Recently, a client pointed out a very interesting dichotomy in thinking about
forgiveness by two respected authors in the mental health field. In "The Body Never Lies", Alice
Miller, a Swiss psychoanalyst purports that it is psychologically damaging to follow the Fifth
Commandment "thou shall honor your father and mother". In "Hidden in Plain Sight", Dr. Barry
Grosskopf, a psychiatrist at the University of Washington School of Medicine tells us that it is
absolutely necessary to follow this commandment in order to have mental health. Both see the
commandment as an order to forgive our parents. Through their polarized views, they give two very
confusing messages to anyone who is working to heal from the legacy of childhood abuse perpetrated
I have a lot of respect for Alice Miller. She has written some wonderful books in the past that I
found very useful in reading myself and recommending to my clients. In her earlier works "The
Drama of the Gifted Child" and "For Your Own Good" she gives great examples and case histories to
make her point of how damaging a parent's unconscious acting out against his or her child is. Her
most recent book "The Body Never Lies" is in my mind not one of her better works.
Once again she presents interesting case histories of famous people who struggled with physical
ailments as young adults and their abusive childhoods. But she fails to point out that these types
of abuses could have just as easily resulted in other common afflictions, such as chemical
dependency and mental disorders (anxiety, phobias, obsessive/compulsive disorder, depression,
etc.). She also fails to point out that not all illnesses in early adulthood stem from childhood
abuse. They could be due to genetic or environmental factors.
In addition, she asserts that forgiving our abusive parent(s) will always reconnect us to the
unhealthy early childhood bond. She claims that in order to have true empathy with the suffering
child we once were we have to cut this unhealthy bond by cutting our parents out of our lives.
This is not my experience. On the contrary, forgiving is the ultimate letting go of a bond that
was made up of negative emotions. I think what Alice Miller is talking about is a forced
assumption of liking our parents when we don't feel like it. That is indeed detrimental to our
mental health but it has nothing to do with true forgiveness.
Dr. Barry Grosskopf's "Hidden in Plain Sight" is a great book for people who are in the process of
learning about the effects of abuse. He is doing for us in his own way what Alice Miller did for
us twenty years ago--he raises awareness and educates. The beauty of his book is that he describes
in detail various traumas and their aftermath, from incest to extreme poverty, from physical
neglect to living with narcissistic parents, from alcoholism in the home to the death of a parent.
He also explains how our childhood wounds get acted out in our primary relationships later on in
life and how these challenges can either break a relationship or can foster both partners'
healing. He then states, though, that in order to become fully mature we have to suppress our
negative emotions towards our parents and become interested in their childhood suffering, aware of
the generational nature of abuse, and see our parents' essential innocence, thereby forgiving
I don't have any problems with his stated goal only with the imperative nature. Suppressing one's
negative emotions cannot have positive results. My experience has shown that the only way we reach
true forgiveness is when we have grieved enough the damage that was done to us as children. This
is an organic process that cannot be forced, only fostered. Only when we have given ourselves
enough compassionate attention--through therapy, for instance--are we ready to turn our gaze to
those who afflicted the pain and see them in the light of their own suffering. Depending on the
severity of the abuse, some people reach this state of grace in their life time and some do not.
It is not helpful for any of us to hold a view of one side of a continuum only. It is unfortunate
that two respected authors have fallen into this trap. I think the golden rule applies here as it
does in all other matters. Some of us reach forgiveness and some of us do not. It is not our place
to judge. Living with that fact seems to me a sign of mental health.
Visit Alice Miller's website at http://www.alice-miller.com
Available at Amazon.com: "The
Body Never Lies"
by Alice Miller, and
in Plain Sight"
by Dr. Barry Grosskopf.