The Drama of the Gifted Child - Book Commentary
The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, is about the child who was so aware, consciously or otherwise, of the wishes of his parents and had such a strong desire to fulfill them, that he lost track of himself and his own identity. It’s about the child who never discovered his “true self” because he was so concerned with pleasing those around him, and the repercussions of that later in life, as an adult. The book discusses the unconscious wishes of the parent being often unconsciously bestowed on the child, with the child absorbing these wishes and morphing into this different person. The Drama offers help by explaining the problems and consequences of growing up in this way, and suggestions for steps as to remove himself from the person he is not, and move towards finding his “true identity”. While full of useful concepts, this book seems to blame and manipulate situations in order to victimize the child-turned-adult, creating an interesting dynamic for the readers in regards to not only their relationships with themselves, but also with the author.
This book discusses a useful and interesting number of concepts. The first that I found particularly interesting, was where Miller writes, “It is easy to notice, if we pay attention, that they hit almost with regularity- whenever we suppress an impulse or unwanted emotion” (56). Here, she is talking about depressive moods, and what brings them on. It makes sense that when we suppress something, it would still be there, under the surface, waiting to get out, and could potentially bother us and cause unpleasant feelings. I wonder, though, if it is as easy and recognizing these patterns, and adjusting and changing. If we made conscious efforts to not suppress emotions, to act out the way the way we felt, to do what we wanted, would we really never feel depressed? Even there though, are we always aware of what we’re suppressing to even have the ability to recognize an emotion so as not to suppress it in the first place?
Miller goes on to talk about this suppression in further detail, and suggests that adults have an opportunity that children do not- she says, “A child does not yet have this possibility open to her. She cannot yet see through her mechanism of self-deception” (57). Here, Miller is discussing the ability to deliberately experience pain as an adult, rather than going through a cycle of disappointment, suppression, and depression. Unlike the child who aims to please and whose “grandiosity” masks all failure, the adult has the chance to face “reality” and experience pain, in the moment, rather than putting it off to feel later. It bothers me that Miller asserts this- that she says, with confidence, a child “cannot see through her mechanism of self-deception.” I think that’s unfair to use as a major point, because I think many adults also cannot see through their own mechanisms. Many adults have protection mechanisms that make them feel better about themselves, and many adults deceive themselves for this same reason. While it’s convenient to claim here that a child lacks the ability to acknowledge this mechanism, the point is weakened by her not acknowledging that many adults lack the ability too- maybe it’s harder for the child to see, but I would think the adult may have a stronger will, and with that, a stronger refusal to acknowledge what he does not wish to.
My largest problem with this book is actually the main concept of it. This book seems to me, to be written as a guide for those looking for an excuse. The author, Alice Miller, is a therapist, who seems to be attempting to “sell” therapy and make those, the readers, feel victimized, and gain a trust and attachment to her by making excuses and rationalizing behaviors that, as a result, makes the readers feel safer and justified. The book is based on explaining what the unconscious desires gifted children have picked up and acted on have influenced them throughout their lives, and suddenly, it makes sense why we have strong repressed desires- or that’s the message. I think there are concepts spread out in this book that are interesting to think about and maybe build from, but using them as more of ways of justifying behavior and not taking own responsibility seems to be more of the message here. This book is more on building from a “hurt childhood” or suppression, rather than being suggestive, explaining possibilities, taking what is useful, and finding your own pathway to go next. It’s ironic, because Miller seems to be preaching about finding one’s own identity after a life of living out other people’s desires, yet she’s delivering the same message, the same solutions, and I would venture to say her own thoughts and wishes, to all of these people who now may feel victimized and vulnerable, potentially having them live out her own ideals and wishes.
This raises the idea and question as to how useful it is to know, possibly, why we are the way we are. It makes sense that we’re influenced by those around us, and that we take different things from people and experiences and that affect us and ultimately help make us who we are. As for books like these, I think that there’s a choice to be made- we can either fling ourselves into these books, agree, acknowledge, experience, and victimize- or we take the book apart, find useful parts, and use them as building blocks to think off of. For some people, it’s probably extremely useful to be able to recognize where a certain characteristic of theirs may have developed from- for others, the tendency to blame and remove own responsibility may be too tempting. Though, the latter probably can be equally useful, if not more so, to some people- some people may need to feel victimized, to not feel responsible, in order to continue on in life without living in a mass of guilt- maybe that’s their need, in which case the book functions to them as well as quite useful.
