16 November 2012

Child Abuse - a review of The Body Never Lies, by Alice Miller

"Wherever I look, I see signs of the commandment to honor one's parents and nowhere of a commandment that calls for the respect of a child." 
                                                                                                                                              Alice Miller

“Never pretend to a love which you do not actually feel, for love is not ours to command.”
Alan Watts 

I was very much looking forward to reading this book as I had heard good things about Alice Miller. The subject matter intrigued me and of course, dealing with issues of childhood neglect and abuse is very pertinent to the work I do as a counsellor.

Roughly speaking, the book explores the following concepts:

1) The body expresses our truths more than the self-deceptive mind ever can.

"Ultimately the body will rebel. Even if it can be temporarily pacified with the help of drugs, cigarettes, or medicine, it usually has the last word because it is quicker to see through self-deception than the mind.... We may ignore or deride the messages of the body, but it's rebellion demands to be heeded because it's language is the authentic expression of our true selves and of the strength of our vitality."

2) The commandment "Honour thy father and mother" has infiltrated our culture to such an extent that  it is taboo to not love our parents, regardless of what they do to us. If we have neglectful or abusive parents then it is expected that we forgive them, even if they continue the hurtful behaviour to us as adults.

(referring to literature on self-therapy and therapeutic care) "... readers are advised to "snap out" of the role of victim, to stop blaming others for the things that have gone wrong in their lives, to be true to their own selves. This, they are told, is the only way of freeing themselves from the past and maintaining good relations with their parents. For me such advice embodies the contradictions of poisonous pedagogy and of conventional morality. It is actively dangerous because it is very likely to leave the former victims in a state of confusion and moral uncertainty, so that the individuals in question may never be able to attain true adulthood throughout their whole lives"

3) The effect of the commandment echoes in the work of many therapists, who due to their own  beliefs about attitudes towards parents, encourage clients to forgive and move on.

"Time and again, I have asked myself why therapy works for some people while others remain the prisoners of their symptoms despite years of analysis.... In each and every case I examined, I was able to establish that when people found the kind of therapeutic care and companionship that enabled them to discover their own story and give free expression to their indignation at their parents' behaviour, they were able to take their lives into their own hands and did not need to hate their parents. The opposite was the case with people whose therapists enjoined them to forgive and forget, actually believing that such forgiveness could have a salutary, curative effect."

Alice Miller uses examples of famous people to make the links between mind, body and childhood abuse/neglect. Those she discusses include Checkhov, Kafka, Nietzsche and Virgina Woolf. She breathes life into her arguments by using real life examples of those whose lives we may have some familiarity with. Rather than being fantastical conjecture, as such an endeavour could end up becoming, it reads as convincing and compelling.

Miller aims to help individuals break the cycle of abuse. On the inside cover it states:

"Miller examines the cyclical nature of violence and abuse. Parents and guardians who abuse their children, both physically and mentally, leave them embarassed and hurt. The inability of most children to properly express such feelings causes them to perpetuate the cycle by lashing out at their family, friends, and, above all, their own children, who will inevitably do the same."

Somebody once told me that he only started to live his life when his mother died. This man was 65 and his mother had died 5 years ago. When he found out that I was a counsellor, he said he was happy that there were people like me to help free people from ruining their lives being a prisoner to their parents. I do hope that I am able to provide a truly non-judgemental space where I allow clients to fully explore their feelings of anger, rage, hate and many more emotions. This is not about "parent-bashing; it's about acknowledging a person's perspective of their experience and holding that for them, without steering them to reconciliation or forgiveness. Only that person can make a decision for what is right for them.

The idea of neglectful or abusive parents goes against the beliefs we have in place, as a collective consciousness,  to keep us feeling secure. We want to believe that parents, and in particular mothers, love their children and treat them accordingly. Unfortunately, reality does not reflect what we want to believe. Sadly, for some individuals, childhood is a place of hurt, neglect, cruelty, physical abuse, mental anguish or an inappropriately early introduction to the world of adult sex. This book helps to destigmatise the subject, and is a step towards society being able to validate these people's experiences.

I highly recommend The Body Never Lies to anybody who is in the therapy business, and to those who have sadly had a childhood and adulthood impeded by parental neglect or abuse.

I have received the book "Toxic Parents" by Susan Forward, and look forward to reading another perspective.

If you have been affected by the topics raised then please consider the following:

In crisis, contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90

To find a counsellor in your area, try Counselling Directory. This is a good place to start as you can check if the counsellors listed are members of a regulatory organisation. This is not a guarantee of ethical practice, but there is recourse in the rare and unfortunate event of unethical practice.

Amanda Williamson is a professional counsellor with a thriving private practice in central Exeter, UK.

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