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The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True SelfThe Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self by Alice Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a child I grew to shun and hate the label “gifted.” As I aged, I never really understood why. I had forgotten –or rather never understood — the significance it had to me at one time.

In the years that passed since I was last referred to as a “gifted child,” my hairs have stood on-end whenever I’ve heard parents fawningly describe their children as “gifted”. I came closest to understanding this response after I heard the heart-rending story of a couple whose “gifted” son shot himself in the head while his mother was watching. He had been the apple of their eye and knew it: their “perfect child.” He had only run into some ordinary behavior problems in middle-school, but the shame of that failure was too much for him to bear. His last utterance was  “uhn-uh” as he put the pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger, his mother running towards him.

“Gifted” sounds like something we should want. Everyone should be happy to have a “gifted” child. I didn’t really understand why I had a resistance to the notion.

Then, as part of my project to understand my own attachment issues as an adult and thanks to the recommendation of another recovering “gifted” person, I read The Drama of the Gifted Child.

When we call a child “gifted” we move our focus from the child and onto the “gift.” As the child becomes aware of this, the natural result is anxiety and self-loathing. If there wasn’t a strong basis of unconditional love set in very early childhood, the gifted child comes to feel that he’s not worthy of love without the “gift”. He will try his best to please the parents and arise to their ideals of “giftedness.” This is natural: To lose their external validation means to lose parental love and face possible extinction in the cold–at least in the primitive, instinctual mind of the child. As the child matures, he tends to develop warped ideas of other people based only in contempt. He looks down on the less-gifted who are almost certainly as worthless as thinks he would be without his “gift.” True intimacy isn’t possible for him, because he was never accepted for being himself–and has never accepted himself. He was accepted only as “gifted”. He’s become his gift, and his greatest fear is that it will be stripped from him in some way–leaving him worthless and alone in his own eyes.

Wow. Just wow.

As if that weren’t heavy enough, the “gifted” child who lacked true acceptance as a human will almost surely pass along all the negative aspects of his upbringing to the next generation, unless he himself confronts his own feelings of sorrow, regret, and anger towards the parents who fated him with their lack of love, and the label “gifted.”

I had long sensed that “gifted” usually had no discernable benefit to the child himself. It was a way of giving parents some compensation and an ego-boost. The ego-boost is needed due to the parents having lacked love themselves as children.

That–that is the revelation that first came to me through Alice Miller’s book: Parenthood among these types is the practice of the blind insistently blinding those born with sight–their own children. And so it goes.

Other (arguable) wonders revealed by this text:

* The notion that a childhood lack-of-love is a necessary prerequisite for being a psychotherapist. It’s a job requirement. No normally-adapted person would submit themselves to delving into the lives of the emotionally-broken with such determination. Your therapist is likely a recovering broken and unloved child herself.

* Grandiosity (excessive pride in one’s accomplishments, a deep desire for other’s admiration of what we consider our own achievements) and depression are two sides of the same coin. Both are consequences of the failure of infantile attachment and defenses against honestly confronting the negative emotions that formed in the sufferer. We can’t honestly confront those emotions because we subconsciously fear doing so will result in the total removal of parental love. So we vaunt or we cower. Both are destructive.

* A debunking of the idea of “unconditional love” among adults. It’s not really possible. We can only experience unconditional love from our parents or a parent-like figure, and only in a very narrow timeframe. Early infancy and pre-toddlerhood is the critical time for this formative ur-experience. If that fails, all that can be done is to mourn the lost opportunity and to gradually repair the soul as an adult. Unconditional love a one-shot deal that determines the rest of one’s life.

* The idea that sexual perversions, substance abuse, narcissism, self-harm, and what would probably be called “borderline personality disorder” all have a common root in the failure of attachment, and all show up far too frequently among “gifted” people. The co-morbidity of “giftedness” and being psychologically challenged is far too common to ignore, and leads one to see that the enthusiastic acceptance of the label “gifted” is frequently the result of parental guilt and neurosis.

The main prescription that comes through this book in ways both spoken and otherwise: Don’t treat your child like a thing.

My personal experience comes from a childhood spent under the rubric of “giftedness.” At some deeper level I knew that being labelled “gifted” wasn’t for me but for my parents. I could also sense that “giftedness” put me under pressure to compete with my own “gift” for attention, and compete with other kids who were judged as more gifted than I. Nevertheless, enough poison of “giftedness” stayed in me to cause considerable problems in my adult life. You can read more about them here: The Parking Lot.

Hot tip: Don’t do this to your kids. Love them and let them just be kids. Where they end up is where they end up. Labelling them “gifted” isn’t likely to help them long-term.

The Drama of the Gifted Child gives great insight, but for the victims who will almost instantly recognize themselves in it, it can’t serve as a comprehensive treatment plan. Nor can Miller the psychotherapist express what’s going on in the limbic system of the infant when he reaches out to find no one. This is a psychology book from the 1970s without the physical science that might accompany it if it were re-written today.

The answer Miller leaves for former “gifted” children to fully confront and embrace the rage, sadness, loss, and anxiety remembered-but-suppressed from childhood. However, there’s no step-by-step means offered. Let the book serve as a wonderful entrance to seeing how one’s conflicts in life might have been caused by a childhood remembered as idyllic, but was likely in some very important ways, more like hell.

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