Polish Psychologist, Psychoanalyst and Author
Alice Miller, née Rostovski
Polish Psychologist, Psychoanalyst and Author
Wherever I look, I see signs of the commandment to honor one's parents and nowhere of a commandment that calls for the respect of a child.
When laws prohibiting corporal punishment were launched in 1977 in Sweden, 70% of the citizens were against it. In the latest survey, 20 years later the figure has dropped to 10%, most of them fundamentalists. These statistics show that the mentality of the Swedish population has changed radically in the course of a mere 20 years. A destructive tradition, upheld and acted upon for thousands of years, has been done away with thanks to this legislation. Where is the rest of the world?
Today I should not be identified with any kind of regressive therapy.
To be sure, I had no memories at all of the first five years of my life, and even those of the following years were very sparse. Although this is an indication of a strong repression – something that never occurs without good reason – it did not prevent me from clinging to the belief that my parents had provided me with loving care and had made every effort to give me everything I needed as a child. That was the way my mother would have described it had anyone asked her about my childhood. I had accepted her version all these years, in spite of the fact that my professional training had included two analyses and even though I should have been struck by the many similarities between my own history and the case histories of my patients.
Those children who are beaten will in turn give beatings, those who are intimidated will be intimidating, those who are humiliated will impose humiliation, and those whose souls are murdered will murder.
There is one taboo that has withstood all the recent efforts at demystification: the idealization of mother love. The usual run of biographies illustrates this very clearly. In reading the biographies of famous artists, for example, one gains the impression that their lives began at puberty. Before that, we are told, they had a happy, contented, or untroubled childhood, or one that was full of deprivation or very stimulating. But what a particular childhood really was like does not seem to interest these biographers-as if the roots of a whole life were not hidden and entwined in its childhood.
There are people who have benefited from therapy without being confronted with the past at all.
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 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.
The reason why parents mistreat their children has less to do with character and temperament than with the fact that they were mistreated themselves and were not permitted to defend themselves.
The following points are intended to amplify my meaning: 1. All children are born to grow, to develop, to live, to love, and to articulate their needs and feelings for their self-protection. 2. For their development, children need to the respect and protection of adults who take them seriously, love them, and honestly help them to become oriented in the world. 3. When these vital needs are frustrated and children are, instead, abused for the sake of the adults' needs by being exploited, beaten, punished, taken advantage of, manipulated neglected, or deceived without the intervention of any witness, then their integrity will be lastingly impaired. 4. The normal reactions to such injury should be anger and pain. Since children in this hurtful kind of environment are forbidden to express their anger, however, and since it would be unbearable to experience their pain all alone, they are compelled to suppress their feelings, repress all memory of the trauma, and idealize those guilty of the abuse. Later they will have no memory of what was done to them. 5. Disassociated from the original cause, their feelings of anger, helplessness, despair, longing, anxiety, and pain will find expression in destructive acts against others (criminal behavior, mass murder) or against themselves (drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution, psychic disorders, suicide). 6. If these people become parents, they will then often direct acts of revenge for their mistreatment in childhood against their own children, whom they use as scapegoats. Child abuse is still sanctioned -- indeed, held in high regard -- in our society as long as it is defined as child-rearing. It is a tragic fact that parents beat their children in order to escape the emotions from how they were treated by their own parents. 7. If mistreated children are not to become criminals or mentally ill, it is essential that at least once in their life they come in contact with a person who knows without any doubt that the environment, not the helpless, battered child, is at fault. In this regard, knowledge or ignorance on the part of society can be instrumental in either saving or destroying a life. Here lies the great opportunity for relatives, social workers, therapists, teachers, doctors, psychiatrists, officials and nurses to support the child and believe in her or him. 8. Till now, society has protected the adult and blamed the victim. It has been abetted in its blindness by theories, still in keeping with the pedagogical principles of our great-grandparents, according to which children are viewed as crafty creatures, dominated by wicked drives, who invent stories and attack innocent parents or desire them sexually. In reality, children tend to blame themselves for their parents' cruelty and to absolve their parents, whom they invariably love [I would say 'need' - SH] of all responsibility. 9. For some years now, it has been possible to prove, through new therapeutic methods, that repressed traumatic experiences of childhood are stored up in the body and, though unconscious, exert an influence even in adulthood. In addition, electronic testing of the fetus has revealed a fact previously unknown to most adults -- that a child responds to and learns both tenderness and cruelty from the very beginning. 10. In the light of this new knowledge, even the most absurd behavior reveals its formerly hidden logic once the traumatic experiences of childhood need no longer remain shrouded in darkness. 11. Our sensitization to the cruelty with which children are treated, until now commonly denied, and to the consequences of such treatment will as a matter of course bring an end to the perpetuation of violence from generation to generation. 12. People whose integrity has not been damaged in childhood, who were protected, respected, and treated with honesty by their parents, will be -- both in their youth and in adulthood -- intelligent, responsive, empathic and highly sensitive. They will take pleasure in life and will not feel any need to kill or even hurt others or themselves. They will use their power to defend themselves, not to attack others. They will not be able to do otherwise than respect and protect those weaker than themselves, including their own children, because this is what they have learned from their own experience, and because it is this knowledge (and not the experience of cruelty) that has been stored up inside them from the beginning. It will be inconceivable to such people that earlier generations had to build up a gigantic war industry in order to feel comfortable and safe in this world. Since it will not be their unconscious drive in life to ward off intimidation experienced at a very early age, they will be able to deal with attempts at intimidation in their adult life more rationally and creatively.
