Readers frequently tell me of the hostility they encounter when they declare their allegiance to the cause of protecting children. Their attitude challenges a system that for most people represents a familiar, reassuring frame of reference. New information can be a source of uncertainty, and in the face of uncertainty the temptation is to resort to threatening behavior-similar to the intimidation parents use to bring their children up to be "good" and always do as they are told. This confronts enlightened witnesses with the same kind of painful rejection that children experience at the hands of their parents.
When the church was able to establish temporal power, the persecution of Christians came to an end. The champions of children do not need the assistance of a powerful institution like the church in order to resist the hostile pressure against them. Their strength lies in their knowledge of the laws governing childhood and indeed life itself, laws that can be objectively verified. Some of the most important testimonies we have in this respect are the reports of people who suffered abuse in childhood, which reveal the dire consequences such cruelty has on the way they treat their own children. This truth cannot be destroyed. Each day it receives more and more confirmation.
Recently brain research has been furnishing additional proof. The brain of a child is not yet fully formed at birth but develops its final structure over the first three years of life. Under certain circumstances the messages the brain receives in those formative years may imprint themselves more indelibly than any other information it will ever be required to process. The sensations and instructions coming from the mother or other important figures can live on for decades. And although we never hear anyone suggest that children should be humiliated, derided, or deceived, we do hear that spanking is good for them. Many of us were told this ourselves when we were small, as a perverse accompaniment to the slaps and beatings to which we were subjected. (See the forum on my Web site.)
A number of researchers have established that neglect and traumatization of baby animals invariably leads to both functional and structural deficiencies in their brains. Gradually this effect is being found to be true for human babies as well. The profound implications of these findings are alarming. Many parents who never received love and care when they were small, who were trained to be obedient above all else, may, with the best of intentions, have done the same to their children. They are likely to find this new information highly unsettling, if not unbearable. I can therefore understand why scientists are reluctant to spell out their findings in unequivocal terms. Instead of saying, "We have found that what applies to animals also applies to humans," they tend to say, "Maltreatment may lead to lesions and deficiencies in the structure of the brain." This strategy not only helps their findings get accepted but also protects them from the charge of being unscientific. Their equivocation, however, encourages denial and self-deception. Much as inveterate smokers say things like, "My grandfather smoked all his life but never got cancer, and he was over eighty when he died," many people hearing of the new brain research may say, "I was beaten as a child and I turned out perfectly fine. If scientists say spanking may lead to brain damage, they're also saying that it may not." These people have no inkling of how they might have turned out if they had not been spanked. Any impairments resulting from the abuse are outside the range of their awareness, just as a person without empathy does not know what empathy means.
When I read of the recent progress in brain research and the results of the work being done on early infancy, it helped me to realize why the effects of those first lessons and messages are so persistent. Armed with this new information, I would say to mothers today: "Don't be distressed if you find yourselves involuntarily giving your children a smack. It's something your hand learned very early on; it happens almost automatically, and you can usually limit the damage by recognizing that you made a mistake and admitting your error. But whatever you do, don't ever tell your children you hit them for their own good. If you do, you will be contributing to the perpetuation of willful stupidity and covert sadism."
Modern brain research has confirmed the structure of repression, denial, and splitting off which I proposed in my 1981 book Thou Shalt Not Be Aware to describe the processes our emotions are subjected to in early childhood. Many authors have indicated how important an early attachment to a key person is in order for a child's intelligence to develop normally. Daniel Goleman makes continued reference to "emotional intelligence," but Katharina Zimmer and others have shown that the development of the intelligence as such is inextricably linked with the emotions experienced in early childhood.
This explains why the necessity of repressing pain in childhood leads not only to the denial of one's personal history but also to a denial of the suffering of children in general, and thus to major deficits in our cognitive capacity. This desensitization finds expression in the use of corporal punishment in educational settings and in the practice of circumcision (for both sexes). I am deeply convinced that the absence of a good relationship with the mother or some mother substitute, coupled with physical abuse, including the kind of corporal punishment meted out in the name of good parenting, is among the sources that give rise to this lack of sensitivity and the barriers in the mind.
