INTERVIEW: Martin Miller
Martin Miller Talks About His Mother, Alice Miller
Interviewer Uta Blohm
Martin Miller is the son of Alice Miller and is also a psychotherapist; he was born in and still lives in Zürich. He has written a biography of his mother’s life, – The True ‘Drama of the Gifted Child.’ (2013) – which so far has only been published in German. To make some of the content accessible to the English-speaking world, we have interviewed the author. The following is an abridged version of the translated interview.
Q: Thank you very much for the interview. You published the book about your mother in 2013. Can you say something about what made you want to write the book?
MM: When Das Drama des begabten Kindes (The Drama of Being a Child) was published, I was approached by many readers who idealised this person, Alice Miller. Everybody kept saying, “She must have been such an empathic, great mother. You must have had a wonderful childhood.” At the time I was incapable of putting the reality right. I was really shocked at how the world out there perceived my mother through this book but also by how my mother presented herself as a person I had never seen. I quite painfully for the first time became aware of the spilt in my mother – that she presents a person in public who does not exist in reality. My book reflects a need to leave the underground, to come out of the shadow where I have always lived and show who I am. And so it makes sense that I want to ask quite clearly, not just to the readers but also for myself, “Who is Alice Miller really?” and also, according to Alice Miller, I am entitled to show my perspective. That is one of the most important reasons – I wanted to put something right.
The second reason I wrote the book is to create justice through giving myself permission to say what has been done to me. That means that, although to the outside world it looks as if we had been a great family, I wished to stop the lie, to dismantle the false image.
A third point is that I want to show how the trauma of war affects people. I would like to show how the children of parents who have survived a war suffer trauma. Most importantly I would like to show how destructive people who survive a trauma that they have not dealt with, can be. This is also a message to the public currently as we are being confronted in Europe with many traumatised refugees. We need to be aware what we are getting ourselves into because these people need more than just support and integration. We have to be psychologically aware and answer the question of how to deal with possible forms of violence even when we want to give people refuge.
I am dealing a lot with Germany and I can see how, over the generations, a lot of destruction, rage, despair, sadness, grief and pain is still being passed on. These projections, when children are forced to live out their parents’ identity, is my experience too; I wanted show what that means. The other aim of the book is to show that it is possible to work this through in therapy and to leave the past behind.
Q: Can you say a bit more about what you mean by ‘identity of the victim’?
MM: What I have experienced, and also seen as a therapist, is that victims split off their experience of being a victim and identify with the perpetrators instead.
My father continued his hatred of Jews with me. My mother continued her experience of oppression with my father. She saw me as a Nazi perpetrator but in fact it was my father who had persecuted her. To my father I was the Jew he had persecuted during the war, who he betrayed and who he hated very deeply, with his blood. Whatever I did, I was confronted with an identity that was not mine. It was forced upon me. I was born in a situation of war and was kept a prisoner there. So, for me as Martin Miller, my only chance of survival was in hiding; like my mother I lived in hiding and for me the book is about leaving a life in hiding to live as Martin Miller without fear.
Q: You have already hinted at a few facts of your mother’s biography. In order to understand these a bit better, can you say a bit more about your mother’s biography?
MM: My mother was born into an orthodox Jewish family. Her grandfather, the head of the family, was a successful businessman and a rabbi. Her father was orthodox as well but professionally not very successful […] Her father, her mother, her sister, my mother and the grandparents were deported into the ghetto of Piotkov […some were shot…] The grandfather, Abraham Englarde, I found out about at Yad Vashem [the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem]; he was soon transported to Treblinka and was gassed. My mother went immediately into the underground of the ghetto, organised a false passport for herself and left the ghetto. She went to Warsaw and […] survived in the Aryan part of town. She had to leave her father behind; as an orthodox Jew he stood no chance of survival outside the ghetto. He could only speak Yiddish and no Polish so they would have shot him immediately. She had to leave him behind and he died soon of ill health.
My mother looked Polish and she could speak Polish; she was very integrated into Polish society but she was caught by one of the Gestapo when trying to find a flat. She was then, until the end of the war when she fled into the Russian part of town with her sister, oppressed by this man. For the most part, she never really mentioned the war, that was something completely kept secret, but she said this man’s name was identical with my father’s name, Andreas Miller. Of course, I did not react, initially. I was shocked. I never asked. Only now, through the research for the book and reflection afterwards, have I realised that my father was indeed this man Andreas Miller. That’s how I could reconstruct my mother’s survival, based on my childhood experience and my experiences later on in life with my mother. My mother cooperated with this man as if she was a Kapo. My father was a Gestapo oppressor of my mother; he reported Jews. My mother remained with him as a couple in order to survive. She cooperated and observed. And I can reconstruct this.
