Interview with Alice Miller, November 1992

Interview with Alice Miller, November 1992

Translated by Simon Worrall

These answers were given to a journalist who sent the questions for an American magazine but eventually the interview could not be published because Alice Miller refused to accept the suggested editing.

Can you describe your childhood?

I was the first born child, into a typical middle-class family. My parents were much like their fellow citizens. They were not alcoholics. They were not criminals. They even had the reputation of being good, concerned parents. But because they had not experienced love as children, rather neglect cloaked in hypocrisy, they had no idea what their duties towards their children were. As their first child was born, all they knew was their own unsatisfied needs. With the help of that child, they preceded to try and fulfil those needs that they had had to repress in their own childhood: the needs for attention, consideration, tolerance, respect, love, protection, care and so on. What that meant for the child was that, from day one, she had to learn to repress her own needs.

In my early books I wrote actually a great deal about my childhood, without realising precisely that it was my own experience I was describing. Since 1985, however, I have been doing so consciously, and thus readers find in my books much autobiographical detail. Numerous reactions over the past 12 years, from people of diverse cultural backgrounds, have shown me that my childhood was in no way exceptional. Similar destinies can be traced, as it appears in the letters I have received, not only throughout Europe and America, but also in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, India, Vietnam and many other countries. For this reason too, I decided not to make public further details about the places in which I grew up. I did not wish my revelations about the repressed suffering of childhood in general to be bound to my life, thus making it easy to dismiss them as ” my problems “. The tendency to do so is understandably great as relieving one own repression is painful.

Experience has shown me that my decision was right. When people read my books they come face to face with their own childhood. Often, it is the first time in their lives that their own story becomes important to them. And this is crucial. Because before we have taken this emotional step we know, in principle, nothing about our own life, even if we are aware of the facts. As I know from countless letters, my books enabled some readers to begin the journey towards their own stories, without being distracted by mine. And I do not wish to destroy that effect.

Was there any particular moment or set of circumstances that led you into what has proven to be your life’s work?

As a ten year old child I experienced Hitler’s rise to power in Berlin. I watched dumbfounded as millions of supposedly ” civilised ” people were transformed into a blind, hate-filled mass who enthusiastically allowed a primitive, arrogant monster to lead them to murder their fellow human beings. This experience stayed with me irreducibly, and forever; and I believe today that I have spent my live trying to understand the riddle of such dangerous blindness. I have tried to understand how it is that people can be so easily manipulated and where are the invisible sources of their latent hatred. Even as a child I asked myself: Where does human bestiality come from? Are people born as monsters? Can it be that new-born babies come into the world with genes that ” make ” them criminals?

Although our entire system of jurisprudence seems to be based on such a view oh human nature, giving impetus to today’s clarion call for the reintroduction of the death penalty, the notion of ” inherent evil ” has always seemed to me like the medieval belief in the devil and his children. Experience teaches us just the opposite. Studies have already incontrovertibly proved that all serious criminals were once mistreated and neglected children, children who early in their lives had to learn to repress their feelings: that is, to feel absolutely no compassion for themselves and, as a result, have no emotional access to their own stories. By becoming cynical, irresponsible and brutal criminals, they were able to hold their denial in place – but only at the expense of other people’s lives. Today, I know -and have, in my books, tried to prove with ever greater clarity – that the destructiveness, and self-destructiveness, that dominate the world, are not our fate. We produce them in our children, and the production of this destructive potential begins already in pregnancy and at birth. An unwanted child’s desperate struggle for the right to live begins in the womb, leading later to the atrophy of the capacity to love and trust others, and an inevitable movement towards (self) destruction.

We can put an end to the production of evil as soon as we stop denying the proven facts and the knowledge we now have about childhood.

At the beginning of your career, were there any significant influences, mentors, models?

When I look back over my live, I can find no single person who might have supported, let alone accompanied, me on my journey towards the truth. My former teachers and colleagues clung obstinately to theories whose defensive character became so ever clearer to me. When I confronted them with the facts, they reacted with fear and incomprehension. Because my discoveries called their theories into question, and because they were determined, at all costs, to protect the name of Freud, they simply chose not to understand what I was talking about.

Do you believe there is such a thing as ” human nature “? If so, what do you think the quality of this nature is?

As I have already said, I regard all talk of a death-wish, of destructive drives, or genetically programmed evil, as nothing but flight from the facts – facts that have already been proven – and, thus, self-chosen ignorance. People, who love to delegate their responsibilities to the outside world, avoid the testimony of facts. They don’t care about the truth. They want to be left in peace. Goodness they attribute to God, evil to the devil or their children’s innate wickedness. They also believe that what is destined can be transformed by discipline and violence. How can it? Has anyone ever seen a single human being whose inborn destructiveness has been transformed by beatings and other forms of mistreatment into good, positive character traits? There isn’t one in the whole wide world. Nonetheless, ” scientists ” still cling to their belief in the myth of ” inherent evil ” and millions of parents still go on mistreating their children in the belief that they can beat goodness into them. What they create instead is a submissive child, a child that may not show his well-justified fury today, but will later remorselessly act out his rage on others, in war or on his own children. The only ones who will not be forced to pass on this legacy of destruction are those who encounter, either in childhood or later, an enlightened witness – someone who can help them feel the cruelty they suffered, recognise it for what it was and categorically condemn it.

