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The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self

mkhilji's picture

The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self by Alice Miller examines how one loses their self during childhood and how as an adult struggle to discover or accept ones true identity that Miller focuses on children who undergo the process of overcoming an "abusive" childhood. Abuse does not necessarily have to be physical or sexual, but in many of the cases outlined in this book they refer to a child growing up in an environment where the child loses their identity and becomes passive to emotional abuse that their parents may indirectly put them through. This results in a child ignoring his or her own needs, which results in the disappearance of the "real" self.
It seems that many times the parents are basically acting in a manner that is familiar to them-but to an outsider would seem unhealthy. The truth is that some of these parents who have also experienced a life in which they may have undergone stress from their parents for unmet expectations or of conditional love that they somewhat naturally act in this matter towards their own kin. It is only when some undergo therapeutic sessions that they realize that they made their own children into scapegoats; directing their anger that derived from the neglect and abuse that they experienced in their own childhood. I found this interesting, as conventional wisdom is that one wants to avoid the parenting methods or actions of their parents-especially if their parents were dominating and restrictive.
However it as if the struggles and abuse they may have experienced at a younger age is almost encompassed in their demeanor and in every interaction or relationship they have with others. This connects to how it is hard to ignore the impact that ones childhood has on parenthood. As Miller states " oppression and the forcing of submission do not begin in the office, factory, or political party; they begin in the very first weeks of an infant's life." (105). For example new parenting methods try to train babies to eat during a certain time and sleep during time periods that are suitable to the parent, rather than whenever the baby may be really hungry.
The reason why this book calls many of these "gifted child" because at a young age these children learn to 'read' or understand their parents and their unspoken expectations. They figure out the formula of appeasing their parent's possible anger and outbursts. Understand that this does not mean that since the day they have been perfect children and have never experienced the anger tantrums or sometimes abusive manners of their parents-rather they have forced themselves to be quick learners and become the most passive aggressive individuals. The parents become accustomed to this passive behavior and associate their child acting obediently, with the child losing their individuality.
These thoughts had interesting connections to international political conflicts revolving hatred and prejudices spread across generations. For example many of the children who may still accept racism or may have certain prejudices to other races or nationalities may be because it was forced upon them by their parents, or something that they were raised hearing constantly and forced to accept even if at a young age they may have questioned the decisions and actions of their parents. Or they conformed to their parent's judgment and views to appease their anger and come off as the "obedient" child-when really they may not have necessarily agreed or had any direct experience that could influence or support such prejudices. Miller proposes that by individuals rediscovering their past in order to reevaluate their prejudices or feelings towards others they:


...look for their real causes, and to resolve the transference, will no longer be compelled to displace their hatred onto innocents in order to protect those who have in fact earned this hatred. They will be capable of hating what is hateful and of loving what deserves love. Once they dare to see who brought them to their plight and how it was done, they will be better oriented in present reality and able to avoid acting blindly, unconsciously..the future of democracy and democratic freedom depends on our capacity to take this step and to recognize that it is simply impossible to struggle successfully against hatred outside ourselves, while ignoring its messages within (115).
This forces individuals to draw a better understanding of themselves and find the origins of the anger that they direct towards their children or loved ones. This can have big impact on individuals relationships and explain why they may be scared of commitment or why they are not trusting or do not open up.
I found it interesting how Miller focused on the only child-which does have an impact on the relationship between that child and the parents. Speaking from the perspective of a person from a family of three other siblings I would be interested how the dynamic changes when there is one child who is supposedly the "gifted child" while the other siblings lack this "gift" and therefore come up against more conflicts with their parents. This can be because the "non-gifted" children put their own interests and needs first and do not consider what their parent's reaction may be. They fail to understand or be aware of what their parents expect or want. In this situation according to Miller one cannot blame the parent or the child-as everyone is not capable of reading others consciousness. I would predict that a "gifted" child in a family like mine would run up against pressure from the parents and siblings. The parents put the pressure on that child to fulfill their desires and expectations-as it is the child who knows better, while the siblings may taunt that child and urge them not to be so abiding necessarily.
I would recommend this book for all -especially parents. It articulates the childhood suffering and describes how often times adults lack empathy that develop toward their own fate. We don't realize how such experiences are part of a vicious cycle; sometimes due to our experienced distressful childhood it impacts our parenthood and what our own children may experience. Many parallels exist and can be drawn. This book is designed to serve as a representation of the neglected and abused adults as well as the damaged child he or she once was.


Jody's picture

This is my story

Hello, this article hit me very hard. It is exactly how my family dynamic is. I was the gifted child but i am more like my mother, open minded, free spirited, and looking for the good in others, and independent. Unfortunately, it was backwards, my sister is more like my parents "the dictators and oppressors" and she was the "ungifted" child. Now my sister is obedient and i am not and am suffering, because i am being ridiculed because i am being disobedient now and the one that is a problem to my parents because i dont listen to them. The problem is now i am more and more like my mother and i am in confliction with the obedient passive child and the woman that i really am. It is a constant battle and it is truly affecting every aspect of my life. I have anxiety and stress all the time and I get myself into so many bad situations. I am thinking i should go to therapy and sort out how i can be the way i want to be.

Paul Grobstein's picture

the "gifted child' and family/political conflict

Its an intriguing idea that "oppression and the forcing of submission" might have its origins in very early childhood and result from parental behaviors not at all intended to produce those particular effects (ie non I-function behaviors?). And there is indeed an intriguing possible connection to "international political conflicts". How compelling is the existing evidence? How could these issues be further explored? Could one in principle eliminate oppression, both in the family and socially/politically?