The fact that every perpetrator was once a victim himself does not necessary mean that each person who was himself abused is bound later to become the abuser of his own children. This is not inevitable if, during childhood, he had the chance – be it only once – to encounter someone who offered him something other than pedagogy and cruelty: a teacher, an aunt, a neighbor, a sister, a brother.
The fact that children are sacrificed to their parents’ needs is an uncomfortable truth that no adult likes to hear. Even adolescents find it difficult to bear, because they are bound to their parents by ambivalent feelings and would much rather direct their split-off hatred toward institutions and ‘society’ in the abstract. This provides them with objects they can unequivocally reject, and they hope in this way finally to rid themselves of their ambivalence.
The expressionistic painters and poets active at the beginning of this century demonstrated more understanding of the neuroses of their day (or at any rate unconsciously imparted more information about them) than did the contemporary professors of psychiatry.
The description of the method that gave me what I had been seeking throughout my life – namely, an approach to self-knowledge by which my own life history would be revealed to me – has by now been published in many languages, so that many people have already been able to help themselves by applying it. This self-therapy method, enacted in four steps, is devoted solely to the truth and therefore dispenses with all mystification and ideology.
The claim that mild punishments (slaps or smacks) have no detrimental effect is still widespread because we got this message very early from our parents who had taken it over from their own parents. Unfortunately, the main damage it causes is precisely the broad dissemination of this conviction. The result of which is that each successive generation is subjected to the tragic effects of so called physical correction.
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.
That was where the story of my childhood finally broke through. Today, I am convinced that I have only been willing and able to face up to my true feelings thanks to the existence of my daughter. She would tell me frankly and uninhibitedly what she saw in my pictures and what she felt about them, something that otherwise only very few people did. It was a kind of emotional communication which I found very precious… Without the relationship with my daughter I would have been even more remote from myself that I already was… In many ways it is only now, in retrospect, that I begin to appreciate something like the full extent of the boon my daughter has been to me.
Taking a closer look, we no longer find the meaning of the word egoism so clear-cut and unequivocal. It will be much the same when we examine respect for others, which is often said to be missing in self-centered people. If a mother respects both herself and her child from his very first day onward, she will never need to teach him respect for others. He will, of course, take both himself and others seriously-he couldn't do otherwise. But a mother who, as a child, was herself not taken seriously by her mother as the person she really was will try to get it by training him to give it to her. The tragic fate that is the result of such training and such respect is described in this book.
Sanctions deriving from it could take the form of parents being obligated to internalize information on the consequences of corporal punishment, in much the same way as drivers of motor vehicles are required by state law to be familiar with the highway code. In the case of our children, the point at issue is not only the welfare of individual families-- the vital interests of society as a whole are at stake. Physical cruelty and emotional humiliation not only leave their marks on children, they also inflict a disastrous imprint of the future of our society. Information on the effects of the well-meant smack should therefore be part and parcel of courses for expectant mothers and of counseling for parents. Hitler, Stalin, Mao and other dictators were exposed to severe physical mistreatment in childhood and refused to face up to the fact later. Instead of seeing and feeling what had happened to them, they avenged themselves vicariously by killing millions of people. And millions of others helped them to do so. If the legislation we are advocating had existed the time, those millions would simply have refused to perpetrate acts of cruelty at the command of crazed political leaders.
Sadism is not an infectious disease that strikes a person all of a sudden. It has a long prehistory in childhood and always originates in the desperate fantasies of a child who is searching for a way out of a hopeless situation.
Regression to the stage of early infancy is not a suitable method in and of itself. Such a regression can only be effective if it happens in the natural course of therapy and if the client is able to maintain adult consciousness at the same time.
Quite unconsciously, and despite her own good intentions, the mother then tries to assuage her own narcissistic needs through her child, that is, she cathects [i.e. engulfs] him narcissistically. This does not rule out strong affection. On the contrary, the mother often loves her child as her self-object, passionately, but not in the way he needs to be loved.
Our contempt for egoists begins very early in life. Children who fulfill their parents' conscious or unconscious wishes are good, but if they ever refuse to do so or express wishes of their own that go against those of their parents they are called egoistic and inconsiderate. It usually does not occur to the parents that they might need and use the child to fulfill their own egoistic wishes. They often are convinced that they must teach their child how to behave because it is their duty to help him along on the road to socialization. If a child bought up this way does not wish to lose his parents' love (And what child can risk that?), he must learn very early to share, to give, to make sacrifices, and to be willing to do without and forgo gratification-long before he is capable of true sharing or of the real willingness to do without.
Open Letter to the Holy Father. I take the liberty to write to You again… I can’t imagine that any other person in the world would have Your courage, Your credibility, as well as Your personal talent and God's grace to be able to speak up against an old tradition [of parents beating their children]… I am asking You again to make an appeal to all parents urging them to no longer beat their children, and to tell them that it is highly dangerous. If the Church continues to ignore the new scientific information and to stay silent about this issue in spite of the lessons of Jesus, who else can be asked to open the parents’ eyes in order to prevent the blind escalation of violence? I am sure that if my letters succeed to reach You personally You will not stay indifferent to the knowledge they are trying to pass on to you. With my most profound respect, Alice Miller.