A few years ago the therapist I had gone to see durnig a particularly harrowing period of my life recommended I buy a copy of Alice Miller's "The Drama of the Gifted Child" since she was certain that it would speak to the particular challenges I faced. "Wow," I thought, feeling flattered, "here's one intuitive lady. She can tell right off I'm a 'gifted' individual, one of the special ones." I headed to the nearest bookstore directly after the session and bought a copy and read half of it on the bus before I even got home.
No insult, no rejection, no critical barb that I'd ever experienced so quickly, nor so thoroughly deflated my ego--nor, as it turned out, so permanently.
I think I had some notion that the book was going to confirm my lifelong notion that I was some sort of exceptional creature of starlight that my dimwitted and immature parents, so ill-suited for parenting, had all but managed to snuff out with their psychological buffooneries. Oh, they had crushed me alright, or nearly so, twisted me, stifled me to the point where I am practically beyond normal human functioning, but the culture wasn't thereby losing any luminous polestar of immortal significance. Ha! I was just a normal, abused little girl. There was nothing special about me except my terrible and unrelenting need to be special. If you took any ten people, the only difference between me and the other nine was that I thought there was a difference. I had to be different; I had to be special in order to win my parent's love; in order to justify to myself their ill-treatment of me, I had to be the disguised prince, the Cinderella mistreated like a dirty scullery maid.
That was my drama: the drama of the "gifted" child.
Unlike me, and yet, at the same time, also like me, the artists, poets, philosophers, and dictators that Alice Miller treats in her book "The Untouched Key" did become world-renowned, did achieve a cultural immortality for their achievemens, whether for good or evil--and they were also all abused as children.
Ordinarily I wouldnt subscribe to this sort of psychological reductivism, the kind that traces an artist's or philosopher's ouvre backwards to the beatings he used to get as a six-year-old or his mother's pathological coldness or whatever. But Miller's argument is not only compelling it also acknowledges that the work of the adult artist is by no means invalidated because their worldview can be traced to their mistreatment as a child. The world can be understood just as Nietzsche understood it; indeed, the fact that Nietzsche's philosophy speaks to so many, seems so dead-on accurate, is because the world--full of grown-up abused children as it is--really does operate along lines of power and submission, of the strong and the weak.
Somewhat more controversial, however, is Miller's claim that the wellsprings of so much human creativity up to this point in history are almost exclusively to be found in childhood trauma. Art and history are, in a sense, a record of child abuse!
This seems a pretty preposterous proposition until you pause, take a good look at the world, and ask yourself if there is another more plausible explanation for the universal trainwreck that is humanity's lot, and always has been humanity's lot...and will continue being our lot for whatever future we still have as a species. What, after all, Miller argues, is the single most important common experience every human being everywhere shares? A childhood is her answer. We come out of the womb naked and innocent, knowing neither hatred nor cruelty...so how could things possibly have gotten to the point they have? Where do things go off the rails? To Miller it seems obvious. It's the way we're raised...by and large by parents who were also traumatized as children, and so it goes, and will continue going.
Among others, Miller turns her attention to Picasso, Stalin, Celan, Soutine, but it's Nietzsche to whom she devotes most of her book--and a good deal of the space she devotes to him is taken up with extensive excerpts from his work meant to illustrate the effect his awful childhood had on him--an effect, she asserts, eventually drove him insane.
Miller does not deny that a Picasso or a Nietzsche were indeed special; she doesn't deny that special people do exist, or that they don't possess aptitudes beyond the ordinary; they do. But she wonders what they might have been able to produce if they had been able to use their magnificent talents unencumbered by their unhappy pasts, if they hadn't been reflecting back to the world the story of their personal abuse which is also, in microcosm, the history of humanity's abuse towards its children, an abuse so many of endured at the hands of those who had the most influence in forming our view of the world and how to survive in it.