When my father attacked me in his anti-semitic hatred because I was a Jew, I became the Jew who my father could persecute. He almost hit me to death, humiliated me all my life with brutality and violence and my mother was a bystander. She was silent; she was never on my side. And so it was particularly awful for me that my mother publically denounced violence and brutality against children. I accused her often: “Why did you never save me from this asshole?” It was the same way she never saved Jews during the war. She kept quiet and observed. So I was born into a Nazi Holocaust situation. The secret, so I would not understand what was really going on, was that my parents spoke Polish with each other and I never learned Polish. I was not allowed to learn that. So, I never understood when my parents spoke to each other. I was always excluded. I learned neither Jewish nor Polish culture, only my artificial Swiss culture. I was the foreigner in my own family. Of course, I did not understand the real reason. They told me they found immigration to Switzerland difficult but the real reason was different.
My father was cruel to me to the end of his life. He treated me with a degree of disgust. I have to say when people ask me about my Jewish identity that I have no Jewish culture. When people wish me well at Rosh Hashanah [Jewish New Year] I am wondering what that is all about. When I see that Jews are being persecuted, killed in France, it affects me personally. Because along with this anti-semitism, we also had in Switzerland the whole issue of gold and I felt frightened for the first time, felt persecuted as a Jew. Except when Jews celebrate, when there is a Jewish festival, Jewish culture is alien to me. Even though when I talked to my cousin Irenka during the research and I realised for the first time I have a Jewish culture, but the culture was completely destroyed during the war.
It does make me sad to think about what was destroyed through the Nazis. But today I read the new novel Melnitz (2015) by Charles Lewinsky, a wonderful book. He described Jewish culture in Switzerland over several generations. That touched me deeply. For the first time in my life I felt somewhat Jewish. For the first time in my life I felt an emotional connection with a Jewish way of life. How do they live? How do they function? I felt quite related. But becoming Jewish or living religiously, that’s not possible. You have to grow up with that. That is a deficit I don’t have to put right at my age. But it is important to be aware of that.
I know that I have learned to survive, like my mother did. What is terrible is how my parents have tried to hide the truth from me with any device at their disposal. To me this whole experience which I have had, finding out the truth, the concrete work on my own biography for myself, the kind of relief this offers me, even though it is sad and it hurts. The experience confirms my work as a psychotherapist, the experience I have over thirty-five years. It confirms how important it is to do this kind of work. It gives you orientation, you know who you are, where you stand. It means answering thousands of questions that we have always been carrying in ourselves. It had a huge an impact on me and I would like to pass that on as a therapist or in my lecturing or being interviewed. That’s the main message – do not be afraid to understand your own biography, the truth, more of the truth. This was very, very precious.
Q: But you got to truth through your own research not through your therapy?
MM: I have tried therapy fourteen times during the last forty years. These fourteen attempts failed because no therapist had the courage to be on my side. I felt my mother’s long arm. You know my mother as an important and influential personality for decades in the therapy scene. They were all afraid that she might find out that they were the son’s therapists and on his side – they all feared for their existence. They were afraid that my mother might persecute them, might shame them publically and so forth, they might be taken to court.
Q: Are you referring to the scene of therapists in Switzerland, in Germany?
MM: I was in Germany, I was in Switzerland, everywhere. My mother also threatened me with her power as a public person and through her influence in the media. [But for her] I never would have tried this Stettbacher therapy, I was against it at the beginning. I did not want to go. I was against it.
Q: Can you explain who you are referring to?
MM: […] If you know my mother’s books, in her first two books she never uses the term ‘trauma’. At the point I started working as a therapist I was doing a training with Jan Bastiaans, someone I had met independently of my mother. He was the first trauma therapist worldwide. I worked with him because he treated concentration-camp victims, sometimes using LSD. And I talked to my mother. I was deeply sensitized through the work I did as to how people with a trauma behave. So, I told her […] how through work on one’s own biography we can trace, reconstruct, the childhood trauma, how parents treated the child. I told my mother and immediately I was robbed. It was over thirty years ago and I did not notice it then. At the time my mother did not work as a therapist although she had experience of working therapeutically. I had that experience. I told her how I was currently working. She took this and described it in great detail in the book Du sollst nicht merken [Thou Shalt Not Remember, 1998] as an idea of her own. She never said who she got this from. She never acknowledged this to me or encouraged me to publish the idea as my discovery. She took it as her idea and then we started fighting because I had chosen a path of my own.
