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The Body Never Lies by Alice Miller and Hidden in Plain Sight by Barry Grosskopf Is Forgiving Our Parents Necessary for Mental Health?
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Is Forgiving Our Parents Necessary for Mental Health?

by Gudrun Zomerland, MFT

Book Reviews:
"The Body Never Lies" by Alice Miller, and
"Hidden in Plain Sight" by Dr. Barry Grosskopf

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 by parents.

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 them.

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
"Hidden in Plain Sight" by Dr. Barry Grosskopf.
 
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