FOR YOUR OWN GOOD - Alice Miller
[Pages xv-xix in the print edition]

Preface to the American Edition

THIS BOOK is appearing in America some two and a half years after its first publication in Germany, and it is probably just as well that it wasn't available before now in this country. Had it appeared here earlier, American readers might well have asked: 'Why should we still bother with Hitler today? That's all ancient history," and "Who is this Christiane F.?" But now, after so many young Americans have seen their own tragedies mirrored in the film and book about Christiane F., the teenage German drug addict, and after all the talk in the media the past few years about the danger of nuclear war, it should come as no surprise that I have chosen Adolf Hitler and Christiane F. as representatives, respectively, of extreme destructiveness on a world-historical scale and of extreme selfdestructiveness on a personal one.

Since the end of World War II, I have been haunted by the question of what could make a person conceive the plan of gassing millions of human beings to death and of how it could then be possible for millions of others to acclaim him and assist in carrying out this plan. The solution to this enigma, which I found only a short while ago, is what I have tried to present in this book. Readers' reactions to my work convinced me how crucial others find this problem too and how the terrifying stockpiling of nuclear weapons worldwide raises the same question in an even more acute form: namely, what could motivate a person to misuse power in such a way as to cause, completely without scruples and with the use of beguiling ideologies, the destruction of humanity, an act that is altogether conceivable today? It can hardly be considered an idle academic exercise when somebody attempts to expose the roots of an unbounded and insatiable hatred like Hitler's; an investigation of this sort is a matter of life and death for all of us, since it is easier today than ever before for us to fall victim to such hatred.

A great deal has already been written about Hitler by historians, sociologists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts. As I attempt to show in the pages that follow, all his biographers have tried to exonerate his parents (particularly his father), thus refusing to explore what really happened to this man: during his childhood, what experiences he stored up within, and what ways of treating other people were available as models for him.

Once I was able to move beyond the distorting perspectives associated with the idea of a "good upbringing" (what is described in this book as "poisonous pedagogy") and show how Hitler's childhood anticipated the later concentration camps, countless readers were amazed by the convincing evidence I presented for my view. At the same time, however, their letters expressed confusion: "Basically, my childhood differed little from Hitler's; I, too, had a very strict upbringing, was beaten and mistreated. Why then didn't I become a mass murderer instead of, say, a scientist, a lawyer, a politician, or a writer?"

Actually, my book provides clear answers here, although they often seem to be overlooked: e.g., Hitler never had a single other human being in whom he could confide his true feelings; he was not only mistreated but also prevented from experiencing and expressing his pain; he didn't have any children who could have served as objects for abreacting his hatred; and, finally, his lack of education did not allow him to ward off his hatred by intellectualizing it. Had a single one of these factors been different, perhaps he would never have become the arch-criminal he did.

On the other hand, Hitler was certainly not an isolated phenomenon. He would not have had millions of followers if they had not experienced the same sort of upbringing. I anticipated a great deal of resistance on the part of the public when I advanced this thesis -- which I am convinced is a correct one -- so I was surprised to discover how many readers, both young and old, agreed with me. They were familiar from their own backgrounds with what I depicted. I didn't have to adduce elaborate arguments; all I needed to do was describe Hitler's childhood in such a way that it served as a mirror, and suddenly Germans caught their own reflections in it.

It was the personal nature of their responses to the three examples I present in my book that enabled many people to understand in a more than purely intellectual sense that every act of cruelty, no matter how brutal and shocking, has traceable antecedents in its perpetrator's past. The diverse reactions to my book range from unmistakable "aha" experiences to angry rejection. In the latter cases, as I have already indicated, the following comment keeps recurring like a refrain: "I am living proof that beating [or spanking] children is not necessarily harmful, for in spite of it I became a decent person."

Although people tend to make a distinction between "spanking" and "beating" a child, considering the former a less severe measure than the latter, the line between the two is a tenuous one. I just heard a report on an American radio station about a man -- a member of a Christian fundamentalist sect in West Virginia -- who "spanked" his son for two hours. The little boy died as a result. But even when a spanking is a gentler form of physical violence, the psychic pain and humiliation and the need to repress these feelings are the same as in the case of more severe punishment. It is important to point this out so that readers who receive or give what they call "spankings" will not think they or their children are exempt from the consequences of child beating discussed in this book.

