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Book commentary--The Drama of the Gifted Child

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Book Commentary of the Drama of the Gifted Child

Alice Miller, a psychologist, presents her ideas about child development in The Drama of the Gifted Child.  She presents various ideas about child development, which she was able to develop through twenty years of study and practice of psychoanalysis. Most of her ideas surround the gifted child, a child who is very aware of the unconscious wishes of his parents and works hard to fulfill their wishes. The child, Miller explains, focuses on the wishes of his parents fervidly; and that in the process to satisfy their wishes, the child forms what is called the “false self”. As a result, the child becomes a body that fulfills the wishes of his parents and those around him, as he develops a keen sense of the needs and wishes of others [1]. Because the false self dominates, the gifted child never develops the true self--his own person with his own emotions and actions. Ultimately, his existence is based on the wishes of others. Miller discusses the consequences of displaying the false self and never developing the true self, and I found her observations and insights to be intriguing since they could explain some situations I have encountered in my life. Although her ideas provide perceptive answers to why certain people are the way they are, her ideas need further investigations since more studies will test the solidity of her observations and ideas.

 Miller describes the presence of the false self in the absence of the true self as an illness, because a person with this circumstance is not really himself and is thus mentally unhealthy. However, how does a person truly know if he is displaying the false self and not the true self? In fact, Miller states that people with the problem only find out when they come in for therapy for depression. So, there is no definite way for people to know if they are displaying the false self or not unless they come in for therapy. Again, with regards to the false self versus the true self, how does Miller know if the false self that is supposedly displayed is due to the unconscious wishes bestowed upon the person and not due to the person’s choice? Reasons for why people are the way they are can undoubtedly be due to their parents as Miller explains, but where are other factors? What are experiences for if people cannot learn and grow from them? Miller seems to place a greater importance on the unconsciousness as reasons for who we are as people rather than the consciousness, our I-functions.

A person with the illness may go in for therapy due to depression, which Miller claims occurs when he feels that he has not lived up to some ideal image inherited from his parents. Feelings of emptiness, loneliness, meaninglessness, shame and guilt, which are characteristic of depression, afflict the person [1]. Miller defines depression as a result of the person’s inability to adapt the ideal self-representation inherited from the person’s parents. These set of ideas allowed me to interpret a habit of a friend from high school, who saw she to be one of the best students at school. She often excelled in all her classes, however whenever she received an average or below an average score on an exam, a depressive episode appeared in which she avoided her friends for a few days. Her ideal self-representation was probably of a student who excelled in all her classes and always performed above average; therefore, whenever her actual self-representation did not match her ideal self-representation, she suffered from a depressive episode.

Perhaps, my friend’s actions and behaviors could be further analyzed through another concept of Miller’s: there is no conception of needs other than the need for success and achievement in the patient. The need to succeed and achieve comes from the wishes of the parents [1]. These wishes are unconsciously passed onto the child, and the child establishes the need to fulfill those wishes in fear of losing their love [1]. Miller reasons that since the gifted child finds the need for success and achievement to be his most significant need, he utilizes every capacity within him to fulfill that need. Consequently, he does very well in anything he decides to do and is successful when he wants to be [1]. Miller states that the gifted child is therefore usually admired for his achievements--and I could not help but wonder if people who have achieved great successes in the past grew up with wishes bestowed upon them and if they displayed the false self as well. Did people like Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein display the false self and hide their depressive episodes when their ideal self-representations were not achieved?

 I found a connection when I read Miller’s reasoning behind the gifted child’s need to succeed, since I experience such a need myself. Miller seems to say parents are the only source of wanting to succeed in the gifted child. However, I can see other sources of influence other than parents. For instance, I know that I have the need to achieve and succeed, but I cannot say that my parents were the only factors that have contributed to the birth of my need to succeed. I can see other factors such as my friends who display the same type of need and the media that paints successful people as superior beings. Thus, Miller’s failure to mention factors other than parents is puzzling. What evidence does she have that excludes other factors to affect the gifted child’s need? How does she know that parents have mainly contributed to the gifted child’s need? In any case, to see if people with the illness that Miller describes are in fact primarily influenced by parents, more studies of patients and data collections are needed that may delineate the origins of the need to succeed.

As methods of treatment to overcome the false self and revive the true self, Miller asks patients to examine their childhoods and learn the emotional world they were deprived of, surfacing what was once unconscious. As patients are able to accept and experience the early feelings in their childhoods through psychotherapy, the patients gain self-esteem and strength [1]. In order to provide a proliferating environment for the true self, Miller recommends that patients distance themselves from people who demand them to be a certain way-- such as their parents who bestowed wishes on them. Her methods of treatment seem reasonable in her terms, since she emphasizes the role of the unconsciousness. Therefore, transforming an unconscious element to a conscious element opens doors for potential healing.

If wishes of parents that are inherited can negatively affect children, imagine the devastating effect abuse can have. In the book, Miller blames abusive parents for the majority of mental illnesses in the world. She explains that people should be made aware of their own victimization since lack of awareness can lead to displacement, in which the same parenting they received is repeated in the next generation. Since parenting affects future generations, it is evident that good parenting should be taught and people should be made aware of their childhoods. The Drama of the Gifted Child helped me to think of various reasons why we are the way we are. In addition, I found the book to be helpful in giving me insights to interpret a friend’s tendency. Although I found some aspects of the book disturbing such as the lack of free will/ control on the part of the I-function in determining how people develop, I thought the book was good for me to read, since I could apply what I have learned in Neurobiology and Behavior and discern what seemed to make sense and what did not. Ultimately, I found useful ideas and progressed in my path to “getting things less wrong”.



 [1] Miller, A. (1990). Drama of the gifted child. [New York]: BasicBooks.