FOR YOUR OWN GOOD - Alice Miller
17 [Pages 240-260 in the print edition]

Concluding Comments

It may strike the reader as very strange to see three such dissimilar life histories placed side by side (Christiane F., a drug addict; Adolf Hitler; Jürgen Bartsch, a child murderer). But it was because of this very dissimilarity that I selected and juxtaposed these figures, for, in spite of their differences, they share certain features common to many other people as well.

  1. In all three cases we find extreme destructiveness. Christiane F. directed it against herself, Adolf Hitler against his real and imagined enemies, and Jürgen Bartsch against little boys, in whom he was repeatedly murdering himself while at the same time taking the lives of others.
  2. I interpret this destructiveness as the discharge of long-pent-up childhood hatred and its displacement onto other objects or onto the self.
  3. As children, all three were severely mistreated and subjected to humiliation, not only in isolated instances but on a regular basis. From earliest childhood, they grew up in a climate of cruelty.
  4. The healthy, normal reaction to such treatment would be narcissistic rage of extreme intensity. But because of the authoritarian form of child-rearing practiced by all three families, this rage had to be sharply suppressed.
  5. In their entire childhood and youth, none of the three had an adult to whom they could confide their feelings, especially their feelings of hatred. (Christiane is an exception here insofar as she did meet two people during puberty to whom she could talk.)
  6. All three persons described here felt a strong urge to communicate their suffering to the world, to express themselves in some way. They all showed a special talent for verbal expression.
  7. Since the path to safe, verbal communication based on a feeling of trust was blocked for them, the only way they were able to communicate with the world was by means of unconscious enactment.
  8. Not until the end of the drama is reached do these enactments awaken in the world feelings of shock and horror. The public at large unfortunately, does not experience such intense feelings upon hearing reports of battered children.
  9. It lies in the nature of these people's repetition compulsion that they succeeded in winning undivided public attention with their enactments--enactments that ultimately led, however, to their own downfall. Similarly, a child who is beaten regularly also succeeds in winning attention, albeit in the baleful form of physical punishment.
  10. All three received affection only as their parents' self-objects and property, but never for their own sakes. The longing for affection, coupled with the eruption of destructive feelings from childhood, brought about their fateful enactments during puberty and adolescence. (In Hitler's case, these enactments filled an entire lifetime.)

The three people described here are not only individuals but also representatives of certain groups. We can better understand these groups (for example, drug addicts, delinquents, suicides, terrorists, or even a certain type of politician) if we trace the fate of an individual back to the concealed tragedy of his or her childhood. The many and varied enactments of such people are essentially a crying out for understanding, but in a way that assures them of anything but society's sympathy. It is part of the tragic nature of the repetition compulsion that someone who hopes eventually to find a better world than the one he or she experienced as a child in fact keeps creating instead the same undesired state of affairs.

When a person cannot talk about the cruelty endured as a child because it was experienced so early that it is beyond the reach of memory, then he or she must demonstrate cruelty. Christiane does this by self-destructiveness, the others by seeking out victims. For those who have children, these victims are automatically provided, and the demonstration can take place with impunity and without drawing public attention. But if one is childless, as in Hitler's case, the suppressed hatred may be vented upon millions of human beings, and the victims as well as the judges will confront such bestiality without an inkling as to its origins. Several decades have passed since Hitler conceived the idea of destroying human beings like vermin, and in the meantime the techniques required for such a project have certainly been perfected to the highest degree. Thus, it is all the more crucial for us to keep pace with this development by increasing our understanding of the sources of such intense and insatiable hatred as Hitler's. For, with all due respect for historical, sociological, and economic explanations, the official who turns on the gas to asphyxiate children and the person who conceived this are human beings and were once children themselves. Until the general public becomes aware that countless children are subjected to soul murder every day and that society as a whole must suffer as a result, we are groping in a dark labyrinth--in spite of all our well-meaning efforts to bring about disarmament among nations.

