Alice Miller, child abuse and mistreatment

The Truth Will Set You Free

Michael Pastore,

How Adults Can Survive A Childhood of Violence and Untruth

"Fear and love cannot live together ... Blows are used to correct brute beasts."
—Seneca (Roman philosopher, author, politician, 4 B.C.E. to C.E. 65)

Two thousand years ago, the people of ancient Rome cheered enthusiastically as they watched gladiators fight each other to the death, and saw innocent persons torn to pieces by wild beasts. In that same era, Roman teachers practiced corporal punishment on a daily basis. The Roman schools were stocked with a variety of instruments used to beat children, including the ferula (a bundle of switches made from birch branches), the scutia (a whip made of leather straps), and the flagellum (a whip made of straps from ox-hide, the hardest available leather).

Although feeding slaves to lions and beating children in schools were acceptable practices to the mass of Roman citizens, occasionally a voice of protest cried out. The rhetorician Quintilian (C.E. 35 to C.E. 95) wrote: "I am entirely against the practice of corporal punishment in education, although it is widespread ... In the first place it is disgusting and slavish treatment, which would certainly be regarded as an insult if it were not inflicted on boys. Further, the pupil whose mind is too coarse to be improved by censure will become as indifferent to blows as the worst of slaves. Finally, these chastisements would be entirely unnecessary if the teachers were patient and helpful."

After blaming teachers for failing to induce students to do what is right, and then asking how corporal punishers could possibly handle boys who cannot be influenced by fear, Quintilian adds: "And consider how shameful, how dangerous to modesty are the effects produced by the pain or fear of the victims. This feeling of shame cripples and unmans the spirit, making it flee from and detest the light of day."

Most Americans would condemn the Roman practices as backward, barbaric, and cruel. To me, it is remarkable that a similar savagery - the child abuse in our own homes and schools - is discussed so rarely, coldly, and superficially in American newspapers, television programs, and books. Our culture is poisoned by violence against children. In the year 2000, the US Department of Health and Human Services received 3 million reports of child maltreatment involving 5 million American children. Approximately 879,000 children (of the 5 million reported) were confirmed victims of child maltreatment, comprising neglect and medical neglect (63%) , physical abuse (19%), sexual abuse (10%), and psychological maltreatment (8%). These numbers do not include the 400,000 children who were paddled that year - legally paddled - in American schools.

How can we explain the lack of private awareness and public action regarding the way we bruise and bully our beloved boys and girls? Where is the outrage from our authors and university professors who specialize in these fields? ... It appears to me that these thinkers have failed to understand the one most important thing: the essence of human nature. Like the church, too many writers have bellowed that children are inherently evil, and therefore - outside of heaven - there is little chance for individual fulfillment or social progress. This most dangerous myth - that babies are born with evil genes and children are by nature violent creatures - yielded a Nobel Prize for Literature to the author of that puerile fable, Lord of The Flies.

Fortunately, we can still find authors who believe that children are born good: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, A.S. Neill, Erich Fromm, Ashley Montagu, Abraham Maslow, Colin Wilson. One more writer must be added to this prestigious list. Throughout the past twenty years, the psychiatrist Alice Miller has been the most passionate and articulate advocate for every child's natural goodness, and for each child's right to live free from violence. Miller's previous books include For Your Own Good (1983); Thou Shalt Not Be Aware (1985); The Drama of the Gifted Child (revised edtiton,1996); Banished Knowledge (1997); and Paths of Life (1998). Miller's latest work - The Truth Will Set You Free - draws on the wisdom of the earlier volumes, but also introduces many new ideas.

Miller's argument, in The Truth Will Set You Free might be summarized as something like this:

  1. Many adults manage their children with parenting and teaching methods which employ physical or emotional violence against the child.
  2. Because of this violent treatment, the children grow up blind to the dangers of violent parenting, and out of touch with their true feelings and needs.
  3. When these children grow to become teachers and parents, they will practice these same violent methods against their own children.
  4. This cycle of "violence breeds more violence" can be broken, and abused adults can heal themselves and become nonviolent parents.

Miller begins by explaining, with many examples, how and why childhood reality is avoided "in six fields where we should expect precisely the opposite: medicine, psychotherapy, politics, the penal system, religion, and biography." ... Miller's next section, 'How We Are Struck Emotionally Blind', offers an explanation for the remarkable and often-repeated story: "A father will beat his son and humiliate him with sarcastic remarks but not have any memory whatever of having been similarly humiliated by his own father.' ... In the third part of the book, Miller offers examples of courageous adults who have healed themselves despite long histories of parental abuse.

