Taking It Personally: Indignation as a Vehicle of Therapy

by Alice Miller

Taking It Personally: Indignation as a Vehicle of Therapy
Sunday May 01, 2005

There is no shortage of books and articles informing us about horrific deeds and circumstances (cruelty to animals, exploitation of nature, torture, despotism, etc.), and it is only natural that we should respond to such accounts with strong feelings. The reaction displayed by a large majority of the thinking and feeling population is one of indignation. But there is an exception to this rule. To a striking degree, reports on the physical abuse of children in the form of spankings or beatings meet with almost total indifference. Most people are still convinced that for children physical “correction” is both necessary and harmless.

How can anyone possibly believe that youngsters will benefit from being beaten, particularly at a time when they are still growing and their brains are developing? One might perhaps assume that the advocates of corporal punishment have never heard of the fact that the human brain is still at the development stage in the first three years of life, and that it is precisely in this period that violence is learned by example. But what explanation is there for such ignorance? After all, this knowledge is not a closely guarded secret. At least educated people like teachers, priests, or lawyers (politicians, statesmen, ministers) must surely have been confronted with the facts of the matter at some point.

Reports on cruelty to children have been common knowledge for at least 20 years, yet there are still no signs of revulsion and horror at this ruthless exploitation of the helpless situation children find themselves in. Cruelty of this kind serves one single purpose: the discharge of the feelings of hatred pent up in adults, parents, and so-called caregivers. But what do we say when we hear a child has been beaten? “So what? That’s quite normal, isn’t it?”

In the last 20 years or so, some people have been raising their voices and insisting that it is in fact anything but normal, that it is both dangerous and ethically unconscionable. But these people are still a small minority. My numerous attempts to persuade the Vatican to assist me in enlightening young parents about the dangers of hitting their children have all failed. I have invariably come up against a wall of indifference and silence.

How can we explain this? We can hardly assume that there is no single person in the Vatican able to react with indignation to the violence done to children. This surely cannot be the reason why no one felt prompted to pass my information on to the Pope. Yet my experience indicates that nothing of the kind has in fact been done. And this applies not only to the Vatican. All over the world, governments have done very little indeed to put a stop to these barbaric practices.

In the 1970s, Sweden passed a law expressly prohibiting the exercise of violence on children. Unfortunately, only 13 smaller states have followed the Swedish example in the interim. We know beyond doubt that by hitting our children we are bringing them up to be the violent parents of the future. But there is no public outcry. Instead, we imperturbably go on cultivating what we claim to be trying to stamp out: torture, war, genocide. We actively connive in the production of tomorrow’s violence, tomorrow’s illnesses. In each and every case, there is incontrovertible evidence that these acts of violence can be traced back to a history of repeated humiliation (cf. James Gilligan, Violence, Putnam N.Y., 1996).

Time and again, I ask myself why it is so difficult to communicate this knowledge, why the perfectly normal response – horror and indignation – fails to materialize when the question at issue is cruelty to small children. Deep down I know the answer, though I keep on hoping I am mistaken. The answer I have found is: Most of us were mistreated as children and had to learn to deny this fact at a very early stage in order to survive. We were forced to believe

that we were humiliated and tormented “for our own good,”
that the beatings we received did not hurt and were harmless,
that such treatment served to protect the community (as otherwise we would have turned into dangerous monsters).

If the brain stores this aberrant information at a very early stage, then the message it conveys will normally retain its effect throughout our lives. It causes a persistent mental bias. In therapy, such biases may be resolved. But most people are not prepared to question and abandon preconceptions of this kind. Instead they chant this perverse litany: “My parents did their best to bring me up properly, I was a difficult child, and I needed strict discipline.” Obviously, people who have been brought up to believe this cannot conceivably feel indignation about cruelty to children. Since their own childhood, they have been dissociated from their true feelings, from the pain caused by humiliation and torment. To feel their indignation they would need to get back in touch with that childhood pain. And who will want to do that?

Accordingly, this pain very frequently remains locked up behind iron doors in the basement of their souls. And Heaven help anyone who starts battering on those doors! Depression, tablet abuse, drugs, even death – anything is better than being reminded of the torture they went through in the past. So they give it a fine-sounding name – “upbringing” – because that way they can avoid having to feel the pain. As long as they deny the fact that they were childhood victims these people are incapable of indignation. Only very few face up to the grim facts of their early lives, and if they do so, it frequently makes them feel isolated. For they live in a society where many open-minded individuals do feel genuine disgust and indignation at injustices like child labor in Asia but not at the injustice they were themselves exposed to when they were children. This victimization took place when they were too young to be capable of independent thought and accordingly adopted their parents’ opinion that they were being tortured for their own good. They espoused this opinion because it enabled them to cultivate loyalty to, and love of, their parents, though this unswerving loyalty is often upheld to the detriment of their own children. Surely, the time is now ripe for these formerly abused children to find the courage to rebel.

While our own biographies may help us to realize why we cannot feel indignation at the abuse so many children are exposed to, this inability actively impedes our access to the understanding of a whole range of phenomena. We can illustrate this with reference to some of the problems afflicting present-day society. In the following, I have chosen three such problematic issues to indicate how the ability to feel indignation and to resolve our mental paralysis might help us not only to extend our knowledge but also to provide effective remedies and preventive measures where they are urgently needed. These issues are (a) the traditional view of delinquency (mass murders and serial killings), (b) the tradition of child abuse in families, and (c) the neutrality principle imposed on psychotherapists.

