Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, January 16, 2012

What About Alice Miller?

Reader Neil Samuels has queried my unwillingness to accept Alice Miller’s views on physical punishment as necessarily correct, and has asked what I mean by the “Alice Miller belief system.” Before I go on to talk about these matters, let me state once more my position that mild physical punishment (open hand, one or two smacks on buttocks or upper legs) for preschool children may be effective and harmless when used very occasionally to enforce important rules. I have argued in an earlier post that there is no support for the claim that this parental behavior models a general tendency to violence. I have also argued for many years against genuinely abusive practices like those recommended by the Pearls and the “Babywise” books.

So, why do I not accept Alice Miller’s statements as unarguably correct? My reasoning is that those statements are based on a series of abstractions that lack empirical support, rather than on systematically-collected information about parenting practices and child development outcomes.

Alice Miller was a European lay-analyst and shared the attitudes and views of many such people, who have tended to reason from what they regard as first principles rather than to consider the necessity of working with reliable information. Much of Miller’s work resembles closely that of Marguerite Sechehaye and of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. Like those authors, Miller emphasized the psychoanalytic principles of repression and regression, and by doing so placed the essential events in personality formation early in childhood and outside of consciousness. In addition, her view completely ignored the concept of transactional processes by which changing interactions between a specific child and a specific adult have developmental outcomes that would be different if either individual were different.

The psychoanalytic concept of repression claims that memories of disturbing experiences can be removed from conscious awareness and inaccessible to the individual except through psychoanalytic treatment, but can continue to influence mood, behavior, and motivation in ways that feel foreign to the personality. Although this idea has become almost universally accepted in Western popular culture, there is in fact no empirical support for such a mechanism. As Susan Clancy and Richard McNally have pointed out, ordinary mechanisms of memory and forgetting are perfectly adequate explanations of events that have been categorized as repression (for example, Clancy, McNally, Schachter, Lenzenweger, Pitman. [2002]. Memory distortion in people reporting abduction by aliens. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111, 455-461).

The psychoanalytic concept of regression claims that earlier versions of personality and experience can be re-accessed through psychoanalytic techniques, and that such re-accessing allows the individual to change a developmental trajectory that went wrong at a given time. In fact, as I have shown in my own work (Mercer [2011]. The concept of psychological regression: Metaphors, mapping, Queen Square, and Tavistock Square. History of Psychology, 14, 174-196), the idea of personality regression is a metaphor drawn from 19th century work on the results of physical damage to the nervous system. Although psychoanalytically-oriented practitioners over the years encouraged the acting-out of apparent regression (and this was especially true of proponents of “wild psychoanalysis” like Ferenczi), there is no empirical support for the existence of such a mechanism.

Thus, there is no evidence for the existence of Miller’s two major personality mechanisms repression and regression, and I believe this is a strong argument against the general accuracy of her claims. However, there are additional problems in her thinking. As is well known, Miller spent some years of involvement with and commitment to primal therapy, a form of treatment suggesting that psychological treatment must depend on regression to very early stages and intense acting-out of pain and distress posited to have been part of those stages ( an idea associated with Otto Rank’s and later with Wilhelm Reich’s views of development). Primal-related thinkers such as the “psychohistorian” Lloyd DeMause; David Chamberlain,who claims that all babies remember their births; and William Emerson, who massages babies until they cry as a way of working through the notional birth trauma, are all enthusiasts of Miller’s beliefs.

I see two major problems in this association. The first is that the concepts of early development espoused by primal therapists are based on adult experiences under LSD or hyperventilation rather than any systematic and replicable evidence about infancy and early childhood. When there are conflicts between LSD-based ideas and those derived from systematic study (for example, our understanding of infants’ memory and forgetting), I would hold that the latter source is more trustworthy, and I don’t believe it’s necessary to spell out why I take that position.

A second problem has to do with the assumption of the primal group, shared by Miller, that mechanisms characteristic of the individual (and speculative mechanisms at that) are sufficient to explain behavior of a group-- for example, that repressed anger and fear, were they in existence in members of a group, would be the reason for abusing children, going to war, etc. This belief ignores decades of work on, for example, economic factors in racial conflict, and fails to note that there must be some way in which such notional individual mechanisms would be translated into coordinated behavior of a group. Like the primal therapists, Miller chooses to ignore the complexities of social behavior in favor of discussion of the poorly-documented personal backgrounds of a few historical figures. Although this makes for entertaining reading, it is a very weak basis for a world-view.

