by Alice Miller
Preface to From Rage to Courage
Friday November 13, 2009
Answers to readers’ letters
I have decided to publish these answers in book form because there are still people who have no access to the internet. But even those who can read these responses online may find it more convenient to own the book for quick reference when they are looking for a particular passage. A degree of computer literacy is however necessary for those who wish to read the original letters.
When I was young, I was an avid reader of Sigmund Freud. But I lost my interest in psychoanalysis when I started working with patients. I found that the concepts and theories I had been confronted with during my psychoanalytical training were an invitation to blame individuals themselves for their distress. Those theories were in fact designed to “repair” them or “put them straight.” In this approach I detected elements of the disastrous and highly abusive ideal of education and upbringing known in German as schwarze Pädagogik (“poisonous pedagogy”).
What interested me was how this distress had come about, the childhood factors that might explain the sufferings of these adults, and the ways in which they might be able to free themselves from the severe consequences of cruel parenting. None of the theories I came across seemed genuinely willing to engage with childhood reality, and this put them fully in line with the attitude of society in general.
It was my patients themselves who provided indirect answers to my questions. Their reports on what they had been through in childhood revealed facts that had hardly ever been addressed during my training: the severe cruelty inflicted on children by their own parents.
At the same time, I became aware of my patients’ deeply entrenched resistance to remembering these painful events: they were extremely reluctant to feel the tragic situation they had been in as children and to take it seriously. Some of them described acts of monstrous cruelty with a complete lack of emotion, as if they were something that was only to be expected. They believed their parents had loved them and that as children they had richly deserved severe punishment because they were so insufferable. The regularity with which true feelings were denied or split off made me realize that almost all of us tend to deny, or at least play down, the pain caused by the injuries we suffered in childhood. We do this because we still fear punishment at the hands of our parents, who could not bear to accept us as we truly were. These childhood fears live on in the adult. If they remain unconscious, that is if they are not identified as such, then they will retain their virulence to the end of our lives. Unfortunately, these fears also live on in those who advance theories that camouflage childhood reality and that concentrate instead on the nature of “psychical structures.” This approach began with Freud and was later taken over by C.G. Jung and others. Like present-day “spiritualist” interpretations, these theories all served one purpose: to allay the fears of the maltreated children these therapists still were.
As almost everyone on this planet received beatings when they were small and do their best to repress the fear of punishment at the hands of their parents, it is difficult to make this unconscious dynamic apparent. After all, no one wants to be told about sufferings they have been fighting to suppress for decades, sometimes sacrificing their health in the process. After listening to the tragic stories of my patients for 20 years without letting myself be confused by the theories of Freud and others, I wrote The Drama of the Gifted Child, in which I pointed the finger at facts that almost everyone knows but strongly denies. Subsequently, I published For Your Own Good, referring to three biographies to indicate the social consequences that cruel parenting can have. One of the things the book revealed was the way in which the complete and utter eradication of empathy from the earliest years and constant persecution by the father turned the former child Adolf Hitler into a mass murderer with the blood of millions of people on his hands. In my later books I have repeatedly demonstrated how the political careers of mass murderers like Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, and others were rooted in the denial of the humiliations inflicted on them in childhood.
I received a great deal of praise for my investigations, and yet no one followed in my footsteps. Why? Presumably because almost all of us are victims of more or less severe cruelty, but this is something we either cannot or will not acknowledge until we have finally faced up to the fact.
