The writer as a child with her mother and brother.

“Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness:  the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood.” 

So begins Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child, a book that’s been kicking around for the better part of four decades.  Strangely, no fewer than four people have mentioned to me in recent weeks.  Finally, I got a copy.

Maybe I’d been put off by the term “gifted,” thinking it didn’t apply to me, thinking of child prodigies.  Gifted, as I understand it now, is any child who learns to accommodate herself to the needs of the parent to secure love.  The emotionally conforming child stands in service to the needy parent, the parent who mirrors only the desirable emotions and behavior of the child, thus sealing that child off from the true ground of her being, the full range of emotions that constitutes an authentic self.  She becomes one with her false self.

Mirroring, it’s how we learn.  We are, culturally and individually, achievement oriented, recognized for our emotional compliance and attainments.  You don’t get any points for throwing temper tantrums or, later, as an adult, for languishing on the couch in a trough of despond.  By and large, we are all carrot chasers.

My mother slipped an envelope into my hand at the end of a visit back home a few years ago.  I didn’t open it until we were in the car and well on our way.  It contained a single picture of her as a young woman placing me on a swing.  It was 1960.  The photo had faded to dusty rose.  My brother sat on another swing off to the side.  I didn’t see him there at first.  He was probably four at the time and it may have been one of the last photos ever taken of him.  We rarely talked about him but he was always there, like a phantom limb.  In this photo he’s already almost out of the frame, his expression solemn as if he knows what’s coming.

My mother seemed to have intuited the question I’d been too afraid to ask:  How old was I when he died?  In her handwriting on the back, it said:  Lindsay around a year old. Willie in the background.  I’d come to wonder what happens to the psyche of a child when the lights go out in her mother’s face, when that mirroring adult, hardly more than a child herself, is suddenly coping with the death of her second born by drowning.  This larger question is still under investigation.

It’s easier, of course, to mirror the good.  I know this from my own tenure as a parent.  But, Miller says,  “The child has a primary need from the very beginning of her life to be regarded and respected as the person she really is at any given time.”  And there’s the rub of it:  At any given time.

I offer a single snapshot from a decade ago to illustrate the difficulty of the challenge, even under less extreme conditions.  We had weekend houseguests.  They’d brought gifts.  When my youngest opened hers—a funny-looking hand-made doll with a cone-shaped hat, pink yarn pigtails, extra long legs with striped stockings and clunky shoes, she said, “I don’t like her.  I don’t want her,” and cast the doll aside.

Trying to ward off disaster, my eldest enthused that she looked just like Pippi Longstocking.  We’d been reading Pippi Longstocking before bed; she was a favorite heroine who lived quite happily on her own with no parents at all.

Addie said, “I hate her.  I want something else.”

What was there to say?  We tried to patch it over, to point out the doll’s virtues, to correct the manners.  With no other present forthcoming, her indignity grew.  She left the table and began to stomp around the house in pink plastic high heels to command our attention.  On the one hand, I admired her spunk, but still, I was mortified.

Our houseguests had raised 9 or 11 children, some vast number, I can’t recall.  We’d met most of these well-mannered children at a family dinner at their apartment in Paris some years before.  Their youngest was now 12. 

They’d just come from a recent stay with my best friend from childhood, someone with whom I still had unresolved tension because of my intolerant response to her ill-behaved child.  This friend had never forgiven me.  She’d recently sent me an email after visiting my parents.  It said:  I hear your youngest is a monster and that she has you WRAPPED.  Serves you right.

In other words, the problem had come home to roost.

I saw that the stomper was fully committed to proving all naysayers right.  I told her she must go to her room until she was ready to come downstairs in her pajamas and apologize.  This played out within everyone’s sight.  She flat out refused so I picked her up and held her, fireman style, across one hip and carried her thrashing upstairs.   I deposited her on the floor in her room and said that she had to STAY until she was ready to apologize and that she had better not come out until then.

Shaken, I resumed my position at the head of the table.  A discussion ensued about children and discipline.  The sounds coming from upstairs provided an apt ambiance for this discussion—Addie was throwing things around, slamming her door, crying loudly, and threatening doom in a voice towering with rage.

They allowed that they’d had their share of issues.  They shrugged and said, “She’s four,” by way of explanation.  They talked about their most difficult child, who needed to be spanked before she would come around, though they knew this was a no-no in America.

My husband took this opportunity to tell them about my recent interest in horse whispering, and how I’d come to apply some of the key concepts to child rearing.  I elaborated, telling them how in bands of wild mustangs, the matriarchal mare drives the offending horse from the herd.  For a prey animal, this is tantamount to death.  Driven out, he stands apart, grows anxious, and eventually begins to show signs that he is ready to behave.  In every case the signs are the same–the horse lowers his head submissively to the ground and begins to move his lips just so.  When this happens, the dominant mare allows the transgressor back in and shows it tenderness, nuzzling its neck to let it know it’s been forgiven.

But you cannot hold forth about discipline with any authority when your own changeling is, even as you speak, bringing the roof down roughly over your head.  At this moment the father of 11 reared back in his chair and said, “There are horse rules and there are children rules, and they are not the same.”

My well-meaning, childless older brother once sent me the book Dare to Discipline, which I never read.  Probably I should have.  We learn to parent from our parents.  Sometimes it is a conscious strategy relying heavily on How-Not-To wisdom.  Other times it is unconscious—we travel a well-worn, familiar path.  And isn’t it fitting that the word familiar carries most of ‘family’ in its body?

Recently I happened upon a basket of giveaway books at the office of my acupuncturist and found one that I’ve had out on my desk for the past month:  Reawakening the Inner Child by Lucia Capacchione, Ph.D.  The inner child, a term that’s become all but cliché, conjuring images of adults hugging stuffed animals in group therapy, is said to be the carrier of our repressed emotions.  She also carries our joy, enthusiasm, and vitality.   She is the perfect little monster buried beneath the thick crust of civility.  Carl Jung has said that it’s the archetype of the child within us who leads the way to wholeness and healing.

I once heard a facilitator say that when he meditates he’s trying to awaken the adult in himself to take care of the child in himself.  I have never forgotten this.  Some would hold that it’s the most important work we can do.  We can become good parents even after our children have left home.  We can learn to parent the child that never leaves.

She may be difficult to contact.  One exercise for engaging her is to have a conversation with both hands, the non-dominant hand standing in for the inner child.  It was a few days before Easter.  My right hand tidily copied quotes from the book into my journal:   “Recurring emotional and physical problems in adulthood are a sign that the Inner Child is trying to speak.”

My left hand wrote, raggedly, “Probly I won’t git an Easter baskit.”

Lindsay Fleming is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops, Room to Grow and more. She writes Little Magic...

7 replies on “Child Whispering”

  1. Great piece, Lindsay. I first became aware of the Alice Miller book circa 1991, when every theater person I knew said reading it had changed his or her life. I read it. It changed my life. In a weird coincidence, I was telling my Swarthmore Badgers only yesterday in our final seminar that they should pick up PRISONERS OF CHILDHOOD sooner rather than later.

    1. Jim, you were one of the four people who mentioned the book to me! Thanks (all) for your kind comments

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