Sep 15, 2022

In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote:

The Drama of the Gifted Child has been the single most important book I’ve ever read, in terms of the impact it has had on my life. For years I could find no explanation for my ongoing battle with anxiety and depression, for the depths of despair I so often felt, for my failed relationships, and my inability to make a success of myself. I had done everything I knew to do. I’d excelled academically, tried therapy, different jobs, various living situations—I’d taken risks, I’d been disciplined, I’d persevered. I couldn’t understand why I continued to be so unhappy. My parents hadn’t been grossly abusive—I hadn’t been locked in closets, starved, battered, raped… What was wrong with me that I couldn’t seem to get a grip?

Miller’s short book was my introduction to the concept of a false or adapted self and a true self that has been sacrificed. When I understood that the loss of one’s true self is the greatest tragedy of all and that it happens, at least partly, as a function of a child’s sensitivity and capacity for empathy—that is, their vulnerability to unconscious misuse by their parents—I finally began to understand my own history.

I understood why, during my adolescence, I’d developed, as a response to my mother’s admonition “deprivation makes us grow, unless the deprivation is too great,” the notion that I was more heroic than other people—that my suffering would yield an advantage when I was older. And why in my early twenties I made the conscious choice to relinquish this form of grandiosity because I saw through it—because I recognized that, in my own case, the deprivation had been too great, that rather than making me strong, clearly it had crippled me. I also understood why I became so deeply depressed after surrendering this defense.

Now I could begin to see the ways my parents had, unknowingly, misused me. I had always felt I had to be the perfect child to buttress my mother’s shaky self-esteem; especially after my brother was burned, she’d needed a model daughter to prove to the world that she was a good mother, as well as to justify her vocation as a therapist. I could see how, for my father, I’d had to be the accommodating companion, the childhood friend he hadn’t had—who kept him company but made no demands of my own.

I understood that I’d had to be an independent and trouble-free child because neither of my parents could tolerate anyone or anything that impinged on them too much. I couldn’t have needs because neither of them could tolerate my having them. I couldn’t express any negative feelings because they couldn’t tolerate those either. My father was contemptuous of fear, incensed by anger, and dismissive of sadness. While my mother wasn’t contemptuous of fear, she was impatient with mine, threatened, perhaps, because it suggested I wasn’t as well-adjusted as she needed me to be, and, like my father, she was incensed by anger and dismissive of sadness—at least of my sadness.

When, after puberty, I could no longer be the perfect child because I was coming apart at the seams, my parents abandoned me emotionally. I think on some deep level I felt betrayed then—that I’d sacrificed who I was to be what they needed me to be, and now that I was in need, all they could do was blame and disparage me. I stopped kissing my mother “good night” around the time of the divorce—in my memory, though I could be mistaken, it was the night she assured me that after the divorce “nothing would change.” We never hugged again, either, until I began to initiate embraces as an adult. As for my father, my fantasy about my mother remarrying so I could have a new, nicer (step)father is testiment to how disillusioned I was with him.