Paths of Life by Alice Miller, 1998, Pantheon Books, New York, $25.00, pp. 188

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

The excellent introduction to Dr. Miller's latest book may be read at:

The bulk of Dr. Miller's eight book consists of short, fictitious, biographical stories of how our early painful experiences with our parents molded our future adjustments, especially love relationships in adulthood. Her thesis is that parents cannot give, or can only give with great difficulty, loving care to their children which they themselves did not experience in their own childhood.

The remaining twenty-five percent of her book comprises the last two chapters. One chapter, "What Is Hatred?" stresses the serious consequences of childhood physical abuse and how it is related to the rise of dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Miller believes that child raising techniques in Germany have changed and thus the outlook for continuing democracy is hopeful. She is not so optimistic for the future of democracy in the former Soviet Union.

The other chapter is entitled "Gurus and Cult Leaders" and discusses how cults with their power-seeking gurus operate by fulfilling the unconscious motivations of both their own and their victim's infantile and childhood repressed feelings. This chapter contains two pages about primal therapy in which Dr. Miller's shares with readers her concerns about primal therapy. I will focus the remainder of the review on the issues which she discussed on those two pages.

A number of years ago Alice Miller experienced primal therapy first-hand. The experience was a great disappointment to her and made her hesitant to recommend any form of regressive psychotherapy. In her Communication To My Readers, the author states that she no longer supports J. Konrad Stettbacher's form of primal therapy. In her Communication she also criticizes therapist-directed regressive therapy as she said it had an innate susceptibility to be abused by inadequately trained, guru-type individuals, or by grossly neurotic therapists.

In Paths of Life Miller feels that because of extreme dependency needs, primal therapy can place the patient in a position of being easily manipulated and controlled. It is true that primal therapy can place some patients in such a position, but this is much more typical of other psychotherapies than primal therapy. If the patient in primal therapy is feeling his pain as it comes up, he would not allow his therapist to manipulate and control him. In primal therapy the patient helps to keep the therapist straight.

Miller writes that Freud, and later, Arthur Janov, at first believed that the abreactive therapy they were using was being successful. However, time has shown that both were wrong. Dr. Stanislav Grof in Beyond the Brain has written that Freud failed in using cathartic type therapy because the regressions did not go deep enough as they were kept on a simple abreactive level. It is also possible that sometimes better results are not attained in the regressive therapies because of the large amount of trauma and the early age of the victim when the trauma occurred. Resolving such early and severe trauma can take decades or even a lifetime of primaling.

If Freud's early patients were indeed having "full" regressions I do not believe he would have abandoned his new therapy modality to develop psychoanalysis. Even patients with severe neuroses can and do have remarkable relief from symptoms early in primal therapy even though they realize and invariably say that they "have a long way to go."

From the very beginnings of my primal regressions I knew that the depths of my feelings greatly surpassed any so called deep feelings I had had in gestalt therapy and transactional analysis. Many of my symptoms fell away and never returned after only a few months of primaling.

Dr. Miller writes that

". . . extreme caution is called for in the face of "complete cure" via regression. Frequently, impressive-sounding theories are paraded, which despite their scientific facade, have absolutely nothing to do with science. They ride roughshod over existing facts and make pronouncements that either are pure fabrication or are derived from the theories they are supposed to be substantiating."

"Feeling one's pain in primals can become an addiction," she believes. It takes more than re-living early traumas, Miller writes. She feels that what is needed is working through those early pains in a "reliable, trustworthy relationship."

Furthermore, she believes that if early trauma has caused permanent damage to one's brain anatomy then success will be impossible to achieve. If the damage is permanent obviously a successful outcome cannot be realized. She writes that primal therapy is not now being practiced as it was originally formulated by Dr Arthur Janov. There is now less of an emphasis on the authoritarian approach to therapy with its "intensive phase" and its emphasis on the use of "darkened rooms."

Janov has conceded that the techniques of primal therapy have changed a lot. The "hard bust" has been relegated to the dust bin. Most probably there are therapists who are still practicing the early model of the therapy they received.

But, all is not hopeless since Miller writes:

"Perhaps we can look forward to a time when primal therapy will also become more receptive than it has been in the past. The positive aspects of this approach might be salvaged once its advocates are prepared to acknowledge the negative effects it can have. . ."
[See my article, The Disappointments of Primal Therapy.The Editor]

"But the uncritical adherence to the alleged infallibility of the once established methods and blaming the patients when things go wrong will relegate the whole approach into the same category as cult leaders' empty promises of salvation."

Thus, in Paths of Life, Dr. Miller's presents a more restrained and one might say, optimistic, yet cautious position, than she did in her April, 1995 interview with Dr. Gerhard Tuschy in the German Psychologie Heute magazine. In that interview she seemed to condemn primal therapy to a greater degree than in her most recent book.

In the magazine interview she described her therapy predicament during when her therapist obviously brought up more repressed memories in her than could possibly be integrated during the session. This resulted in a serious overload of pain which she felt as unconnected panic attacks and depression and undoubtedly contributed to her negative feelings towards primal therapy.

It would have been fascinating to read what Alice Miller might have written in her inimitable and persuasively passionate style, if her primal therapy experiences had been less harsh and yet productive.

Alice Miller is now in her seventies, but it is not too late for her to yet experience the real thing !