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The Mother of Mommy Guilt Leaves Mixed Legacy

Psychoanalyst and author Alice Miller has died, leaving behind a world changed by her work. Our awareness of child abuse and our constant mommy guilt have both been shaped by her ideas.

Miller’s first book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” was published in 1981, the year I started preschool. In it, she put forth the dramatic thesis that all children are irrevocably scarred by their parents, and spend their lives working through the damage done in early childhood.

Awesome. Thanks, Dr. Miller. I guess I have you to thank for the moments when I feel like a worthless failure for forgetting to pack spare socks in my diaper bag. Clearly, mother-blaming is as old as Eve. But Dr. Miller seems to have defined it for the psychology experts, parents and teachers who raised me and my peers. Her first book sold over a million copies, and powerfully influenced her professional colleagues.

In later books, Miller argued that the great villains of history and the serial killers who haunt our nightmares are acting out their childhood traumas. I’ve read one of her books, in which she closely analyzes the cruelty and neglect Hitler suffered as a child. It’s powerful, frightening stuff.

Miller, a German doctor, was crusading against what she describes as “poisonous pedagogy” a tradition of German parenting heavy on rules, physical discipline and authoritarian control over one’s children. Pretty much the antithesis of how most of us parent our kids today.

Her work is credited with raising social awareness of the prevalence and dangers of child abuse, and rightly so. She’s also been critiqued for placing too much of the blame for adult problems on the actions of their parents.

This idea is so steeped in our culture now that when my friend’s teenage daughter has an issue with her mom, she shouts, “Therapy Jar!” I like to joke, when I know I’ve screwed something up with my kids, that I’m helping them out because they’ll need something to talk about with their therapists later in life.

But is every problem really Mom’s fault?

Photo: Julia Miller

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