Alice Miller, PhD in philosophy, psychology and sociology, as well as a researcher on childhood and author of twelve books
On overcoming the consequences of maltreatment
Almost all of us have corporal punishment inflicted on us in our formative years. But the fear and anger such punishment brings with it remain unconscious for a very long time. Children have no choice but suppress their fear and anger, as otherwise they could not sustain their love for their parents, and that love is crucially necessary for their survival. But these emotions, though suppressed, remain stored away in our bodies, and in adulthood they can cause symptoms of varying severity. We may suffer from bouts of depression, attacks of panic fear, or violent reactions towards our children without identifying the true causes of our despair, our fear, or our rage. If we were aware of those causes, it would prevent us from falling ill, because then we would realize that our fathers and mothers no longer have any power over us and can no longer beat us.
In most cases, however, we know nothing about the causes of our sufferings because the memories of those childhood beatings have long been consigned to total oblivion. Initially, this amnesia is beneficial, acting as a protection for the child’s brain. In the long term, however, it is fateful because it then becomes chronic and has a profoundly confusing impact. Though it protects us from unpleasant memories, it cannot preserve us from severe symptoms like the unexplained fear constantly warning us of dangers that no longer exist. In childhood these fears were entirely realistic. One example that springs to mind is the case of a six-month-old girl whose mother regularly slapped her in order to “teach her obedience.” Of course the girl survived those slaps, and all the other physical punishments inflicted on her in youth. But at the age of 46 she suddenly developed heart problems.
For years on end we trust to medication to alleviate our sufferings. But there is one question no one (neither patients nor their doctors) ever asks: Where is this danger that my body incessantly warns me of? The danger is hidden away in childhood. But all the doors that could afford us the right perspective on the problem appear to be hermetically closed. No one attempts to open them. On the contrary! We do everything we can to avoid facing up to our personal history and the intolerable apprehension that dogged us for so long in childhood. Such a perspective would reestablish contact with the most vulnerable and powerless years of our lives, and that is the last thing we want to think about. We have no desire to go through that feeling of desperate impotence all over again. On no account do we want to be reminded of the atmosphere that surrounded us when we were small and were helplessly exposed to the whims and excesses of power-hungry adults.
But this period is one that has an incomparably powerful impact on the rest of our lives, and it is precisely by confronting it that we can find the key to understanding our attacks of (apparently) groundless panic, our high blood pressure, our stomach ulcers, our sleepless nights, and - tragically - the seemingly inexplicable rage triggered in us by a small baby crying. The logic behind this enigma resolves itself once we set out to achieve awareness about the early stages of our lives. After all, our lives do not begin at the age of 15. Seeking that awareness is the first step toward understanding our sufferings. And when we have taken that step, the symptoms that have plagued us for so long will gradually begin to recede. Our body no longer has any need of them, because now we have assumed conscious responsibility for the suffering children we once were.
Truly attempting to understand the child within means acknowledging and recognizing its sufferings, rather than denying them. Then we can provide supportive company for that mistreated infant, an infant left entirely alone with its fears, deprived of the consolation and support that a helping witness could have provided. By offering guidance to the child we once were, we can create a new atmosphere he can respond to, helping him to see that it is not the whole world that is full of dangers, but above all the world of his family that he was doomed to fear in every moment of his existence. We never knew what bad mood might prompt our mother to expose us to the full force of her aggression. We never knew what we could do to defend ourselves. No one came to our aid; no one saw that we were in danger. And in the end we learned not to perceive that danger ourselves.
Many people manage to protect themselves from the memories of a nightmare childhood by taking medication of some kind, frequently of an anti-depressive nature. But such medication only robs us of our true emotions, and then we are unable to find expression for the logical response to the cruelties we were exposed to as children. And this inability is precisely what triggered the illness in the first place.
Once we decide to embark on a course of therapy, all this should change. Now we have a witness for our sufferings, someone who wants to know what happened to us, who can help us learn how to free ourselves of the fear of being humiliated, beaten, and maltreated as we were before, a witness who can assist us in leaving the chaotic mess of our childhood behind, in identifying our emotions and ultimately living with the truth. Thanks to the sustaining presence of this person we can abandon our denial and regain our emotional honesty.
What kind of people go in search of therapy? And why do they do so? In most cases they are women who feel that they have failed their children and who suffer from depression without recognizing it as such. Men usually come on the insistence of their partners, or because they are afraid of being left or because they are already separated.
Therapies are normally expected to solve all our present problems and restore our well-being, but without forcing us to confront our profounder emotions. We fear those emotions as if they were our worst enemy. The pharmaceutical industry caters for these desires with a whole range of remedies - Viagra against impotence, anti-depressives to fend off the effects of depression, but without understanding the deep-seated causes underlying it.
Many therapists use behavioral therapies to remedy the symptoms displayed by their patients, rather than examining their significance and their causes. Their justification for so doing is that those causes cannot be identified. But this is simply not true. In every single case it is possible to identify the causes for the symptoms. They are invariably hidden away in childhood. But only very few people truly want to confront their own histories.