And human nature? Ultimately, it is a philosophical question, though the answer is not to be found with philosophers, psychologists or church reformers. Most of them were severely mistreated as children, but repressed their pain, blindly defending, as mistreated children have done since the beginning of time, the very system that made them suffer. Martin Luther for instance, urged all parents to mistreat their children, because he idealised the pitiless beatings his mother had given him and wanted to see them as something positive. Calvin, the reformer and spiritual father of the city of Geneva, wishing to glorify the brutality he had experienced, wrote: ” The only salvation is to know nothing, and to want nothing… man should not only be convinced of his absolute worthlessness. He should do everything he can to humiliate himself “. The philosopher Emmanuel Kant put it this way: ” Man has an inborn tendency toward evil. In order to prevent him from becoming a beast, this evil must be kept in check “. Although these thinkers crassly contradict the truth, their opinions were long taught at Universities. For any feeling person, it would probably be enough to walk round a birth-clinic and see what happens to new-born babies, to realise what unnecessary suffering ignorance and pigheadedness can cause. A child will, for instance, be held up by the feet – so it can breathe, we are told – without anyone recognising this as sadistic mistreatment. As none of the people involved knows what once happened to them, the new-born’s feelings will be totally ignored. And this, despite the fact that with the help of electronic readings we can today see that a child already reacts to tenderness and cruelty in the womb. Not just reacts. It learns them. Society makes its first contribution to a person’s potential for love or destruction here; in the manner it receives a new human being into the world. Education can worsen or greatly improve that fact. Everything depends on the capacity for love and understanding shown by the child’s parents and other important people in his/her life.

A child comes into the world a bungle of needs. To fulfil these, to give him respect, protection care, love and honesty, he is absolutely dependent on his parents; if these needs are not fulfilled and instead, children are used, mistreated and neglected, it is readily understandable, that they develop into confused, evil or sick persons. Evil is real. Hitler was real, so were his deeds. Who can deny that?

You seem to suggest that for many parents, raising a child becomes a kind of psychodrama, in which their own mistreatment is re-enacted in the brutalization of their child. That this happens with brutal child-abusers is well-known, but what I would like to hear more about is how this re-enactment phenomenon affects the life of those millions of families whose inner working does not go completely out of control but who’s dynamic could nevertheless be called ” abusive “.

In fact, I have described exactly this dynamic in all my books, especially in the Drama. Like you, I thought that something as obvious as brutal mistreatment and its calamitous effects could not be disputed by anyone. With time, however, I came to see that even the most murderous attacks on a child can be made to seem harmless, often by the victims themselves. As children, they could not face the truth, and they continue to deny it as grown-ups, not knowing that they do not have to die of their pain. Only the child would have been killed by the truth and was therefore to repress it. Adults can relieve their repression. By experiencing the painful truth, they also have the chance of becoming well.

Since coming to know the dynamics of repression better, I have begun to speak of open abuse more than subtle forms of parental misuse of power. I believe that everyone can gain this insight. Today, however, it seems to me urgent and imperative to disseminate the knowledge that wars and the crimes of dictators are a direct consequence of crimes repressed in childhood ; and it is to this, as you can see from my ??? That I now devote most of my attention. Previously, I thought that if one spoke of the subtle forms of child abuse then the more glaring ones would become obvious. But perhaps we have not advanced that far. The fact that large sections of the media refuse to treat this subject at all shows just how many people have first-hand knowledge of abuse, and consequently fear to approach the subject. Usually, they come from families in which criticism could have been life-threatening for the child and they still fear this danger.

What do you think the role of religion is in the raising of children? Also, how does religion affect the behavior of parents…? I’m thinking particularly of how religion might affect the ideology of child-rearing?

People frequently draw my attention to quotations from the New Testament which emphasise the worth of children. But for many people, as we know, holding children in high esteem and sacrificing them, is no contradiction. Indeed, the good faith and openness of children frequently tempt their emotionally starved parents to abuse and exploit them. Was Jesus himself not a particularly cherished, and sacrificed, son? In fact, I know of no religion that forbids and condemns the mistreatment of children as a matter of practice. Respect, understanding and love are universally preached for parents, no matter how they behave. Children, on the other hand, according to Luther, for instance, should only be loved in so far as they are obedient and god-fearing : that is, as long as they deny themselves. Parents have a right to the unconditional love and respect of their children. Dostoyevsky may have written in ” The Brothers Karamazov ” that a father should only be loved if he merits it; but he himself suffered from epilepsy, because he was not allowed to know that he was also a severely abused child and the victim of indescribable brutality on the part of his father. Only thanks to his mother’s love and help could he escape from becoming a murder himself; but he could not escape to his illness.