Naturally I cannot prove this hypothesis because I cannot investigate the lives of all the people in the world. But the letters addressed to my website in the last few years reveal the reality of childhood abuse in a way that can hardly be denied. The authors of those letters have decided to break their unconscious vow of silence DESPITE their understandable fear. Encouraged by my books and articles, they have attempted to unearth the memories of their early childhood years, to admit to their true feelings, and to take seriously their indignation, anger, and rage at the behavior of their parents. They were astonished that instead of being punished for this they achieved much greater freedom by recalling those memories. Suddenly they were able to understand the course of their own lives much better and to revive their lost empathy for the children they once were. In this way they learned something they were never allowed to learn as children: to take their own pain, and other feelings, seriously. One reader wrote to me recently: “When I was small, I once fell off a wall. An adult passing by asked me if I had hurt myself. I shall never forget it because it was the first time in my childhood that anyone had ever asked me that question. For my parents my pain and my sorrows just never existed, so I had to wipe them out too.”
The man used this example to illustrate the entire atmosphere of his childhood, something we have to discover in order to free ourselves of it and the consequences it has had. This goes well beyond the active engagement with individual traumas that present-day trauma therapy sets out to induce. It is the discovery of years of unremitting captivity, a discovery achieved by finally owning up to our feelings. That captivity was a time defined by indifference, lack of understanding, refusal of contact, cruelty, sadism, deceit, lies, and very often perversion.
The contents of these letters are by no means exceptional. Millions of people have shared the same fate, but this fact has been concealed (so far) by their silence, their inability or reluctance to put their sufferings into words. So the writers of the letters I answer here are pioneers. They are exceptional because they have dared to overcome the fear of their parents, because they have had the courage to admit to their own truth. I can no longer ask them for their permission to publish their letters in book form, but those letters can be found on my website. My answers show how I have attempted to accompany these people in their quest for their own selves.
Very severe cruelty in childhood is hardly ever recognized as such. Usually, it is considered part of quite normal upbringing. The extreme – often total – denial of the pain we have suffered not only thwarts recognition of the wrongs done to us. Above all, it negates the anger of the little child that has to be suppressed in the body for fear of punishment. Parents are honored out of fear, the adult child waits a whole lifetime for their insight and love, thus remaining trapped in a form of attachment sustained by the fear of being abandoned. The consequences of attachments that are dependent on the absence of true feelings are mental and physical disorders and the suppression and sacrifice of life satisfaction and happiness.
These answers to the question posed me by my readers show how they have attempted to find the way to their own truth. Initially they recognize the lifelong denial of their reality and sense for the first time the pent-up though justified anger caused by the threats they were exposed to - beatings, humiliation, deceit, rejection, confusion, neglect, and exploitation. But if they manage to sense their anger and grief at what they have missed out on in life, almost all of them rediscover the alert, inquisitive child that never had the slightest chance of being perceived, respected, and listened to by the parents. Only then will the adult give the child this respect because he/she knows the true story and can thus learn to understand and love the child within.
To their great surprise the symptoms that have tormented them all their lives gradually disappear. Those symptoms were the price they had to pay for the denial of reality caused by awe of their parents.
Unquestioning adulation of parents and ancestors, regardless of what they have done, is required not only by some religions but by ALL of them, without exception, although the adult children frequently have to pay for this self-denial with severe illness symptoms. The reason why this is the case is not difficult to identify, though it is rarely taken into account. Children are forced to ignore their need for respect and are not allowed to express it, so they later look to their own children to gratify that need. This is the origin of the Fourth/Fifth Commandment (“honor your father and mother”).
This intrinsic dynamic is observable in all religions. Religions were obviously created not by people respected in childhood but by adults starved of respect from childhood on and brought up to obey their parents unswervingly. They have learned to live with the compulsive self-deception forced on them in their earlier years. Many impressive rituals have been devised to make children ignore their true feelings and accept the cruelties of their parents without demur. They are forced to suppress their anger, their TRUE feelings and honor parents who do not deserve such reverential treatment, otherwise they will be doomed to intolerable feelings of guilt all their lives. Luckily, there are now individuals who are beginning to desist from such self-mutilation and to resist the attempt to instill guilt feelings into them. These people are standing up against a practice that its proponents have always considered ethical. In fact, however, it is profoundly unethical because it produces illness and hinders healing. It flies in the face of the laws of life.
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