Miller offers a stunning explanation about the mystery: "Why do people refuse to see and change their actions which are harmful to themselves and others?" ... In a previous book, Paths Of Life (1998), Miller says:

"People subjected to mistreatment in childhood may go on insisting all their lives that beatings are harmless and corporal punishment is salutary, although there is overwhelming, indeed conclusive, evidence to the contrary."

Written from the heart, this book explains the causes of our problems, and provides jargon-free solutions that work. Miller writes: "As a therapist I know that we can free ourselves from inherited patterns if we can find someone to believe us and stand by us, someone who instead of moralizing wants to help us live with the truth."

Along our road to individual freedom it is necessary for us to find what Miller calls an enlightened witness: a therapist, teacher, lawyer, or writer who is well-informed, open-minded, and willing to listen to the painful personal truths we need to tell.

In focusing on self-revelation as the key to freedom, Miller reminds me of the brilliant but neglected psychologist Sidney M. Jourard. In The Transparent Self, Jourard writes:

"We camouflage our true being before others to protect ourselves against criticism or rejection. This protection comes at a steep price. When we are not truly known by the other people in our lives, we are misunderstood. When we are misunderstood, especially by family and friends, we join the "lonely crowd." Worse, when we succeed in hiding our being from others, we tend to lose touch with our real selves. This loss of self contributes to illness in its myriad forms."

Jourard died in an accident at age 48 - only three years after the 1971 revised edition of The Transparent Self - too young to nurture his theory with the kind of real-life examples that make it more potent and therapeutic. Alice Miller has done this: filled her works with numerous examples of individuals who struggle and succeed in expressing their true selves in words and deeds. Miller's book is so honest about the lives of specific individuals, it reveals the inner life of us all.

The Truth Will Set You Free is a Alice Miller's masterpiece, which shows us how we can face the darkest secrets of our painful childhoods, and emerge with hope, courage, and insights for living our lives more genuinely - more tenderly - with ourselves, and with the family and friends we care about. In my copy of the book I have marked scores of passages, passages that corroborate my intuitions and personal experiences working with children and adults of all ages and backgrounds. The book, with its stream of brilliant observations and profound ideas, moved me in ways that are too deep to express in words.

"Trust men," writes R.W. Emerson, "and they will be true to you." ... Inspired by Miller's book, I now understand much more clearly how to listen, and how to help other persons to free themselves by sharing the depths of their hearts and souls. And there is one more essential lesson that this book may teach. Happy children with healthy childhoods are an endangered species. All of us involved in the helping professions must actively work to create a culture where violence against children, in all forms, is replaced with the three most beautiful human gifts: reason, sincerity, and love.

Michael Pastore, Editorial Director, Zorba Press

Stephen Khamsi, Ph.D, IPA Newsletter, Spring 2002

Thou Shalt Be Aware: a Review of The Truth Will Set You Free - Overcoming Emotional Blindness and Finding Your True Adult Self (Alice Miller, 2001, New York: Basic Books)

The terrorist, the mass murderer, the anorexic . . .

At the very beginning of human history, well before the Ten Commandments, we were presented with a supreme and destructive commandment. "Thou shalt not be mindful of the things done to you or the things you have done to others." For thousands of years, this "commandment of ignorance" has undermined our education and our childrearing, and has prevented us from telling good from evil. And although evil is learned and not innate, it is reproduced with each new generation. When we deny our childhood wounds, we inflict them on the next generation - unless and until we act in favor of knowledge. "Only by knowing the truth can we be set free."

Alice Miller continues to impress and inspire. The Truth Will Set You Free (published in Europe as Eve's Awakening) challenges us to reflect on our secrets and shortcomings. Miller exposes one of society's dirtiest secrets - that we are "emotionally blind" to abuses suffered by prisoners of childhood. Innocent children, no matter their country, class, or generation, are neglected, humiliated, and abused. Small children cannot survive such truths and can only repress them. But, because "the body never forgets," one's cauldron of pain seethes in the unconscious.

Fortunately for these young victims, psychological defenses offer partial protection against pain and anxiety. But repressing childhood traumas leaves mental barriers, an inner void, and the emotional blindness that prods them to harm themselves and others. These young victims become the suicides and psychopaths, the criminals and killers, the prostitutes and self-mutilators... as well as the everyday parents who abuse us "for our own good." All are trapped in unconscious compulsions to reenact their destructive childhood dramas on themselves and others.