Whilst we were fighting my mother met this Stettbacher and became close to him and suddenly I found myself in a similar constellation to the one I had been in with my father. So, my mother was afraid I might find out what had really happened. You know this mechanism that when you rob someone, you need to give that person the feeling that he does not notice that he was robbed? So, I was made from a victim to a perpetrator. I became suddenly an uneducated therapist, who had no idea, who had to go to therapy; she questioned: “how can you work like this without training?” And so on and so forth. That’s how it started.
Suddenly I got a letter from this Stettbacher in 1983. He informed me that my mother had reserved a space with him on my behalf. “So”, I said, “you did not inform me. At least I would have needed to express a need.” Then my mother flipped, “Now finally I can do something loving and kind for you, and I know you were traumatised in your early childhood and now I can help you and make amends.” And I said, “No, I don’t want this.” And I spoke to this Stettbacher on the phone. And I said to my mother, “No, I am not going into treatment with him, he is an imposter.” Then the fight started. My mother accused me of being an imposter. She refused contact with me.
In 1995 I found out that in fact Stettbacher used to be a tradesman for lamps. He was a criminal. My mother supported him, she even worked as a ghost writer for him. He was unable to write. He published a book about meaning in suffering. I know for sure that my mother wrote that in his name. My mother is very good at that. Just imagine the situation. He worked against me. And then 1995 I was divorced, I was at the bottom of the pitch. And then my mother said, “You see, you are in such a bad state because you refused this therapy.” And I said, “I still don’t want to do interviews.” Then my mother said, “If you still refuse to do this therapy I will publically denounce you, through interviews in the paper, so you can’t work anymore. You are an imposter.” She blackmailed me. I had to stop working for a while, at least officially. I could only work underground and secretly as I had to earn money. I lived constantly in fear.
And on top of that I had a therapist, a student of Stettbacher. She recorded the sessions. I listened to them as well but I was not aware she made two copies. Everyday after a session she sent the sessions to Stettbacher. Stettbacher listened to the tapes and sent them on to my mother. My mother listened to them as well. That’s how they controlled me. I understood that when my mother asked me, “What about this woman? You have a girlfriend. What do you think you are doing?” Just imagine I was already over forty. It was like joining a cult. They wanted to destroy me. I said to my mother, “How do you know. I never told you. How come you have data from my therapy sessions? How come you know?” That’s how I found out. So, they really started attacking me and I was trapped. Only in 1995 was I able to break free. So, I started attacking my mother. And so Stettbacher was ruined.
But of course although I did denounce my mother, I asked her to make amends. I almost killed myself. You must pay or repair the damage. I felt like the victim of a cult. I can today understand every victim of a cult. The shame. It takes years to deal with the trauma. That is so brutal. So, hearing from Eastern Germany how people were betrayed, how people were spied on, I am feeling for them. My mother broke with me all the rules you must adhere to as therapist. I almost killed myself. And I am saying today if my mother had not passed onto me the knowledge of how you deal with this kind thing, I would not have survived. So on the one hand she almost killed me but on the other hand thanks to her understanding, her theories, she saved my life. So, I was stronger and I used her knowledge. My mother refused to get engaged in any kind of discussion. She never really apologised. She never understood the mistake. She lied to me when she said to me, “I am sorry.” Later on I learned through other people that my mother bad-mouthed me fifteen years after the incident with Stettbacher.
Q: With other people?
MM: With everybody.
Q: With everybody?
MM: With everybody […] they tried to destroy for me for being neurotic. That is the story with Stettbacher and I think it is an enactment, a repetition of what I had experienced at home. And Stettbacher was no different to my father who was an anti-semite, but out of fear of being found out took all the means at his disposal to attack me and to turn my mother against me. He was successful.
Q: You said that nevertheless your mother’s theory helped you. Can you say more about that?