Probably the majority of us belong to the category of "decent people who were once beaten," since such treatment of children was a matter of course in past generations. Be that as it may, to some degree we can all be numbered among the survivors of "poisonous pedagogy." Yet it would be just as false to deduce from this fact of survival that our upbringing caused us no harm as it would be to maintain that a limited nuclear war would be harmless because a part of humanity would still be alive when it was over. Quite apart from the culpably frivolous attitude toward the victims this view betrays, it also fails to take into account the question of what aftereffects the survivors of a nuclear conflict would have to face. The situation is analogous to "poisonous pedagogy," for even if we, as survivors of severe childhood humiliations we all too readily make light of, don't kill ourselves or others, are not drug addicts or criminals, and are fortunate enough not to pass on the absurdities of our own childhood to our children so that they become psychotic, we can still function as dangerous carriers of infections. We will continue to infect the next generation with the virus of "poisonous pedagogy" as long as we claim that this kind of upbringing is harmless. It is here that we experience the harmful aftereffects of our survival, because we can protect ourselves from a poison only if it is clearly labeled as such, not if it is mixed, as it were, with ice cream advertised as being "For Your Own Good." Our children will find themselves helpless when confronted with such labeling. When people who have been beaten or spanked as children attempt to play down the consequences by setting themselves up as examples, even claiming it was good for them, they are inevitably contributing to the continuation of cruelty in the world by this refusal to take their childhood tragedies seriously. Taking over this attitude, their children, pupils, and students will in turn beat their own children, citing their parents, teachers, and professors as authorities. Don't the consequences of having been a battered child find their most tragic expression in this type of thinking?

Although the general public is beginning to understand that this suffering is transmitted to one's children in the form of an upbringing supposedly "for their own good," many people with whom I have spoken in the United States still believe that permissive methods of child-rearing allow children "too much" freedom and that it is this permissiveness, not "poisonous pedagogy ," that is responsible for the marked increase in crime and drug addiction. Even cartoons and jokes make fun of parents who have a tolerant and supportive attitude toward their children, emphasizing the dangers if parents allow themselves to be tyrannized by their children. King Solomon's mistaken belief (if you spare the rod you will spoil the child) is still accepted today in all seriousness as great wisdom and is still being passed on to the next generation. These attitudes, although they now take a more subtle and less apparent form, are not far removed from those quoted in the following pages to illustrate the detrimental effects of child-rearing methods. Such views have not been borne out by my many years of experience. Theoretically, I can imagine that someday we will regard our children not as creatures to manipulate or to change but rather as messengers from a world we once deeply knew, but which we have long since forgotten, who can reveal to us more about the true secrets of life, and also our own lives, than our parents were ever able to. We do not need to be told whether to be strict or permissive with our children. What we do need is to have respect for their needs, their feelings, and their individuality, as well as for our own.

It is no mere accident that all three of the people I write about in this book had no children of their own. One of my readers wrote to me: "Who knows, perhaps the Jews would not have been sent to the gas ovens if Hitler had had five sons on whom he could have taken revenge for what his father did to him." We punish our children for the arbitrary actions of our parents that we were not able to defend ourselves against, thanks to the Fourth Commandment. I have discovered that we are less a prey to this form of the repetition compulsion if we are willing to acknowledge what happened to us, if we do not claim that we were mistreated "for our own good," and if we have not had to ward off completely our painful reactions to the past. The more we idealize the past, however, and refuse to acknowledge our childhood sufferings, the more we pass them on unconsciously to the next generation. For this reason, I attempt to point out in these pages some underlying connections, with the hope of breaking a vicious circle. For a decisive change could well come about in our culture if parents would only stop combating their own parents in their children, often when the latter are still infants -- something they do because their parents were able to attain a position of guiltlessness and inviolability by forcible means, i.e., thanks to the Fourth Commandment and to the methods of child-rearing they employed.

On a recent trip to America I encountered many people, especially women, who have discovered the power of their knowledge. They do not shrink from pointing out the poisonous nature of false information, even though it has been well concealed for millennia behind sacrosanct and well-meaning pedagogical labels. The conversations I had in the United States gave support to my own experience that courage can be just as infectious as fear. And if we are courageous enough to face the truth, the world will change, for the power of that "poisonous pedagogy" which has dominated us for so long has been dependent upon our fear, our confusion, and our childish credulity; once it is exposed to the light of truth, it will inevitably disappear.

November 1982

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