Healing Childhood Maltreatment by Breaking Through the Wall of Ignorance
Every day, the news shows us hotbeds of violence in the world. We are powerless against war, but according to psychoanalyst Alice Miller the roots of violence are not unknown. People only learn to pass on hate and violence to others when they have experienced those things as victims first, especially as a child. Maltreated children learn that they must suppress their true feelings of anger and pain, because under no condition may they lose their parent’s love. Subsequently, they repress the memories of that pain from their memory, but that doesn’t mean the pain heals or disappears.
Later, many people will still find a way to express their earlier repressed pain through a so-called repetitive compulsion. When people maltreated as children fail to find someone in their lives who helps them process the trauma, someone who communicates to them that they are intrinsically valuable people, then in many cases the repetitive compulsion leads to either their own, or other people’s destruction.
We can break the cycle of violence by teaching traumatized people that they may take the innocent child they once were into protection against once maltreating parents.
Sigmund Freud or Alice Miller?
After the Second World War, psychoanalyst Alice Miller moved to Switzerland. In Basel, she achieved three PhD degrees, in psychology, philosophy and sociology. Before she committed herself to writing, she worked in Zurich as a psychotherapist for twenty years. During her career, she developed her own psychoanalytic theories on the causes and consequences of childhood maltreatment.
In her first book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, she broke with Sigmund Freud’s doctrine, the founder of modern psychoanalysis. As a result of her break, she denounced her membership with the International Psychoanalytical Association in 1988, because she deemed its psychoanalysis, deeply rooted in Freud’s doctrine, incompatible with her own insights.
Sigmund Freud’s theories still form an important foundation for psychotherapy. They accuse children of eliciting the very maltreatment by their own parents. Freud states that children are born with bad drives that parents can only exorcise by means of ‘education’. However, in his book The Assault on Truth, psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson explains that Freud, at the start of his career, did make a stand for adults traumatized as children.
Based on original letters, Masson proves that Freud only later in his career rejected his unfortunately named ‘seduction theory’ (the seduction by the parent), namely that adults can indeed suffer psychologically from early childhood traumata.
As a consequence of his turn, Freud’s supporters would keep accusing traumatized women of fantasy and incitement when they believed to remember early sexual abuse. Even today, many psychoanalytical studies teach that a woman’s memory of sexual violence in early childhood could be “a lie, self-deception, a delusion, a false memory or a fantasy”, however, “the one thing it could not be was a genuine memory.”
Today, we observe the consequences of such doctrines in public opinion that, for example, accuses raped women of having incited their own misery with ‘slutty behavior’ or ‘dressing like prostitute’. Entire religions maintain this oppression of women.
What drove Freud to reject his original theory? According to Masson, Freud’s motivation to do so is connected to the social and societal position of the therapist. Therapists treat people from all layers of the population, but, in the interest of their own position, perhaps they prefer to remain on the side of the “successful and the powerful, rather than of the miserable victims of family violence.”
With this attitude, psychoanalytical science subordinates the fate of people traumatized by early maltreatment to the interests of powerful parental figures:
“Freud had abandoned an important truth: the sexual, physical, and emotional violence that is a real and tragic part of the lives of many children. […] many (probably most) of their patients had violent and unhappy childhoods, not because of some defect in their character, but because of something terrible that had been done to them by their parents.”
The Non-Pedagogical Movement
On the other hand, Alice Miller embraces Freud’s original theory that stands up for victims of early maltreatment, but she was not the only one. In the seventies and eighties of the past century, forerunners, like-minded contemporaries and supporters of Miller arrived at the scene, who, taken together, I call the non-pedagogical movement. What binds them is that in the power struggle between parent and child they side with the most innocent party. Without help from outside, people maltreated as children remain stuck in a repetitive compulsion that passes on violence to the next generation:
“If you’re not allowed to criticize your parents then ever since your childhood you are stuck in an emotional trap with all your repressed feelings. The only way out of this trap is the maltreatment of one’s own children. Then you may do everything again and it will be regarded as discipline and education, and also explained away by religion.”
Among the forerunners of the non-pedagogical movement belongs, for example, pedagogue and sociologist Katharina Rutschky, who in her book Black Pedagogy criticizes the European educational methods by the same name from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In those centuries, education had a purpose very different from a child’s self-realization. With approval by religion, government and society, parents used violence and intimidation against children to harden their senses and bodies for their later lives in accordance with the prevailing worldview.
