Breaking Down the Wall of Silence

The Liberating Experience of Facing Painful Truth


By Alice Miller

Formats and Prices




$25.99 CAD


Trade Paperback


Trade Paperback $19.99 $25.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around December 9, 2008. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Miller incorporates psychohistorical analyses of Hitler, Stalin, and Ceausescu to reveal the links between the horrors of their childhoods and the horrors they inflicted on the world. She pleads for an awareness of society’s role in child abuse and for recognition of the victim.


Praise for Alice Miller and Breaking Down the Wall of Silence
“Miller is both prolific . . . and eloquent in her continuing indictment of parents who abuse their children and societies that tolerate such behavior.”
“A penetrating look at how to break the cycle of child abuse in today’s world.”—Moving Worlds
“What Miller has to say is enlightening. . . . This is not a book that can be read through once and put aside.The reader can return again and again as new truth is recognized.”—South Bend, Indiana,Tribune
“Miller charts valuable territory.”—New Age Journal
“A moving argument for awareness and condemnation of child abuse.”—Science News

The Drama of the Gifted Child:
The Search for the True Self
For Your Own Good:
The Roots of Violence in Child-rearing
Thou Shalt Not Be Aware:
Society’s Betrayal of the Child
Pictures of a Childhood:
Sixty-six Watercolors and an Essay
The Untouched Key:
Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness
Banished Knowledge:
Facing Childhood Injuries
Paths of Life:
Six Case Histories
The Truth Will Set You Free: Overcoming Emotional
Blindness and Finding Your True Adult Self
The Body Never Lies:
The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting

THE TRUTH ABOUT CHILDHOOD, as many of us have had to endure it, is inconceivable, scandalous, painful. Not uncommonly, it is monstrous. Invariably, it is repressed. To be confronted with this truth all at once and to try to integrate it into our consciousness, however ardently we may wish it, is clearly impossible.The capacity of the human organism to bear pain is, for our own protection, limited. All attempts to overstep this natural threshold by resolving repression in a violent manner will, as with every other form of violation, have negative and often dangerous consequences. The results of any traumatic experience, such as abuse, can only be resolved by experiencing, articulating, and judging every facet of the original experience within a process of careful therapeutic disclosure.
In recent decades, there have been a number of dangerous attempts to resolve the consequences of childhood traumas by violent means. Inevitably, they have all failed. Methods involving the use of LSD, hypnosis, or “rebirthing,” to name but a few, have not only failed to lead to the integration of a person’s individual truth. They have, in many cases, resulted in even greater flight from the truth by way of new forms of defense such as addiction and other forms of denial, for example through political or religious ideologies.
Many young people who, driven by desperation and curiosity, have experimented with psychedelic drugs found themselves having experiences that were terrifying, discouraging, and totally misleading—experiences that would later bar the way to insightful and effective therapy. Often, they found themselves suddenly confronted by the full horrors of their childhood—without any kind of preparation—and were overwhelmed by symbolic images that rather obscured the reality. Not surprisingly, they would later do everything they could to avoid having to confront these experiences anew.What they didn’t know is that what they had experienced and what was sometimes sold to them as “therapy” was in fact just its opposite: a traumatization that served to cement the confusions of childhood with symbolic contents, leaving in its wake a rigid sense of their histories that would later prove hard to resolve.
The consequences of such experiences are regrettable in the extreme. From then on, those involved placed their trust not in the truth, but in a chimera of addictions, specious theories, or medication. The possibility of facing the truth by means of a slow therapeutic procedure seemed inconceivable to them.
We build high walls to screen ourselves from painful facts because we have never learned whether or how we can live with this knowledge. “And why should we?” some people might say. “What’s done is done. Why should we go over all that again?” The answer to that question is extremely complex. In this book, I will endeavor to show, by way of various examples, why the truth about our childhood is something we cannot, and should not, forgo, either as individuals or as a society. One of the reasons is that behind the wall we erect to protect ourselves from the history of our childhood still stands the neglected child we once were, the child that was once abandoned and betrayed. She waits for us to summon the courage to hear her voice. She wants to be protected and understood, and she wants us to free her from her isolation, loneliness, and speechlessness. But this child who has waited so long for our attention not only has needs to be fulfilled. She also has a gift for us, a gift that we desperately need if we truly want to live, a gift that cannot be purchased and that the child in us alone can bestow. It is the gift of the truth, which can free us from the prison of destructive opinions and conventional lies. Ultimately, it is the gift of security, which our rediscovered integrity will give us. The child only waits for us to be ready to approach her, and then, together, we will tear down the walls.
Many people do not know this. They suffer from anguishing symptoms. They go to doctors who fend off the necessary knowledge just as they themselves do. They follow the advice that these doctors offer, subjecting themselves, for example, to completely unnecessary operations or other damaging treatments. Or they down sleeping pills to erase the dreams that could remind them of the child waiting behind the wall. But as long as we condemn her to silence, the child’s only recourse is to express herself in another language—that of sleeplessness, depression, or physical symptoms. And against these reactions, drugs and tablets are of no help.They simply confuse the adult even more.
Many people are unaware of this, though some have long since sensed this truth and can nonetheless not help themselves. Some sense that to repress feelings of their childhood is to poison the very well-springs of life; they know that though repression may have been necessary for the child’s survival—otherwise she might literally have died from the pain—maintaining repression in adult life inevitably has destructive consequences. But in the absence of any other alternative, they regard such consequences as a necessary evil.They don’t know that it is indeed possible to resolve childhood repression safely and without danger, and learn to live with the truth. Not all at once. Not by recourse to violent interventions. But slowly, step by step, and with respect for their own system’s defense mechanisms, recovery is possible.
I myself did not know this for many years, either. My training in and subsequent practice of psychoanalysis had made me blind to the possibility. But the success of my own experience of the slow integration of individual aspects of my childhood has made me want to pass on that information to all those who suffer because they are cut off from the roots of their own being.
Today we can be helped to correct our blindness, to resolve the consequences of old injuries, to access the truth and restore the crucial contact with the child in us so that we can regain those parts of our consciousness that were alienated from us for so long.
What is valid for the individual is also valid for the development of a wider social consciousness. Here, too, the monstrous truth regarding the causes and consequences of child abuse and the way that violence can be bred into human beings cannot be admitted to consciousness all at once, but must proceed slowly, step by step. To make this clear I would like to cite an example from my own work.
After the appearance of my first three books in the early 1980s, I was asked by a number of newspapers and magazines to contribute articles. But when I made it known that I intended to write about violence in the family, interest in working with me quickly evaporated.The only exception to this was the editor of the German magazine Brigitte, which, in 1982, went ahead with the publication of an article by me on the sexual abuse of children, despite the resistance of a number of the staff. The article bore the title “Daughters Are Breaking Their Silence” and was later incorporated into a revised edition of my book Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. It describes the courage of a group of American women in publicizing accounts of severe childhood injury so that they no longer had to be left alone with this terrible and destructive secret. They also wished to help other women to break down the wall of silence behind which society has sought to protect itself from the truth about cruelty and abuse in childhood. These women realized that the protection this wall appeared to offer in fact had destructive consequences for the survivors of child abuse.They also discovered that the number of people affected represented many more than they had imagined.