The work of leading brain specialists such as Joseph LeDoux, Debra Niehoff, Gandace Pert, Daniel Schacter, and Robert Sapolsky demonstrates that very early deficits in a child's communication with a primary caregiver can lead to defects in the brain. Small children who are beaten or otherwise abused also display such damage because, as we saw earlier, a condition of extreme stress can bring about the destruction of newly formed neurons and their interconnections. (The same thing can happen, incidentally, when a fetus is exposed to extreme over stimulation for example, hours and hours of recorded music "in order to produce a Mozart at birth," as one Spanish manual for parents recommends. For a child's brain to develop freely it needs stimulation geared to its own specific rhythms, not enforced stimulation from outside.) The consensus is that early emotions leave indelible traces in the body and are encoded as information that will have a serious impact on the way we feel and think as adults, although those effects normally remain beyond the reach of the conscious mind and logical thought.
These discoveries provide an essential key to understanding this whole issue, albeit one that, as far as I know, scientists have yet to make use of. Occasionally, for example, in Candace Pert's exciting account of the discovery of the emotion molecule-one has the impression that, helpful as such experiments are in producing more and more new keys, there appears to be little interest in finding the locks they might fit.
One of the great exceptions is Joseph LeDoux, who at the close of his book The Emotional Brain postulates a form of collaboration between the cognitive and the emotional systems. Though his remarks clearly reflect the power and persistence of early emotional (corporal) memories and the frequent inability of our conscious minds to come to grips with the powerful and lasting impact they have, LeDoux insists that such collaboration is absolutely necessary. But he is not a therapist, and he limits himself to the statements he can responsibly make as a brain researcher, conceding openly that he does not know how a bridge might be built between the emotional knowledge of the body (the unconscious) and its cognitive faculties. From my own self-experience and from my experience with others, I know that this does take place in therapies systematically addressing the traumatic experiences and emotions of childhood and thus weakening those barriers in our minds. Once this has happened it is possible to activate areas of the brain not hitherto drawn upon, presumably for fear of the pain and distress that recalling early instances of abuse would arouse.
This emotional learning process can take considerable time, and an enlightened witness is indispensable if it is to succeed. For decades I was convinced I had never been beaten as a child because 1 had no conscious memory of it. But reading through the advice given by poisonous pedagogy I learned that in the period of my birth children were beaten very early, sometimes in the first few months of their lives, in order to train them to obey and to use the toilet, and it was then that I realized why I had no recall. I had been so effectively taught to obey when I was still a baby that the only memories I have of this chastisement are implicit body memories as opposed to explicit conscious memories. Later, my mother proudly told me that I was fully toilet-trained by the age of six months and never caused any trouble-except when I insisted on having my own way. Then all that was needed was a stern look from her and I soon came to my senses. Today I know the high price I paid. The fear of that stern look stopped me from saying, or even so much as thinking, what I wanted. But I finally did achieve that ability.
It is a never-ending source of acute distress for me when I think of the devastating power of denial in producing the barriers in our minds. One of the ways this obstructive power manifests itself is in the persistence of theologians and philosophers in discussing ethical issues without taking any account of the findings produced by brain research and the laws governing infant development. These factors are crucial to a clearer understanding of how evil originates and how we actively perpetuate it. For psychoanalysts, it is also high time to rethink the concepts of destructive drives and evil, "perverted" children, which they have inherited from poisonous pedagogy. But in order to do so they would have to take modern research on infancy seriously. The approach adopted by Daniel Stern and the followers of John Bowlby still appears to gain only peripheral attention in psychoanalytic circles, perhaps because by his theory of initial attachment Bowlby exploded a taboo. By linking the causes of antisocial behavior with the absence of a resilient attachment to the mother, he was flying in the face of Freud's drive theory.
But my conviction is that we have to go a step further than Bowlby went. We are dealing here not just with anti-social behavior and so-called narcissistic disorders but with the inescapable realization that denying and repressing our childhood traumas means reducing our capacity to think and conspiring to erect barriers in our minds. Brain research has succeeded in uncovering the biological foundations of the denial phenomenon. But the consequences, the impact on our mentality, have not yet been adequately contemplated. No one appears to be interested in examining how insensitivity to the suffering of children--a phenomenon found the world over--is bound up with a form of mental paralysis that has its roots in childhood.
