Si riporta il capitolo facente parte di un libro presigioso: A Deeper Cut: Further Explorations of the Unconscious in Social and Political Life, a cura di David Morgan, Ed. Phoenix Publishing House, 2021 – i cui coautori di fama internazionale lavorano o collaborano a vario titolo presso la British Psychoanalytical Society di Londra.
Alice Miller on family, power, and truth
Marco Puricelli and Luisa Passalacqua
Alice Miller (1923–2010) was an eminent Swiss psychoanalyst of Polish origin. She studied for her doctorate in psychology, sociology, and philosophy at the University of Basel in Switzerland, and then completed her psychoanalytic training in Zurich. For two decades she was involved in teaching psychoanalysis, but her career later took a dramatic turn: she quit both the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society and the International Psychoanalytical Association to embark on an in-depth study of the factors causing and affecting child abuse. This resulted in the publication of several books, each one approaching this topic from a different angle. The most noteworthy 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 won her the Janusz Korczak literary award in 1986.
Even before Miller undertook her lonely crusade to restore a sense of respect for childhood, another pioneer, Polish doctor Janusz Korczak, a paediatrician and educator, and the director of a Jewish orphanage, had lived for thirty years with children from the humblest walks of life, coming to him in a disturbing condition of abandonment, often with signs of severe abuse (quoted by Miller, 1984). In his writings we find a denunciation of the ongoing structural violence inflicted on many children, a cause he cared about just as strongly as Miller did a few years later. In a world where only what the adults decide does matter, little ones are forced into a predicament of true slavery, humiliated and subjugated, constantly controlled, often threatened and beaten. That was in the early twentieth century.
It is indisputable that ours is a planet where only eighteen countries out of the 192 members of the United Nations prohibit physical abuse of children, a recent prohibition to which Alice Miller herself actively contributed while she was still alive.
Even in a democracy, we all take for granted that an adult’s will is overtly or covertly imposed on their children. This condition isn’t different to the condition of citizens in a totalitarian state: children are adults’ property, just like the citizens of a totalitarian regime are property of the State (Miller & Ward, 1981). The adult exerts a form of absolute power on the child, and that is considered normal in society. Many children aren’t beaten or otherwise physically or sexually abused, but more and more of today’s children are manipulated, spoiled, and smothered, and thus suffer comparable – if not worse – mental damage.
In academic circles Alice Miller was criticised for having noticed that the traumas of children were real, arising from actual experiences of violence, not from fantasies or imaginations – similarly and according to the first theory of seduction by Sigmund Freud. Maybe in Miller’s early works it is possible to find some sort of reductionism in considering sexual or physical violence to be the only forms of childhood abuse. Nevertheless this concept has been gradually extended to incorporate less evident forms of emotional abuse, where by “abuse” she means the use of a person for the purpose of fulfilling one’s needs or desires, irrespective of the used person’s permission and with no respect for their consent, interest, and will (Miller, 2007). Even less blatant variations of abuse generate unconscious anger and resentment that will be turned into violence later in adulthood. This concept of abuse is critical in order to understand why childhood is marked by real trauma rather than fantasies, drives, or “shameful” desires of the child.
There are many forms of cruelty that have not yet been explored enough, because the wounds inflicted on the child and their consequences are poorly understood, as well as many other forms of resulting traumas that are not sexual or physical in nature that equally lead to repression, and therefore mental disorders. So much attention has been given to toilet training in psychoanalytic literature. But from the moment babies are born there are endless ways in which adults can exert their willpower on them: adults can impose to the baby when to eat, when to sleep, when to be cleaned, only to accommodate a mother’s or father’s demands. This gross variation of authoritarianism is taught very early on in child development, long before toilet training. More than that, it is contrary to any common sense (which we all take for granted) that one only eats, sleeps, and has a shower mostly when one pleases: that doesn’t apply to infancy, precisely the age where a greater flexibility is needed – and expected – from a mother.
On a more complex level, an apparently “devout” new mother can be very needy and sensitive to rejection for a series of conflicts from her own childhood. She can be convinced that her baby doesn’t love her because he isn’t smiling at her or perhaps she may feel rejected when her baby begins to be interested in the world around him, or when he expresses his aggressiveness and vitality, in situations like biting, scratching, hair pulling, kicking, and screaming. In these critical moments she could turn into a cruel and vindictive human being who acts out retaliation through resentment and withdrawal of affection (Winnicott, 1986). All of those moments are not so easy “to see”, in so far as such an unconscious mechanism is based mainly on passive aggression. But for a child, being ignored is terrible: it means not to exist and to experience intense anguish. For him to feel deprived of affection is definitely unsustainable. When children are very young, they do not know and cannot be sure that the attitude of their parents is temporary; then if this situation is prolonged, the moment comes when they have a true experience of death.
As a society, we are so accustomed to witnessing emotional abuse that we stop paying it any attention. Most abuse takes place behind closed doors and there is no one to witness or validate the experience of the abused. Usually, the abuser will deny the abusing behaviour.
Even today, whatever happened to children in their infancy is of little interest, no children’s organisation defends them as a class, and metapsychology seems to have no model for the discrimination of children (Miller, 1979).
