Ron Miller: On Abnormal Psychology

This is the fourth in a series of interviews with APA Books authors and editors. For this interview, Mary Lynn Skutley, the Editorial Director of APA Books, interviewed Dr. Ron Miller, of Saint Michael’s College.


Ronald B. Miller, PhD, is professor of psychology at Saint Michael’s College where he has also directed the master’s program in clinical psychology for 30 years.

He is the author of Not So Abnormal Psychology (2015), Facing Human Suffering: Psychology and Psychotherapy as Moral Engagement (2004), an associate editor for the Encyclopedia of Psychology (2000), and the editor of The Restoration of Dialogue: Readings in the Philosophy of Clinical Psychology (1992). He is a founding associate editor of the journal Pragmatic Case Studies in Psychotherapy and the former editor of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology.

A fellow of APA, Dr. Miller is currently the chair of the Vermont Board of Psychological Examiners.

It was just announced that your book, Not So Abnormal Psychology, won Honorable Mention in the Textbook/Social Sciences category of the 2016 PROSE Awards. Congratulations!

In the opening pages of this book, you describe personal struggles that ultimately lead you to reject mainstream diagnostic models. Personal revelation is unusual in scholarly scientific writing.  Why did you feel it was important to include?

I think the real challenge in psychology and many aspects of life is to integrate our subjective experiences, which are very personal and unique, with the world of other people—each having their own unique experiences. Sometimes when we do this we find a common or objective truth, and many times we don’t. Experimental psychology can only pay attention to the former, but the latter is as or more important in our lives. I always understood as a psychotherapist that this was a critical aspect of my work—honoring the client’s own experience while also looking for shared experiences that build a sense of relationship. The longer I taught college students, the more I realized they needed to understand that process too.

How do students react to that narrative?

Students always respond well to narrative accounts that illustrate psychological principles and theories. Every instructor knows that. That is why case studies are such powerful pedagogical tools. While this is generally acknowledged by authors of traditional textbooks in abnormal psychology, the justification given is usually that cases pique the students’ interest and sustains them for the “real (much more important) work” of studying the subject matter through quantitative or experimental methods.

My view is that there is a strong epistemological argument that can be made for the role of case studies in validating and communicating clinical practice knowledge. As Dan McAdams has argued more broadly, the creation of narrative is central to our very Being. When the case study is the professor’s own life, the power of the narrative is even greater. My students spontaneously will offer their appreciation for sharing with them the struggles I had as a young adult and graduate student. They say it makes them feel less alone with their own life struggles.

 You’ve said that students are often drawn to psychology by a desire to help others.  How can we teach them about the profession in a way that will kindle that desire?

I think students want to know that there are concepts and methods in psychology that can be applied in the real world that can make a transformational difference in their own and other people’s lives. They want to know how to turn their own lives around or help others they care about or work with to do the same. They have a vision of wanting to do good in the world, and they don’t want to have to give up their values of being a decent human being in order to practice experimentally validated procedures where everyone is following the same therapeutic script regardless of the differences among clients. Nor do they wish to practice techniques that produce statistically significant effects unless those differences are meaningful in the lives of those receiving services.

Why did you title your book, Not So Abnormal?

I was reviewing a number of undergraduate abnormal psychology textbooks at the beginning of the process, and as I read and summarized the descriptions and explanations for the causes and treatments of various diagnoses I found myself repeatedly writing after most of the summary statements, “Not So.” Eventually it occurred to me to simply insert the words “Not So” at the beginning of the title.

“Not so abnormal” makes a broader statement about mental health. What will readers of your textbook take away that they would not take away from a traditional textbook? 

I see the abnormal psychology course as both an opportunity for students to learn about an academic discipline and to contribute to the improvement in the mental health of the millions of students who will enroll in this course during the college years.  It is a rare opportunity to offer intensive mental health education, and this is badly needed in our society today.

I have attempted to provide a coherent integrated framework for understanding human psychological suffering (“psychopathology”) that is informed by pragmatic humanistic values, an awareness of the importance of unconscious developmental mental processes, and an understanding of the power of the family and social-political environment. The goal of this framework is to produce greater self-understanding in the reader, and to lay out a path for transformational psychological change. After reading the traditional abnormal psychology textbook, the student comes away with a knowledge of hundreds of terms and disparate facts that seem to have no coherent relationship to one another. It as though anxiety and psychosis are unrelated phenomena as opposed to the framework I propose where psychosis is the absolute extreme of the anxiety state we all experience from time to time.

Although this may sound like a self-help book, it is also a textbook that covers the philosophical, historical, and social/political context of the development of the sub-discipline of abnormal psychology and the field of mental health as a whole. Rather than ignore the theoretical models that do not fit into my integrated framework (viz., the biomedical and cognitive-behavioral approaches), I discuss their pros and cons, and cite evidence for where I think these models are or are not helpful.

What books do you recommend for students and therapists?

I was heavily influenced by philosophy and literature prior to entering the field of psychology. Some classics that stand out are The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, War and Peace by Tolstoy, J.L. Austen’s, How to Do Things with Words and Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis And I urge all my students to read Yalom’s  works on existential psychotherapy and Love’s Executioner, which is a great book of case studies.


Katie Ten Hagen

1 comment

  1. In naming Miller a Fellow of the APA, Dr. Ian Rivers, chair of the APA Fellows Committee, wrote that “Fellow status is awarded in part on the basis of evaluated evidence of outstanding contribution in the field of psychology” and, he noted “this is special recognition by your peers.

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