When I was planning the major portion of this book, I had no idea that it would lead me to questions concerning world peace. Originally, my sole concern was to inform parents of what I had learned about pedagogy in my twenty years of psychoanalytic practice. Because I did not want to write about my patients, I chose people who were already known to the public. Writing, however, resembles an adventure-filled journey whose destination is unknown at the outset. Therefore, if I have touched on matters of war and peace, it is only peripherally, for these matters far exceed my competence. But my study of Hitler's life, the psychoanalytic attempt to understand his later actions as an outgrowth of the degradation and humiliation he suffered as a child, was not without its consequences. It inevitably brought me to the topic of the search for peace. What emerged has its pessimistic as well as its optimistic implications.

I designate as pessimistic the thought that we are far more dependent than our pride would like to admit on individual human beings (and not only on institutions!), for a single person can gain control over the masses if he learns to use to his own advantage the system under which they were raised. People who have been "pedagogically" manipulated as children are not aware as adults of all that can be done to them. Like the individual authoritarian father, leader figures, in whom the masses see their own father, actually embody the avenging child who needs the masses for his own purposes (of revenge). And this second form of dependence--the dependence of the "great leader" on his childhood, on the unpredictable nature of the unintegrated, enormous potential for hatred within him--is decidedly a very great danger.

The optimistic aspects of my investigations must not be overlooked, however. In all I have read in recent years about the childhood of criminals, even of mass murderers, I have been unable to find anywhere the beast, the evil child whom pedagogues believe they must educate to be "good." Everywhere I find defenseless children who were mistreated in the name of child-rearing, and often for the sake of the highest ideals. My optimism is based on the hope that public opinion will no longer tolerate the cover-up of child abuse in the name of child-rearing, once it has been recognized that:

  1. Child-rearing is basically directed not toward the child's welfare but toward satisfying the parents' needs for power and revenge.
  2. Not only the individual child is affected; we can all become future victims of this mistreatment.

Steps on the Path to

Reconciliation: Anxiety,

Anger, and Sorrow--

but No Guilt Feelings

Unintentional Cruelty Hurts, Too

When we examine the child-rearing literature of the past two hundred years, we discover the methods that have systematically been used to make it impossible for children to realize and later to remember the way they were actually treated by their parents. Why are the old methods of child raising still so widely employed today? This is a mystery I have tried to understand and explain from the perspective of the compulsive repetition of the exercise of power. Contrary to popular opinion, the injustice, humiliation, mistreatment, and coercion a person has experienced are not without consequences. The tragedy is that the effects of mistreatment are transmitted to new and innocent victims, even though the victims themselves do not remember the mistreatment on a conscious level.

How can this vicious circle be broken? Religion says we must forgive the injustice we suffered, only then will we be free to love and be purged of hatred. This is correct as far as it goes, but how do we find the path to true forgiveness? Can we speak of forgiveness if we hardly know what was actually done to us and why? And that is the situation we all found ourselves in as children. We could not grasp why we were being humiliated, brushed aside, intimidated, laughed at, treated like an object, played with like a doll or brutally beaten (or both). What is more, we were not even allowed to be aware that all this was happening to us, for any mistreatment was held up to us as being necessary for our own good. Even the most clever child cannot see through such a lie if it comes from the mouths of his beloved parents, who after all show him other, loving sides as well. He has to believe that the way he is being treated is truly right and good for him, and he will not hold it against his parents. But then as an adult he will act the same way toward his own children in an attempt to prove to himself that his parents behaved correctly toward him.

Isn't this what most religions mean by "forgiveness": to chastise children "lovingly" in the tradition of the fathers and to raise them to respect their parents? But forgiveness which is based on denial of the truth and which uses a defenseless child as an outlet for resentment is not true forgiveness; that is why hatred is not vanquished by religions in this manner but, on the contrary, is unwittingly exacerbated. The child's intense anger at the parents, being strictly forbidden, is simply deflected onto other people and onto himself, but not done away with. Instead, because it is permissible to discharge this anger onto one's own children, it spreads over the entire world like a plague. For this reason we should not be surprised that there are religious wars, although such a phenomenon should actually be a contradiction in terms.

Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but faces it head-on. If I can feel outrage at the injustice I have suffered, can recognize my persecution as such, and can acknowledge and hate my persecutor for what he or she has done, only then will the way to forgiveness be open to me. Only if the history of abuse in earliest childhood can be uncovered will the repressed anger, rage, and hatred cease to be perpetuated. Instead, they will be transformed into sorrow and pain at the fact that things had to be that way. As a result of this pain, they will give way to genuine understanding, the understanding of an adult who now has gained insight into his or her parents' childhood and finally, liberated from his own hatred, can experience genuine, mature sympathy. Such forgiveness cannot be coerced by rules and commandments; it is experienced as a form of grace and appears spontaneously when a repressed (because forbidden) hatred no longer poisons the soul. The sun does not need to be told to shine. When the clouds part, it simply shines. But it would be a mistake to say that the clouds are not in the way if they are indeed there.

If an adult has been fortunate enough to get back to the sources of the specific injustice he suffered in his childhood and experience it on a conscious level, then in time he will realize on his own--preferably without the aid of any pedagogical or religious exhortations--that in most cases his parents did not torment or abuse him for their own pleasure or out of sheer strength and vitality but because they could not help it, since they were once victims themselves and thus believed in traditional methods of child-rearing.

It is very difficult for people to believe the simple fact that every persecutor was once a victim . Yet it should be very obvious that someone who was allowed to feel free and strong from childhood does not have the need to humiliate another person. In Paul Klee's Diaries we find the following anecdote.

From time to time, I played tricks on a little girl who was not pretty and who wore braces to correct her crooked legs. I regarded her whole family, and in particular the mother, as very inferior people. I would present myself at the high court, pretending to be a good boy, and beg to be allowed to take the little darling for a walk. For a while we'd walk peaceably hand in hand; then, perhaps in the nearby field where potato plants were blooming and June bugs were all over, or perhaps even sooner, we would start walking single file. At the right moment I'd give my protégée a slight push. The poor thing would fall, and I'd bring her back in tears to her mother, explaining with an innocent air: "She fell down." I played this trick more than once, without Frau Enger's ever suspecting the truth. I must have gauged her correctly. (Age five or six)

No doubt, little Paul was repeating something here that was done to him, probably by his father. There is only one brief passage about his father in the Diaries:

For a long time I trusted my papa implicitly and regarded his words (Papa can do anything) as gospel. The only thing I couldn't bear was his teasing. On one occasion, thinking I was alone, I was playing make-believe. I was interrupted by a sudden amused "hmpf!" which hurt my feelings. It was not the only time I was to hear this "hmpf!"

Mockery from a beloved and admired person is always painful, and we can imagine that little Paul was deeply wounded by this treatment.

It would be wrong to say that, because we understand its origins, the harm we compulsively inflict on another person does not cause harm and that little Paul did not hurt the girl. To recognize this makes the tragedy visible but at the same time offers the possibility for change. The realization that even with the best will in the world we are not omnipotent, that we are subject to compulsions, and that we cannot love our child in the way we would like may lead to sorrow but should not awaken guilt feelings, because the latter imply a power and freedom we do not have. Burdened by guilt feelings ourselves, we will also burden our children with guilt feelings and tie them to us for a lifetime. By means of our mourning, we can set our children free.

Distinguishing between mourning and guilt feelings might also help to break the silence between the generations on the subject of the crimes of the Nazi period. Mourning is the opposite of feeling guilt; it is an expression of pain that things happened as they did and that there is no way to change the past. We can share this pain with our children without having to feel ashamed; guilt feelings are something we try to repress or shift to our children or both.

Since sorrow reactivates numbed feelings, it can enable young people to realize what their parents once inflicted on them in the well-meaning attempt to train them to be obedient from an early age. This can lead to an eruption of justifiable anger and to the painful recognition that one's own parents, who are already over fifty, are still defending their old principles, are unable to understand the anger of their grown child, and are hurt and wounded by reproaches. Then the child wishes he or she could take back what has been said and undo all that has happened; because now the old familiar fears that these reproaches will send the parents to their graves return. If children are told early and often enough, "You'll be the death of me yet," these words remain with them all their life.

