to give the proper weight to, and protect, his private life and free time.

It is a reflection of the pedagogical approach that the concept of acting out is virtually synonymous with "bad behavior" among analysts. I prefer not to use this concept and refer instead to reenactments, to which I ascribe a central role and which for me do not signify "misbehavior." For what is involved here is an essential, often dramatic, unconscious message about the early childhood situation.

I know of a patient, for example, who drove her first sympathetic and patient analyst and his family to distraction by calling up at night, only to find out very quickly with her second analyst that these telephone calls were unconscious reenactments of traumatic experiences from early childhood. Her father, a successful artist who often came home when she was already asleep, liked to take her out of her crib and play wonderful and exciting games with her, until he grew tired and put the little girl back to bed. The patient was unconsciously reenacting with her analyst this trauma of suddenly being awakened out of a deep sleep, of being strongly stimulated and then suddenly left all alone; only after they had both realized this was she able to experience for the first time the feelings that situation had aroused in her: indignation at having her sleep disturbed, resentment at the effort she had to make to be a good playmate so that her father wouldn't go away, and finally rage and sorrow at being abandoned. In this reenactment the analyst was assigned the role of the awakened child who wanted to behave correctly in order not to lose the attachment figure she loved and, at the same time, the role of the father, who, when he ends the telephone conversation, hurts the child's feelings by leaving her alone again. The first analyst did not understand the biographical context of this so-called acting out and thus joined in it. The second one listened to the story contained in the reenactment, and this helped him to devote his full attention as a spectator to the drama, without jumping onto the stage and joining in the act. Since he kept his gaze focused on the patient's childhood from this vantage point, he did not see only "resistance" in her transference but also a dramatic recreation of her father's behavior and her emotional reactions to it.


Analysands Describe Their Analysis

I SHALL attempt to illustrate the two different analytic approaches I have delineated with the aid of three autobiographical accounts of the analytic process: Marie Cardinal's The Words to Say It; Tilmann Moser's Lehrjahre auf der Couch (Apprenticeship on the Couch); Dörte von Drigalski's Blumen auf Granit (Flowers on Granite).

As far as I can tell, all the analysts portrayed in these books are sincere, dedicated people who are recognized as highly trained, valued, and respected members of the International Psychoanalytic Association. I know only two of them personally but not well enough to be able to draw any conclusions about their work. Everything I am going to say concerning their methods is based entirely on having read the three books mentioned above. Since the sole concern of all three authors is to present their subjective reality, they are being perfectly honest. In reading their books, I let myself be guided by the authors' feelings, the same way I am by patients' feelings in my analytic work.

The reports of the three analysands gave me the impression that all four analysts (Drigalski had two) devoted themselves to their patients, tried to understand them, and placed their entire professional knowledge at their patients' disposal. Why are the results so different? Can it be explained simply by calling an analysand incurable if the analysis was a four-year-long misunderstanding? Formulations such as "negative therapeutic reaction" or "resentful patients" remind me of the "wicked" (because "willful") child of "poisonous pedagogy," according to which children are always guilty if their parents don't understand them. It may be the case that we blame patients in similar fashion and label them as difficult if we cannot understand them. Yet patients are just as little to blame for our lack of understanding as children for the blows administered by their parents. We owe this incomprehension to our professional training, which can be just as misleading as those "tried and true" principles of our upbringing we have taken over from our parents.

In my opinion, the difference between Cardinal's successful analysis on the one hand and Moser's and Drigalski's tragedies on the other is that in the first case the seriously ill patient, whose life was in danger, found out in analysis what her parents had done to her and was able to relive her tragic childhood. Her description is so vivid that the empathic reader goes through the process with her. The boundless rage and deep sorrow she felt at what she had been forced to endure as a child led to relief from the dangerous and chronic uterine hemorrhaging that had previously been unsuccessfully treated by surgery. The result of her sorrow was the full blossoming of her creativity. It is obvious to the professionally trained reader that in Cardinal's case psychoanalysis — not family therapy or transactional analysis, for instance — was used, for the connections can be traced between her tragic emotional discovery about her childhood and what happened in the transference.

The other therapists also used a psychoanalytic approach, but we can sense in them an attempt to interpret whatever the patient says and does from the perspective of the drive theory. If it is an axiom of psychoanalytic training that everything that happened to the patient in childhood was the result of his drive conflicts, then sooner or later the patient must be taught to regard himself as wicked, destructive, megalomanic, or homosexual without understanding the reasons for his particular behavior. For those narcissistic traumas — humiliation, rejection, mistreatment — inflicted on the child and traditionally considered a normal part of child-rearing are not touched upon and thus cannot be experienced by the patient. Yet it is only by addressing these concrete situations that we can help the patient acknowledge his feelings of rage, hatred, indignation, and eventually, grief.


Excerpted from Thou Shalt Not Be Aware by Alice Miller, Hildegarde Hannun, Hunter Hannun. Copyright © 1981 Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alice Miller, Ph.D., practiced and taught psychoanalysis for over twenty years before devoting herself to writing in 1979. She is the author of the bestselling Prisoners of Childhood (reissued in paperback as The Drama of the Gifted Child) and For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, as well as numerous other books.

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