Yet we are puzzled when we discover neurological differences in the brain of offenders or otherwise “disturbed” individuals. It is now clear that trauma forges the brain: the findings presented by Bowlby and Spitz decades ago have been corroborated by the most recent neurobiological research. The studies in question suggest that not only active battering but also the absence of loving physical contact between child and parent will cause certain areas of the brain, notably those responsible for the emotions, to remain underdeveloped. Repeated traumatisation leads to an increased release of stress hormones that attack the sensitive tissue of the brain and destroy existing neurons (for example, Sapolsky, 1994). Nowadays computer scans can reveal the brain injuries that occur in children who have suffered beatings or who have been abandoned. Such scans are referred to in numerous articles by researchers on PTSD in neurobiology, particularly Bruce D. Perry, who is also a child psychiatrist (1994). Other studies of mistreated children have revealed that the areas of the brain responsible for the management of emotion are twenty to thirty per cent smaller than in normal persons (Miller, 1998).
With today’s knowledge, Miller’s clear-cut stance against the drive theories of psychoanalysis is much more understandable to many current practitioners, who have more or less blatantly reintegrated Miller’s theory into their practices. So it is no longer a heresy to say that drive theories belong to the same mentality that has always helped parents and educators in justifying the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children.
Miller reports that Freud had discovered the seduction of children carried out by their parents, but this truth was unacceptable in his time. If Freud had insisted on seduction theory, he would have faced the complete opposition of and ostracism by the bourgeoisie. The theory of the Oedipal complex made it possible for him to safeguard the image of the parents (Miller, 1984): despite the undoubtedly innovative and questioning nature of Freud’s research, he remains in essence a representative of bourgeois and patriarchal society.
Miller’s dissociation from psychoanalysis grew through her essays published in the Eighties (Pictures of a Childhood, Banished Knowledge, The Untouched Key, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence) and reached its culmination in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, whose very title evokes the notion of the repression of child abuse, a taboo that psychoanalysis itself was unable to discard. Her critique of psychoanalysis was later extended to all psychotherapeutic approaches, with rare exceptions for individual therapists.
Child trauma as source of violence
Psychohistory, the science of historical motivations, combines the insights of psychotherapy with the research methodology of the social sciences to understand the emotional origin of the social and political behaviour of groups and nations, past and present.
The way in which Miller contributes to psychohistory is through the examination of the biographies of well-known people and the analysis of their childhood histories. Her work is mainly focused on disturbed personalities, bloodthirsty dictators, serial killers, as well as individuals who turned their destructiveness against themselves. But it also extends to those who, thanks to art, were able to liberate themselves from a violent past, and those who gave in to self-destruction despite art.
In her work The Untouched Key (1988) Alice Miller explores the clues to the connections between childhood traumas and adult creativity and destructiveness. This has clear political implications for the understanding of that human destructiveness on a mass scale that we know all too well. The individuals from art and politics whose early life she studied and compared in various books include 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 (1988).
Miller’s biographical quest to understand why, given the same upbringing, one becomes a dictator and another an artist, culminated in the realisation that what makes a difference for a mistreated child is having a helping witness around the house, someone the child can turn to for validation. It doesn’t have to be necessarily the mother, it could be a sister, as in the case of Kafka and Dostoyevsky, or a nanny, or even a nurse, as in the case of Balzac. Moreover, it doesn’t matter whether the witness is aware of this fundamental role he or she is playing, which is exerted through empathy and compassion towards the child.
According to Miller, having or not having a helping witness around in childhood determines whether a mistreated child will become a despot who displaces his repressed helplessness against others or an artist who will tell about such suffering.
The crux of Miller’s theory is that individuals who fail to recall the mistreatment, violence, and humiliations inflicted on them during their childhood, and therefore cannot live through the resulting unpleasant feelings towards their parents, are bound to displace their repressed rage onto weaker subjects. This is a dynamic that resists every rational argument, because it has its roots in the unconscious.
Although biographies offer an abundant material containing precious information, hardly ever can one find anything relevant to the childhood of well-known figures. When there is anything at all, their parents are often idealised in historians’ descriptions. Miller explains that any deeper approach to such biographies would hardly be appreciated by those who have themselves a tendency to idealise their own parents (Miller, 2007).
Hatred and destructiveness can be expressed in many different ways, and if they become appealing it is only by the support of several ideologies; in any case they all have the same root in the family, with no exception.
Writing about Saddam Hussein, Miller notices that every unscrupulous tyrant “mobilizes the suppressed fears and anxieties of those who were beaten as children but have never been able to accuse their own fathers of doing so, thus keeping faith with them despite the torments suffered at their hands … Beaten, tormented, and humiliated children who have never received support from a helping witness later develop a high degree of tolerance for the cruelties inflicted by parent figures and a striking indifference to the sufferings borne by children exposed to cruel treatment” (Miller, 2004).
Adolf Hitler had perfectly internalised his father’s sadistic attitude, so that when he raised his voice and had outbursts of rage, whoever was listening to him shook like a frightened child. The same sadism was later found in those millions of people who granted him legitimacy as well as the brutal efficiency we know from history books (Miller, 2007).
Miller went in search of the true motives of many other dictators. In all of them she identified “the effects of hatred of a parent that remained unconscious not only because hating one’s father was strictly prohibited but also because it was in the interests of the child’s self-preservation to maintain the illusion of having a good father. Only in the form of a deflection onto others was hatred permitted, and then it could flow freely” (Miller, 1998.
Children are too fragile to be aware of the anguish deriving from the subtraction of affection. They have to suppress this anguish to survive. Suppression in childhood is life-saving. Besides, children’s condition of dependence makes them completely loyal, naive, and hopeful: they are bound to idealise their parents in order to entertain the illusion they are receiving love. They have to trust their parents to love them, just to survive psychologically. Therefore, psychological abuse wouldn’t have such devastating effects on children if it wasn’t for the associated absolute trust that accompanies it, and for the belief that parents never make mistakes: in addition, it is easy for children to mistake love for its many surrogates. Unlike the prisoner of a concentration camp who faces a hated tormentor and knows it, the child faces as his persecutor his most beloved parent, and this tragic complication is what will affect his future life for the worst (Miller, 1983). A child who grows up in a (most likely nuclear) family does not have a helping witness; this child’s parents represent his whole universe. In such a dramatic situation, it is inevitable that this child will develop a destructive drive (Miller, 2007).