Throughout this work, Miller questions the Bible. She notes that the Bible contains much that is fine and true, but much "poisonous pedagogy" as well. We must have the courage to eat the apple from the tree of knowledge, to question that which is illogical. Is obedience a virtue? Is curiosity a sin? Is ignorance of good and evil an ideal state? Miller argues that it is our duty to overcome childhood wounds and acquire knowledge - by overcoming our defenses and our "emotional blindness" - so that we may come to know good from evil, and thereby become more fully responsible for our actions. We are also responsible for future generations, so we must love and protect all children, no matter the hostility, condemnation, or ostracism that we may encounter.

But how can we overcome our "emotional blindness"? Not through medication, not through meditation, not through relaxation training. Only by embarking on an indispensable journey of self-discovery, in which we confront our childhood traumas and uncover our early emotions. Telling the stories of our childhood allows us to break down walls and reclaim banished knowledge - but only in the presence of an enlightened witness. We benefit from simple regressions, and even from momentary glimpses, into our childhood experiences. A picture of our childhood gradually emerges. And when we discover personal truths, we regain our vitality, our sensitivity, our ability to love.

Many of these ideas, suggests Miller, are supported by recent brain research. There is new knowledge about psychobiological defenses and about the damage caused to individuals by stress, trauma, and neglect. She credits Joseph LeDoux, Debra Niehoff, Candace Pert, Daniel Schacter, and Robert Sapolsky for the discovery that early emotions leave "indelible traces" in the body.

But despite these scientific discoveries, we have yet to change the way we treat children. Miller is optimistic that legislation and parental education can and will reduce violence to children. This "principle of prevention" will cause our mentality, and our society, to change in stages. Such legislation has already advanced in Sweden, Germany, and South Africa.

Throughout this important new book, we are reminded of Miller's previous and seminal insights: that every criminal was humiliated, neglected, or abused in childhood; that only people beaten as children feel the compulsion to beat their own children; and that the world's worst tyrants had childhoods marked by extreme cruelty and humiliation. They had no empathic helpers, no enlightened witnesses. Dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, Ceausescu, and Mao, for example, unconsciously reenacted their childhood situations on the political stage. They defended against their pain first through denial, and then through the idealization of their parents. They came to glorify violence and eventually took revenge on whole nations and peoples as a way of getting even for the cruelty they had once experienced. At one very important level, it is society's blindness to suppressed childhood pain and rage that makes war possible.

Also included in the current volume are brief critiques of the avoidance of childhood in six fields - medicine, psychotherapy, politics, the penal system, religion, and biography. Several new case studies (including the psychoanalyst Harry Guntrip) appear, and important insights are offered into corporal punishment, eating disorders, and circumcision. Finally, several important new books and web sites are recommended to readers.

Stephen Khamsi, Ph.D., has practiced primal psychotherapy in northern California since 1977, and he also teaches psychology at the collegiate level.

John A. Speyrer, Primal Psychotherapy Page

"If you abide in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." —John 8:31-32

Alice Miller has written another great book and you can read its engaging Prologue for free on her website. She begins by telling us that as a child she questioned the Bible. Why did God prohibit Adam and Eve from having knowledge by prohibiting their eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge? The acquisition of knowledge should not be accompanied with such huge penalties. Why was God both loving and yet vengeful?

He seemed to be more maladjusted than his human creatures. Why were the first couple punished so severely for disobedience; for showing natural curiosity. It was explained to her that Genesis was symbolic. Symbolic of what, she wanted to know. Alice Miller decided early in life that the Bible was written by man; probably by men who had been mistreated by a parent. That was her explanation of God's sadistic behavior as described throughout the Old Testament.


Dr. Miller discusses the prevalent concept that some of us are just born "bad." In spite of overwhelming evidence, this myth, she writes, just refuses to go away. She believes that "The capacity for empathy... cannot be developed in the absence of loving care." And the effects of unmet essential needs are not all psychological since neurobiologists have determined that severely traumatized children have "severe lesions affecting 50 percent" of their brains. Psychologically, these adults have a need to react to the violence done to them in their youth. This, Dr. Miller believes, is the origin of the psychopathic individual - the person with few feelings and no conscience.

In spite of the abundant scientific knowledge which explains sociopathy there is almost a built-in avoidance of the implications of these findings. Miller devotes a goodly portion of her book examining the whys of this evasion in certain important areas of society where its professionals seemingly should know better. Each of these areas are examined in detail and contain case histories which support her conclusions. These avoidances, she writes, exist in the fields of medicine, psychotherapy, politics, the penal system, religion and biographical literature.