These are the reasons that I do not accept Miller’s broad prohibition on all forms of physical punishment as necessarily correct. Her position is not in any way empirically based. Her thinking in general has the Platonic form so appealing to those who would prefer not to engage deeply with a topic, but instead are attracted to statements of what “must be”. I would suggest that people who are genuinely interested in how disciplinary methods influence children’s development should seek out the work of Grace Kochanska, who has shown how child personality differences interact with parental behavior to produce predictable outcomes.


  1. Again, I didn't know Miller was advocating against all physical punishment. I only read a few books, and the focus then seemed to be about outright abuse and the repression phenomenon - but if you say so, I'll take your word for it. For myself, I thought the idea of punishment was simply an illogical idea in the face of the idea of the damage many folks associate with abuse, and I thought it was MY idea. What I've been carrying around that I thought came from reading Miller was the repression idea, that if I repress a trauma, or more, my bad feelings associated with a trauma, that I blind myself to those particular feelings, whether in myself, or in others, and am therefore vulnerable to the error of causing the same trauma for others, or for failing to appreciate the same trauma in others.
    Is this the concept you're referring to that hasn't been displayed in empirical testing?
    I've gotta admit, it me a long time to get that concept; it wasn't exactly intuitive. As for regression, that does seem unlikely. (Mind you, all therapy seems unlikely to me. I'm avoiding it.)
    Of course it's anecdotal, but as a 'no-punishment advocate/wacko' I/we see the ability of an adult to smack a small child around as evidence of the repression idea. How COULD that be tested, anyway?

  2. Neither repression nor regression is empirically supported. But keep in mind, it's not possible to show clearly that something does NOT exist--- maybe we just missed it.

    The thing about repression is that ordinary mechanisms of memory and forgetting explain quite well why someone might not think about a traumatic event for a while, then remember it for various reasons like reminiscing about the time when it happened. When people "recover" memories, those remembered events may or may not actually have happened, as it's very easy to influence what seems to be remembered. Also, children may or may not find traumatic an event that adults think is very concerning (like some sex acts), so they might fail to remember them just because they weren't interested, not because they repressed the memory.

    As for the idea that you not only repress memories, but that those memories are more powerful influences on your mood and behavior than things you do remember, does that actually make sense to you? Doesn't that perspective assume that there is an ultimate "you" who can assess the meaning of memories, decide whether or not to let them be in awareness, and at the same time cause a lot of trouble by letting them have other influences if they're not in awareness? Why would that entity do such a lot of work to make sure one is not troubled with anxiety, but simultaneously allow influences that are sure to cause problems?

    Now-- the last thing you said, about seeing "the ability of an adult to smack a small child around as evidence of the repression idea." I don't see what the two things have to do with each other. You could smack a child for many reasons: it's approved of in your culture, and others will criticize you if you don't; you've experienced it as an effective way to change child behavior you dislike; even if ineffective in the long run, it does stop the behavior for the time being and therefore is reinforcing to the smacker; your religion predicts dire spiritual consequences for children whose wills are not broken.

    Is it possible that you mean that the adult who cannot consciously control striking a child (either doing it or refraining from doing it) is one who is being influenced by repressed memories? If that's what you mean, the first thing in investigating this would be to demonstrate that the person really can't control the act. I think there are probably people who can't stop once they begin. But have they really repressed the feelings and the awareness as you describe? Would they say "I smack and smack my child, but it doesn't hurt him and he doesn't care" (actually not realizing that the child is distressed), or would they gloat over how they "taught the child a lesson" or "gave him something to cry about"? Those possible outcomes might be a clue to whether they repressed material in the way you describe them as doing.

    By the way, keep in mind that in spite of the claims of David Chamberlain & Co. that babies remember being born, there's a general "infantile amnesia" for birth through about age three. So how would we know whether material from that period is just plain forgotten (i.e., what kind of cake was there at the birthday party-- most people don't know this for early birthdays) or was repressed because of its traumatic nature? The argument for repression would be much stronger if people regularly remembered non-traumatic early experiences, which they don't.(Alternate explanation,I guess: everything's so horrible in early life that it's all repressed, cakes and everything.)

    But once again: if we can't show that children who receive mild physical punishment are badly affected by it, what difference does it make if they grow up to do the same to their own children? Only if Miller's claim that this is the source of war and general horribleness were correct could this matter be of importance, if it did not cause changes in individuals.