When a child is subjected to an oppressive upbringing, he represses his feelings of pain, rage, suffering, sadness, disappointment. That in turn causes a reduction in vitality and produces a sense of alienation from the self and his own authentic needs and wishes (Miller, 1983). As adults, many would rather die, or symbolically die by neutralising their own feelings, than keep that sense of powerlessness alive, in the face of parents who used the child to meet their own needs, or as a target for their pent-up hatred, or even as a source of love they needed themselves at the time. As long as the anger directed at a parent or other first caregiver remains unconscious or disavowed, it cannot be dissipated (Miller, 1998).
Feelings of anger, helplessness, despair, longing, fear, and pain – split from what had motivated them – continue to express themselves in destructive acts against others: a dramatic alternative to turning on oneself. Other ways to defend against the cruelty the subjects suffered is to deflect it on others by means of a wide variety of manipulative and antisocial practices such as blackmailing, prostitution, perversions, sexual abuse, crime, and war. In less extreme but more common forms, hatred is poured on “weak” substitutes (children, partners, patients, believers, employees, etc.). Even more typically, the victims of those acts will be one’s own children, treated as scapegoats, and these attacks will always be legitimated as part of their so-called “education”. The tragedy is that people mistreat their children precisely to escape the awareness of what their own parents did to them.
In Erich Fromm’s Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), in which he also examines Adolf Hitler, destructiveness is seen as a consequence of the denial of trauma. Hitler’s followers were victims of the same pedagogical mentality, as well as the same character structure. This is the concept of “social character” as defined by Fromm (1941): through the family, the society creates in children precisely the character structure suitable for the reproduction of society itself, the kind of character traits that are bound to reproduce abuse at the expense of the next generation.
It may be the case of a growing trait in our society: lack of empathy. The complete denial of suffering causes an inner emptying, and very often blocks the unfolding of our innate ability to feel compassion for others. In fact one of the many forms of cruelty that we inflict on children consists in not allowing them to express their anger and their grief (a sort of empathy for oneself) without them running the risk of losing the love and affection of their parents.
Among the monotheistic religions, Christianity is theoretically the one that is most compatible with a vision of the human being that gives due import to childhood. No other religion seems to respect children to such an extent. In fact, Miller writes: “No religious tradition remembers anything like a couple like Mary and Joseph, able to leave their home country to save their children. The fact that Jesus grew up with parents whose only concern was to show them love and attention cannot be disputed” (Miller, 1984, p. 103). Too often, however, the actual pedagogical practices were inconsistent with the Christian gospels, which are unanimous in highlighting the importance of Jesus’s childhood and the fundamental role of Mary and Joseph. Many religious institutions that raise children and adolescents do so in a way that promotes “poisonous pedagogy”. This is an expression Miller took from Katharina Rutshky, Schwarze Pädagogik (Miller, 1983); by that she means a repressive educational approach based on punishments and rigid rules, and more generally on a detached stance and restricted loving, often rationalised through the traditional claim that it is enacted “for the child’s own good”. Today such pedagogy appears under more subtle forms of “love” (so-called smothering) where the good that comes to the fore is that for the parents, not the child, and thus more difficult to identify (Miller, 1983).
In Morton Schatzman’s essay Soul Murder: Persecution in the Family (1973), the author re-examines the famous “Schreber’s case” in Freudian literature, as well as many other psychoanalysts. Dr Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber was never a patient of any of them, never a patient of Freud. He was analysed indirectly through his diaries, which showed the delusions dominating the psychotic phases of his life: Schreber was an Austrian judge who complained of being persecuted by God, who knew everything about him and was highly judgemental. Schatzman discovered that Schreber’s father was an orthopaedic doctor and self-styled “pedagogue” who wrote books on the topic of repressive upbringing which were read and studied by the teachers, who in turn taught the generations that led to Nazism. The basic principle was that children are born with inherently evil inclinations and therefore they must be reshaped by infusing them with good principles. Schreber’s father was proud of having brought up all his children according to such principles. Needless to say, each one of them faced a dark fate: clerical career, suicide, disappearance, mental hospital. Schatzman connects Schreber’s father’s pedagogy to Lutheran Protestantism, in which the utmost sin is disobedience.
Who was Martin Luther, the man who reformed the Church that indoctrinated the country which ultimately perpetrated the genocide of the Jews? What was wrong with Germans at that time? The answer is not in history books about the Third Reich as one would expect, but in a little article written by an ex-psychoanalyst (Alice Miller), published in an unknown journal of psychohistory, and mainly ignored by mainstream literature thereafter:
Martin Luther … was an intelligent and educated man, but he hated all Jews and he encouraged parents to beat their children. He was no perverted sadist like Hitler’s executioners. But 400 years before Hitler he was disseminating this kind of destructive counsel.
And about Martin Luther’s childhood: “His mother beat him severely before he was treated this way by his father and his teacher. He believed this punishment had ‘done him good’ and was therefore justified. The conviction stored in his body that if parents do it then it must be right to torment someone weaker than yourself left a much more lasting impression on him than the divine commandments and the Christian exhortations to love your neighbour and be compassionate toward the weak” (Miller, 1998).