As children, we learn to suppress and deny natural feelings and to believe sincerely that the cuffs and blows we receive are for our own good and do us no lasting injury. Our brains, furnished with this false information, then instruct us to raise our own children by the same methods, telling them that it is good for them just as it was good for us.
This way of thinking causes billions of people to believe that children can become good and decent citizens only if we do violence to them. They are blind to the fear in their children's eyes and refuse to acknowledge that the only thing we can really instill in children by beating them is the determination to use violence later in life, either against themselves or against others. These destructive beliefs, also held by many intellectuals, are impervious to argument because they are stored in the body at a very early stage. Such people will make blunt assertions that, without their realizing it, stand in the starkest contrast to the pure intellectual knowledge they acquired from books.
During one of my workshops a psychology professor said, "In general I'm in agreement with you, but I cannot endorse your efforts to get corporal punishment legally banned because it deprives parents of a way of instilling certain values in their children, and I find that important. My children are three and five, and they've got to learn what they're allowed to do and what they aren't. If a law like that really got passed, it might stop many young people from having children at all."
1 asked the man whether he had been beaten in childhood. He said yes, but only when it was necessary, when he had really driven his father to it, and then he had regarded the punishment as fair. I asked him how old he was when he was beaten for the last time and he said he was seventeen; his father had been beside himself with rage over some bit of teenage mischief. When I asked him for details, after a brief silence the man said, "I can't remember. It's all such a long time ago, but it must have been something serious because I can remember how my father's face was twisted into a grimace. My father was very fair, so I must have deserved the punishment."
I was stunned. This man, who taught developmental psychology, who had committed himself to the cause of abolishing cruelty to children, still refused to see anything wrong with corporal punishment as part of parenting. The barrier in his mind revealed itself bluntly. There must have been reasons for it, I thought, probably buried in early anxiety. I hesitated for a moment, then decided that those reasons needed to be dragged to the surface.
I confronted him. "You say you were seventeen at the time and you can't remember what you'd done-all you can remember is your father's face twisted into a grimace. From that you conclude that your punishment must have been deserved. But you expect your three- and five-year old children to internalize the well-meaning principles you try to impress on them when you spank them. What makes you think that a small child is better able to understand these lessons and get some good out of them than you were as an adolescent? All a beaten child remembers is fear and the faces of the angry parents, not why the beating was taking place. Like you, the child will assume he had been naughty and merited the punishment. What kind of beneficial pedagogical effect do you see in that?"
I received no answer to my questions, but the next day the man said that he had had a sleepless night and needed to think things over. I was pleased by this response because it meant that there was something going on in his mind. Most people fear this kind of opening up. They merely rehearse their parents' opinions without realizing that they are floundering in logical contradictions because as children they learned not to feel their own pain. But the embers of that pain are not extinguished. If they were, we would not feel compelled to go on doing to others what was done to us when we were small. The memory traces we believe to have been blotted out forever persist and are still operative. This realization sinks in when we become aware of our own behavior.
I never cease to be amazed by the precision with which people often reproduce their parents' behavior, although they have no memory of their own early childhoods. A father will beat his son and humiliate him with sarcastic remarks but not have any memory whatsoever of having been similarly humiliated by his own father. Only in a searching therapeutic context will he (ideally) recall what happened to him at the same age. Merely forgetting early traumas and early neglect is no solution. The past always catches up with us, in our relationships with other people and especially with our children.
What can we do about this? We can try to become aware of what we ourselves suffered, of the beliefs we adopted in childhood as gospel truth, and then confront these beliefs with what we know today. This will help us to see and feel things to which we have closed our minds, for in the absence of a witness who can empathize with us and genuinely listen to us, we have no other way of protecting ourselves from the searing force of the pain. With the help of an enlightened witness, our early emotions will stand revealed, take on meaning for us, and hence be available for us to work on. But without such empathy, without any understanding of the context of a traumatic childhood, our emotions will remain in a chaotic state and will continue to cause us profound, instinctive alarm. By recourse to ideologies of all kinds, we manage to muffle this alarm so effectively that its true origins remain completely obscured.