And yet, even if a person is once again left alone with this awakened anger because his aging parents can bear it just as little as before, the mere admission of this feeling to consciousness can lead out of the dead end of self-alienation. Then at long last the true child, the healthy child, can live, the child who finds it impossible to understand why his parents are hurting him and at the same time forbidding him to cry, weep, or even speak in his pain. The gifted child who adapts to parental demands always tries to understand this absurdity and will accept it as a matter of course. But he has to pay for this pseudo-understanding with his feelings and his sensitivity to his own needs, i.e., with his authentic self. This is why access to the normal, angry, uncomprehending, and rebellious child he once was had previously been blocked off. When this child within the adult is liberated, he will discover his vital roots and strength.

To be free to express resentment dating back to early childhood does not mean that one now becomes a resentful person, but rather the exact opposite. For the very reason that one is permitted to experience these feelings that were directed against the parents, one does not have to use surrogate figures for purposes of abreaction. Only hatred felt for surrogates is endless and insatiable--as we saw in the case of Adolf Hitler--because on a conscious level the feeling is separated from the person against whom it was originally directed.

For these reasons I believe that the free expression of resentment against one's parents represents a great opportunity. It provides access to one's true self, reactivates numbed feelings, opens the way for mourning and--with luck--reconciliation. In any case, it is an essential part of the process of psychic healing. But anyone who thinks that I am reproaching these aging parents would be misunderstanding my meaning completely. I have neither the right nor the grounds to do so. I was not their child, was not compelled by them to be silent, was not raised by them, and--as an adult--know that they, like all parents, could do no differently than behave the way they did.

Because I encourage the child within the adult to acknowledge his feelings, including his resentment, but do not absolve him from these feelings, and because I do not place blame on the parents, I apparently create difficulties for many of my readers. It would be so much simpler to say it is all the child's fault, or the parents', or the blame can be divided. This is exactly what I don't want to do, because as an adult I know it is not a question of blame but of not being able to do any differently. Children cannot understand this, however, and they fall ill in the attempt to do so because of a lack of access to their feelings. Only if the child in the adult suspends his futile attempt to understand can he begin to feel his pain. I believe that the children of those adults who finally dare to face their feelings will benefit as a result.

Perhaps even this explanation cannot clear up the misunderstandings that frequently arise in this connection, for they are not rooted in the intellect. If someone learned from an early age to feel guilty for everything and to regard his parents as beyond reproach, my ideas will of necessity cause him feelings of anxiety and guilt. We can see just how strong his attitude, instilled at an early age, is by observing older people. As soon as they find themselves in a situation of physical helplessness and dependence, they may feel guilty for every little thing and may even regard their grown children as stern judges, providing the children are no longer submissive as they once were. As a result, the grown children feel they have to spare their parents out of considerateness, and the fear of hurting them condemns the children to silence once again. Since many psychologists never had the opportunity to free themselves from this fear and to find out that parents need not die if they hear the truth about their child, they will be inclined to encourage a "reconciliation" between patients and parents as quickly as possible. If the underlying rage has not been experienced, however, the reconciliation is an illusory one. It will only cover over the rage that has been bottled up unconsciously or has been directed against others and will reinforce the patient's false self, even at the expense of his children, who will certainly sense the parent's true feelings. And yet, in spite of these impediments, there are an increasing number of books in which young people confront their parents more freely and openly and honestly than was previously possible. This fact awakens hope that critical writers will produce critical readers who will refuse to allow themselves to be made to feel guilty (or more guilty) by the "poisonous pedagogy" to be found in the professional literature (in the areas of education, psychology, ethics, or biography).

Sylvia Plath: An Example of Forbidden Suffering

You ask me why I spend my life writing?
Do I find entertainment?
Is it worthwhile?
Above all, does it pay?
If not, then, is there a reason?...
I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still.


