FOR YOUR OWN GOOD - Alice Miller
[Pages vii-xiv in the print edition]

Preface to the 2002 Edition: The Hidden Truth

THIS BOOK appeared twenty-two years ago, when child abuse was not an issue. People were shocked at my description of what I called "poisonous pedagogy"; they had thought that children were subjected to this kind of maltreatment, lies, hypocrisy, and manipulation only in Germany, and not within the past hundred years. Then the media began to bring to light appalling facts about what happens today to children in other countries as well. Books that showed "poisonous pedagogy" at work even in contemporary America started to appear (see especially Spare the Child by Philip Greven, Knopf, 1991).

Since then we have become more and more aware of what happened to us in our own childhoods, and we have begun to learn about the lifelong consequences of the first years of life. As the sociologist Lucien Lombardo wrote in his introduction to a chapter of my recent book, The Truth Will Set You Free, "childhood is not the shortest age in our life but rather the longest because it stays with us until our death." In a way he is right: irrational emotions like fear and rage stemming from our childhoods can lead to crime or lifelong suffering if we don't take care of them and are not interested in their origins. Fortunately, today we can work on our unconscious and overcome our fears; we can achieve emotional health if we don't deny the causes of our plight. Amazingly, we can be more truly alive once we know what happened to us at the beginning of our lives and are able to find conscious access to the children we once were.

On the other hand, some people try so hard to eradicate all memories, to avoid any confrontation with the tortured, humiliated child they were that they die psychically long before their physical deaths, sometimes at the expense of their children and other people. This avoidance, this denial -- often accomplished with the help of drugs -- is comprehensible, of course, as long as the pain seems unbearable to us. But it is not. It was unbearable only for the infant who needed to deny in order to survive. Adults can live with the truth. The price they pay for their denial can be very high.

The biggest obstacle for parents of goodwill is their ignorance concerning the humiliation endured in their own childhoods. A survey concerning physical punishment of children was recently done in France, one of the most civilized and culturally rich countries in the world. One hundred young mothers from different backgrounds were asked at what age they had assumed that their first child needed spanking. Eighty-nine percent of the women answered that when the child started to walk or crawl and to reach for objects that might be dangerous, spanking was necessary to teach them how to behave. The remaining 11 percent couldn't remember the exact age their children were when they started to spank them. Not a single mother said that she had never spanked her child.

The results of this survey didn't surprise me. Of course, I know that there are people who never beat their children. But these parents are an exception; they represent perhaps about 3 percent of all parents in the world (see Olivier Maurel, La Fessee, Editions La Plage, 2001). If a survey done in the country that for more than two hundred years has propagated the ideals of equality and brotherhood yields these sad results, what can we expect from countries only now gaining access to important information about the history of childhood? Our collective ignorance about the sources of violence remains gigantic. Some may ask why I focus so strongly on the issue of corporal punishment when there are so many other forms of child abuse and exploitation. Why has this become my chief cause?

First of all, the harm it does is tragically underestimated all over the world. Nobody today would deliberately recommend verbal humiliation, manipulation, and exploitation of children "for their own good." But many people seriously believe that spanking is of some good to children. And corporal punishment includes the effects of all other forms of child abuse: betrayal of the child's confidence, dignity, and perception of reality. Finally, I emphasize corporal punishment because of the essential role of the body in transmitting information to the next generation. The body stores up in its cells what it has endured from the moment of conception, a phenomenon Olivier Maurel has explained very clearly (see his comments under "Dangers specifiques des chatiments corporels" on my Web site, The memory of the body underlies the mystery of the compulsion to repeat, especially the compulsion of so many adults to repeat with their own children what they endured very early in life but do not recall.

We are reluctant to acknowledge that the memory of our bodies, along with our emotional experience, is not controlled by our consciousness, our mind. We have no control over the way this memory operates. But accepting the sheer existence of these phenomena can help us to guard against their effects. The typical mother who "involuntarily" slaps her child is not aware of the fact that her body and its memory is prompting her to do so. But she can come to understand this, and to understand means to be able to cope, rather than to repeat, endlessly and helplessly, a behavior that harms all involved.

