the trauma of the gifted child

“The wisdom that Alice Miller shares with us in her famous book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, is something that every therapist who works with children revisits more often than we would like. Miller’s main point in the book is that the gifted child—the child who is more intelligent, more sensitive and more emotionally aware than other children—can be so attuned to her parents’ expectations that she does whatever it takes to fulfill these expectations while ignoring her own feelings and needs. In becoming the “perfect” child of her parents’ dreams, the gifted child loses something very precious. She loses her true self. In becoming her parents’ ideal child, she locks away her true feelings in a kind of “glass cellar,” the key to which is thrown away.

According to Miller, the gifted child in this type of situation stops growing. Because he cannot develop and differentiate his true self, he feels empty, emotionally isolated, and “homeless.” In adulthood, the child who has always tried to please his parents is constantly looking to others for approval.


i’ve grown up

Miller observes that it is those parents who felt like they had to put away their own authentic selves to meet their parents’ needs that pass on this pattern to their children. These parents were not conscious of how their parents subtly manipulated them. So pervasive was the manipulation, Miller comments, that it was like “the air they breathed.” The children took it in unconsciously, and it was the only air there was.

If we want our children to be mentally healthy as adults, we need to be sensitive to their sensitivity to our own dreams for them. It’s a delicate balance between wanting our children to actualize their gifts and talents to their fullest potential, while attending to their unique feelings and needs.”

Alice Miller’s child

“As a child, Martin Miller was subjected to abuse and emotional neglect. In his book, he writes about this both from the viewpoint of the child he was and the psychotherapist he is today. He analyzes the life of his Holocaust-survivor mother, examines the causes of her emotional disconnect from him, and addresses her poor relations with his father.

Concerning the reasons for writing about his childhood only after his mother’s death, Martin Miller says, “It was forbidden to say anything. I had to remain quiet, because I was committed to loyalty, to being on the victim’s side. That is the fate of many people from the second generation. I never demanded answers from my mother. You are like a prisoner, you don’t think consciously about things, you just know that to speak is forbidden. That is why it was only after her death that I could write.”

“You suffered a great deal as a child, but compared to your mother it was nothing,” she told him. To this allegation, Miller responds, “Many in our generation developed complexes because we said to ourselves: What I survived is nothing compared to what our parents survived.”

And she, after all, wrote about children who are considerate of their parents’ needs and fulfill them.

“Indeed. I show in the book that in her relations with her son, Alice Miller did the very opposite of what she wrote – but I do not say that what she wrote is wrong. If I hadn’t been familiar with her theory, I would be dead today: My mother’s theory helped me survive. This is the ambivalence of my life and I have to live with that ambivalence. On the one hand, I suffered a great deal from my mother, but on the other hand, she provided me with the information about how to survive in that relationship, and that is wonderful. That is the tension that existed in our relations. When I tried to apply her theories on her, she became very angry at me. At those moments she was unable to discern her own theories.”

His father was a Polish Catholic who had met Alice in Poland. “He had an inferiority complex,” says Martin. “He fell in love with a very beautiful woman who didn’t want anything to do with him. But he had time, and he waited, like a cat waits for a mouse. The moment arrived when my mother was weak, and then he grabbed her.”

In 1946 Alice Miller moved to Switzerland: “When my mother left Poland, he left, too. She was alone and he was the man who was her salvation. He achieved his aim, but the punishment came later. He had the mentality of a stalker – there are many men like that – but afterward, when the woman becomes strong, she punishes the man. They had a sadomasochistic relationship, and I helped my mother by becoming my father’s victim in place of her.”

In a letter to him dated May 28, 1998, which is reproduced in the book, she wrote, “I understood how much I reject all your allegations out of fear that perhaps you are right, and you are in fact right… We pushed you to the limits of despair… I cannot deny that it was I who brought this misery on you… I did not understand your needs, your fears, your despair. Instead of understanding you I sent you for treatment, which not only did not help you but endangered your life. I continued to persuade both myself and you otherwise, in order not to suffer the comparison with my mother. I am old enough to bear the truth and not to escape any longer. This is a life that failed.”

But Alice Miller was not truly able to change. She despised people, her son asserts: “She grew up in an upper-class family and had servants all her life, even when she didn’t have money. I never understood why she maintained a staff of employees. She was extremely arrogant, a diva, and treated people horribly.”

As a young man Miller did not want to be a therapist. “I didn’t want to play the role of Anna Freud,” he says, referring to Sigmund Freud’s daughter, who followed in her father’s footsteps. “I wanted to be autonomous, and my mother was angry at me for that.””


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