In the Preface I made brief reference to the origins of barriers in the mind and the way they function. It is now time to illustrate those mechanisms in greater detail. On the one hand, barriers in the mind are our friends because they protect us from pain and enable us to fend off the anxieties aroused by events in our past. On the other hand, this same action makes barriers our enemies, as they cause emotional blindness and urge us to do harm to ourselves and others.
In a bid to blot out the fear and pain of our abused younger self, we erase what we know can help us, fall prey to the seductiveness of sects and cults, fail to see through all kinds of lies, and assert that children need physical "correction." In this chapter my aim is to supply not an abstract discussion of barriers in the mind but concrete examples with which you may be able to identify. As every childhood history is fundamentally unique (despite certain shared elements, such as humiliation and insensitivity to suffering), the denied and split-off components are not the same in all cases. Though millions may be prompted by their own tragic histories and their emotional blindness to elect charlatans or even psychopaths as their leaders, there will always be some people in every country who were not abused in childhood or who had the benefit of helping witnesses. As adults they will be able to see through fabrications and assess real dangers. This may be the best chance we have for progress and democracy.
Emotional blindness can be well studied by examining the careers of sect members. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, are in favor of corporal punishment and constantly warn that the end of the world is near. They are not aware that they bear within themselves the abused children they once were, and that they already experienced the end of the world when their loving parents beat them. What could be worse than that? But the Jehovah's Witnesses learned very early not to recall their pain and to tell their children that hitting doesn't hurt. The reality of the end of the world is constantly on their minds, but they do not know why.
The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu knew nothing of the way he had suffered as a child from having been pent up in one room with ten brothers and sisters in a state of extreme neglect. As an adult living in the monomaniacal opulence of luxurious palaces he repressed all explicit memory of it. But implicit (body) memories of his childhood sufferings remained, and they incited him to take vengeance on a whole nation. Like his own mother, the women in his dictatorship were not allowed to have abortions. Like his own parents, most couples in Romania were forced to have more children than they wanted or were able to care for. As a result Romanian orphanages were full to bursting with youngsters displaying severe behavioral disorders and disabilities caused by extreme neglect. Who needed all those children? No one. Only the dictator himself, whose unconscious memories spurred him to commit atrocities and whose mental barriers prevented him from recognizing them as atrocities.
Many of my critics protest that one cannot trace world events back to the childhood of a single person. But I have never asserted that the causes I have discovered are the only ones conditioning the course of history. What I do keep pointing out is the consistency with which they have been ignored. I stand accused of using arguments that I have never put forward. Extreme simplifications of my stance can be found in books by the British historian Ian Kershaw, whose exemplary thoroughness in researching Hitler's life lends the appearance of accuracy. Unfortunately, he simply does not have the personal and conscious experience with the emotional world of children that would enable him to understand his subject more acutely.
Kershaw appears to have no awareness of this process of discharging infant emotions in adult life, nor of their transformation into destructive hatred. The barriers in his mind allow him to study thousands of details in Hitler's life while ignoring the question "Why Hitler?" the answer to which is locked away in the dictator's childhood.
This question is posed immediately in the title of the French translation of Ron Rosenbaum's book on Hitler, Pourquoi Hitler?, but Rosenbaum does not answer it. (The title of the U.S. edition is Explaining Hitler) He is content to offer a journalistic compilation of data and anecdotes without reflection. He, too, is at pains to respect the taboo and divert his gaze from the place that holds the key, although he had access to such insightful studies of Hitler as those by Robert G. L. Waite, whom he quotes in his book.
Pointing to the barriers erected in our minds in early childhood is not a psychoanalytic interpretation but a statement that can be tested and verified for each individual. But value judgments may insinuate themselves into the testing and thus distort the picture. Every criminal was humiliated, neglected, or abused in childhood, but few of them can admit to it. Many genuinely do not know that they were. Thus denial gets in the way of statistical surveys based on the question-and-answer method, none of which will have any practical prophylactic effect as long as our eyes and ears remain closed to the issues posed by childhood.