The Avoidance of Truth In Medicine and the Media

Instead of handling feelings by having an opportunity to talk about them, we are given medication to quieten their effects. Therapies have been around for a long time which allow patients to experience the early repressed feelings driving their symptoms, yet we never hear about them from the media. It is as though these findings are unimportant. Dr. Miller believes that one reason is because of the blame which the publicity would place on parents. Because of this taboo many seeking help are not receiving it.

Even if empathetic physicians had the time to listen to their patients, most lack the understanding of the "language of emotions." Doctors have an unconscious fear of uncovering their own childhood hurts which keeps them from being as useful to their patients as they could be.

She believes that in order to heal what is needed is an inner confrontation of the early repressed abuse and the uncovering of the defenses encasing those memories. Miller believes that if physicians were at least interested in hearing about their patient's personal histories that this could help. Even recognition of one's own limitations and some knowledge of psychosomatic medicine can be of some benefit. The widespread knowledge of the reality of the childhood of most people should be incorporated in medical training. Currently, to the patient's detriment, this information is more or less completely ignored.

How Knowledge of the Reality of Misery In Childhood Is Evaded in Psychotherapy

When one thinks of psychotherapy one thinks of childhood feelings. But it isn't necessarily so, Alice Miller writes. Instead, many schools of therapy tend to avoid those feelings as much as possible. Some therapists feel that such information can be harmful since their patients may then begin to think of themselves as victims. They don't want to encourage the "poor me" syndrome and believe that it is better and nobler to consider themselves as responsible adults in spite of their reality. The least they should expect from therapy is to gain an understaining of why they feel as though they were victims. Too many psychiatrists rush to give medication when instead exploration into their patient's past should be made.

Dr. Miller does not support combining medication with therapy since she believes that the medicine interferes with the patients interest in the reality of their past. Even specialists in post traumatic stress symptoms rely too much on medication. Yet the author insists that not everyone needs to go into profound regressions. Many only need "momentary glimpses of childhood reality" in order to improve. Understanding those early repressed feelings can provide an opportunity for growth, Alice Miller writes.

How Political Ideological Stances Are Affected By Early Chilhood Abuse

In this section Alice Miller examines the childhood and parents of Adolph Hitler. The author believes that the early childhood of many inspire them to seek a political goal from where they might have an opportunity to project the injustices of their home environment on to their subjects. The author believes that "racism, anti-semitism, fundamentalist fanaticism and 'ethnic cleansing.' " can all be traced to early parental neglect and cruelty.

Besides the use of case studies to illustrate her points the book also contains short but excellent insightful observations into the lives and childhoods of Stalin, St Augustine, Gorbachev, Pope John Paul, Milosovec, Equatorial African Familes, Rudolf Höss, Frank McCourt and psychoanalyst Harry Guntrip.

The Penal System As A Container For Detrimental Acting Out Behaviors

The area comprising the penal system is one in which its professionals seem to have an extraordinary need to deny the reality of early childhood suffering. Why people become criminals is a question which is too infrequently asked by those working in this system. Even prison psychotherapists do not use the opportunity they have to really help their charges. Adjustment to the present is the keyword rather than an emphasis on discovering the past . The author believes that a shift of this emphasis could prevent a great deal of recidivism.

Why Are the Churches Silent?

The author believes that the schools of many religious denominations justified the use of sadistic practicies as though they were revelations from God. Alice Miller wrote a letter to Pope John Paul asking him to exhort Catholics worldwide not to physically punish their children. [For a copy of the correspondence to the Pope and to world leaders see her website.]

She wrote in The Truth Will Set You Free about the inadequate reply she received from the Vatican. She was not expecting a proclamation by the church in an attempt to change attitudes of parents in child rearing, but, at minimum was seeking some form of acknowledgment by the church about how serious the problem is. Miller wonders why her appeal was ignored. She asks, "(w)hy do they choose to ignore the sources that have been pointed out to them?" She believes that Catholics ". . . accept the authoritian attitude of the church because it is something they are only too familiar with from their own childhood."

People who are taught to obey without question are the types who "display an astounding willingness to espouse the most abstruse ideologies of religious sects, neo-Nazi groups, or fundamentalist communities, and at the command of others (commands from others are indispensible!) will think nothing of destroying human lives and trampling on human dignity." This was written before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States but her statement well explains the ultimate origins of this catastrophic event! We already know the sources of violence. How long will it take to change childrearing practices?