Every life and every childhood is filled with frustrations; we cannot imagine it otherwise, for even the best mother cannot satisfy all her child's wishes and needs. It is not the suffering caused by frustration, however, that leads to emotional illness but rather the fact that the child is forbidden by the parents to experience and articulate this suffering, the pain felt at being wounded; usually the purpose of this prohibition is to protect the parents' defense mechanisms. Adults are free to hurl reproaches at God, at fate, at the authorities, or at society if they are deceived, ignored, punished unjustly, confronted with excessive demands, or lied to. Children are not allowed to reproach their gods--their parents and teachers. By no means are they allowed to express their frustrations. Instead, they must repress or deny their emotional reactions, which build up inside until adulthood, when they are finally discharged, but not on the object that caused them. The forms this discharge may take range from persecuting their own children by the way they bring them up, to all possible degrees of emotional illness, to addiction, criminality, and even suicide.

The most acceptable and profitable form this discharge can take for society is literature, because this does not burden anyone with guilt feelings. In this medium the author is free to make every possible reproach, since here it can be attributed to a fictitious person. An illustration is the life of Sylvia Plath, for in her case, along with her poetry and the fact of her psychotic breakdown as well as her later suicide, there are also the personal statements she makes in her letters and the comments by her mother. The tremendous pressure she felt to achieve and the constant stress she was under are always emphasized when Sylvia's suicide is discussed. Her mother, too, points this out repeatedly, for parents of suicidal people understandably try to restrict themselves to external causes, since their guilt feelings stand in the way of their seeing the situation for what it actually is and of their experiencing grief.

Sylvia Plath's life was no more difficult than that of millions of others. Presumably as a result of her sensitivity, she suffered much more intensely than most people from the frustrations of childhood, but she experienced joy more intensely also. Yet the reason for her despair was not her suffering but the impossibility of communicating her suffering to another person. In all her letters she assures her mother how well she is doing. The suspicion that her mother did not release negative letters for publication overlooks the deep tragedy of Plath's life. This tragedy (and the explanation for her suicide as well) lies in the very fact that she could not have written any other kind of letters, because her mother needed reassurance, or because Sylvia at any rate believed that her mother would not have been able to live without this reassurance. Had Sylvia been able to write aggressive and unhappy letters to her mother, she would not have had to commit suicide. Had her mother been able to experience grief at her inability to comprehend the abyss that was her daughter's life, she never would have published the letters, because the assurances they contained of how well things were going for her daughter would have been too painful to bear. Aurelia Plath is unable to mourn over this because she has guilt feelings, and the letters serve her as proof of her innocence. The following passage from Letters Home provides an example of her rationalization.

The following poem, written at the age of fourteen, was inspired by the accidental blurring of a pastel still-life Sylvia had just completed and stood up on the porch table to show us. As Warren, Grammy, and I were admiring it, the doorbell rang. Grammy took off her apron, tossed it on the table, and went to answer the call, her apron brushing against the pastel, blurring part of it. Grammy was grieved. Sylvia, however, said lightly, "Don't worry; I can patch it up." That night she wrote her first poem containing tragic undertones.

I thought that I could not be hurt;
I thought that I must surely be
impervious to suffering--
immune to mental pain
or agony.

My world was warm with April sun
my thoughts were spangled green and gold;
my soul filled up with joy, yet felt
the sharp, sweet pain that only joy
can hold.

My spirit soared above the gulls
that, swooping breathlessly so high
o'erhead, now seem to brush their whirring
wings against the blue roof of
the sky.

(How frail the human heart must be--
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing--
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Then, suddenly my world turned gray,
and darkness wiped aside my joy.
A dull and aching void was left
where careless hands had reached out to

my silver web of happiness.
The hands then stopped in wonderment,
for, loving me, they wept to see
the tattered ruins of my firma-

(How frail the human heart must be--
a mirrored pool of thought. So deep
and tremulous an instrument
of glass that it can either sing,
or weep.)

Her English teacher, Mr. Crockett, showed this to a colleague, who said, "Incredible that one so young could have experienced anything so devastating." When I repeated Mr. Crockett's account of this conversation to me, Sylvia smiled impishly, saying, "Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader."