Miller uses terminology in her book that also is controversial, or confusing at the least. She says, “He is not really himself, nor does he know or love himself…” (63). Here, she is talking about the “gifted child”, who, after growing up so compliant with the wishes of his parents, often attempts to rebel, but this is still not “himself”, since he his rebelling against something that was not him either. I think the terms of “being himself” or “not being himself” are fairly useless. How does Miller know first, if this really isn’t himself, or if we’re destined to be certain people at all? Maybe even if we act on our parents’ wishes, absorb, unconsciously, their desires and act on them- maybe that’s just who we are, and maybe that’s all that matters- who we are in the moment. Miller argues that we’re in distress by suppressing our more natural desires to fulfill those around us, but maybe that “distress”- if it exists, is merely human instincts and feelings we need to feel in order to be human. Similarly, Miller writes about “when a patient begins to experience his own feelings and can recognize his true needs” (93). Again, I don’t think she can know whether or not someone is experiencing, or has been experiencing, his or her “own” feelings and “true” needs, or even if they too exist at all.
Something I found particularly interesting and a little troublesome was the very beginning of the Afterward. Miller writes, “A book is no substitute for a good therapist. But it can perhaps make us aware of our need for therapy by putting us in touch with our suppressed- or possibly even repressed-feelings and thus triggering a process that may have some very salutary effects indeed” (117). It seems as if she’s trying to “sell” therapy here, and while I would guess that this book does make some people realize that they may be able to benefit from talking to someone, I think it’s a little overdone to explicitly suggest it here as more than a disclaimer. I also think her use of “us” here is a little inappropriate- it feels like she’s trying to put herself on the same level as the readers while trying to advise them of what to do, who to seek, where to go, and, coincidentally, it’s her field she’s sending them to. If someone were to let themselves get involved with this book, identify with the book, I would guess there would be attachment between Miller, who would seem to really understand this person, and the person himself, and I think it’s irresponsible even for her to use the words “us” or “we”, throughout, as she does, which only further suggests a closer bond between the reader and writer, the therapist and the patient. It’s a book that seems to be purposely addicting, rather than suggestive, and it’s this sneakiness, in a way, that I think bothers me.
All of this is not to say that this book has not been useful. I have found it very interesting, especially parts at the beginning, where Miller suggests that it is these gifted children that end up being able to read others better than the “non-gifted” children. I consider myself fairly good at reading people, and empathizing strongly with others, and I appreciate Miller’s explanations for this. Miller discusses herself even as one of these “gifted children”- gifted in the way that they’ve always done right, and always have pleased. I’ve found use in this book in attempting to “read” Miller through the words and pages- I wonder if people who have this ability to read others are the particularly good at reading other people like them, or if they’re so aware, they can mask their own identity, even from their own kind, or even can make themselves appear totally differently. Throughout the book I was torn, between wanting to find connections Miller made between the child and myself, and feeling frustrated at Miller for often seeming to use these connections later as ways to make the readers feel victimized. I wondered if I was irritated by Miller because something about her either affected me, or was part of me- I’ve heard before that we’re often most irritated by those most like us, and that bothered me in regards to this book. Miller seemed to be manipulating situations and I wondered that if I could see that- if I could think that, what do I do, or what am I aware of, that makes me able to see it? Or, maybe I just picked up the book with the intention of understanding, rather than blaming, and that’s as simple as what bothered me about the book- regardless, the book was interesting in making me wonder of these possibilities.
The Drama of the Gifted Child is worth reading with the idea of taking what is useful to each of us- and even just being aware of what is not. I became invested with the idea of arguing with Miller, because I didn’t like her assertions or assumptions. However, these assertions and assumptions are definitely thought provoking and can inspire new realms of thought- when wanting to disagree instinctually, I had to figure out just why I disagreed. Maybe more of the use in this book is just this kind- the kind that’s between the lines, or just the opposite of what’s actually there and written. I think a lot of people can relate to the image Miller draws of the “gifted child”, and I think being able to identify with this image creates a sense of belonging, and, if nothing else, creates great interest throughout the book. As far as purpose of the book goes, someone who can benefit from understanding why they may be the way they are could really enjoy and gain a lot from the book. Those who want- or need, to victimize themselves, may find solace and comfort here. And, for those just wanting a good read, the book is interesting, full of stories from patients of Miller’s, and useful in providing new ways of viewing our lives.