Those exceptional individuals can do so by accepting their emotions for what they are. This is a course of action that we will only recoil from as long as we do not understand the causes of those emotions. Once therapy has enabled us to experience and understand the rage and fear inspired in us by our parents, we will no longer feel the compulsion to take out our anger on surrogate victims, usually our own children. In this way we can discover the reality of our own early biography step by step, understand the sufferings of the children we once were, and become fully aware of the cruelty we were exposed to in our total isolation. Then we will realize that there were very good reasons for our anger and despair, because we were never understood, accepted, and taken seriously. By experiencing these unexpressed emotions we can learn to know ourselves better.
Many therapists themselves still live in a state of total denial and have never for one moment felt the sufferings of the children they once were. We can see this from their publications. They accuse me of transposing the things I went through in childhood onto all other cases, and they insist that my situation was exceptional. Unfortunately this is not so, as I have experienced almost daily for decades. While reflection on this fact is still rare, there is a thinking minority of therapists who do their best to uncover their own repressed histories. After reading the articles on my website, they frequently ask questions that I shall attempt to answer here.
- 1. Once we have realized how much suffering our parents put us through, is there not a danger that we will hate them and perhaps no longer wish to see them?
In my view this “risk” is negligible, because justified hatred that has been experienced and understood as such will resolve itself and leave us receptive for other emotions (see the article “What is Hatred?”) - Unless, that is, we force ourselves to prolong relationships that we do not want. If we do that, we put ourselves in a position of dependency that involves a repetition of the helplessness of the maltreated child. And this helplessness is the source of hatred. True, many people fear that they will lose the love they feel for their parents once they face up to the cruelty inflicted on them in childhood. But I see this as an advantage, not as a loss. The soul of the child needs the love for her parents in order to survive, she also needs the illusion of being loved in order not to have to face up to the fact that she is growing up in an emotional desert. But as adults we can live with the truth, and our bodies will be grateful to us for doing so. In some cases it is indeed not only possible, but absolutely necessary to lose this “love,” in fact to actively desist from sustaining it. It is only by way of self-delusion that individuals who have finally understood the children they once were can love the people who were cruel to them. Many people believe that their love for their parents is stronger than they are. But once we have reached adulthood this is definitely not true. The idea that we are helplessly entrapped in that love derives from a child’s view of things. Adults are free to invest their love in relationships where they can live and express their true feelings without being made to suffer for it.
- 2. Will understanding for the reasons behind our parents’ cruelty help to relieve our sufferings or our disorders?
I believe that the exact opposite is the case. As children we all tried to understand our parents, and we do this all our lives. Unfortunately, it is precisely this compassion for our parents that frequently prevents us from perceiving our own sufferings.
- 3. Is it not selfish to think of ourselves rather than others? Is it not immoral to care more about ourselves than about others?
No. A child’s compassion will not alleviate the mother’s depression as long as the mother denies the sufferings of her own childhood. There are mothers with very loving and caring adult children who still suffer from severe depression because they do not know that the reasons for their sufferings are to be found in their own childhood. The love they receive from their children can do nothing to change this. On the other hand, a child’s persistent involvement with its parents can ruin his/her whole life. The prerequisite for true compassion for others is empathy with one’s own destiny, something a maltreated child can never develop because such a child cannot allow himself to feel his own pain. All criminals, including the cruelest of dictators, display this lack of empathy. They murder others (or have them murdered) without the slightest compunction. A child forced to suppress his own emotions will have no compassion for himself and consequently no compassion for others. This encourages criminal behavior that is frequently concealed behind moral, religious, or apparently progressive verbiage.
- 4. Would it not be ideal for us to love both our old, enfeebled parents and the children we once were?
If someone attacks us on the street, we are hardly likely to give him a hug and thank him for the blows he has dealt us. But children almost always do precisely that when their parents are cruel to them, because they cannot live without the illusion of being loved by them. They believe that everything the parents do to them is inspired by love. In therapy the adult client has to learn to forsake this infant position and live with reality. As I have said, once you have learned to love the child you once were you cannot love his tormentors at the same time.
Access to the history of our childhood gives us the freedom to be true to our own selves, which means feeling and recognizing our emotions, and acting in accordance with our needs. This enables our body to function well, staying in good health. It also gives us the freedom to stay honest and have genuine relationships with our friends. We stop belittling and neglecting our bodies and our souls, and we also stop maltreating them in the same impatient, angry, and humiliating way as our parents once treated the little child that could not speak or make sense of what was going on. We can then attempt to understand the reasons for our distress, and this is easier once we have achieved awareness of our own history. No medication can tell us anything about the CAUSES of our distress or our illnesses. Medication can only cover over those reasons and alleviate the pain - for a while. But unrecognized causes still remain active. They continue to emit their signals until the outbreak of the next illness. That illness will then be treated with different medication, and that medication will again take no account of the causes for the disorder. But those causes are identifiable. All the sick person needs to do is to take an interest in the situation of the child he/she once was and actually experience the feelings clamoring for expression and comprehension.