  3. OK, you described a lot of different reasons why people can feel it's right and proper to hit their kids, but you don't like the idea of a common cause, i.e. that it happened to them? You didn't like my chapter showing that punishment is taught along with all the other disparate lessons?
    Please, that was the serious part of my response.
    Here's another humorous anecdotal "evidence," this time of repression. I won tickets to the premiere screening (in my town) of the Michael Moore movie "Capitalism, a Love Story." My wife and I went, and as usual with the Moore films and books, it was depressing as hell. I once read 2 or 3 of his books over Christmas, and could hardly get out of bed for weeks. Anyhow, a few weeks later, someone asked me about the movie, and I drew a blank. I mean, I really had to work to dredge up the memory of that movie.
    Now I've had some other issues around my memory, like you say, but that seemed very specific. Still, that bit of memory only adds up to a few minutes of the film and a general impression.
    Sigh. Such is the sort of experience that influence the mind. But, can you not relate? Is there nothing you've buried, in self-defense, you haven't experienced that yourself?

  4. Are you aware of the fact that of the people who commit what are legally abusive acts, 10% were apparently never themselves abused? It's likely that there is more than one reason why anyone uses physical punishment of a mild, a moderate,or a severe nature, and without some empirical evidence, the claim that there's a common cause cannot be argued effectively.

    As for your forgotten movie, of course I forget things all the time, enabling me to re-read the same detective stories every few years! But why do you call forgetting the movie "burying in self-defense"? A much simpler explanation is that you found it unpleasant and uninteresting, so afterward you found something better to think about. You didn't rehearse parts of the movie or chortle with your friends over retellings of the good parts the way you would do with a movie you liked. You didn't do the things that create a strong memory, so you forgot it.

    In any case, if you wanted to call in repression as an explanation, wouldn't you have to argue that there was something really traumatic or anxiety-producing about seeing the movie? And if there had been, wouldn't you have left, or maybe gone out to the lobby for popcorn several times (thus not seeing part of the movie, and therefore not remembering it, by the way)? Otherwise, you've broadened the concept of repression so much that it would appear to be no different from ordinary forgetting.

    Here's an example of my forgetting something. I love Jane Austen and have read all her novels many times. But I can never remember the names of the Dashwood sisters for more than about a week. Why? Do I suffer from Dashwood trauma? Probably not. More likely, I don't remember them because I've never actively practiced them. I've never taken a formal course where I had to use the material in a paper, and I don't think I've ever discussed the book with anyone. When I pick up "Sense and Sensibility", I quickly re-learn the names (this "savings" in learning time indicates that I have learned them before), but I forget them later as I concentrate on other information.

    The concept of repression is neither supported by evidence nor needed to explain ordinary phenomena of forgetting and remembering. Think about the Recovered Memory business of the '90s!

  5. 1. Unpleasant, yes. Uninteresting, no. I love all that liberal stuff. Have you seen that movie? I liked it, but it's about very unpleasant stuff, the financial meltdown, the takeover of the world by the evil rich! Very anxiety producing.
    It's true that memory absolutely requires attention, I'm aware of that, and I give Michael Moore attention. That's why this experience was so interesting to me.

  6. Well, guess what, I don't know why you forgot! Nor do I know what I did with my ring -- I took it off to clean it and I remember closing the sink drain in case I dropped it-- all is a blank after that. (This was not my wedding ring, so don't go all "parapraxis" on me.)

    Memory isn't the same as photography, that's the thing.

  7. “Are you aware of the fact that of the people who commit what are legally abusive acts, 10% were apparently never themselves abused?”
    Really? 10%? I expect people have thrown much higher numbers than that at me. That’s not making much of a case against the self-propagating nature of abuse, is it? 90% in a field that it’s difficult to get real evidence, that’s overwhelming, isn’t it? Observation, I guarantee the other 10% were punished. OK, maybe 9.9%.
    “ It's likely that there is more than one reason why anyone uses physical punishment of a mild, a moderate,or a severe nature, and without some empirical evidence, the claim that there's a common cause cannot be argued effectively.”
    It is impossible to test for the absence of something ubiquitous. Therefore, I would also say that a ubiquitous common factor certainly can’t be ruled out.

    1. I agree that a common cause can't be ruled out,and an entity cannot be shown NOT to exist, but since violence (or whatever specifically we're talking about) shows enormous individual differences, there must be some reason for those differences. I'm asking to explore more of the factors that determine later behavior-- also, to consider that there might be more than one common cause, for example the evolutionary value of a capacity for violence. The fact that everyone has an experience does not mean that that experience can be argued to cause a specific outcome--- could consuming milk be the "common cause" for violence?