Teachers and parents of the last two centuries, a number of whom I quote in this book, have emphasized again and again that the school of obedience, of "physical admonition," should start very early in the life of a child, so that the message remains effective for his or her whole life. As the aforementioned French survey attests, this advice is still followed: children are beaten, and at the very time when it is most damaging to them. During the first three years of life, the child's brain grows very fast. The lessons of violence learned at this time are not easy to dissolve. Children must deny the pain in order to survive, but this strategy leads them, as grown-ups, to the emotional blindness responsible for the absurd attitude they act upon as parents and educators. The denial of violence endured leads to violence directed toward others or oneself.

I, of course, was no exception, and it took me a long time to free myself from this denial. The awakening of my emotions and memories through painting, which I took up in 1973, motivated me to look at different childhoods in different cultures. Through this research I learned how evil comes into the world and how we produce it in every new generation again and again. And the "poisonous pedagogy" I encountered taught me what my mother had done to me in my first years, how she succeeded in turning me into an obedient child with whom, as she said later, she never had any problem. The price I had to pay for what many people call "good upbringing" was that for a long time I was separated from my true feelings, from myself.

Six years after I began to paint I wrote my first three books in three years (The Drama of the Gifted Child, For Your Own Good, and Thou Shalt Not Be Aware), in which I tried to explain the connections between denied suffering in childhood and adult violence. Research on Hitler and other dictators opened my eyes to sources of knowledge that most people ignore or overlook. For me it was a revelation.

Then I studied the childhoods of several serial killers and always found the same pattern: extreme abuse, lack of helpful witnesses, glorification of violence, and the compulsion to repeat, with a photographic precision, what had been endured in the early years. In Jonathan Pincus's Base Instincts: What Makes Serial Killers Kill (Norton, 2001), I recently found confirmation of my hypothesis that serial killers have been severely mistreated as children, and that most of them deny their abuse. The few who don't, I believe, blame themselves for the abuse, calling it discipline or correction or a proper strictness. For that reason, for that confusion, they become killers.

To escape this vicious cycle we must face the truth. And we can do it. We were humiliated children; we were the victims of our parents' ignorance, the victims of their history, of the unconscious scars with which childhood left them. We had no choice but to deny the truth.

But unlike children, we adults have other -- and healthier -- alternatives. We can choose knowledge and awareness over compulsion and fear. Unfortunately, too many people are not yet aware of this choice. Maybe there is a little Stalin inside many of us. For all his power, he spent his life in fear of his father and clinging to the "blessings" of denial. Like Hitler, he believed that the annihilation of millions of people would free him of the tormenting fear of his father. But it didn't.

Equipped with the knowledge we now have at our disposal, we can develop different ideas and solutions from those passed on to us in a thousand-year tradition of violence, punishment, and retribution, which was sustained by weakness, ignorance, and fear. To heal our wounds, we eventually need two "knowing witnesses" -- the therapist and our body, whose language will warn us the moment we abandon our truth. We have to learn to respect these messages. To have a therapist who herself has worked on her story and doesn't hesitate to share it can be very helpful for the patient, because it creates trust, understanding, and shared experience.

The importance of childhood experiences to the life of the adult is still ignored in most societies. But time has brought a few important changes, for example, measures in some European countries that make it illegal to beat children. And the development of the Internet has made widely available information that not long ago would have been taboo. Here, for example, are excerpts from a letter that I found on the Web site Twenty years ago a letter like this would probably not have been written, which is why I am moved to include it in this latest edition of my book:

I remember sitting on my father's lap (OK, now my heart is pounding). I'm not sure how old I was but his hand was down my pants. I think I had just bathed and was wearing pyjamas, but I can't be sure. ..I kept squirming to try and get away, all the while trying to be subtle about it so he didn't realize that I was uncomfortable. I was so concerned with his feelings...

Perhaps I was afraid of upsetting him. I guess I didn't know what to make of my feelings. Since he could make me pull down my pants and stand naked from the waist down at any given moment to beat me with his belt, I guess I figured that my body was his to do with what he saw fit and that privacy was not mine to have...

Sometimes, when my father was force-feeding me, he would threaten to beat me if I didn't stop crying. You know how it goes, "Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about." I was terribly afraid of my father. I would pretend to be asleep as my father stood in my bedroom doorway, staring at me. It was my way of life. I was always so embarrassed by my father making me pull down my pants to expose my bare buttocks so he could watch the snapping of the belt against my bare skin. Actually, even as a child, I thought that was part of my punishment -- to be exposed and humiliated -- to be shown how small and undeserving of respect I was and what could be/would be done to me, at will, if I didn't do whatever it was I was supposed to do. I eventually began to look at the welts he would leave by using the little round bathroom mirror. How satisfying that must have been for my father to see the results of his efforts. I guess he showed me ...Yes, I really learned my lesson. That snapping of his belt against my skin is a sound I will never forget. "Move your hands" are words I can never forget.

