An interview given by Alice Miller to Katharina Micada
October 8, 2009 – translated by Andrew Jenkins
1. How do you define the term “cruelty” with respect to children?
1. I use it to refer to situations where children are not shown the appropriate respect, where they are humiliated, confused, betrayed, and sexually abused. While hardly anyone disagrees with me on these points, I frequently fail to convince people that beating children is in fact a severe case of cruelty. The reason for their reluctance to believe me is that “physical correction” has been practiced for thousands of years and is widely held to be for the child’s own good. Almost all parents alive today were beaten when they were young and were unfortunately forced by their parents at a very early age to accept such “correction” as both justified and intrinsically harmless. Accordingly, this false “knowledge” is stored away in their brains and is very difficult to dislodge. Realizing that the opposite is in fact the case would mean doubting the wisdom of their parents, and most people are afraid to do that. They think that such doubt is a punishable offense precisely BECAUSE as children they were subjected to physical cruelty for telling the truth.
2. What role do you think religions/churches play in connection with cruelty to children?
2. All the religions I know of uphold the tenet that children should honor their parents and ancestors, however cruel they may have been to their children. Almost everyone abides by this commandment, even if their health suffers as a result. The reason for this suffering is that for the body morality is meaningless. The body cannot lie. It has stored the memories of the torments inflicted on it and it urges us to respect that truth. The point is that we cannot truly love and honor people who have made us suffer for years on end, unless we deceive ourselves into doing so.
3. How, in your experience, do representatives of the church respond to this issue?
3. As you know, I have written a number of letters to the present Pope and his predecessor, also to various cardinals, including Cardinal Lustiger. I got either evasive replies or no answer at all. I wanted young parents to be informed how dangerous it is to hit their children. After all, it has been scientifically established that such treatment causes brain damage. NO ONE showed the least interest in this information or the slightest compassion for the millions of little children at the receiving end of such cruelty. I began to feel as if I had been recommending a recipe for some strange, exotic dish. I go into greater detail on these exchanges in my book The Truth Will Set You Free.
4. What effect does cruelty to children have on society?
4. The children of today are the citizens of tomorrow. They are powerless to fend off their parents’ attacks, they are helpless, they have to suppress their anger unless they want to come in for even more punishment. But as soon as they reach adulthood, this anger resurfaces and is directed above all at their own children or at other people they can treat as scapegoats with impunity. If they are powerful enough, they can vent their rage on whole peoples and work off their suppressed anger on millions of individuals. In my book Breaking Down the Wall of Silence I take Ceausescu as an example, giving a detailed account of how this mechanism functioned under his dictatorship in Romania. But there are also very many people who do not vent their suppressed anger on others. Instead, they punish themselves for what was done to them, precisely as they were taught in their childhood and as their religion demands. They fall ill, become drug-dependent, or lapse into depression, all because the last thing they dare to do is accuse their parents.
5. An American study demonstrates that beaten children have a lower IQ than others. And recent brain research indicates that violence in the first three years of life damages the areas of the brain responsible for empathy. For 30 years now your books have been telling us that, contrary to the widespread conviction that “a little slap never did anyone any harm,” hitting children actually has dire consequences. How did you arrive at this conclusion?
5. In my 20 years as a psychoanalyst I identified the blind spots that mar Freud’s approach. I listened to my patients and learned to my astonishment that although they were ALL mistreated in childhood they denied this fact and would brook no criticism of their parents. This mechanism aroused the keenest interest in me. In my research I read the biographies of a large number of famous people, and almost without exception I hit on the same pattern everywhere: complete and utter denial of the severe suffering experienced in childhood, not only among mass murderers and dictators, but also among artists, writers, and philosophers. I wrote about that later in The Untouched Key and The Body Never Lies.
6. In For Your Own Good you examined the atrocities perpetrated by Adolf Hitler in the light of his childhood. What conclusions did you come to?
6. Hitler’s biography brought it home to me for the first time how dangerous it is to deny the horrors of an extremely cruel childhood. But it would take too long to explain here, you need to read the evidence set out in the book.
7. You have also related the works of famous writers like Schiller, Nietzsche, Proust, Rimbaud, Kafka etc. to their childhood experiences, concluding that the books they produced were encrypted accounts of suppressed childhood dramas. This is a new and unusual perspective on literary production. Have you identified such links between other kinds of artist and their works?
