Elevate Difference

From Rage to Courage: Answers to Readers' Letters

Alice Miller alleges that "most people (ninety-five percent of the world population) were beaten as children." You might think these are some pretty hefty charges: so did I. This book, in my opinion, does not seem to have any purpose besides encouraging readers to read Miller's other works, and also for blaming bad parenting as the root of every societal illness.

Perhaps I would have better appreciated From Rage to Courage had I been familiar with Miller's research, or if the book provided any empirical data supporting her claims. Instead, I was inundated by Miller's recommendation that readers acknowledge the childhood abuse they suffered, even if they didn't remember it happening. This book encourages everyone to delve into their psyche to try and find some hints of abuse.

I am skeptical of Miller's proposition that ninety-five percent of the world's adults suffered childhood abuse, but what really struck me as odd in this book is the claim that victims must embrace rage and shun forgiveness to cure themselves. I believe that anger can be a very liberating emotion, and I agree with Miller that victims of abuse should acknowledge the perpetrator's role in hurting them. However, I do not think a lack of forgiveness and a permanent angry state is even remotely healthy. My experience with anger leads me to believe that when a victim holds on to grievances, she is the one punished—not the abuser. Anger leads to bitterness, and both poison a person from the inside out. Forgiveness is not something that excuses the person in the wrong: it is a means for the victim to make peace with their past and go on to live their lives without dwelling on their pain.

According to From Rage to Courage, abuse victims need to dwell on this pain in order to "free" themselves. Without an explanation as to how this is accomplished, however, the book just sounds like an exhortation to permanent resentment, without any means to get to the next step of recovery. Perhaps Miller outlines this in her other works, but as a book considered in its own right, this one doesn't stand up.

Make no mistake: child abuse is horrifying, and probably occurs much more than is reported due to the helpless nature of its victims. I fully support awareness of this issue, as there is no doubt that child abuse affects people negatively all their lives. Alice Miller's collection of her own letters just seems a bit melodramatic to affect any change, and her goal seems more to increase her book sales than to offer solutions.

Written by: Sam Williams, March 20th 2010

I am a big fan of Dr. Miller's work. What she's advocating is not harboring anger but instead getting access to it. It is an unfortunate fact of human nature that we tend, even are forced, to bury our emotions at the time of abuse or neglect. As children, we are simply not strong enough to take care of ourselves and end up doing whatever it takes to survive, including pleasing our abusive or neglectful parent, or identifying with them (like the "Stockholm Syndrome") where we lose track of ourselves and and our abuser's emotions, wants, etc. become more important.

We repress our authentic experience of the abuse and neglect and often find other situations in personal or working life to replay the drama to get access to it. This doesn't work very well, though. It's better to work with a therapist who can help you call up these buried frustrations and angers, process them and then let them go.

Forgiveness does not work unless you first feel the entire depth of rage, sadness and other emotion associated with the abuse or neglect. You'll just keep repeating the drama with other people, bosses, spouse, friends, etc. And most often we repeat this drama with children, repeating the cycle of abuse and neglect into the future.

If instead you get access to the depth of rage, sadness, etc. you'll stop repeating the drama because you'll experience the emotions at the time you are dealing with the abusive boss, spouse, friends, etc. and will assert yourself to try fix the problem or leave the relationship. And with your children, you'll see them as they are, deal with them constructively and not victimize them in the way you were victimized.

Sam, I think your review misses the point on a number of issues.

I'm not going to get into the statistics on child abuse and how difficult it is to accurately determine how prevalent of an issue abuse in its many forms is. I will, however, comment on your statements about anger and forgiveness in the context of your review.

One of the key things to remember is that abuse, be it physical, sexual or emotional, is almost always perpetrated by someone known to the child, most often someone they love and depend on. That's a very difficult thing to reconcile in our minds and is one of the reasons why abuse victims often think there is something wrong with them; that they deserve to be hurt.

It is one of the most difficult things to get away from and it is one of the most damaging long-term effects of abuse! And it is recognized by many in the mental health community that one way out of that line of thinking is to acknowledge the rage that abuse victims have a right to feel.

I've read many of Miller's earlier books and know that she doesn't propose to remain in a permanent state of rage. But she does recognize the importance of allowing yourself to feel and express that rage as a key step in learning to live with what happened. It is often the only way out of thinking that the abuse was your own fault, that you deserve everything that happened. It is a key piece in helping victims place the blame where it belongs - with the abuser. And in that process, it IS very important and very liberating to embrace the rage, to feel angry and bitter and sad and outraged about what was done to the abuse victim.

We have every right to be angry! And no one should be telling us how long we are allowed to be angry for and whether or not it is healthy to feel what we feel. That's up to every person individually on their path through dealing with childhood trauma.

Maybe the book you reviewed didn't make that clear enough, that rage isn't the end goal but a very important stage in learning to deal. And that is an important point to make in reviewing the book. But the way you make that point is problematic.

As for forgiveness, as far as I am concerned, it is a concept that yet again invalidates the victim's experience. The focus of forgiveness is not on the victim, it is again on the abuser. It is and should be up to the abuse survivor to decide whether learning to deal and live with what was done to them entails forgiveness or not. It depends so much on the situation, on the individuals involved and is a deeply personal decision.

Overall, while the book you read may not have been Miller's best work, I think you need to be careful about describing the stories of those affected by abuse as "melodramatic", and about telling others how they should or shouldn't deal with childhood trauma.

I think you can find a place of peace and not have to call it forgiveness. I'm not sure if that makes sense. If the only two choices are living in anger or living in forgiveness, then yes forgiveness probably feels better.

But I also think you can move on and say, "It's not ok, it happened, but it's not ok."

I'm a big fan of forgiveness, but I actually like separating out healing and forgiveness. No one should "HAVE" to forgive someone who tortured them as a child in order to heal.

I would never recommend that to the friends I've had who were abused in really horrible ways.

But really if you're mad because your mother didn't compliment you enough as a child, you might want to exhale, breath and realize she probably loves you a lot if that's the worst complaint you have.

I don't know about forgiveness being a requirement to move on. I always give forgiveness to people who ask it of me, but I don't offer forgiveness to people who are continuing the same behavior and enjoying or profiting from hurting people without remorse. If they ever do feel sorry, they would have my forgiveness too.

But I think it's a two way street. There needs to be an apology if there is to be a forgiveness.

But I do think a sense of compassion for the ways that we all fail as humans to be who we should be is a great helper in having a sense of peace.