In those days, the industrial societies demanded citizens show unconditional obedience and loyalty to the owner class. For the same reason, working class parents submitted their children to absolute rules without room for explanation or negotiation. Children were not rewarded for autonomy and cooperation, but were punished for showing individuality. The zeitgeist did not consider children to be human beings, but programmable machines:
“These first years have, among other things, the advantage that one can use force and compulsion. With age children forget everything they encountered in their early childhood. Thus if one can take away children’s will, they will not remember afterward that they had had a will.”
Modern-day parents who don’t want to “pamper” their crying baby with attention still adhere to the principles of the black pedagogy.
Another forerunner, or rather expert witness, is teacher Norm Lee, who in the first half of the twentieth century as a child and teenager survived his personal “Holocaust”, a touching story of his abandonment by his teenage mother, his rejection by his father, sadistic torture by a child hating woman, and years of unpaid forced labor. As a consequence of his traumatic experiences, for a long time, Lee was convinced of his own inferiority, but at age 25 he broke the cycle of violence when a teacher training instructor pointed out to him that children really aren’t dogs, but people. The beliefs he had held of himself scared him, and later, with the help of his own children, he would develop the concept Parenting without Punishment.
Contemporaries of Miller were for example American psychiatrist Eric Berne, who believed that all mental problems have a social cause that is inseparable from childhood. Dutch children’s book author Guus Kuijer says, “Children are still expected to achieve something. They are still being oppressed, and soon we will be footed the bill.”
The insights of the non-pedagogical movement were heard, but did not become commonplace. The revolution that would liberate people of their traumatized pasts was held off.
Forgiveness or Healing?
Because adults maltreated as children cannot process the suppressed feelings and repressed memories of their childhood without accusing parents of bad parenting, even in adulthood, out of respect for the same parents, they shroud their suffering in silence.
After years of repression, most people fail to remember a thing of the true causes of their pain. Only in the unconscious repetition of their trauma do they find a way to let off steam. For example, parents who were themselves beaten as children are convinced that they would stand in their right if they beat their own children. They justify the blows as necessary to raise a good child, because after all that’s how they were raised themselves. The beaten children have no other choice than to store the maltreatment in their bodies “for their own good”.
Many people indirectly seek help for their traumatized childhood, because as adults they suffer physical or mental issues, but once they wish to speak about their earliest traumata, psychotherapeutic providers generally direct their patients towards forgiveness of the once maltreating parents.
According to Miller, therapists wrongly think that patients can only find “inner peace through forgiveness and understanding”, because “the therapist possibly unconsciously fears the repressed rage against his own parents.” She wondered why “even generally esteemed therapists could not say goodbye to the idea that forgiving parents is the pinnacle of a successful therapy.”
Some patients notice they do not get the help they asked for:
“If you enter the psychiatric business as a patient, then you have a high chance of being reduced to a disturbed object or to the disorder itself. […] We are examined but not really seen; we are listened to but not really heard. Psychiatry does not regard us as serious discussion partners: after all, with a disorder you cannot speak.”
Forgiveness blocks healing. If forgiveness of the maltreating parents by the maltreated child worsens the consequences of the original trauma, perhaps parents should forgive us for the fact that we aren’t the perfect child they had hoped for. After all, we were born for ourselves, not for someone else’s needs.
Breaking Through the Wall of Ignorance
We all know someone who as a child was punished by his parents, educators or caretakers with ‘disciplinary hitting’. Many of us were that child ourselves. Despite the taboo on talking about child maltreatment, one in three adults was the victim of physical or emotional maltreatment.
Because we were fully dependent on our parents for our survival as children, we could not let them know of our outrage over rough treatment, because under no circumstance could we lose our parent’s care. For the same reason, people lack the nerve to criticize their parents in adulthood, out of respect for everything they have done for us.
Many of us believe that the blows we took as children strengthened our characters, but in reality, we succeeded in life despite the blows and not because of them. According to Miller, maltreated children pass through five psychological stages that convince us of the lie that we took in the physical and emotional blows “for our own good”:
- First, we are neglected or abused as a small child, but we are not capable of recognizing the emotional violence as such, because we confuse it with love and attention.
- Instead of expressing our true emotions over the bad treatment, we suppress our anger. Then we are the good child again and we are rewarded for our obedience.