7. Yes, I find them in all the biographies I have come across so far. After all, it’s an entirely logical thing. Children learn at a very early stage what their parents instill into them. So if they experience violence, that’s what they learn. As they are prohibited from actually demonstrating what they have learned, they may initially be incredibly obedient and remarkably “good” children, as the Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss reveals. It is only later that they demonstrate the brutality they have learned from their parents. Artists often express unconsciously what they survived in childhood and later repressed. They do it mostly in a coded manner. Unfortunately. this still appears to be forbidden knowledge, so far no one has cued in to my research. When individuals run amok, EVERYONE insists without a second thought that they have ABSOLUTELY no idea what can have prompted an adolescent to do so, and in the press no reference is ever made to their childhood. In all cases the parents are spared this kind of inquiry. So how can readers understand how violence is learned, if no one helps them?
8. You yourself are a painter, and you have engaged with your childhood experiences in your pictures, published in the book Bilder meines Lebens (Pictures of My Life, Suhrkamp 2006) and on your internet site. How has the art world responded to this overt way of coming to terms with childhood?
8.It has been ignored altogether. I have merely been praised for my artistic achievements. It is as if there was some conspiracy prohibiting any mention of childhood. What I believe is behind this attitude is the childhood fear we all have inside us, the fear that our parents would punish us if we dared to query what they have done.
9. Adults treated cruelly in childhood are frequently advised to forgive the perpetrators. This is the stance adopted by the religions and by most forms of psychotherapy. In your books you contradict this approach. Why?
9. As I said before, our bodies have no understanding of religion or morals. If we ignore the physical experience of cruelty, we pay for this self-betrayal with illnesses, or our children have to pay for it, or both. Forgiveness heals no injuries. They can only be healed by admitting the painful truth, not by self-deception. The healing process requires them to be uncovered, not left in the dark. Some priests abuse children for their sexual gratification BECAUSE they refuse to face the fact that they were abused in this way when they were small. Every morning they forgive all “trespassers” without knowing that they are driven by the compulsion both to repeat and to deny what they once went through themselves. If they were confronted with their own history and if revealing therapy enabled them to protest angrily against what was done to them in their early years, then they would not feel the compulsion to endanger the lives of their charges. I have described this approach to therapy in my last two books, notably Free from Lies.
10. For a number of years now there has been talk of a newly discovered disorder, the so-called “false memory syndrome.” Do you think it conceivable that someone could wrongly imagine they had been treated cruelly in childhood?
10. No. Our organism tends to shy away from pain, not to invent it. If we do invent a story it will ALWAYS be less harmful than the real, repressed one, was The False Memory Foundation is an interest group established by rich parents in the 1980s, suing those therapists whose treatment had enabled their adult children to recall the sexual abuse once inflicted on them by the parents. Unfortunately, many therapists were intimidated by this foundation, and this may be one of the reasons why childhood reality plays no part in most of the therapies on offer today.
11. In the meantime we know that this co-called syndrome has never been scientifically acknowledged. So why is it still taken so seriously?
11. Precisely because it serves to DENY the truth. That is why it has been welcomed with open arms. The activities of this foundation have now been hailed both in France and Germany. It reminds me of the time when Sigmund Freud willfully ignored his discovery of sexual abuse and offered his disciples the Oedipus complex so that he would not have to fear his own father, “who may have been a pervert himself” (cited after Freud in my book Thou Shalt Not Be Aware).
12. Your books have gone into many editions and have been translated into 30 languages. Why has it taken so long for your insights to gain credence?
12. Because all I have to offer is the advice to take a close look at one’s own childhood. And that is the last thing we want. But those people who have been brave enough to do so, instead of allowing themselves to be sidetracked by all kinds of theories designed to spare the parents, actually discover gold mines in their histories, the key to understanding their whole lives. When they have identified the truth, symptoms like depression or eating disorders simply disappear. Of course there is often a lot of anguish involved in this process, but it’s worth it.
13. What changes to society would be necessary to prevent violence from being passed on from one generation to the next?
13. What we need above all is the spread of knowledge about the dynamics of violence, mass enlightenment on the way in which we produce a tendency to violence in our children. With the information I sent to the Popes I hoped I might trigger an “aha!” response and instill in them the desire to protect the children. One single statement from the Vatican would have galvanized millions of young parents. But nothing happened. People still hit heir children, and the effects are disastrous. A strict ban on such crimes would finally make people aware that every child MUST be respected and has the right to protection from the state. Otherwise we will be rearing young people who will think nothing of starting wars in the future. Beaten children loose their natural compass.
14. Have we not come a little closer to achieving this goal in the recent past?
14. Unfortunately not. There are still 20 US American states that allow physical punishment in schools. This stands in crass contradiction to the humane constitution of the United States that guarantees EVERY citizen safety and protection. So why can schoolchildren still be spanked with impunity? Very few people ask themselves this question. Do children not have the same claim to protection as other citizens, particularly as the injuries inflicted on them cause brain damage, whereas adults with fully formed brains are less vulnerable? Reflection on these issues has yet to take place.
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