Unspeakable Truth: The Theory of Alice Miller (sottotitoli italiano attivabili in basso a dx)

Talk given by Luisa A. Passalacqua Carenati on October 20th 2015 in London.


Born in 1923, Alice Miller was an eminent Polish psychoanalyst. She studied for her doctorate degree in psychology, sociology and philosophy at the University of Basel in Switzerland and soon completed her psychoanalytic training in Zurich. For two decades she has been involved in teaching psychoanalysis, but her career later culminated in a dramatic change: she quit both the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society and the International Psychoanalytic Association to embark in an in-depth study of factors causing and effecting child abuse, which resulted in the publication of several books, each one approaching this very topics from a different angle. The most appreciated ones are “The Drama of the Gifted Child” (formerly “Prisoners of Childhood”) and “Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child”. The latter granted her the Janusz Korczak literary award in 1986. She died in France in 2010. Alice Miller’s stance The common denominator of all her books is the clear-cut stance against drive theories in psychoanalysis, which she sees as the continuation and extent​ion of the same ‘poisonous pedagogy’ that has always served parents and educators to justify physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children. Her critique was later extended to all psychotherapy approaches, with rare exceptions for individual therapists.


In the book ‘The Untouched Key’ Alice Miller explores the clues that connect childhood traumas to adult creativity and destructiveness, with clear political implications for the understanding of the human destructiveness on a mass scale that we all know.

The list of people from art and politics, whose early life she studied and compared in various books, includes Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Schiller, Rimbaud, Mishima, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Nietzsche, Picasso, Kollwitz, Buster Keaton, Hitler, Stalin, Ceausescu, and the list goes on.

From ‘The Untouched Key’ we learn that the upbringing of artists and that of dictators are shockingly similar. After all the condition of children, even in democratic countries, is no different to the condition of citizens of totalitarian regimes: the child is a property of the adult, in the same way that in totalitarian regimes citizens are property of the State.


I came across Alice Miller’s work for the first time in 1994 while I was preparing to enter the University of Hertfordshire to train as a dramatherapist: Alice Miller’s books were included in the suggested reading list, probably for her insight into the artistic process in relation to healing, a journey that she undertook herself with undeniable success.

On the side of the artist, art can help access unspeakable contents stored in the body; on the side of the receiver, aesthetic experience can be a vehicle for self-knowledge and change ‘by proxy’.

My focus throughout my dramatherapy practice and creative training has been on the way that non-verbal contents can or cannot be translated into words. Where they cannot, the urge to access different resources results in artistic production. This is because art covers the area of the unconscious where words can’t reach.

The whole purpose of arts therapies is to create a bridge between imagery and reality, in different ways: you may have noticed that imagery can reflect problematic childhoods or represent ideal worlds where such issues are absent, or both.

There is plenty of room for the deployment of unconscious contents in dramatherapy. In our practice we use the body, artifacts (props), rituals, and narratives in many forms. When attention is paid to narratives, we understand the world of clients by looking at the way they make sense of these worlds by creating narratives, because the narratives that emerge are connected to early dysfunctional relationships and they evolve as the client progresses.

With articulate clients it is possible and desirable to build an awareness of the link between their works and their life history. But this is what we do in arts therapies.

When I read Alice Miller’s book ‘The Untouched Key’ in 1994 I realised that for artists and writers such awareness only comes when therapy is undertaken in conjunction with artistic production: art in itself isn’t enough. Alice Miller wrote that most writers and artists escape such awareness – with only one exception, she says: Franz Kafka.


Luisa Alexa Passalacqua Carenati, FRSA MA AMAC ASSOC BADTH PGDIP
Creative trainer, dramatherapist, development consultant, producer & activist

Thanks! You've already liked this