MM: I have of course read these books very attentively, her first books. And I understood them. And it is interesting that my mother advised everybody until she died on how to deal with their parents, to attack them, except her own son. She forbade him to use this knowledge. I felt like Eve under the tree, the devil gave me the apple of understanding. Do you know what I mean? I did bite into this apple. Thank God. The book for me is the apple of knowledge, metaphorically like Goethe’s Mephisto; it gave me the knowledge so I could uncover all this shit. Being confronted with reality is like being evicted from, thrown out of paradise. I have to say to you I do not regret being thrown out. Do you understand, this knowledge? I have confronted my mother with the knowledge. And the book is a continuation. Actually this book, it is not revenge. I always say that in this book I am applying my mother’s theory. That’s why it involved climbing over a wall of silence. There was a prohibition on her own son from applying his mother’s theory. That’s why this book involved unburdening myself and finding freedom. Now I am like any other human being who is allowed to want what he wants and talk about what he wants.
MM: Exactly. That way I have a clear conscience when claiming my mother’s intellectual heritage. I can receive that, because I know what these ideas mean. And for many readers when I say that, they find it confusing because they can’t deal with this kind of perspective – “So you are not taking revenge, but what now? Have you forgiven her? What are you taking about?” They are missing the point. The point is to look at one’s story, how one has experienced it, to deal with that kind of reality. To look, to have the courage to look. That is not about revenge. It is about beginning to understand things which used to be forbidden, which were impossible to understand. And I have. Of course I am angry with my parents. It does hurt. I am sulky. I am feeling offended. I don’t know what. I am feeling hurt because I have been treated in this way because I gave no reason ever in my life to be treated like that.
Q: Of course not.
MM: I always loved my parents. When you listen to how I talk, I am not aggressive, full of rage but am someone who is involved and I think the more I have dealt with this I am actually gaining a liberating emotional distance. Since I noticed how my mother stole my knowledge, I am using my knowledge consciously and my work has never been better. I no longer have a bad conscience, I am no longer afraid of being bad-mouthed. I know what I can do. I know what I have developed and I can see how successful that is.
Q: You have talked in your book about how what matters is to deal with one’s parents internally. It is not so much about attacking the parents.
MM: Exactly. So, I don’t think what brings you forward is to attack your parents, because the parents will reject that or not understand. At the end of the day I have to structure my internal world so I can live in the present independently of my parents. That is more important than ever. I must be able to act independently in my world. So, I don’t need to internalise dependency, clearly not. It means one has to become independent of one’s parents. When we begin to understand how even as adults we are still entangled in childish dependencies then one begins to understand we are not really people of a free will. When I act like a small child and project my shitty parent-child relationship onto other people one can imagine the consequences, I mean one can observe all around what happens then.
Q: Re-enactment happens.
MM: Of course.
Q: You talk about how your mother in her life re-enacted her experience during the war.
MM: I would say she did not only repeat these experiences, she continued them.
I came to represent all the Jews they betrayed together, I became that Jew in my family. I know I grew up in a Jewish family but in a constellation which was one of the most horrible experiences for the Jewish people. They were almost made extinct. I can also see that when dealing with Jews. When I am speaking about this so openly, about what happens when survivors of the Holocaust treat their children very destructively, how I experienced that, you are breaking a taboo, it is forbidden, this is not being talked about.
Q: It is too hard.
MM: […] I think someone will be found who decides dosh is more important than religion.
Q: Have you considered publishing the book in the UK?
MM: Yes, I mean when there is an English version, being published in England it will probably be sold in the US as well when the publisher is interested. They have to contact Herder publishing house if they are interested.
Q: Only one last question to clarify something. We have covered what I had wanted to ask. What you mentioned […]
MM: I tried to hide my mother’s death from the public. I wanted to wait for a week. Then I learned from my mother’s friend that she had been going to be interviewed by Der Spiegel, 16th April. My mother died on the 14th. So […] I called and said my mother had died. They were shocked. “Oh dear, for heaven’s sake, what shall we do?” They wanted to do a Spiegel interview. So I said I can do that.
Q: I see.
MM: I said, “I would have called you anyway.” “Yes, can you do that?” “Of course. I am sixty years old, have been working as a therapist for thirty years. I have collaborated on various books. I am absolutely competent.” “OK. The Speigel people will contact you” but they were very sceptical. They came into my practice and after fifteen minutes they were very openly saying it had been a long time since they did such a good interview. So I understood. What did my mother tell them? Most likely so much bullshit that I appeared like an idiot. That was the first time I noticed that things must have been talked about behind my back which are entirely not true.
Q: Another question of clarification. You are saying your mother has never worked as a therapist.