Alice Miller believes that both the churches and government are fearful of bringing up the topic of violence in childrearing because they don't want to disturb their congregations and voters. Perhaps, she writes, it is an unconscious fear of retribution from their parents! She believes that there are individual priests who know and understand the latest scientific truths. Miller wrote how St Augustine is known for his love of God, and that he was able to overcome the beatings he received as a small child. However, it is true that he did encourage child beating and wrote about how children were innately bad. He rejected his only child who was "born out of sin" and some believe that Augustine probably caused his son's early death.

The Myopic Authors of Biographies

Alice Miller bemoans the reality that generally it is only psychohistorians who examine in detail the infancy and childhood of the subjects of their biographies. Thousands of books have been written about the lives of Hitler and Stalin yet their authors have almost completely ignored their subject's childhood. Even when they did mention significantly cruel upbringings they most often ignore its potentially horrendous implications.

Miller contrasts the upbringing of Stalin with that of Gorbachev. Stalin was the child of an alcoholic father who administered daily beatings to his only son. His mother was distant and nonsupportive. She was away from home quite frequently. As head of the Communist government his paranoia directly resulted in the deaths of millions whom he falsely suspected of being traitors and thus enemies to his well being. Miller writes that perhaps if Stalin had known the real origins of his distrust of others, multitudes would have saved from imprisonment, torture and death.

Gorbachev, on the other hand, was from a family which had no tradition of child beating. His career in government was marked by respect for others, relative openness, and the lack of hypocrisy. The author believes that although Gorbachev's family was very poor, his early needs for love and affection had been met. She writes: "(P)overty may have no adverse effect on the character of a child as long as that child's personal integrity is not damaged by hypocrisy, cruelty, abuse, corporal punishment, or psychological humiliation."

In recent autobiographical literature there has been of late less of a tendency to romanticize one's early upbringing. Alice Miller writes that even though realism is expressed in such writings the pain and suffering endured is made to appear less significant than it really was. No rebellion is displayed. Even when humiliation and pain are written about, they are often downplayed. In Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt describes such injustices in disheartening detail, yet the childhood tragedies he and his siblings suffered are written about in a humorous fashion which denies their significance both to him and his readers. Biographers are thus neglecting an important way of insightfully informing their readers about the true knowledge of the origins of much of the sufferings in the world.

* * *

In answering the question of what is the most important issue of psychotherapy today, the author responds that it is "the emotional and cognitive recognition of the truth" as it relates to our present sufferings and the importance of the presence of an "enlightened witness" to help us reduce these sufferings.

Miller defines "enlightened witness" as "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." Therapists should not be neutral, she insists, but instead be on the side of their client in championing their child who once was.

So how do we discover who we once were? How do we uncover our histories? Even without psychotherapy some are able to extricate themselves from their repressions and projections. In the Chapter entitled Talking It Through, she examines how others have shuckled off their childhood pains in therapy, simply by coming to understand the origin of their unhappiness. If only it were that easy! Perhaps, for some with mild neuroses - those who were not seriously damaged - behavioral changed can be made relatively easy.


Alice Miller ends her book with an Epilogue, continuing her dialogue with the problem posed by the tree of knowledge of Genesis. We must make a decision, she writes, in favor of knowledge. We must be able to recognize the evil both done to us and evil we do to our children.

Miller draws on the image of the family of Jesus as ideal. Loved even before his birth, Mary and Joseph viewed themselves as his servants. The result was not an unruly selfish child. To the contrary, he became obedient, aware, and empathic. She writes, "The image of God entertained by children who have received love is a mirror of their very first experiences. Their God will understand, encourage, explain, pass on knowledge and be tolerant of mistakes. He will never punish them for their curiosity, suffocate their creativity, seduce them, give them incomprehensible commands, or strike fear into their hearts."

Unfortunately, the churchmen, themselves being deprived of a happy childhood could not follow these values as the Crusades and the Inquisition were later to clearly show. "Two thousand years after Christ, we can in fact say that his teachings have yet to find their way into the church."

Children brought up in love "will be immune to the teachings of those biblical authors representing the father as a jealous God, unpredictable and unjust, even downright cruel."
But children forced to overlook the cruelty born of irresponsibility and indifference on the part of their parents are in danger of blindly adopting this attitude themselves and staying bogged down in the fatalistic ideology that declares evil to be the way of the world. As adults they will retain the perspective of the helpless child with no alternative but to come to terms with its fate. They will not know that, paradoxically, they can only grow out of this childlike attitude if they lose the fear of the wrath of God (their parents) and are willing to inform themselves about the destructive consequences of repressed childhood traumas. But if they do become alive to this truth, they will regain their lost sensibility for the suffering of children and free themselves of their emotional blindness. —p. 190.