Interview given to Ms Noreen Taylor, The Times, London 1999
with some additions of 2004
Is it possible to have some details of your own childhood? For instance, were you smacked as a child? Could you describe your background, parents’ professions, and their relationship with you? When and how did you find the freedom to criticize their parenting skills? And did you find the courage to sit across from them and discuss your childhood?
My parents were quite ordinary middle-class people. My father was an unsuccessful banker, my mother a housewife. She was very devoted to the task of child rearing and discipline, the way it was usual in the twenties of this century. I was born 18 months after their wedding, 4 years later my sister was born. Like so many parents at that time, they had not the slightest idea of a baby’s needs, the needs for attachment, loving contact, touching, security, protection, respect, orientation. My mother had been emotionally extremely neglected in her infancy, so that her body had no recollection of what it means to be loved and cared for. As a result, her only one concern as a young mother was to make me obedient as soon as possible. And she perfectly succeeded in it. I became already “proper” at the age of 6 months, as she told me later. Today I know that such achievement is impossible without violence and systematic corporal punishment to the baby. Thanks to those methods used very early I got perfectly adapted to my parents’ wishes and became the good girl they wanted me to be. This survival strategy demanded a huge price to pay for: the repression of my own feelings and needs. I was thus deprived of my emotional compass. Consequently, when I myself became a mother I couldn’t understand my baby the way he needed to be understood.
When I became 55 years old I wrote The Drama of Being a Child where I described survival strategies similar to my own ones, and many people have written since that they found their own history in this publication. Thanks to these thousands of letters I came to recognize that I was not alone to undergo such a treatment, that it was more or less common and normal to our society and that most people seem completely unaware of its danger. I was amazed. I wanted to understand more about our educational system and, above all, about the reasons of our lack of sensitivity toward the suffering of children. Then I finished practicing in 1980 and devoted myself to the research on childhood and to writing. In For Your Own Good I described the cruelty of the so-called normal upbringing and – again – so many people wrote: how did it come that you knew my family and the way I have been treated? I didn’t know their families but once your sensitivity is awakened you grasp connections that for many yet remain in darkness.
Both of my parents were already dead when I began to grasp what had happened in my past. Thus I couldn’t share with them my newly gained knowledge. It was too late.
Is the increase in rape, and in sexual attacks on young women, connected with certain modes of discipline men may have suffered in their own childhood?
I think that the violent teenagers are demonstrating what happened to them emotionally when they were small. I have no doubt about that. It might not always be a harsh discipline but in most cases there is emotional neglect, lack of authentic communication, of warm, friendly contact. If this lack is also covered by what is called “spoiling” (buying a lot of expensive objects to replace love), the child is often unable to detect the neglect and stays bound to denial. Anyway, every child must deny the pain in order to survive. Only in adulthood is it possible to realize the truth. But the more the childhood history is repressed, the more its cruelty denied, the less these young people are able to feel, to confront the actual reasons of their distress, the stronger they feel urged to act destructively. They have not always conscious memories of what happened in their childhood, especially in infancy, but this knowledge is stored up in their body’s cells and, amazingly enough, they threaten others exactly the same way as they were threatened on the beginning of their life. Unfortunately, the common, ever-present avoidance of the issue “childhood” doesn’t make things easier. I discuss this problem in my book Paths of Life, 1999, and The Truth Will Set You Free, 2002.
Do you feel that society has become more compassionate and aware in the last ten years?
Today we know more about facts but we obviously still lack the compassion for a child that must silently tolerate being beaten, neglected and disrespected by people whom he/she loves. And most people don’t see the consequences of such an event. They lack the empathy that I so much hoped to wake up in them when I gave interviews or wrote articles. In these interviews I have been often asked why I was talking so much about beatings. Are there no other ways of making a child suffer? Of course, there are. But almost everybody agrees already that we shouldn’t maltreat a child while most people still claim that corporal punishment is OK, is not maltreatment when labelled as “educational disciplining”. I think that only with a law forbidding corporal punishment to children, also to the own ones, can we overcome this dangerous error. The goal of this law should be not punishing parents but informing them that every beating is maltreatment, a physical and an emotional one. Even if this law will not change the parents’ behaviour in one generation, it will certainly change the MENTALITY of people very soon. And this is the first step to important social changes.
When did you first link the physical discipline of children with destructive adult behaviour?
I started to understand these problems in my practice (1960 – 1980), thanks to my patients, then, 1980, when I wrote For Your Own Good. I found many confirmations for my hypothesis in the literature about upbringing. With the help of many examples from history and my practice I tried to demonstrate how our cruel upbringing causes the denial and the lack of sensitivity of the whole society.
Addition of 2004: The link between the specific maltreatments endured in childhood and the destructive adult behaviour is still denied by the media. They often report on both, but refuse to show the connection. This avoidance can be clearly observed in all reports about the torturers in Iraq. The actual causes of the perverse behaviour were never discussed.
The chief argument in favour of such discipline is usually based on the premise that it’s the only way to teach naughty children to behave, especially those being cruel to others. Another could be that a tired mother, with a houseful of wilful children, has little alternative but to physically punish those who choose to ignore her verbal admonishments. Since reading your books I have asked various people how they feel about being smacked as children. Half believe it left no impression, while the other half believe smacking was appropriate to antisocial behaviour. What do you say about such opinions?