MM: No, my mother had until 1979 worked as a psychoanalyst. What does that mean? She had in these twenty-five years, five patients. Can you imagine how successful that was? Other than that she did supervision. I think the supervision was pretty useless. People who had supervision with her turned into the most awful analysts of Zürich.
Q: In what way? I think maybe this is a bit far out.
MM: Rigid. Have you heard of Lacan?
Q: Yes but only…
MM: So, Lacanians…Hardcore versions of psychoanalysis. Nothing worse. No Winnicott, no Bowlby, no Kohut, no nothing in their world. You probably have read a couple of pages of Lacan
Q: Well, it is not very accessible.
MM: Then you know. When you can bear more than two pages of what he has written, OK, then you really need therapy. You see, that’s really laughable […]
[Someone once told me] what it was like in supervision with my mother? “I have so benefited, your mother was so creative. It was wonderful.” “What was so great?” You see. They don’t understand what it is about. “Well I only half-finished my sentence and your mother already started.” “What does that mean?” “Your mother started phantasizing, and what she was able to see, that was great and so liberating.” “Did she talk about the case?” “No, this and the biography.” My mother turned it into a narcissistic event [when] you give her something – and I have experienced that myself. […] So there are two options. I can become bitter or I can deal with this so I am not bitter. Because when I am full of hate and am bitter I am taking my life away. But when I can talk to you I am feeling alive I know what I am talking about. Then I know who I am. And I have inside myself the strength to deal with reality and I know I can live my life today the way I want it. That’s OK. That is my main message I would like to pass on. One can, when you are dealing with it, leave such a terrible imprisonment. You know the American title of my mother’s first book is becoming more and more meaningful, The Prison of Childhood.
Q: Prison of childhood?
MM: She did not like this title at all. But she was extremely successful with that title in the US. She was offended by the title.
Q: But I am wondering. Your childhood was a prison.
MM: How she imprisoned me. There was a reason why she was angry about this title, it hit her in the mark, the heart.
Q: I am always wondering. Was her childhood that difficult? That is probably impossible to answer.
MM: Whose childhood?
Q: Alice Miller’s
MM: Her childhood was very, very difficult, what she managed to do and that she experienced orthodox Judaism as threatening and narrow. And she as a girl developed her own identity. She was able to set a boundary but during the war she had to deny that identity. That is her trauma. I never saw my mother as Jewish.
Q: Did she see herself as Jewish?
MM: But her trauma was during the war, just because she was Jewish she had to give up something she had worked for during her childhood. If this war had not happened I would have grown up in a very different relationship. My mother certainly would have supported my rebellion. She would not have married a Nazi. She could not act differently. The man followed her. Her oppressor developed loving feelings for her and did not let her go. She never got rid of him. She always accused me, saying, “You did not deal with your father. You are like your father.” She saw my father, the Nazi, in me. So for the last fifteen years I became a typical real Nazi. Or she was, when working with Stettbacher, the Kapo of a Nazi. At home my father was the Nazi and I was the Jew.
So, I had all these experiences. You know, I think it is a wonder that I neither became a masochist who lets others torture him, nor a Nazi, a mass murderer who must torture people. The book really is the end of a very long process, I would say today, not the beginning. Where I am presenting myself as Martin Miller who is neither a Nazi nor a persecuted Jew. The book is a description of a development of how I got rid of these allocated roles. You notice Martin Miller writes the book and not a Nazi or a persecuted Jew. Really, I am proud that I managed to do that. What I wanted to say is it is not just dealing with it. It is being able to get rid of imposed roles, which are not my true self. Here we are coming back to Alice Miller’s theory. So, the false self is understood as the colonisation of the true self. I got rid of the colonial occupiers.
Q: That you managed to deal with that. This was a very long interview. Thank you.
Uta Blohm is an integrative psychotherapist; she graduated from The MInster Centre and now lives and works in Hannover.
Lewinsky, C (2015) Melnitz London: Atlantic Books
Miller, A (1979) The Drama of Being A Child: The Search for the True Self Londion: Viking Press
Miller, M (2013) The True ‘Drama of the Gifted Child.’ The Tragedy of Alice Miller — How Repressed War Traumas Impact Families currently only available in German: “Das wahre ,Drama des begabten Kindes’. Die Tragödie Alice Millers – wie verdrängte Kriegstraumata in der Familie wirken Freiburg: Kreuz-Verlag