- We show the maltreating parents gratitude for their “good intentions”, because after all they prepared us dinner and a bed to sleep in. They could have just tied us to a tree!
- Because of that confusion—hate is love—we repress the memories of the maltreatment and forget about everything.
- Finally, as adults we find a certain way to blow off steam for our unprocessed pain, for example by maltreating one’s own children, or by destroying ourselves and others.
As a consequence of this psychological mechanism, many adults no longer allow the repressed pain from their childhood into their conscience thought. We block our true feelings with a wall of defense mechanisms, “either through intellectual defenses, destructive behavior at another’s expense, or through self-destruction in addiction.” Thus we protect ourselves against the adverse experiences that we could not bear as children, but as a consequence thereof, through self-denial, we once again suffer a trauma as adults.
In the interest of our survival, our own brains repress the memories of severe maltreatment that we underwent as children, but because of that, in adulthood, we can no longer understand the true causes of physical and mental issues.
An interviewer asked Alice Miller if she could mention one example of a “hero who had successfully overcome the traumatizing conflict with his/her parents”. Thereon she replied with another question:
“Why is it so difficult to bear the truth of having been abused in childhood? Why do we rather blame ourselves? Because blaming ourselves protects us from the pain. I think that the worst pain we must experience in order to become emotionally honest is to admit that we were never loved when we needed it most. It is easy to say this but it is very, very hard to feel it. And to accept it. To get rid of the expectation that one-day my parents will change and will love me. However, in contrast to children, adults can get rid of this illusion—to the benefit of their health and their offspring.
People who absolutely want to know their truth can do it. And I do think that these individuals will change the world. They will not be “heroes”, they might be quite modest people but there is no doubt that their emotional honesty will once be able to break down the wall of ignorance, denial and violence.”
Viktor Frankl, …trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe Erlebt Das Konzentrationslager (München: Kösel-Verlag, 2013), 117.
Martin Miller, Das Wahre “Drama Des Begabten Kindes”: Die Tragödie Alice Millers (Freiburg im Breisgau: Kreuz Verlag, 2013), 190.
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory (Untreed Reads, 2012), sec. Preface.
Robert Spencer, Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions about the World’s Fastest-Growing Faith (New York: Encounter Books, 2002), 88–92.
Masson, The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory, sec. Introduction.
Katharina Rutschky, Schwarze Pädagogik: Quellen Zur Naturgeschichte Der Bürgerlichen Erziehung (Berlin: Ullstein, 1997).
Murray A. Straus and Denise A. Donnelly, Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2001), 179.
Johann Georg Sulzer, Versuch von Der Erziehung Und Unterweisung Der Kinder, ed. Olaf Breidbach (Olms, 2012).
Norm Lee, Parenting Without Punishing, 2002.
Eric Berne, What Do You Say after You Say Hello? (London: Random House, 1975), chap. 2.
Wim Duzijn, “De Triomf van de Kinder-Haters…,” De Volkskrant, February 16, 1985.
Alice Miller, Du Sollst Nicht Merken: Variationen Über Das Paradies-Thema (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1983), 23.
Alice Miller, Die Revolte Des Körpers (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2005), 114.
Wilma A. Boevink, “From Being a Disorder to Dealing With Life: An Experiential Exploration of the Association Between Trauma and Psychosis,” Schizophrenia Bulletin 31, no. 1 (2006): 17.
Anne-Laura Van Harmelen, “Childhood Emotional Maltreatment: Impact on Cognition and the Brian” (Universiteit Leiden, 2013), 7.
Alice Miller, Abbruch Der Schweigemauer: Die Wahrheit Der Fakten (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2003), 54.
Alice Miller, Am Anfang War Erziehung (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1983), 128.
Miller, Das Wahre “Drama Des Begabten Kindes”: Die Tragödie Alice Millers, 12.
Martin H. Teicher, “Wounds That Time Won’t Heal: The Neurobiology of Child Abuse,” Cerebrum, oktober 2000, http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/2000/Wounds_That_Time_Won%E2%80%99t_Heal__The_Neurobiology_of_Child_Abuse/.
Alice Miller, “Gewalt Tötet Die Liebe: Schläge, Das Vierte Gebot Und Die Unterdrückung Authentischer Gefühle,” ONA, June 2005.