The fourth commandment, usually taught in abbreviated form as “Honour your father and your mother” has served to trigger a sense of guilt in billions of adolescents and adults over the centuries, due to their ambivalent feelings towards their parents (Miller, 1990). To all appearances, this commandment sounds like an obligation to unconditionally accept one’s parents through submitting to them. Actually, in its original form, this commandment had a different meaning: it encouraged you to give the right weight to your father and your mother, so that your days may be long upon the Earth. In other words: understand who your parents really are, consider carefully the influence that they have had on you, otherwise your days will never be truly yours. Only if we begin to understand this – instead of simply “pay respect” – do we become masters of our own mind (Sibaldi, 2012). In fact this interpretation is compatible with other parts of the Bible: in Genesis, in Exodus, and even in the Gospels themselves there are criticisms of the family as an institution. For instance, forty days in the desert had helped Jesus to keep a distance from his parents, hence his statement, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother (…) he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26).
The convenient reinterpretation of the fourth commandment in terms of submission to parents paid lip service to parents with narcissistic disturbances. Unlike most scholars, Miller said it clearly: many patients as children were the narcissistically cathected objects of their mothers. If so, the culture of indiscriminate forgiveness favoured precisely not only violence but also the sense of guilt of what some call “co-narcissists” (for example, Rappoport, 2005). This is systematically overlooked in psychotherapeutic practice, where the focus is on the patients, and theoretical abstractions place them within constructs which imply that their pathology developed in a relational void where the parents were behaving normally – and yet something went mysteriously wrong.
The reason why it was so hard for Miller to find like-minded colleagues was that most traditional psychotherapists had not fully felt their own childhood pain, and never acknowledged how their own parents had hurt them: as a consequence, they were unable to be of real help to their clients. If therapists have never “lived through” this despair and the resulting narcissistic rage, they will automatically transfer this situation onto their patients. Until work on their own past engenders in them a sacrosanct indignation, what they have endured in their childhood will still feel like a normal situation, and they will have no empathy to offer to anyone. If the adult patient suspects that his real source of suffering lies in his childhood experiences, the obtuse therapist reassures him that it is certainly not the case – and even if it was the case, the patient would have to learn to forgive, because it is precisely his resentment that makes him sick. Such conventional therapists, laden with pedagogical agendas, are unable to truly help their patients, and offer them their morality instead. The patient is convinced that the therapist speaks out of a sound experience, and defers to his authority. He doesn’t know, and has no way to find out, that such assertions actually express his fear of his own parents.
To the best of our knowledge, the hidden influence of the early religious upbringing of therapists on their later therapeutic relationships with their clients has never been researched. It may have been acknowledged in pastoral counselling, by definition religious in nature, but in every other practice the secular aspect of psychotherapy is taken for granted far too easily. What is rarely understood is that having become an atheist does not free a therapist from the unconscious conditioning that took place in the early years. What is left of such conditioning will inevitably affect the therapeutic performance.
Psychotherapists often minimise their patients’ childhood wounds, fear their repressed anger, or try to “integrate the good with the bad” prematurely. Having to locate all the “good” in the parents (and in oneself) and all the “bad” elsewhere is in itself a source of confusion. The ambivalence experienced as adults in relationships is a form of disorientation that reflects the ambivalence of the original relationship with parents who combine good and evil all too easily, first enhancing their own image and then behaving in ways incompatible with that image.
Miller believes that forgiveness does not resolve hatred: it covers it in a dangerous way in the grown adult, who often comes to rely on displacement on some scapegoat. This is precisely what makes it possible to pass on trauma from one generation to the next. Trauma specialist Katharina Drexler, in an article on transgenerational traumas, writes that most unresolved traumas are passed on to future generations through the introjection of the traumatised parent (Drexler, 2013).
Therefore, putting even the slightest pressure on a patient to forgive his parents is not only useless, it is counterproductive and is one more missed chance to leverage the true original cause of patients’ disturbances, especially when the most natural emotional responses to mistreatment have been denied. At the very least, the concept itself of forgiveness should be reformulated to incorporate the acknowledgement of such feelings: it really cannot be called “forgiveness” unless it coexists with an awareness of the damage and with the anger that came as a response.
Psychotherapists’ knowledge about the origin of mental suffering forces them to take a stance as regards the social environment surrounding patients. In Miller’s opinion, the psychotherapeutic process necessarily implies a process of identification in which there are only two opposite possibilities: the therapist can identify with the patient as a child or he can identify with his parents. The therapist will be able to identify with only one at a time, at different stages of therapy. But in the latter case, the analyst will not have access to the childhood truth of the patient, and neither will the patient. “The patient, who was traumatized by his parents as a child is now facing a new parent, the analyst himself, who will do anything to cover his parents’ responsibilities, and will do that by giving an Oedipal reading, only to blame the patient himself and to deny the reality of traumatic experiences emerged during the analysis.” This is for Miller a true therapeutic abuse, resulting from several variations of that original fear that therapists have, to hurt their own parents.
Psychotherapy is one of many discourses that attempts to make sense of human suffering, beside medicine, art, and religion. A kind of moral fortitude is required to bear and process mental pain, and to make a good therapist. Neville Symington in The Making of a Psychotherapist: “An individual can bear mental pain only if there is someone there able to bear it with him. Fundamentally, it is not a question of saying the right thing, but of being conscious of the pain in the other person, and not saying anything that will save us and the patient from experiencing it” (Symington, 1996, pp. 53–54).
The political therapist
If the psychotherapist enters the role of the enlightened witness without hesitation, she will stand on the child’s side. This position will make it possible to take into account all of the possible factors that lead to the inevitability of the adult child’s mental condition.