At that time, the subject of child sexual abuse was absolutely taboo in Germany; the effect of the article was like a dam burst. Hundreds of women, from all walks of life, wrote to the editorial staff and to me. They told of brutal childhood abuse. And they described the conspiracy of silence that barred them from these experiences and, thus, from acquaintance with a large part of their own personalities. Running through all these letters, like a refrain, was this sentence: “This is the first time I have ever spoken of this to anyone.” Many of them added: “You may publish my story so that other women, who have experienced the same thing, may know that they are not alone. Until the appearance of your article I had thought that I was the only one to whom this had happened. But I must ask you, on no account to publish my name.”
Most of these women were married and had children. Many of them had already been through “therapy.” But neither with their husbands nor with their therapists had they dared mention their childhood traumas. In their entire environment, they found not a single enlightened witness, a person who could have at least partially freed them from their imprisoning secret, if by no other means than by simply heeding their suffering. As a result, the experience that had marked their entire lives and that returned to haunt and poison them in their fantasies had to be completely repressed for years.The image I had of each of these women at the time was of a little girl standing behind an immense wall, a wall in which not the smallest opening that could have held out a glimpse of hope to her in her loneliness could be found. Since then, much has changed. First, a self-help group called “Wild Water” (Wildwasser), which became the model for similar groups set up all over the country, was founded in Berlin. Not surprisingly, when it came to dealing with local authorities regarding funding, they still ran up against resistance, prejudice, and indifference. But in the last twenty years the wall of silence has been breached—at least as far as the sexual abuse of girls is concerned.
Without the help of the women’s movement, this rapid progress would have been almost unimaginable.Thanks, primarily, to the women’s movement, both the scandalous practice of the courts and the isolation of the victims of abuse have been made public. That has resulted in the exposure of horrific facts that had previously been accepted as “normal.” But even the women’s movement could not entirely give up its blinders—and it would have been naive to think it might have been otherwise.
To recognize and integrate something monstrous from our collective past as a society requires considerable time, just as it does on the individual level, in therapy. To rush the process may mean that the mechanisms of denial are further strengthened.We still need our illusions, our “crutches,” as we confront a new and painful aspect of the truth on our journey toward a complete perception of the child’s situation.
As a result, the women’s movement clung to a number of illusions as it broached the subject of the sexual abuse of girls. Above all, its members needed to believe that mothers could not be party to this crime. Because I refused to lay responsibility for female child abuse solely at the doorstep of the men and insisted instead that both parents owed a debt of love and protection to the abused child—and that a caring mother would have prevented such abuses from occurring—it became clear to me that feminists found my books problematic (see Alice Miller, 1990a and 1990b).
But in the years since, the women’s movement has also arrived at the point where it can begin to live without the illusion that only men commit acts of violence against children. One feminist sociologist sent me the results of her study of youths serving prison terms for attacking and raping women on the street. As it transpired, the rape and debasement of anonymous women had nothing to do with sexuality, although these men are referred to as “sex offenders.” Rather, they were motivated by revenge for the helplessness and defenselessness that they themselves had once suffered—a reality they had subsequently completely repressed, and continued to repress, to the detriment of others.What became clear was that all these men had been sexually abused by their mothers in early childhood, by way of either direct sexual practices, the misuse of enemas, or both.Various perverse practices were used to keep the child in check without his having the slightest chance of defending himself.
Thirty years ago the use of enemas was still regarded as accepted medical practice. In truth, it was never anything but an act of violence against the child, intended to keep his bowel functions under adult control. To see this clearly and to be able to expose this form of destructive behavior required considerable openmindedness on the part of the sociologist concerned. That she did not have to protect the mothers in this case meant that she did not have to mask the truth in any way.
The last thing I wish to do, of course, is relativize these rapists’ crimes by drawing attention to this aspect of their past. The criminal acting-out of repressed injuries can never be thought of as a compulsive necessity. Had these men been prepared to give up their repression, such acts would never have occurred. Sadly, they are not prepared to do so; and as soon as they themselves become fathers they are in a position to take revenge on their mothers with impunity—under their own roofs, on their wives and children, beyond the reach of the law.
Their deeds must be shown in their true light, just as those of their parents and grandparents and the millions of other child abusers in previous generations, who have produced the rapists of today.Their perverted mothers were also the products of this disastrous chain of events.
The crime of child mistreatment is probably as old as the world. So that it can no longer continue to be committed under the guise of misleading terms such as “tradition,” “normality,” or acting “for the child’s own good,” we have to, at least at the cognitive level, make available the whole truth. In the course of this book, I shall try to do that. By constantly circling around a particular theme and viewing it from different angles, I hope to create openings in the wall of silence, through which we can see unimpeded the realities behind it. Glimpses? What use is that? one might be tempted to ask. And, indeed, a glimpse cannot be a substitute for one’s own therapeutic work. But it can perhaps communicate a sense of the possibilities beyond the wall and, more importantly, arouse a healthy curiosity for life.
My own personal breakthrough began with the free-associative painting I started to do in 1973.Without this experience I would hardly have had the courage to face my history and to integrate my feelings.
People whose only experience has been the wall of silence cling to the wall, seeing in it the solution to all their fears. But if they have once glimpsed an opening in it, they will not endure its illusory protection.The idea of ever again living as they once did, bereft of their new-won consciousness, becomes unimaginable as they realize that what they once held to be life was, in truth, no life at all. Part of their tragic fate was to have had to live for so long without that realization. Now they wish to save others from the same fate, as far as is possible. They wish to share their knowledge of the causes of their suffering and how it can be resolved. They want to let others know that life, every life, is far too precious to be ruined, squandered, or thrown away. And they want to say that it is worth feeling the old pain, never felt before, in order to be free of it—free for life.


