The Drama of the Gifted Child: Review and Summary Notes
The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self by Alice Miller
This book describes how cycles of trauma are perpetuated through generations, and what emotionally unhealthy parent/child relationships look like
Only a child needs unconditional love—we don’t love adults in the same way:
We must be able to love and accept them whatever they do, not only when they smile charmingly but also when they cry and scream. But to pretend to love an adult unconditionally—that is, independently of his or her deeds—would mean that we should love even a cold serial murderer or a notorious liar if only he joins our group. Can we do that?
If we say that we love an adult unconditionally, we only prove our blindness and/or dishonesty. Nothing else.
Being emotionally true to yourself means being willing to accept the “bad” emotions and allowing yourself to experience helplessness, jealousy, rage, shame, envy, etc.
Without these experiences, you aren’t experiencing your true self. Accepting only positive emotions is to deny your true self.
Narcissus wanted to be nothing but the beautiful youth; he totally denied his true self. In trying to be at one with the beautiful picture, he gave himself up—to death or, in Ovid’s version, to being changed into a flower. This death is the logical consequence of the fixation on the false self. It is not only the “beautiful,” “good,” and pleasant feelings that make us really alive, deepen our existence, and give us crucial insight, but often precisely the unacceptable and unadapted ones from which we would prefer to escape: helplessness, shame, envy, jealousy, confusion, rage, and grief. These feelings can be experienced in therapy. When they are understood, they open the door to our inner world that is much richer than the “beautiful countenance”!
Narcissus was in love with his idealized picture, but neither the grandiose nor the depressive “Narcissus” can really love himself. His passion for his false self makes impossible not only love for others but also, despite all appearances, love for the one person who is fully entrusted to his care: himself.
Pia, age forty, after a long depressive phase accompanied by suicidal thoughts, was at last able to experience and justify her long-suppressed rage toward her father, who had severely mistreated her. This experience was followed immediately not by visible relief, but by a period full of grief and tears. At the end of this period she said:
The world has not changed. There is so much evil and meanness all around me, and I see it even more clearly than before. Nevertheless, for the first time I find life really worth living. Perhaps this is because, for the first time, I have the feeling that I am really living my own life. And that is an exciting adventure. On the other hand, I can understand my suicidal ideas better now, especially those I had in my youth—when it seemed pointless to carry on—because in a way I had always been living a life that wasn’t mine, that I didn’t want, and that I was ready to throw away.
Ice Cream Story
I think this story exemplifies the anecdotes presented in the book, the value of empathy with children and their perspectives, and how these feelings can propagate across generations:
The two had just bought themselves ice-cream bars on sticks from the kiosk, and were licking them with evident enjoyment. The little boy wanted one, too. His mother said affectionately, “Look, you can have a bite of mine, a whole one is too cold for you.” The child did not want just one bite but held out his hand for the whole bar, which his mother took out of his reach again. He cried in despair, and soon exactly the same thing was repeated with his father: “There you are, my pet,” said his father affectionately, “you can have a bite of mine.” “No, no,” cried the child and ran ahead again, trying to distract himself. Soon he came back again and gazed enviously and sadly up at the two grown-ups, who were enjoying their ice cream contentedly. Time and again he held out his little hand for the whole ice-cream bar, but the adult hand with its treasure was withdrawn again.
The more the child cried, the more it amused his parents. It made them laugh, and they hoped to humor him along with their laughter, too: “Look, it isn’t so important, what a fuss you are making.” Once the child sat down on the ground and began to throw little stones over his shoulder in his mother’s direction, but then he suddenly got up again and looked around anxiously, making sure that his parents were still there. When his father had completely finished his ice cream, he gave the stick to the child and walked on. The little boy licked the bit of wood expectantly, looked at it, threw it away, wanted to pick it up again but did not do so, and a deep sob of loneliness and disappointment shook his small body. Then he trotted obediently after his parents.
His wish to hold the ice-cream stick in his hand like the others was not understood. Worse still, it was laughed at; they made fun of his wish. He was faced with two giants who supported each other and who were proud of being consistent while he, quite alone in his distress, could say nothing beyond “no.” Nor could he make himself clear to his parents with his gestures (though they were very expressive). He had no advocate. What an unfair situation it is when a child is opposed by two big, strong adults, as by a wall; but we call it “consistency in upbringing” when we refuse to let the child complain about one parent to the other.
Why, indeed, did these parents behave with so little empathy? Why didn’t one of them think of eating a little quicker, or even of throwing away half of the ice cream and giving the child the stick with a bit of ice cream left on it? Why did they both stand there laughing, eating so slowly and showing so little concern about the child’s obvious distress? They were not unkind or cold parents; the father spoke to his child very tenderly. Nevertheless, at least at this moment, they displayed a lack of empathy.
What child has never been laughed at for his fears and been told, “You don’t need to be afraid of a thing like that”? What child will then not feel shamed and despised because he could not assess the danger correctly?
No doubt, in twenty years’ time—or perhaps earlier if he has younger siblings—our little boy will replay this scene with the ice cream. Now, however, he will be in charge, and the other will be the helpless, envious, weak little creature—no longer carried within, but split off and projected outside himself.
In some ways, this inter-generational trauma is played out on the societal level too. The younger generation is screaming “Please fix climate change!” While the adults in power look askance and say “Look, it isn’t so important, what a fuss you are making.”