As Miller repeatedly points out, in the theories of Melanie Klein, the emotional life of the infant indirectly expresses a rejection by the adult of her own emotional life, now embodied by the infant. Klein, with her “cruel infant” concept, as well as Kernberg, with his theory of the child’s innate pathological narcissism, both disregard the reactive nature of child development and fail to take into account that it is the unmet needs of parents and their attitude towards the child that generate in the latter forms of aggressiveness, sexuality, and narcissism (Miller, 1984).
At Miller’s time there already was some consideration for environmental factors, which could be readily found in Kohut, Mahler, Masterson, Winnicott, Khan, Bowlby, and others. But Miller disagrees when their theoretical ambition is to discover, behind the development of the child, the universal goals and factors that may play a role in pathogenesis. For example: for Kohut, the lack of emotional closeness; for Mahler, difficulties at the stage of separation and reconciliation; for Masterson, being devoured or subtraction of affection in the child’s attempts to become autonomous; for Winnicott, the lack of maternal holding; for Kahn, the lack of maternal protection in the face of stimuli, etc. In Miller’s opinion, all of these factors mean something traumatic, but perhaps do not lead inevitably to neurosis, if they can be articulated as painful injuries. This does not happen with parents who are feared, or whom the child must “respect”. In such cases the history of the trauma will be overwritten by alienating narratives and the trauma will have to be repressed: this very event produces neuroses.
Clearly grasping the context in which a mental condition is formed is the necessary prerequisite for the articulation of trauma as trauma. This, in itself, is therapeutic. Miller’s suggested analytic approach is the search for a patient’s early childhood reality while avoiding any attempt to spare their parents. It is paramount to focus attention not only on what happens to the child, but also on the parent in the very moment of the mistreatment, and in the same terms we use for the child: drives, defence mechanisms, denial, rationalisation, displacement, etc.
With a more complete account of what happened comes the recovery of one or more feelings associated with it, both in the patient and the therapist. The “Millerian” psychotherapist cannot really remain neutral in the face of the historical account of the patient, as long as her empathic capacity is intact. When the trauma is restored to its original context, clarity is gained and things are called by their real names, and as a result the most uncomfortable feelings may arise: indignation, even horror.
Horror is precisely the feeling that narcissistically abused children forget as they become abusing adults in turn. Horror is the healthiest emotional reaction to abuse, whether to oneself or to others. The psychotherapist’s capacity – or incapacity – to experience horror raises questions about the role of psychotherapy in society, and the stance of the psychotherapist not as a professional, but rather as a citizen, in regards to that which produces mental illness in such society – and the politics that goes with this whole problematic.
As early as the Sixties, Esther Bick warned the analyst against the risk of accusing or blaming the parents. Nothing of what is done in the therapeutic setting has to turn into a confrontation with the patient’s mother and father – as if blame was the only option of an ex-patient who has become aware of the damage that his environment has caused to his mental health. But the examples are endless. The world of psychotherapies seems to be completely cut off from politics, in that therapists act as if what happens in their consulting rooms has – or should have – little or no political impact on the external world and culture as whole. The positing of political discourses and agendas stemming from the therapeutic setting is actively discouraged even in the most “confrontational” approaches where patients are encouraged to express their truths to substitutes instead of their real recipients: their parents and other “significant others” (i.e., psychodrama, Gestalt therapy, and family constellations). Invariably, more “adaptive” behaviours are encouraged: either patients make new choices in their environment, or they will have a new approach to the same old situations and contexts. But we don’t know any therapeutic protocol that encompasses how a patient brings her new awareness out of the consulting room and into relational, familial, occupational, or social contexts. Such an agenda would be seen as a pathological product of an incomplete process. With the only exception of family therapy (systemic in nature), no such guidance is provided as part of the setting. This is partly explained by the imperative of confidentiality: very few individuals would ever declare that their new approach to old situations is the result of them being in therapy, even when such a “shameful” admission wouldn’t be necessary for the purpose. Another explanation is a widespread belief among practitioners that activism is to be seen as a symptom. Once more, Miller disagrees. In For Your Own Good (1980), taking Nazi Germany and the war in Vietnam as examples, she compared the childhoods of the professional American soldiers who served in Vietnam on a voluntary basis. Miller found that the most vindictive war criminals had been raised brutally in their childhoods. An empirical study (Oliner & Oliner, 1988; also quoted by Miller, 1998) has concluded that
the only factor distinguishing the rescuers from the persecutors and hangers-on was the way they had been brought up by their parents. People given early affection and support are quick to emulate the sympathetic and autonomous natures of their parents. Common to all the rescuers were self-confidence, the ability to take immediate decisions and the capacity for empathy and compassion with others. Seventy percent of them said that it only took them a matter of minutes to decide they wanted to intervene. Eighty percent said they did not consult anyone else.
In activism, anger is at the service of the ego, so it is partly unconscious energy but it is more integrated within the personality and channelled into something constructive; it doesn’t derive from rejection, abandonment, or other severe unconscious traumas. So it is energy stemming from a relationship with “good enough” parents or a therapeutic processing of the above traumas, which has resulted in a more integrated personality. As Winnicott puts it, beyond the good enough mother lays the foundation not only of mental health, but also the child’s strength of character and the richness of his personality, as well as the ability to be happy and to rebel and make a revolution (1986).
Psychopathy as a systemic condition
In For Your Own Good Miller speaks of the “narcissistic dyad” and symbiotic relationship between Hitler and his supporters (1980), something that develops on a dyadic, familial, or groupal level and that philosopher Dr Sam Vaknin called “pathological narcissistic space” (1999). Thus it is not simply a dyadic phenomenon, it may be groupal and involve more than two subjects, one or more of them being full-blown narcissists.
