The missing link between Freud and Oprah

Theories come and go. The legacy lives on, however, in families harmed by unfounded ideas and in attractive psychobabble and in a cultural bias toward freeing the mentally ill from their families.

Alice Miller, Psychoanalyst, Dies at 87 - Laid Human Problems to Parental Acts

I'm a daughter and a mother, and I believe in the power of mothers to do great good and great harm. But there are some things we have neither the power to do nor to prevent. The legacy of judging the parent by the depth of illness in the child is not only unhelpful it is corrosive to all families it touches.


  1. I hadn't read this when I picked my card for the day from my "therapist in a box" but it fits very well.

  2. She sounds very fanatical. I wonder if this woman had suffered from abuse at the hands of HER parents and this is why she maintained this belief. It also seems very odd that she was SO extreme that in her later life she abandoned psychiatry because she thought it was reminiscent of the relationship between parent and child. It is odd and sad.

    However, Laura, I would urge you not to consider all therapy in this manner. Talking therapy has been very helpful in my recovery. when I was underweight this was mainly supportive and now I am working on issues related to my own social anxiety, feelings of worthlessness and perfectionism.

    However, I have to agree that this was a bit odd. To consider ANY form of parental interaction abuse is disgusting.

  3. Hi Laura

    I, for one, am not a fan of psychobabble and unfounded assumptions that children's mental health difficulties are always attributable to (deliberate or inadvertent) parental neglect or abuse. And, in terms of psychobabble, I find some of Freud's psychosexual theories very obscure and would not wish to be viewed as one of his collection of 'hysterical' women...

    Having said that, it is psychotherapy that has helped me the most with tackling my long history of AN. Re-feeding has also been essential. Psychotherapy doesn't necessarily lay blame on parents for causing their children's maladies - and therapeutic work with my psychiatrist (who is also a psychotherapist) has helped me to better understand myself, my past difficulties with the process of growing up and developing a healthy identity, and with developing myself in accordance with my temperament and character. Never has my psychiatrist suggested that my AN was caused by bad parenting. Psychotherapy ruled that one out early on.

    That is not to say that my AN and interacting co-morbid difficulties were caused solely by my inherent traits or a starvation-induced brain malfunction. My inherent vulnerability to developing AN probably wouldn't have been expressed had I not been subject to the trigger of various traumas as a child (= bullying and sexual abuse - which had nothing to do with my parents' treatment of me). I knew before I even had therapy that these traumas triggered my self-hatred and consequent food restriction, over-exercising etc.

    I sometimes feel I am 'playing devil's advocate' on your blog... This has nothing to do with me being opposed to your viewpoint of parents playing an important role in their children's recovery from AN. After all, the Maudsley approach has been shown to be one of the most effective treatments for childhood AN. I think you're doing some great work. However, I do feel that you sometimes over-simply the aetiology of AN - to being only a brain disease caused by starvation - and to the role of treatment centres being to remove the child from (potentially abusive?) parents.

    The primary rationale for admitting children to treatment centres is not to remove children from dangerous parents, but to monitor serious physical risk and permit continuous medical monitoring due to (e.g.) re-feeding syndrome. Treatment centres can lead to troublesome inter-patient transfer of dangerous behaviours, but these centres can be helpful in that they provide a change of scene and they physically dis-allow the patient to engage in more subtle anorexic rituals.

  4. A:) and Cathy, please know that I am a big fan of psychotherapy! I think we should stop teaching algebra in school in favor of spending time in therapy and teaching psychological health techniques and skills. I think instead of providing cable services into the home we should provide therapy "on demand."

    But not ANY therapy and not therapy based on mistaken ideas.

    This blog is about righting wrongs. That's my topic. I post on issues related to blaming and the legacy of blaming to provide a place for that in the larger discussion of eating disorders that already exists out there. This is not a general interest blog or an attempt to address all issues related to this.

    Some day, soon I hope, when the rest of the ED world starts incorporating more of what I talk about, and stops including so much of what I'm responding to, my blog will be unnecessary and I'll stop writing it!

  5. Thanks for the clarification Laura :)

    I enjoy your blog and a number of other blogs that give rise to discussion and debate. That is one advantage of the internet; it enables worldwide discussions of topics that many people are passionate about. Such individuals didn't previously have a voice, but now we have!

    When something as horrible as an ED afflicts a family, the natural response is to raise questions regarding blame. I know that my poor mother spent many hours questioning whether she had somehow 'gone wrong' in raising me when AN struck. I recall her crying on a couple of occasions when she had secretly watched me undress and had observed my emaciated teenage body. And I remember my response. I said "leave me alone and let me get on with my life". My denial of serious illness must have been terrible for her, my father and my brother.

    But can, or should, anyone take the 'blame' for EDs? I don't think that anyone necessarily can, and to attempt to blame the family, the patient, or 'whatever' is most probably futile.

    I loved algebra (and mathematics in general) in school, so I'd have been unhappy to have seen that subject removed from the curriculum!

    Keep blogging!

  6. I too loved algebra - but I agree, there should be a place in the curriculum for self-knowledge and self-care.

  7. im sorry but im feeling like focusing on that parents are not to blame is missing the point. To me id rather know what DOES cause anorexia than what DOESN'T.


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