      In addition,your common cause argument ignores the dose-response principle. Not that that principle is an absolute, but for many events, an outcome is multiplied when the experience is multiplied. If we see a situation where this doesn't seem to apply-- well, it could happen, but we should be warned to take a careful look at what's going on.

      My point about the group of people who were abusive but not abused (this was not about mild punishment) was just to show that there are reasons for behaviors other than similar early experience.

  8. I don't think this is the place for it, but it's certainly PART of a discussion of punishment, and it's part of my thought about it. I'm a slow typist, so I'm just gonna paste this in from where I already typed it once, maybe you'll see something in it you'd like to address:

    Total control, total oppression seems to produce an orderly society, and an orderly family, see strict societies, fundamentalists and such. But add a little freedom, some liberalism, and the oppressed start acting out, fighting back. This is not just the fault of liberalism alone, it’s a two-pronged thing. In a strict, oppressive situation, we have rules and harsh measures to make sure they’re followed, harsh punishments and brutal methods of education, enforced conformity. A potential rule breaker has no room to move.
    With the addition of liberalism – freedom – the potential offender has some room to move, but also – he still has the motivation to act out, to fight back. He still has the desire to cause trouble, because the punishments, the forced education and conformity ARE STILL PRESENT. Maybe not as harsh, but punishment – coercion – is punishment.
    So, in a super strict society, school, or family, punishment works. The punished have no choice, they learn what is intended. For the wrong reason, but they conform. It appears to work perfectly. In a freer society, school, or family however, the result (of punishment, coercion, enforced conformity) is chaos. Offenders have choices, or at least the appearance of choices, and chaos ensues. Observe the violence of western teenagers, as well as the violence of minorities that can no longer be oppressed thoroughly enough to control them all: Basques, Irish, Palestinians, you name it.
    So, you want freedom? Stop using force. Stop using punishment. Stop oppression.
    We’ve given people some freedom, so now we need to stop creating free, angry people. We need to stop pissing them off, because they’re free to hurt us back.

  9. Now this is interesting. I believe I see part of the difficulty about your claims, those of "psychohistorians", Alice Miller, etc. You have a scale problem: the rules that govern the events in individual development are not necessarily the same rules as those that govern the actions of a group. If angry individuals developed in the way you posit, they then might or might not display organized violence; they might just be individually hard to get along with (not that that isn't bad enough). But the rebellions of oppressed minorities are largely determined by practical, political, cultural, and economic factors. (See "Lysistrata", for instance-- that choice of weapons probably wouldn't work too well for Palestinian men.)Systems organize themselves according to their own rules, which may or may not be parallel to those of other systems, or even to the same system in a smaller form.

    In fact, teenage violence is pretty rare, probably rarer than it was in 1900, though it gets a lot of press when it occurs. And what do you think of Steven Pinker's recent claim that everything is getting less violent? (I think he did some cherry-picking on that, but it's an intriguing thought.)

    1. OK, so I'm no good with groups. Do you like the idea, about strict families looking functional because no-one has much of a choice, but with the addition of some freedom, things can appear to fall apart? My idea that we're in a messy situation between total control and total freedom?

    2. just read a bunch of that Pinker stuff. Very cool.

  10. Jeff-- yes, I do like that idea. And I agree that we're in a transition period, but not just the kind you mention. It's only recently that we've had reliable birth control and effective medical treatment for diseases that used to carry off children by the thousands. Perhaps for the first time in human history, people can decide how many children to have and count on rearing them to adulthood. Now, how do we treat them? What outcomes do we want? And, if you're not a believer, you no longer think that the goals are in eternity and that one gets there through total submission and obedience. So now what? Not only are people unsure what to do as parents, they have little idea WHY they would choose one approach over another, because they're not clear on what the outcome should be. And all that makes everything even messier.

  11. Excellent! Great points. I'll be sure to give you credit for that if I ever write my book! Excellent!

  12. Actually,this discussion might be just the thing for "Parents" magazine, if you want to try it. You have my permission to use everything I've said. Chris, how about you?

  13. I simply have to add a comment to this rather old blog entry:
    in Europe corporal punishment is forbidden in 16 countries.

    The forerunner was Sweden, where it is forbidden for parents to punish children in any corporal form since 1979.
    I do not think it farfetched to imply that nonviolent education is one of the keys to the fact that Sweden is one of the most peaceful (and, by the way, secular) societies in Europe.

  14. So, because the Swedes are peaceful, they've opted for nonviolent education? I don't think that's what you meant, but it's just as likely a connection, isn't it?