For Your Own Good

Robin Kittrelle, RNP, The Permanent Journal – October 2001

“The truth about childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, our perceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication. But someday the body will present its bill” —Alice Miller (1)

Alice Miller, PhD, is a German psychoanalyst whose mission in life is to make the world a better place for children by helping the adults who care for them understand their own childhood events. She has written ten books about the effects of childhood on the lives of adults. Her equally important other goal is to expand that responsibility to society^—ie, the villages that raise the children. For Your Own Good may be Dr Miller’s most renowned book, and this review doubles as a tribute to Dr Miller and to her firm and persistent voice.

Miller writes about a “helping witness”—someone who acts (routinely, or even once at a critical time) with kindness toward the child and who somehow, by looking into the child’s eyes, shows the child another way to live and be. This helper may have no idea of his or her role but nonetheless acts as a counterweight to the cruelty or neglect a child experiences. DR Miller says that a critical prerequisite for normal survival is that at least once in their lives, mistreated children come into contact with a person who understands that the environment, not the child, is at fault. This helping witness teaches the child that he or she is worthy of kindness. This lesson is the basis for resilience.

Dr Miller also describes a “knowing or enlightened witness”—someone who understands the importance of being a helping witness. This person recognizes the adverse effects of childhood trauma or neglect and is willing to give emotional support that helps a child understand and express true feelings. Sadly, the first (and perhaps only) “knowing witness” in most people’s lives is often a therapist—but readily could be any physician, nurse, or teacher who is willing to understand what the child sees every day.

In her struggles with the question, “What causes evil in the world?” Miller writes here about the childhood of Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, and other mass murderers. Most recently, she wrote about corporal punishment. (2) She documents a worldwide fact: Most of today’s parents and teachers were physically punished as children. Society’s argument to justify this phenomenon is that being beaten, especially by a parent, prepares children for life and helps them learn to be obedient; indeed, we are all familiar with the exhortation to “beat some sense into [him/her/them].” In disagreement with this viewpoint, Miller argues that being beaten and unable to defend themselves only teaches children that they are not worthy of protection or respect. Beaten children become humiliated and confused although soon are taught that the beating is “for their own good” and does no lasting harm. Much later, this type of beating becomes a part of their own so-called good parenting—forming the basis for much violence in the world. The events of September 11, 2001, have provided the world an additional example of anger, revenge, and ignorance expressed as violence toward oneself and others—and have brought Miller’s For Your Own Good back into focus.

(1) Miller A. Thou shalt not be aware: society’s betrayal of the child. Translated from the German by H and H Hannum; with a preface by L deMause and a new introduction by the author. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1998. p 315.
(2) Miller A. The truth will set you free: overcoming emotional blindness and finding your true adult self. [Translated from the German]. New York: Basic Books; 2001.

John A. Speyrer, Primal Psychotherapy Page

Alice Miller is a Swiss psychoanalyst who seemingly writes from the perspective of a primal theorist rather than from that of a Freudian. Her writings have always reflected her own pain, and soon after writing For Your Own Good , she published Pictures of a Childhood: Sixty-Six Watercolors and An Essay. It was the feelings triggered by the paintings, illustrated in that book, which ultimately led her into primal therapy.
But even though For Your Own Good is from her psychoanalytic days, you won’t read anything in it about the id, drives or complexes; nor does it contain psychoanalytic jargon. What it does have is much good material about the long term damage of early childhood hurts suffered by children as a result of abuse from their parents. For Your Own Good was on the bestseller lists in Germany for more than 120 months when it was published. It was translated into English about ten years’ ago.

The author feels that early mistreatment of children can result in neurosis, psychosis or psychosomatic disease but concentrates her efforts in showing how a damaged childhood can be the source of psychopathic violence. Since the end of World War II, she was haunted by the dual questions of the motivation of Adolph Hitler in not only gassing millions of people but also about how easy it was for German citizens to acclaim him and assist him in carrying out his plan. Her answer to this question forms the core of the book. Besides examining the childhood of Hitler, she also analyzes the childhood of a young prostitute and drug addict and a sadistic child murderer.

Alice Miller traces the history of child rearing in Germany for the past two centuries and concludes that the source of criminality and of war itself lies in the abuse of children by their parents. Books on child rearing written during that period are quoted extensively and illustrate how beatings were used to condition children.

Centuries ago helpful advice was given to parents to encourage them to eliminate obstinacy, defiance and natural exuberance from their children’s lives. Dr. Miller states that the parents’ motives then were the same as they are today: to condition and manipulate the child and then to rationalize that it is done for the child’s own good. This process she terms “poisonous pedagogy.”