There is nothing new in the idea that, given the importance of interpersonal and social context, neurosis isn’t just a subjective individual phenomenon, and may show in broad layers of society (Innamorati, 2010). In the same way, pathological narcissism is a systemic phenomenon and it is of little use to study so-called narcissistic personality disorder as the epiphenomenon of a larger dynamics, unless we also look at the practices that somehow reproduce its mechanisms everywhere. Often, the same person displays both narcissistic and co-narcissistic behaviours, depending on circumstances (Rappoport, 2005). So, for instance, many show the “entitlement pattern” without necessarily meeting the criteria of the most commonly used diagnostic manuals for narcissistic personality disorder (Ronningstam, 2005).
Another point for a more groupal approach is the more recent knowledge we have of psychopathy, so-called dark triad, which includes narcissism, together with “machiavellianism” and “psychopathy” proper. Not only is there no validated, specific treatment to cure narcissistic personality disorder, there is also no body of scientifically sound research on the treatment of psychopathic offenders in general (Hemphill & Hart, 2002) for a number of reasons, among them inconsistent concepts and measures of psychopathy (D’Silva, Duggan, & McCarthy, 2004).
Indeed, a fresh outlook is needed on psychopathy, one which takes into account the phenomena that can be observed around individuals showing psychopathic traits, involving what would be clinically considered non-psychopathic individuals.
One only needs to look at the prolific visual culture on psychopathy, about which there are numerous publications on psychiatric journals (for example, Hesse, 2009). Psychopathic characters are very popular: in nearly every movie there is a male or female psychopath. Shadd Maruna of Queen’s University Belfast suggests that people need psychopaths, since they are nothing but “a screen upon which we project our guilt as well as our anxieties” (Garland, 2001). In other words, the viewers of psychopathic characters seek to reduce their anxieties, frustrations, and guilt by putting all of the blame on an identifiable perpetrator. At the end of the day, says Professor Maruna, we have always known this from Aeschylus: “Unanimous hatred is the greatest medicine for a human community.” There is a degree of psychopathy in all of us that we need to project into the Other, condemn and possibly persecute, or even execute it (Carveth, 2010, pp. 106–130). This is because if “evil” persons are not the source of evil, then “the more disturbing possibility must be entertained that evil might be a relatively diffuse and commonplace phenomenon that normal people get caught up in” (Ellard, Miller, Baumle, & Orson, 2002, p. 353).
Just as the typical mechanism at work in spectators facing a cinema screen is projective identification, the temptation of placing evil where it can be located extends to bystanders in all environments where harassment is commonly practised and enablers go easily undetected. In family or work environments alike, enablers witness violence being perpetrated by someone else, with the double advantage of vicarious gratification and the certainty to avoid any censure for themselves.
The relationship between abusers and enablers
The study of what makes an individual a psychopath or someone with an otherwise antisocial tendency is coupled with research on what provides such individuals with the mass of enablers they need to be who they are.
The Frankfurt School had already explored the authoritarian personality in an attempt to address the latent tendency to accept a fascist regime (Innamorati, 2010), with an empirical investigation on a large scale based on the design of psychological scales to identify personality traits peculiar to individuals who tend to become smoothly integrated in an authoritarian society (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950).
Adorno and colleagues argued that deep-seated personality traits predisposed some individuals to be highly sensitive to totalitarian and anti-democratic ideas and therefore were prone to be highly prejudicial. Clinical interviews revealed situational aspects of their childhood, such as the fact that they had been brought up by very strict parents or guardians, characteristic of participants who scored highly on the F-scale (F for fascism). These aspects were seldom found in the backgrounds of low scorers. Therefore, the study indicated that individuals with a very strict upbringing by critical and harsh parents were most likely to develop an authoritarian personality. Adorno believed that this was because the individual in question was not able to express hostility towards their parents (for being strict and critical). Consequently, the person would then displace this aggression/hostility onto safer targets, namely those who are weaker, such as ethnic minorities.
Adorno and colleagues felt that authoritarian traits, as identified by the F-scale, predispose some individuals towards “fascistic” characteristics. In other words, according to Adorno and colleagues, the Eichmanns of this world are there because they have authoritarian personalities and therefore are predisposed to indulge in cruelty, and this is as a result of their upbringing.
Erich Fromm sought to refine Marxist theory by using psychoanalysis as a tool for the analysis of contemporary society, thereby founding Freudo-Marxism. His starting point was a notorious flaw in Marxist theory. Marx expected that sooner or later the exploited masses would rebel and overthrow the whole socio-political order, yet the poorest Germans and Americans didn’t display the slightest urge for political change.
The new element that Erich Fromm introduced into the discourse was the concept of the family as a psychological agency of society. As a matter of fact, the individual only makes his first direct contact with the actual societal world fairly late in his life. Fromm argued that the family constitutes the true foundation of political authority, since the relationship established by children with their father will later be the prototype of their attitude towards any authority. The prevailing social model in its turn determines the family structure, namely the type of relationships that are to be established between parents and children (
Indeed the dynamics occurring in a particular family also affect the relationship with children, and it is well known that the mother acts as a transmission belt between the father and children, whether for the good or for the bad. Henry Dicks’s work (1967) on couples revealed that the unconscious choices of partners, unconscious exchanges between spouses (powerful dynamics based on projection, splitting, and identification), as well as the relevance of conflicts within the couple, clearly affect their relationship with their children (Lancini, 2007). In fact systems theory as applied to family therapy works precisely on this principle.