If a sensitive child like Sylvia Plath intuits that it is essential for her mother to interpret the daughter's pain only as the consequence of a picture being damaged and not as a consequence of the destruction of her daughter's self and its expression--symbolized in the fate of the pastel--the child will do her utmost to hide her authentic feelings from the mother. The letters are testimony of the false self she constructed (whereas her true self is speaking in The Bell Jar). With the publication of the letters, her mother erects an imposing monument to her daughter's false self.

We can learn from this example what suicide really is: the only possible way to express the true self--at the expense of life itself. Many parents are like Sylvia's mother. They desperately try to behave correctly toward their child, and in their child's behavior they seek reassurance that they are good parents. The attempt to be an ideal parent, that is, to behave correctly toward the child, to raise her correctly, not to give too little or too much, is in essence an attempt to be the ideal child -- well behaved and dutiful -- of one's own parents. But as a result of these efforts the needs of the child go unnoticed. I cannot listen to my child with empathy if I am inwardly preoccupied with being a good mother; I cannot be open to what she is telling me. This can be observed in various parental attitudes.

Frequently, parents will not be aware of their child's narcissistic wounds; they do not notice them because they learned, from the time they were little, not to take them seriously in themselves. It may be the case that they are aware of them but believe it is better for the child not to become aware. They will try to talk her out of many of her early perceptions and make her forget her earliest experiences, all in the belief that this is for the child's own good, for they think that she could not bear to know the truth and would fall ill as a result. That it is just the other way around, that the child suffers precisely because the truth is concealed, they do not see. This was strikingly illustrated in the case of a little baby with a severe birth defect who, from the time she was born, had to be tied down at feeding time and fed in a manner that resembled torture. The mother later tried to keep this "secret" from her grown daughter, in order to "spare" her from something that had already happened. She was therefore unable to help her acknowledge to herself this early experience, which was expressing itself through various symptoms.

Whereas the first attitude is based entirely on the repression of one's own childhood experiences, the second one also includes the absurd hope that the past can be corrected by remaining silent about it.

In the first case we encounter the principle, "What must not be cannot be," and in the second, "If we don't talk about what happened, then it didn't happen."

The malleability of a sensitive child is nearly boundless, permitting all these parental demands to be absorbed by the psyche. The child can adapt perfectly to them, and yet something remains, which we might call body knowledge, that allows the truth to manifest itself in physical illnesses or sensations, and sometimes also in dreams. If a psychosis or neurosis develops, this is yet another way of letting the soul speak, albeit in a form that no one can understand and that becomes as much of a burden, to the affected person--and to society--as his or her childhood reactions to the traumata suffered had been to the parents.

As I have repeatedly stressed, it is not the trauma itself that is the source of illness but the unconscious, repressed, hopeless despair over not being allowed to give expression to what one has suffered and the fact that one is not allowed to show and is unable to experience feelings of rage, anger, humiliation, despair, helplessness, and sadness. This causes many people to commit suicide because life no longer seems worth living if they are totally unable to live out all these strong feelings that are part of their true self. Naturally, we cannot require parents to face something they are unable to face, but we can keep confronting them with the knowledge that it was not suffering per se that made their child ill but its repression, which was essential for the sake of the parents. I have found that this knowledge often provides parents with an "aha!" experience that opens up for them the possibility of mourning, thus helping to reduce their guilt feelings.

Pain over the frustration one has suffered is nothing to be ashamed of, nor is it harmful. It is a natural, human reaction. However, if it is verbally or nonverbally forbidden or even stamped out by force and by beatings, as it is in "poisonous pedagogy," then natural development is impeded and the conditions for pathological development are created. Hitler proudly reported that one day, without a tear or a cry, he managed to count the blows his father gave him. Hitler imagined that his father never beat him again thereafter. I take this to be a figment of his imagination because it is unlikely that Alois's reasons for beating his son disappeared from one day to the next, for his motives were not related to the child's behavior but to his own unresolved childhood humiliation. The son's imaginings tell us, however, that he could not remember the beatings his father gave him from that time on because having to fight down his psychic pain by identifying with the aggressor also meant that the memory of the later beatings was repressed. This phenomenon can often be observed in patients who, as a result of regaining access to their feelings, now remember events they previously emphatically denied had taken place.

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