I WOULD LIKE TO BEGIN with the story of a woman in her mid-thirties who wrote to me and, without knowing it, became involved in the creation of this book, above all, of the chapter on the media. I did in fact receive her permission to use the contents of her letter, but choose to keep her anonymous. I shall call her Eve.
What I learned of Eve’s story is similar, at least at the outset, to many stories that I hear almost every day: maltreatment and confusions in childhood combined with harshness, ignorance, and unconcern on the part of her parents, who regarded this as a god-fearing upbringing. Later: addiction, suicide attempts, two broken marriages, three aborted therapies, occasional short stays in clinics, renewed confusion as a result of medication and detoxification cures—in short, one long chain of misery. In the midst of all this came the birth of her own child, a new victim, as this woman could not be a mother until she had mothered the neglected, mistreated, and disregarded child that she herself had been. In the end, with the help of a deep-going therapy, she managed to save both her life and her own motherhood.Which is to say she managed to save her child’s future.
In this respect, her story is different from many others I get to read. Eve succeeded in retrieving, step by step over a long period of time, what had been repressed. The work she did on herself lasted for many years, and, as she has indicated to me in her letter, she continues to remain open to other aspects of her past, which she intends to make conscious and integrate. In fact, after the first few years of therapy, she was in a position to free herself from her addiction, dispel her blindness, and begin to care for herself and her child. She is determined to stop the destruction of both their lives, and this she can now manage. Her addiction was the price she paid for her illusions, the illusions without which she believed she could not live.Today, she can.
What hampered Eve in the early years of her therapy was her consistent refusal to believe that parents are indeed capable of routinely torturing their children, without anyone interceding, because of their ignorance of their own personal history. Her body, her dreams, and her feelings, though, went on reporting the true facts to her—once she had begun to admit the truth, and once she was prepared to take these testimonies seriously and stop denying them with her alcoholism.
Her amazement at the unexpected change that began to take place in her life inspired in her the wish to share the knowledge she had been granted in therapy with others. That she was not alone had become clearer and clearer to her. As she had at one time worked in journalism, Eve had the idea of making films for television that would portray the situation of the child using her own experiences as their point of departure. As she had become convinced of the broad applicability of what she had discovered about herself, she assumed that the editors she approached on the subject would share her interest. My own experience had made it clear to me that this is rarely the case, and Eve, in fact, underestimated the resistance—the repression—affecting everyone. Again and again in my contacts with decision-makers in the media, I had run up against the symptoms of this repression, even when my work was explicitly sought after (see Alice Miller, 1990b). Rather than take a risk, they prefer to forgo information that might be of life-and-death importance for coming generations. So in order not to have to call their own parents into question for a single moment, they cling to outdated, destructive opinions.


  • Feminist Review
    “This is a beautiful, fierce, necessary book written by an emotionally intelligent lioness who continues her efforts to break through the wall—one brick, one book— at a time. I highly recommend it.”

    Chicago Tribune
    “Makes many provocative and persuasive points about the long-term effects of child abuse, the interdependence between society and child-rearing and, finally, the individual's need to confront memories, however painful.”

    San Francisco Chronicle
    “The applicability of Miller's concepts—especially during these divisive times—is what makes her message so cogent for American audiences.”

    Moving Worlds
    “A penetrating look at how to break the cycle of child abuse in today's world.”

    New Age Journal
    “Miller charts valuable territory.”

    South Bend Tribune
    “What Miller has to say is enlightening…This is not a book that can be read through once and put aside. The reader can return again and again as new truth is recognized.”

    Science News
    “A moving argument for awareness and condemnation of child abuse."

On Sale
Dec 9, 2008
Page Count
186 pages
Basic Books

Alice Miller

About the Author

Alice Miller (1923-2010) achieved worldwide recognition for her work on the causes and effects of childhood traumas. She was also the author of many books, including The Truth Will Set You Free, Banished Knowledge, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, and For Your Own Good.

Learn more about this author