Another useful approach is Adlerian family therapy. Based on the original ideas of Edith Dewey, a classification of family atmospheres was developed by Hugh Misseldine in his book Your Inner Child of the Past (1963), along the lines of Alfred Adler’s concepts as they were elaborated by Adlerian psychoanalyst Henry T. Stein, director and senior training analyst at the Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington.
There are fifteen different family atmospheres in which children can grow up (democratic, authoritarian, high standards, competitive, suppressive, materialistic, overprotective, overindulgent, inconsistent, inharmonious, disparaging, rejective, martyrising, pitying, and hopeless) of which only the democratic atmosphere prepares a child for cooperation, whereas the others may provoke a lack of trust, drain his courage, and emphasise the false value of superiority over others. Some atmospheres may also breed self-centredness and emotional distance and inhibit the development of empathy for others (Stein, 2018a).
This classification of atmospheres overlaps with another classification by the same author, that of parental styles (democratic and encouraging, overindulgent, over-submissive, over-coercive, perfectionist, excessively responsible, neglecting, rejecting, punitive, hypochondriac, and sexually stimulating). As a response to the punitive parental style, children will long for retaliation, feel guilt, and think of themselves as bad, hate their parents, lie to avoid punishment, and fear their own impulses for revenge. Another parental style is even more relevant to our discourse. Children who have grown up in a family with an over-coercive parental style divide life into the “top dog” and “underdog” and their attitude towards others may be one of imitation, compliance, internalisation, rebellion, and resistance (Stein, 2018b).
Responses similar to these have been observed in children of parents with narcissistic disturbances. For Irwin Gootnick, there are three common types of responses by children to the interpersonal problems presented to them by such parents: identification, rebellion, and compliance (Gootnick, 1997).
Identification is a response to the parent seeing the child as a representative of himself or herself, and is the price of connectedness with the parent. It results in the child becoming a narcissist herself.
In regard to narcissistic parents, the child must exhibit the same qualities, values, feelings, and behaviour which the parent employs to defend his or her self-esteem.
Rebellion refers to the state of fighting to not accept the dictates of the parent by behaving in opposition to them. He therefore acts in a self-defeating manner in order to try to maintain a sense of independence.
Compliance refers to the co-narcissistic adaptation described earlier, wherein the child becomes the approving audience sought by the parent. The child is complying with the parent’s needs by being the counterpart the parent seeks.
All three forms of adaptation (identification, rebellion, and compliance) can be seen as compliance in a larger sense, since, in every case, the child complies in some way with the needs of the parent, and is defined by the parent. What defines compliance in this sense is that the child becomes the counterpart the parent needs from moment to moment to help the parent manage threats to his or her self-esteem.
Both narcissism and co-narcissism are adaptations that children have made to cope with narcissistic parenting figures (Gootnick, 1997). Miller reports that most of her patients’ parents were likely to have narcissistic disturbances, they were extremely insecure and often suffered from depression. “The child, an only one or often the first-born, was the narcissistically cathected object. What these mothers had once failed to find in their own mothers they were able to find in their children: someone at their disposal who can be used as an echo, who can be controlled, is completely centred on them, will never desert them, and offers full attention and admiration” (Miller, 1979, p. 35).
More recently Rappoport (2005) brings this concept even further and reports that every narcissistic and co-narcissistic client that he has encountered has had narcissistic parents:
A high proportion of people in psychotherapy have adapted to life with narcissistic people and, as a result, have not been able to develop healthy means of self-expression and self-directedness. … Commonly, one parent was primarily narcissistic and the other parent primarily co-narcissistic, and so both orientations have been modelled for the child. … Those who are primarily co-narcissistic may behave narcissistically when their self-esteem is threatened, or when their partners take the co-narcissistic role; people who primarily behave narcissistically may act co-narcissistically when they fear being held responsible and punished for another’s experience. (pp. 1–2)
This last observation is one more reason to consider narcissistic disturbances (with other psychopathic manifestations) as a cross-phenomenon, non-individual in nature.
The good, the beautiful, the true … and the powerful
Much has been written about companies, leadership, human resources, governance, and management, but the conceptual insights thus gained have not made it to the family as organisation: whoever researches “Power games within the family” will have a hard time finding anything at all. To date, no one has questioned the nuclear family model in relation to mental illness, all the more so because the birth of psychoanalysis coincides with the beginning of industrialisation and of the migration from country villages to urban metropolis.
Truth and power are two incompatible psychological principles, whose interplay shapes the personality when facing abuse and mistreatment in the family. Some individuals devote their lives to power at the expense of their own inner truth. Those who venture into the realm of truth have to face the invalidating gaze of others and are constantly challenged in their adult lives at the expense of their status: those who embark along this road face an increasing isolation.
The presence (or lack) of a helping witness can make a world of difference in the life of a child, particularly for a child who might not have been lucky enough to be raised by a mother available to be cathected narcissistically, to be a function of the child’s narcissistic development. “A healthy development is still possible, if she only refrains from preventing the child from acquiring what the mother lacks from other people. Various investigations have shown the incredible ability that a healthy child displays in making use of the smallest affective ‘nourishment’ (stimulation) to be found in his surroundings” (Miller, 1979, p. 32).
