Dealing with an estranged family member


#1

So, I have a sister who has estranged herself (and her kids) from our family based on the theories of Alice Miller and the conviction that our mother is abusive and mentally ill, and so are the rest of us until we recognize that. Alice Miller, it turns out, is a therapist whose latest book insists on the enormous evil of the 4th commandment (and religion in general) and insists that unhappy adults must learn that their parents were mentally ill and abused them and that our future happiness and mental health depends on our realizing that we must NOT forgive our parents. Mentally ill parents are those who abuse their children, which seems to include all spanking, but from what I gather all you really need to know is: “I’m unhappy” - from this you can safely conclude your parents were mentally ill and abused you and should never be forgiven.

Discovering this information has been a lightbulb moment for me to understand what has seemed to me like inexplicably bizarre rhetoric coming from my sister: accusations that I’m mentally ill, that I’m doing irreparable damage to my children (whom she has refused to even meet to see how I interact with them), generally having a very repetitive, cult-member like rhetoric with me in my communications with her (using Alice Miller’s vocabulary, as I’ve now learned), as if she is enlightened and it will be impossible for me to have a real, healthy conversation with her or understand what she’s saying/who I am/what our family is like/etc., unless I become enlightened too (via Alice Miller’s theories).

Does anybody have experience with this kind of situation or resources on Alice Miller that might help me move forward with this situation? Thanks.


#2

I haven’t heard of Alice Miller (thank God), but it sounds like your family member probably has some very real issues to contend with and unfortunately turned to the wrong resources. The best you could do is probably try to keep in touch with her as best you can and encourage her to seek alternative forms of help. It sounds like a very sad situation, I hate to say it, but your sister is an adult and there is really only so much you can do. I will be praying for you both.


#3

Somewhere in scripture Pauls tells us to find a point of agreement with people. I think if you want your sister not to be estranged, you need to start there. Find something to agree with in Alice Miller. She has a lot of good reviews on Amazon so there must be something to agree with.

It sounds like your sister really desparately needs validation, and found it in Miller. But she most needs validation from you (and your family) and since she is not getting it she is realy put out, and mad. She is not getting her due from you - validation. That’s something we should all get from our families, but clearly we all don’t. I realize your sister has problems and its hard to giver her this but you probably should try to in whatever way you truthfully can.

You can respect a person’s opinion without agreeing with it. If she were to say “All 5th graders are evil”, for example, you could say, “I respect your opinion.” You can say, or better yet think to yourself, “I have a different one, however.”

You can respect her opinion by repeating it back to her. “So, you are saying all 5th graders are evil? Hmm. Wow. And why do you think so?” Then she explains, and you can say true non-judgemental things like, “Gee, I never saw it that way before.”

Then she gets to talk, and she lets off steam, and maybe her opinions won’t come out to be as volitile as they sound in the end. Then in the end you can agree to disagree. You can say you have a differnt opinion. But realize she may not want to hear it.

I think God wants us to be peacemakers in whatever way we can.

Also, pray that God helps you to see what is true in what her perspective. One thing I have noticed so much is that in a given family children can have completely different experiences of the same parents. Certain children are harder to be loved, and perhaps don’t get the love they deserve becasue it was hard to give to them. I remember my friend growing up; she was the apple of her parents’ eye, everything they could want in a daughter. But with one of the sons - it was sad. I always thought the poor kid should have been born in a differnt family, one that could appreciate his different kind of gifts. Nice devoted parents, but he sure got the short end. His parents did the best they could, but I don’t think they were capable of relating to his different kind of way.

So it could well be that your sister had a completely different experience with your parents than you did. Even the same situation can have two responses. Dad barking at you both to put the books down and turn out the lights might have been fine for you but wounding for her. Your acknowledging that could go a long way towards her healing and moving past her anger.


#4

Alice Miller has a problem with the commandment to honor and obey your parents? Thats understandable if she had a terrible experience with her own. What if they were truly abusive, mentally, physically, and/or emotionally? I think we should have sympathy for people who are mad at God over their parents. I am sure God understands. There is a time for everything, and a time to be mad, too. We can pray they move into understanding and healing, and someday have the Perfect Father and loving Blessed Mother in their life. Thats what Alice Miller is truly longing for.


