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“Miller no longer put parents on a pedestal”

“Miller no longer put parents on a pedestal”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Illustration: Simone Golob

Jan Willems and Alice Miller

After reading Alice Miller’s Das Drama des Begabten Kindes (1979) at the beginning of the nineteen-eighties, Maastricht jurist Jan Willems thought “now I have my hands on something”. Adults who have been neglected, emotionally or sexually abused, or who have been put under pressure by their parents when they were young, can suffer from this for the rest of their lives, Miller claimed. This would, for example, result in depression and insecurity, addiction or delinquent behaviour. The message given by Polish-born Miller (1923-2010) was completely new at the time, says Willems. “A person cannot grow if he does not acknowledge the truth, his childhood traumas or personal ghosts. Miller saw the abuse of parental authority – the child is my possession – as the root of all human problems. She no longer put parents on a pedestal.” Miller, with doctorates in Psychology, Philosophy and Sociology, had serious doubts about psychoanalysis, a profession she herself had practiced for years. This was because of the “denial of cruelty of some parents by Freud and later psychoanalysts.”

Coming in contact with Miller’s work resulted in Willems’ PhD thesis, on the basis of which he obtained his doctorate degree in 1998, Wie zal de opvoeders opvoeden? (Who will parent the parents?). Willems carries out research in the field of children’s rights. He has worked for the Faculty of Law since 1981, when he was a member of the committee that created the PBL-study programme for the new faculty.

However, his career could have taken a different turn. He obtained a degree in International Law in Nijmegen. He had a preference for international law and history. “My first source of inspiration was Hugo Grotius. He wrote, in 1625, that every individual had his own conscience and shouldn’t follow behind rulers waging unjust wars.” Willems initially wanted to do a PhD in nuclear armament. He was triggered by jurists like Frits Kalshoven, expert in the field of International Humanitarian Law, who said: ‘Nuclear armament is on the other side of the law’. Willems: “They felt it was politics, not a legal theme.”

Miller’s book – “it reads like a popular scientific story” – changed things completely. Willems became more engrossed in her themes, such as upbringing, child abuse and psychology. “At the end of the nineteen-eighties, Nel Draijer had carried out a large-scale national survey on the extent of sexual abuse in the Netherlands. More than 30 per cent (of a thousand women between the ages of 20 and 40) had suffered abuse before her sixteenth birthday, varying from unwanted touching to rape. “The results were denied, the messenger cast aside,” says Willems. “According to psychologists such as Piet Vroon and Hans Crombag (emeritus professor of the Psychology of Law at the UM, ed.) it couldn’t be right. But it was exactly this ‘denial’ that took hold of me. It is also the core of my present research.”

Alice Miller could not be left out of the literature list of Willems’ thesis. But that did not go unchallenged. “My supervisors, Theo van Boven and Herman Baartman, received a note from a Dutch scientist – I won’t mention his name, it’s too sensitive – which stated that I could not graduate with honours because I had put Miller’s work on my list. It touched a tender spot for mainstream psychologists.” 


This is a series in which scientists talk about a person that inspired them most.



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