We do have concrete scientific evidence for some issues, though. We know, for instance, that children who have been beaten and "corrected" are more obedient in the short term but more aggressive and destructive in the long term. Unfortunately, what psychologists have laboriously assembled and proved can be flouted in the media. In May 2000 the Wall Street Journal published an article titled "Spanking Comes Back" that revealed new research findings allegedly indicating that today's young parents are prone to beat their children even if they themselves were not maltreated in childhood. But we normally do not have any conscious memory of the smacks and spanking we received in early infancy. So statements such as "I was never beaten" are not reliable. My own exhaustive research on this topic has established that only people beaten in childhood feel the compulsion to beat their own children (which does not mean that they necessarily give in to the urge). People who were never beaten may also have difficulties with their children but do not feel compelled to hit them because their bodies have not stored the corresponding memories.
Science has no major impact on the way children are raised. The power for change will not come from the universities but rather from courageous individuals-lawyers, judges, politicians, nurses, midwives, and enlightened parents and teachers committed to putting nonviolent education and parenting on a firm legislative footing. The campaign initiated by Marilyn Fayre Milos, co-founder and director of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC), to stop routine circumcision in American hospitals was initially supported by only a few other nurses. But their refusal to assist in this cruel procedure quickly enlisted public support as people realized that they had been uncritically accepting its arbitrary practice. These operations now require the consent of the parents before they can be performed.
What was it that stopped male doctors from inflicting unnecessary suffering on a newborn child? Why were they blind for so long to the fact that they were abusing a defenseless victim? Simply because they were themselves the victims of such maltreatment in their own infancy and had internalized the message that it was painless and harmless. Thanks to the initiative of one nurse, many people are now aware that a small child will suffer physical and psychological harm from such interference. Only a few years ago the operations were performed without anesthesia. Here we are in the presence not only of a lack of compassion but of formidable barriers in the mind. How else could so many have believed that adults undergoing an operation must be given anesthesia to block the pain but highly sensitive newborns do not require similar assistance? Such brutal procedures are bound to cause the kind of thought paralysis we have been examining. It was not male doctors who put an end to the destructive custom of routine circumcision but female nurses, who had not undergone such treatment themselves.
The new law passed by the German parliament in July 2000 prohibiting corporal punishment is another decisive step toward the humanization of our personal relations and the removal of barriers in the mind. Significantly, it owes its existence to politicians and lawyers, most of them women. Psychotherapists and psychologists (male and female) have been notably less committed in this respect, although they are confronted every day with the consequences of childhood traumas. Twenty years ago Sweden's therapists actually campaigned against such an initiative, contending that a ban would so antagonize parents that they would take it out on their children in other ways. As I demonstrated in The Drama of the Gifted Child, the career of a psychologist begins in childhood with the desperate attempt to understand the parents without judging them. We should not remain bogged down in the fears of our childhood. As adults we must summon up the courage to judge, to call evil by its name and not tolerate it.
The much-needed change in our mentality will take place in stages. Children today who are never beaten will think and feel differently in twenty years from the way we think and feel today. This is my firm conviction. They will have eyes and ears for the suffering of their own children, and this will do more to effect change than statistical surveys ever could. My optimism is based on the principle of prevention, of forestalling violence in childhood by means of legislation and parent education.
I am often asked what we can do to help those people already seriously harmed by the processes I have been describing. Do they all have to undergo lengthy courses of therapy? The quality of therapy has nothing to do with the time it takes. I know people who have spent decades going to psychoanalysts and are still ignorant of what went on in their childhood because the analysts themselves are reluctant to venture onto that terrain in search of their own childhood realities. For some years now, new directions in therapy targeted at traumas of this kind have frequently achieved success in a short space of time. One of them is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), developed by Francine Shapiro. I have too little experience of these therapies to understand why they are effective, but I can imagine that in many cases the therapist's interest in the traumatic experiences is enough to initiate a process whereby the language of the body is accorded the significance it merits. In classical psychoanalysis, centered on the interpretation of fantasies, this process is not one of the objectives. I myself have been through three classical analyses, all with well intentioned analysts, but none of them helped me dig down to the reality of my early childhood.