How on earth is any nuclear family supposed to provide this? And when did nuclear families become the norm? Recent studies indicate that the nuclear conception of the family is inadequate, misleading, and extremely pernicious when relied on for an understanding of the dynamics of family functioning or as a guide for therapeutic intervention. The nuclear family has systematic issues in the areas of intimate partner conflict, problematic behaviours or concerns in one partner, emotional distance, and impaired functionality in children (Bowen, 1978). Anxiety may lead to fights, arguments, criticism, under- or over-performance of responsibilities, and/or distancing behaviour. Besides, it is common for children to become triangulated within their parents’ relationship (Wang & Crane, 2001). Yet clinical practitioners and psychological theorists play a notable role in fostering the nuclear myth by assuming that there is no viable model other than that (Uzoka, 1979).
A small family of two, three, or four people offers little in terms of human resources to a child. It is easy to become singled out, harassed, alienated, or otherwise neglected. Psychosis kicks in much more easily in an environment where a single individual finds himself isolated, with no ally, no witness, none to turn to when everybody else teams up. In poor environments, a nuclear family is even more at risk, because the lack of variety within cannot be easily compensated by external system figures, not without costs. Even sexual drives get thwarted and may find it difficult to be directed outward in particular circumstances. The well-known dynamics occurring between parents and children in puberty can be explained in these terms.
Wilhelm Reich observed that the Oedipus complex itself is only conceivable in a society based on the nuclear model of a family and marriage, implying the ownership of women, whereas societies that have neither our sexual repression nor adultery are not compatible with the Oedipus complex. This is why the Oedipus complex is so inadequate: it is culture-specific.
The gap between the biological and the psychosocial maturation of the human offspring, as well as his or her long-lasting cultural dependency (in “developed” civilisations), are key factors to guarantee the maximum evolutionary development, but they also provide the context in which adults can impose their dominion, often insensitive to children’s needs. This amounts to perverting their child-rearing functions to their own advantage, something which then gets reinforced by bending family history with biased and self-serving narratives, and by controlling relationships, institutions, and political choices.
The unnamed enemy
The birth of a child can be unsettling and threatening for a parent, because it upsets a pre-established order on all levels: familial, institutional, and cultural. This leads to a defensive attitude, generated by the fear that the emerging generation will make claims and undermine the power, identity, and social control already acquired by the members of the adult generation. This fear is as intense as the adults’ projections onto the members of the new generations of their fantasies and drives: competition, hatred, and desire of sexual appropriation. Such fantasies are often bound to become a reality: the truth of myth and fairy tales, seen from the angle of Freudian interpretations, is there to confirm this. It is Laius who first wants to get rid of Oedipus, because he fears he could be ousted by him; it is the stepmother who wants to get rid of Snow White, as she is envious of her beauty and her ever-growing competence and charm (Ghiano, 1996).
Sàndor Ferenczi was one of the few who clearly highlighted the catastrophic effects of adults lacking identification with childhood in their educational and relational interventions. In his lectures on educational aims, Ferenczi recalls that in 1908 professor Czerny, a paediatrician, complained to parents about their inadequacy in the upbringing of their children, and identified the cause in their not remembering, or misremembering, their own childhood. Ferenczi goes on to say that humankind is in pain due to exaggerated repression, and that could be done away with by means of a mass clarification: a sort of inner revolution would be needed. In his opinion, that would be the first revolution to really benefit humankind (Ferenczi, 2006).
Ethnocentrism, eurocentrism, anthropocentrism, etc. are all categories of committed cultural militancy, elaborated within diverse discourses, all with a common denominator: a strong critique of forms of totalising domination that impose unfavourable life conditions on the dominated, and manipulate the relevant forms of knowledge and the very representation of reality, by warping and centring them on the dominator’s interests. The condition of children as regards the adult world has similar characteristics and the neologism “adultocentrism” has already appeared in political discourse.
Adultocentrism is a way of seeing and operating that expresses a failure in the growth of an adult, in that it reveals some kind of repression and splitting from her childhood; it signals the inability to dialogue with her own past, to acknowledge it, and to integrate it into the present dimension. Adultocentrism is the position of an unfinished adult, which was once an unfinished child, and who later truncated the vital roots of the pleasant and unpleasant experiences in her childhood (Associazione Rompere il Silenzio, 2004).
Violence on the child is often accompanied by a heavy use of rationalisations that justify or deny it and by a weak activation of sensitivity. Adultocentrism brings the limits of conceptualisation of subjective experience to the extreme; such limits, which are related to the acquisition of language on one hand, and the biology of the infant on the other, bring the conflict between symbolisation and experience to a breaking point (Stern, 1985).
There is a deep link between an adult’s domination of children and other forms of political and social domination: they all require a split between rationality on one hand and emotions on the other, that is, the ability to empathise with the Other. According to Eagle (2010) technology has made possible a kind of mass destruction that requires and implies an affectivity, indifference, and a kind of rationality that is completely disconnected from the acknowledgement of other human beings. This has led us to an endless loop and a form of madness.
Adultocentrism worsens the break between adult language and rationality on one side, and sensorial experience and emotions on the other. The former is privileged in order to fulfil the defensive need to control and suppress the affective dimension, in which all sorts of painful experiences have accumulated: suffering, powerlessness, frustration, etc. Consequently, a commitment against adultocentrism on many levels (prevention, training, etc.) can only be aimed at reinstating interest in affect and emotions, as opposed to adultocentric contempt and suppression towards a balance between adult competencies and children’s needs (Foti & Foti, 1995).
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That’s right: Horkheimer, M., Fromm, E. and Marcuse, H., 1936. Studien über Autorität und Familie [Studies on authority and family]. Paris: Felix Alcan.
A Deeper Cut: Further Explorations of the Unconscious in Social and Political Life, a cura di David Morgan, Ed. Phoenix Publishing House, 2021 – collana Political Mind Series