The use of humiliation (which satisfies the needs of the parents) destroys the child’s self-confidence. To suppress crying and feeling, the parents were told to reward stoicism and self-control. Childhood excitement was considered a vice, and “inhibition of life” was extolled as a virtue. Even the expression of natural maternal feelings were characterized as doting.

In order to satisfy the normal childhood curiosity of the differences between the sexes, one author suggested the viewing of naked corpses in order to evoke solemnity and reflection and thus combat the sex drive. We may sum up these early instructions in child rearing thusly: The child must be made to understand that parents are always right and the needs of the child should not be responded to since it will not prepare them for the rigors of life.

The author delves into the background of Adolph Hitler’s henchmen. She notes that they had been successfully trained to be obedient so that feelings for the atrocities they performed never emerged. At their trials, all of the war criminals pleaded that they were simply following orders. The morality of their orders was never questioned.

Eichmann was able to listen to highly emotional testimony at his trial in Israel with no feeling whatsoever, yet blushed when it was pointed out to him that he had forgotten to stand when his verdict was read. Rudolf Hess, the commandant of Aushwitz, was reared to be a Catholic missionary. He was taught to be obedient to authority so it should have been no surprise that he ran the death camp as he had been ordered to do. Similar attitudes were held by Heinrich Heimmler who deplored the shooting of animals for sport but who had no feelings for those people who were not citizens of the Third Reich.

Miller believes that people with sensitivity to feelings could not be turned into mass murderers overnight. Only the children of authoritarian parents are able to believe that their parents are always right and must be obeyed. She theorizes that if Hitler had had children against whom to direct his feelings for revenge, World War II might not have happened. She considers but rejects Lloyd de Mause’s theory of war as a disconnected feeling of traumatic birth.

Hitler’s followers looked to him as a child does to a father who knows what to do. Hitler to them was God-like, all knowing and infallible. Non-Germans were never able to understand the power this prancing little man had on the masses. His weaknesses were easy to see. But the Germans could not see through his theatrical gestures. The more pompous he become, the more he was admired. His inadequacies were not seen by children reared according to the precepts of strict obedience.

Miller feels that present-day German parents still believe that “sparing the rod spoils the child” since two-thirds of the people recent polled in Germany believe that corporal punishment is necessary, good and correct for children. She states that 60% of modern-day German terrorists are the product of Protestant ministers’ homes.

The author believes that during their lives, most people go through five psychological stages:

As a small child to be hurt and not recognizing the fact.
Failing to react to suffering with appropriate anger.
Showing gratitude to the parents for their supposedly good intentions.
Forgetting everything.
Discharging the stored-up anger onto others in adulthood or directing it against oneself.

Like most psychoanalysts, Dr. Miller feels that insight (which she terms the “aha” reaction) is sufficient to stop the parent from continuing the chain of neurosis to the next generation. She feels (I should say she felt, since the book was written before she went into primal therapy) that the solution to the problem of criminality is education and that there is power in knowledge. There indeed is power in knowledge but the problem is not there is even more power in unfelt repressed Pain.

When insight battles primal Pain, insight will lose every round. After the parent mistreats his child he might offer an apology based on his newly acquired insight. So now the child must try to understand and forgive his parent. How can the child be hurt or angry at such an insightful, well intentioned parent?

Miller ends the preface to the American edition of her book with these words: “And if we are courageous enough to face the truth, the world will change for the power of that ‘poisonous pedagogy’ which has dominated us for so long has been dependent upon our fear, our confusion, and our childish credulity; once it is exposed to the light of truth, it will inevitably disappear.”

Unfortunately, it just isn’t quite that simple. However, it is the beginning.

Ruth Rendell, New Statesman, 5 June 1987

The works of the great psychoanalysts are often as readable as fiction and the writings of Freud are like the best of biography. Alice Miller is another such Her field is the psychological abuse of children and what she has to say about it in “The Drama of Being a Child” (trans. Ruth Ward, Virago) and “For Your Own Good” (trans. Hildegarde and Hunter Hannum, Virago) is both illuminating and distressingly familiar. The reader has the complex experience of recognising a great truth simultaneously with revelation and the realisation of personal tragedy long and deeply suppressed. Childhood injury, whether subjectively experienced or unwittingly perpetrated, here appears the more awful because of its irrevocability.

‘Even the worst criminal of all time was not born a criminal,’ Dr Miller writes, taking Adolf Hitler as one of her subjects for examination. If Hitler had a loving mother even she was not free from the ‘poisonous pedagogy’ which is aimed at shaping children to their parents’ taste: her husband’s submissive serving maid, addressing him incredibly as ‘uncle’, she impassively witnessed the brutal beatings of her son. And a reason is found for Hitler’s euthanasia law and need to liberate Germany from the ‘plague’ of the mentally ill in his enforced daily exposure to the frightening behaviour of his mad aunt. His adult life was a long act of revenge.