In my last book I have shown how intelligent, religiously minded educators still advise people, as Luther did 400 years ago, to use the rod today so that tomorrow the child ” will be loved by God “. In his important book, ” Spare the Child “, Philip Greven has shown how widespread sadistic and destructive methods of child-rearing still are, particularly those concealed under the mantle of religiosity. This is not only true of Christian child-rearing. 100 million Islamic women living today have had their genitals mutilated as children. Millions of Jewish or Arab children are, for the sake of dogma, subjected to circumcision, as infants or at an advanced age. Such cruelty is only possible with the total denial of the child’s sensibility. But who can seriously say today that a child does not feel? In India, millions of girls have been raped as “brides” and this in the name of the religiously sanctioned doctrine of marriage. Countless initiation rites, condoned by religion, are nothing more than the sadistic mistreatment of children. The history of art abounds with such scenes, yet no one bats an eyelid. We have been brought up not to feel. As soon as individual human beings begin to feel, however, many things will inevitably change.

Some critics of the so-called ” inner-child movement ” have suggested that the concentration on childhood is a form of sell-pity and even narcissism. How would you respond to this common criticism?

I do not represent any movement and therefore cannot know to whom exactly you are referring. I can also take no responsibility for all that is, unfortunately, propounded in my name. I can only say in response to your question: Allowing the child inside us, whose integrity has been seriously damaged, to at last feel and speak, allowing it to discover her rights and needs, means no less than to enable her to grow, and grow up. Making feelings available to consciousness means setting in motion a process of growth, assuming responsibility, and beginning a movement towards consciousness. This process can only take place once we call into question our parents and our society, and once the person, who was up till then blind to cruelty, begins to see. I have never come across someone in whom this process was not accompanied by genuine sympathy for, and interest in, others; nor someone in whom there was not the wish to help others by communicating the knowledge they had gained. Of course, one can only help someone who wishes to help themselves.

To my knowledge, all this is precisely the opposite of narcissism. The narcissist is trapped in his or her self admiration, and does not dare to venture on such a journey of self-discovery. The awakening of our own sensibility to that which was done to us as children enables us, for the first time, to notice what was, and is, done to others. This sensitivity to one’s own fate is a condition – an absolutely essential condition – of our ability to love. People who make light of the mistreatment they received, who are proud of their imperviousness to feeling, will inevitably pass on their experience to their children or to others; and this, regardless of what they say, write, or believe. People who can feel what happened to them, on the other hand, do not run the risk of mistreating others. Perhaps what you mean is a person who constantly feels sorry for themselves, yet are not really determined to confront, and feel, their reality. Instead, they probably expect someone else to do it for them – expect someone else to finally take seriously the child that they themselves, ultimately, reject. But no one can do that for us. And the price for that rejection, for denying one’s own story, for the lack of sympathy for ourselves, is life itself. In the criticism that you mention I naturally hear the voice of the submissive child, the child who was not allowed to see, feel or be sad about its parents unjust behavior and, instead, had to learn early on to regard all this as ” self-pity “, and despise it. But why should we not suffer from the suffering inflicted on us? What purpose would that serve? Is this not a shocking and extremely dangerous perversion of natural human tendencies? We are born into the world as feeling beings. Feelings and compassion for ourselves are essential to us to orientate ourselves in the world. Isn’t it bad enough to have been robbed of our capacity to feel, our compass for life, by blows and humiliation? When so-called specialists champion this perversion as a solution, however, they should be unmasked for what they are: the blind leading the blind. Hitler was also proud that he could count the 32 strokes his father once gave him, without feeling a thing. Rudolf Hoss and Adolf Eichmann made similar proud assertions. What came next is well enough know, though the connections have never been properly understood.

Some people would say that you tend to see the family in isolation, relatively unaffected by economics, culture, and history. How would you respond to this criticism?

That is just what preoccupies me the most: In very different cultures, at very different times, under the influence of very different religions, I find the same thing: the abuse of children on a mass scale, accompanied by repression and denial. This phenomenon can be traced neither to a particular class nor to a particular economic system. Rich people can be child abusers, or they can be loving parents. And the same goes for the poor. Only one thing is certain: people, who were respected as children, will later respect their own children. It is, after all, the most natural thing in the world. The reason that children are mistreated lies only, and only, in the repression and denial of one’s own experience, something which the careers of dictators more than amply illustrate. I was told that there are cultures in which children are not mistreated and in which, significantly, no wars are fought. But I don’t know them well. If you hear of such a society, I would be indebted to you for more detailed information about it.