I tried next to get on the track of it with the help of primal therapy. I succeeded in discovering many of the feelings I had had in early infancy but failed to understand the entire context of early childhood reality and to allow the truth to surface because I had no enlightened witness to stand by me in this endeavor. Today I would not readily advise anyone to pursue this course (unless they are very certain of the therapist's qualifications and expertise) because many apparently enlightened witnesses may arouse intense -feelings in their patients without assisting them in extricating themselves from their personal chaos.
I am frequently asked what I consider to be the decisive factor in psychotherapy today. Is it, as I have attempted to show in this book, the emotional and cognitive recognition of the truth, liberation from the enforced vow of silence and from idealization of one's parents? Or is it the presence of an enlightened witness? My view is that it is not a question of either-or but of both-and. Without an enlightened witness it is impossible to bear the truth of what happened to us in early infancy. But by the term enlightened witness I do not mean anyone who has studied psychology or has been through primal experiences with a guru and remained in his thrall. For me, enlightened witnesses are therapists with the courage to face up to their own histories and thereby to gain their autonomy rather than seeking to offset their own repressed feelings of ineffectuality by exercising power over their patients.
In the story of the psychiatrist Henry, told in Chapter 2, I was attempting to convey how it might have been possible to give him more help with a different therapeutic design. In theoretical terms, Henry needs to be able to identify all those points in everyday life where traces of his infant reality rise to the surface, to learn to recognize them for what they are and not to act out blindly. He needs assistance in coping emotionally with present situations as an adult while at the same time maintaining contact with the suffering and knowing child he once was, the child he could not muster the courage to listen to for so long but now, with help, can finally heed.
The body knows everything that has happened to it, but it has no language to express that knowledge. It is like the children we once were, the children who see all but, without the aid of the adults, remain helpless and alone. Accordingly, whenever the emotions from the past rise to the surface they are invariably accompanied by the fears of the helpless child dependent on the understanding, or at least the reassurances, of the parents. Even parents at a loss to understand their children because they are unaware of their own histories can provide such reassurance. They can assuage the children's fears (and their own) by giving them protection, safety, and continuity. And our cognitive system, in dialogue with the body, can do the same.
Unlike the body, our cognitive system knows little of the events in the distant past, for conscious memories are fragmentary, brittle, unreliable. But it has a huge fund of knowledge at its disposal, the faculties of a fully developed mind, and the life experiences a child cannot yet have. As adults are no longer powerless, they can offer the child within them (the body) protection and an attentive ear so that it can express itself in its own way and tell its story. In the light of these stories, the looming, incomprehensible fears and emotions of the adult take on meaning. Finally they stand in a recognizable context, no longer obscurely menacing.
Early anxieties stored in the body can be resolved in therapy as long as their causes are not denied. Initial moves toward a therapeutic concept of this kind have been with us for a number of years now, frequently in the form of counseling for self-therapy, counseling of a kind that I once advocated myself. I no longer recommend this course. I feel strongly that we need the company of an enlightened witness to embark on the journey. Unfortunately, it is rare for therapists to have enjoyed such company in their own training. I am only too well aware of the various forms of anxiety assailing therapists, their fear of hurting their parents if they dare to face their own childhood distress head on and without embellishment, and the resultant reluctance to support their patients fully in their search. But the more we write and talk on the subject, the sooner this state of affairs will change and the anxieties lose some of their power over us. In a society with a receptive attitude toward the distress of children, none of us will be alone with our histories. Therapists will be more inclined to forsake Freud's principle of neutrality and to take the side of the children their clients once were. This will give those clients the perspective they need to confront their own histories.
Alice Miller has achieved worldwide recognition for her work on the causes and effects of childhood traumas. Her books include, The Drama of the Gifted Child, Banished Knowledge, Breaking down the Wall of Silence, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, and For Your Own Good. She hosts a website where her readers, many of whom credit her books with freeing them from the shackles of their childhood suffering, can share their experiences and feelings with others (www.alice-miller.com). In 1986, Alice Miller was awarded the Janusz Korczak Literary Award by the Anti-Defamation League. She lives in Switzerland.
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