The word "belt" itself instills overwhelming embarrassment and shame to this very day. How humiliated I was! I believe my father truly enjoyed this act of power. I wouldn't be surprised if he came in his pants right in the middle of it. This embarrassment turned into shame and it is this shame that haunts me. I feel violated. I was violated.

Did he really believe I deserved that? Did he really believe that was the best way? Or, was he merely succumbing to his own need to pass down, out of anger, the humiliation that he felt as a child? Did he, indeed, feel this kind of humiliation as a child? Is it his lack of education or intelligence? Perhaps he is lazy and didn't want to try or learn any other way of parenting. Perhaps his need to establish control preceded all else. Or perhaps he enjoyed being cruel. I don't know how to forgive him. I don't even think I want to forgive him. In my mind, forgiving him would be like saying it was OK.


He stripped me of my clothes and with it my dignity and self-worth. I don't know how to forgive him for that. He has, of course, never asked for my forgiveness. I can only presume he believes he was a good father. I am still afraid to approach the topic with him, not that I have any contact with him anyway, for fear that he will laugh at me.

That is what shame does to a person. It debilitates, preventing one from facing his/her fears. He used to laugh at me as I obediently brought his belt to him, while I was sobbing at what was about to happen. He used to chuckle and say, "Why are you crying? I haven't even touched you yet." If I cried or whined too much, I got beaten for that. What was I supposed to do? I never knew when it was coming and I always took the threats seriously.

Oh, the threats. They were great. "Do you want me to blister your bottom? Do you want the belt? Do you want me to beat you? Do you want me to blister your tail? Do you want a beating?" I just never seemed to know how to avoid it. I just lived the only way I knew how and figured I must be bad and/or not too bright to keep making the same mistakes...

I have children of my own now and have given all of my energy to breaking this chain of humiliating and controlling parenting techniques. I continue to learn just how deeply my childhood has affected me and struggle to replace that which I know from experience by that which I know to be good and decent and logical. Blessed with God's help and my own strong will, I have broken the chain. Unfortunately, I am still bound by this chain, but I am the last link. My children do not provide a link in this hurtful chain and therefore are not bound by it. They are free and I thank God...

I believe you to be a sadistic bully. I continue to be shamed and humiliated through memory; hence, the punishment you inflicted upon me as a young girl has lasted my entire life. I believe that part of you is dead inside, limiting your ability to empathize and profoundly feel the pain of others. I feel both contempt and pity for you. Darkness and unenlightenment surround you. I realize I am bound by the love of God to forgive you, yet continue to struggle with this task. So, I have finally expressed my true feelings, at least some of them. I tell you these things as an attempt to liberate myself from the emotional trauma which you inflicted on me, not as a means to regain contact. This letter is for me, not you.


Some of us may have heard voices like Pamela's in poems or novels. But as they are edited into literature by the adult, the voice of the child remains hidden. What moved me especially about Pamela's letter was that she allowed the child to speak.

Since this book was first published, I have received many similar messages. The letters I received gave me the idea to create Web forums called "ourchildhood" in English, German, and French, so that survivors of abuse could share their experiences. All three forums are accessible from my Web site. To become aware of what happened to us can help us to end the chain of violence. Talking about peace without being prepared to see the roots of violence in childhood is like wanting to heal a person by covering up and ignoring a giant abscess. Abscesses must be seen and well treated to heal.

For the first time, former victims can speak in an open forum about the humiliations and the pain they suffered in childhood, and for the first time they can be supported by others who have endured the same. They can feel understood in their reception of reality. With time, they can free themselves from the shame and guilt that was instilled in them for the deeds of others. This development allows for hope that therapists will also decide to make their own journeys into the past. By acknowledging their truths and healing, they will encourage their patients to do the same.

Today, I think, the important boundary lies not between those who were once mistreated and those who were not; rather, I see it as dividing unconscious victims from conscious survivors. Because most of us were victims of the "educational" violence that is -- unfortunately -- still held in high esteem in too many parts of the world, the United States included. Today, human rights are denied only to children.

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