As the beaten children we once were we learned very early misleading messages (for instance that cruelty is normal and beneficial) which we have a hard time to unlearn. But many succeeded in doing it. Today there are already hundreds of articles and plenty of books written by experts about the dangerous consequences and uselessness of corporal punishments to children. However, most people act and continue to think as if this knowledge didn’t exist at all or were not available. Why? I think that one of the reasons can be the fact that they had to learn not to feel their physical and psychic pain when they were beaten and they think that their children don’t feel it either. I can often hear mothers saying they spank their babies without violence just to give them a lesson. Once I heard it from a very nice young mother who breastfeed her little boy and complained about his anxieties. I asked her if she never thought he made be waiting for the next smack. No, she never thought this could be possible. He is only 15 months, too small to “make such reflections”. I asked her if she was beaten as a child. Yes, she said, all the times, by both parents. I asked her how she would feel if a friend told her that her husband hit her and that she is scared to stay with him. Would she understand her feeling? Of course, she said, I would tell her to leave. So why was she able to have empathy for the adult friend but not for the child? Because it is too small? I suppose rather that she never got empathy when she was suffering from being beaten and she thinks that this was the right way to treat a child. This is a very common attitude that could be changed. For instance newspaper could offer their readers a forum for discussions with parents about their problems with disciplining and also offer the new information about spanking.
Do you have children? How did you discipline them?
I have two adult children. I never hit them but I was sometimes careless and neglecting to my first child out of ignorance. Fortunately not so much as my parents had been to me. It is very painful to realize that but this realization can also be liberating from a self-deception. I think that the love for the own children can bear the truth and can even thrive on it while lies and denial seed cruelty for the next generation.
Could you tell me about your interpretative paintings and how you became inspired by this medium of communication?
I have never painted before 1973. When I then started to paint spontaneously spots, without any goal or project I discovered my old anxieties and the way I had experienced my childhood. Until then I was quite sure that my childhood was a good one. But my body, my hands, knew more than my mind. They showed me in my painting that I had survived a horror and that I had to dissociate this knowledge because nobody was there to understand that what had happened to me was pure cruelty (as it was so “normal”) and to help me to integrate the memories. Now it was me who eventually understood.
You write about the “helping witness”: is there any example you could give in order to help illustrate your findings?
I developed the concepts of helping and conscious witness when I was asked time and again why some people who were severely beaten in childhood didn’t turn to become destructive while others, like Hitler, Stalin, Ceaucescu, Mao etc. did. Interestingly, in all this positive cases there was a person (a teacher, a nanny, a grandmother) who loved these children, or at least liked them, even if she or he was unable to protect them fully from the maltreatment. But in the lives of all dictators I analysed I could not find such a person whom I call a HELPING WITNESS. If a depressed adult have to retrieve his story he would need more than that, he would need a CONSCIOUS WITNESS, a person who is well informed about the situation of a maltreated child and does not minimize it.
In public, if you see parents hitting their children, do you ever confront them?
I try to talk to the parents, to explain, but not to blame them because they act out of ignorance and I don’t want to put shame on them. But every time I try to inform them as kindly as I can. The reactions to my intervention differ from case to case; sometimes they are angry, sometimes puzzled, sometimes even grateful.
Most British people would, I guess, believe that smacking their children is their own business, their own God-given right, and would have grave misgivings about government, legislation intruding into an area as sacrosanct as the home. Such state behaviour would be perceived as close to totalitarian. What is your opinion?
Maybe, 20 years ago such voices could have been heard without opposition. But today we know too much about the lingering effects of violence against children to silently tolerate this lack of information. We should know that the whole society will pay the price for our blindness. A government of a civilized country can no longer ignore this knowledge. You can’t claim the right to play with nuclear weapons on your territories, only because they belong to you. The society’s interests go before your pleasure and your habits. The government must defend these interests. To call it thus “totalitarian” makes so little sense as to insult the fire brigade in a burning house. Look around: When children are small some parents reclaim the sacrosanct “right to them” like to a property. But as soon as they become violent or drug addicted and then emotionally inaccessible these parents are eager to grant their rights to society. The children are no longer “our” children, protected in the sacrosanct family, they become “social cases” and the anonymous taxis-payers will have to pay for the prisons and hospitals these once so eagerly disciplined teenagers will need. The new law must make people aware of a very serious danger we so often oversee because we have learnt so early to oversee it. In Norway and Sweden where this law has been adopted most people already know that beating children teaches them short term obedience but in the long run only violence and anxiety. Children become so as they are treated. The theory that we are born with good or bad genes may be a modern version of the old belief that the devil put his child in our cradle and that we must make it sociable and noble with our vice or birch. We are born with different talents, inclinations and temperaments but our urge to punish others has not a genetical imprint. It is the result of being punished very early and looking for scapegoats to the repressed rage. If it were not so we would need an answer to the question why so many children were born with bad genes 30 – 40 years before Hitler’s Reich to make his plans possible. This question shows the limits of a genetical explanation of the Evil. Nobody is born evil, we produce destructive people by the way we are treating them in childhood.
Addition of 2004: In the whole discussion concerning the scandalous behaviour US-Soldiers displayed in Iraq nobody ever used the word sexual abuse though it was more than clear that the torturers used the same way of humiliating the victims as they themselves once had experienced as helpless children on the mercy of their perverse parents.
- The intended Profile
- An interview given by Alice Miller to Katharina Micada
- How to combat denial
- Violence Kills Love: Spanking, the Fourth Commandment, and the Suppression of Authentic Emotions
- Tell Children the Truth about Terror
- Interview given to Ms Noreen Taylor, The Times, London 1999
- Interview with Alice Miller, November 1992
- The feeling child