#5

You’re probably right. I think she, as well as the OPs sister, may have feelings of anger toward family or someone else that has not been properly dealt with. Anger has a negative conotation but it really is a natural part of the cycle of healing. God willing it is indeed just part of a cycle for both of them and will pass.


#6

I googled Alice Miller, and I am not finding anything suggesting that she is a quack, or that her theories are harmful and unreasonable.

Is it possible that your sister was abused and you were not? What evidence does she give of her mother having abused her?


#7

You are quite right about Alice Miller - her theories are largely autobiographical. The sad thing is that she seems to have concluded fairly late in life (her late fifties) that the way to deal with it is by not forgiving, adamantly rejecting forgiveness, and 25 years later (I think she’s 84 now) is still preaching the same thing, that forgiveness is the key to perpetuating the cycle of abuse. Still, for my sister at least, I hope the anger is just part of the cycle. If she doesn’t overcome the influence of Miller, though, I don’t see how healing will be possible.


#8

Thanks everybody for your posts. Reading them has really helped me to think about the situation and realize why my sister has been so offended and angry with the way I’ve tried to talk to her. I think she’s stuck at a narcissistic stage of thinking and feeling, so the only thing that she is capable of hearing right now is validation. I tried to reason with her (I’m a philosophy student, that’s my specialty), but all she could hear was that she was being attacked. She needs to work through some stuff, I guess, before she’s able to reason through it. Thanks again for everybody’s comments.

p.s. I am still inclined to think Alice Miller is a quack, or better, a very lost soul.


#9

Don’t know if you do psychology as well as philosophy, but if she is truly Narcissistic there was some damage growing up.

Hopefully its just a narcissitic phase.

Miller probably has a flaw in her thinking. Well obviously if she is against forgiveness altogether. But there is a book I read some years ago called Don’t Forgive Too Soon - I got it at a Redemptorist bookstore. Part of the point was that if you forgive too quickly, sometimes you have not acknowledged the wrong done you and in fact you haven’t really truly forgiven. The authors explain about true forgiveness being a process, stages to go through which are actually the classic the stages of grief. Forgiveness comes at the end of that. Perhaps Miller has a handle on some portion of the forgiving process, and is speaking truth on that. Just hasn’t moved on with it.

I hope you can find a way to be truthfully and charitably validating, and that when you look at her - with God’s grace - you can see yourself looking into the face of Christ.

Hey, maybe that Forgiveness Book would be good for your sister. It would not only validate her current stage of anger, but show her that that is in fact a step to move beyond someday. But I wouldn’t suggest it till you’ve done some sympathetic listening.


#10

That’s an interesting thought. I’ll have to think about it!

I’m not using the term narcissistic in any particularly technical sense. One book I’ve read is called Manufacturing Victims: what the psychology industry is doing to people by Tana Dineen. My sister’s story seems, to me, to have been just as much a case of victim-making as being a victim. She was once very close to our mother, she even named her first-born after her. But then she had some miscarriages, possibly post-partum depression, a difficult divorce, left the church, decided sexual morality was not for her, etc. Anyway, all of this was after childhood was over. We are five siblings in my family. We all recognize that our mother made mistakes, of course all mothers do, and my mom did her best but was/is far from perfect. My three other siblings have all rejected the faith too and think my mom is stupid and fanatical in many ways and are happy to criticize her, they’ve been sympathetic to my sister, but they’ve been shut out of my sister’s life too, and why? Because they won’t (in good conscience can’t) acquiesce to her demand to sever all ties with my mom.

Anyway, the past is inevitably murky, and from what I’ve read, those who claim that we need to go back to the past to reclaim it and to feel the feelings we weren’t allowed to feel and that kind of thing are peddling some very suspicious wares.

As for listening sympathetically, that’s hard sometimes! I’m not convinced it’s always the right thing to do either. Dishonest sympathy can’t be helpful can it? Obviously you try, but to give an example, my sister acknowledges that she has ‘craziness’ issues, but she says she’s the least crazy one, because everybody else in my family is really crazy, but we refuse to recognize it. Then she insists that she’s emotionally mature and knows how to communicate to other adults in a mature, respectful way. I can pity her, but at that point I just don’t know how to sympathize with her.


#11

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