Sooner or later every book-writing psychoanalyst, weary of explaining the neurotics on his or her couch, succumbs to the theoretical compulsion — the narcissistic fantasy that one’s own theory is going to clear up war, art, crime, love, and the rest of civilization and its discontents.

The theories of the Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller are cases in point. Useful as explanations of the importance of childhood abuse and trauma in adult disturbances, they fail as explanations of the human condition.

Even the most well-intentioned parents, Miller argued in The Drama of the Gifted Child and subsequent books, have a stubborn tendency to botch the job of raising their kids. By failing to understand the highly charged emotional world of early childhood, by manipulating their children to satisfy their own unconscious needs, by imposing an authoritarian ”poison pedagogy” that bestows love and acceptance only in exchange for conforming to rigid, perfectionist standards, parents alienate children from their true selves. The children, guiltily suppressing their real feelings, grow up with evasions, depressions, compulsions, and an alarming tendency to repeat the pattern with their own children.

By exposing the many and subtle ways in which bringing up the kids is likely to ruin them for life, Miller’s books have the virtue of making the formula for successful parenting bracingly simple: You have to be a saint — a saint who already has arranged to have parents who were also saints, who in turn. . . In other words, there is something utopian about Miller’s books, something militant about her vaunted flexibility, something hectoring about her sensitivity.

In her previous books, Miller put her theories to work on Nazism and the fiction of Kafka, Hesse, and others. In The Untouched Key she turns to Picasso, Buster Keaton, itler, Stalin, and Nietzsche, among others. She is at her best on Hitler and Stalin, showing how the brutality of their upbringings was reproduced on a scale of millions of victims, though she underestimates the role of ideology in their crimes — were Mao and Pol Pot also beaten regularly? But when she gets artists and writers on her couch the results are as monotonously reductive as any boilerplate Freudianism. Noting the dark side of Picasso’s art, she seems bitterly disappointed to find that he had a happy childhood, but she is rescued by the discovery that when he was 3 an earthquake struck Malaga and his family fled to another house, where his mother gave birth to his sister. As a result, ”guided by a compulsion he neither understood or recognized,” he painted Guernica and lots of distorted female forms.

She takes Keaton’s deadpan slapstick at face value — as a sign of an inability to laugh due to the knocking about he received in his parents’ vaudeville act, rather than as the perfection of the ancient teehnique of keeping a straight face while telling a joke. She suggests that Nietzsche never would have written against Christianity if it hadn’t been for the suffocating piety of his childhood household, and that he would have been better off if he had dropped the subject — and philosophy — altogether and written a lachrymose memoir of unhappy youth instead.

As usual the psychologist underestimates the writer’s interest in his subject and the artist’s devotion to his art. At times in these essays Miller resembles the martinet mother she elsewhere condemns, lining up her artists and demanding that they recite their awful childhoods instead of fooling around with mere trifles. Still, this book, like her others, has the merit of raising questions about the innate or acquired human tendency to foul things up that no psychological theory, however illuminating, can ever answer.

The Untouched Key
  • Book