Mass murderers and serial killers

Both in forensic psychiatry and in psychoanalytic circles we constantly hear it said that the abominable deeds perpetrated by mass murderers could hardly be the fruits of childhood abuse because some of these killers come neither from broken homes nor from families with an appreciable history of violence. However, if we take the trouble to inquire more closely into their parents’ upbringing methods, we are invariably confronted with horrors that are just as execrable as the crimes committed by serial killers. Indeed, as these perversions were visited upon children – for years on end – what we usually refer to as corporal punishment fully deserves to be branded as murder – murder of the soul. As the book Base Instincts by Jonathan Pincus demonstrates (cf. Thomas Gruner’s article “Frenzy” on this website), it is by no means difficult to elicit details about parental cruelty from murderers because they themselves hardly ever consider them to be evidence of perversion. They see them as instances of a perfectly normal upbringing. Like almost all people abused in childhood, these killers are fond of their parents and prepared to go to any lengths to shield them from blame and accusation. Normally, the psychiatrist interviewing such a criminal will adopt this judgment (if he himself has never called his own parents into question) and arrive at the conclusion that for some mysterious reason the serial killer opposite him must have come into the world with destructive genes provoking him to commit his terrible crimes.

I once saw a television report on the increase of juvenile delinquency in our society. The reporter did all he could to understand the motives of the young criminals, interviewing public prosecutors, police officials, and prison governors in his bid to find out more about the causes. Without exception, they all asserted that they had been unable to identify any motives for the murders committed or the serious injuries inflicted on the victims. They also noted that this was typical for the youth of today. The only causes cited for the extreme arousal involved were alcohol or drugs. But there was no inquiry into what had prompted these people to take drugs in the first place. None of the officials questioned gave any sign of awareness about the fact that since their childhood these youngsters had been nursing feelings of revenge ticking away inside them like a time bomb.

In 20 years of service, a prison governor fully familiar with all the problems posed by an institution of this kind had obviously never given any thought to the question of how juvenile criminals had grown up and who had sown the seeds of violence in their souls. It had never struck him that almost all the crime records reported that the delinquent in question had flown into an uncontrollable rage when he felt offended, humiliated, or disgraced. As a child, he was unable to respond to humiliation. Now he can. The inevitability of subsequent capture and imprisonment is all part of his compulsive desire for self-punishment, for deep down he has always put the blame himself for not being loved on himself. This is what he has been told for as long as he can remember. As a humiliated child, he was never able to learn how to express his anger in words without being punished for it. So instead he immediately resorts to violence, just as his parents did. His brain learned this lesson at a very early stage, and it takes effect immediately when he feels his personal dignity is under attack. But leveling accusations at the assailants who drummed that lesson when he was small is taboo. The result is that after serving their sentences more than half of the convicted delinquents repeat their crimes and end up back in prison.

In his book Transforming Aggression psychoanalyst Frank M. Lachmann devotes an entire chapter to serial killers. His conclusion is that these people are completely beyond the reach of any kind of empathy. He distinguishes between “guilty” (Freud’s Oedipus) and “tragic” figures (Kohut), the latter being those who spent their childhood in an unresponsive environment. Psychoanalysts can feel empathy for both, says Lachmann. But for him serial killers and, say, Hitler’s henchmen make up a category that must NECESSARILY defy our attempts at understanding. These criminals represent evil in its purest form.

So what about terrorist attacks, or instances of genocide as in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, and so many other places in the world? Can we imagine people wanting to blow themselves sky-high if they were loved, protected, and respected as children? I refuse to accept the idea that people capable of such abominable deeds should be regarded as incarnations of pure evil, thus relieving us of any attempt to identify the roots of this compulsive destructiveness in their biographies. These roots are readily discernible once we open our eyes to the fact that, horrific as the crimes of these adults may be, they are no more appalling than the tortures these criminals were exposed to as children. Then, suddenly, the apparent mystery is solved. We realize that there is not one single mass murderer or serial killer who as a child was not the victim of all kinds of humiliations and psychic murder. But to see that, we need the capacity for indignation that normally lapses into abeyance when we think and talk about childhood. (Once again, let me point out that my concern here is not to condone the crimes of adult sadists but to understand the sufferings of the children they once were).
Lachmann’s book is an indication that not only psychiatrists but also psychoanalysts normally shy away from this perspective on childhood suffering. Society pays a very high price for such blindness. If we could help the former victims to rebel against the deeds of their parents, this might ultimately suffice to free them of their compulsion to unconsciously re-enact their own brutal histories over and over again.

Child mistreatment: a family tradition

Once we have identified the dynamics of compulsive repetition, we will find it in all families where children are mistreated. Frequently the kind of abuse exercised on children has a long history. The same patterns of humiliation, neglect, exertion of power, and sadism can often be traced back over several generations. To evade the horror this involves, we keep on dreaming up new theories. Some psychologists suggest that the sufferings of their clients derive not from their own childhood but from the histories and problems of distant ancestors that they attempt to resolve with their illnesses.

Such theories have a palliative effect. They save us from having to imagine the sheer hell these clients went through in their youth, and they spare us indignation. But much like the genetic fallacy, this is in fact nothing other than an attempt to escape the painful reality of the matter. It is absurd to interpret genocide or the increase of violence, say in present-day Iraq, as a consequence of destructive genes. Why should so many people with destructive genes have suddenly been born in the era of Hitler or Milosevic? Yet many intellectuals believe implicitly and unhesitatingly in such explanations. They subscribe to the notion of intrinsic evil to spare themselves the pain involved in admitting that, whatever justifications may be trotted out to disguise such violence, the real reason why numerous parents torment their children is unconscious hatred. But this is the truth. And once we decide to look it in the face, there are real benefits to be gained from that decision. It enables us to forsake the medieval belief in the devil (“rogue genes”). The chain of violence is shown up for what it is, and we realize that we can do something to break that chain.

Sadistic parents do not fall from the skies. They were treated just as sadistically in their childhood, there is no doubt about that. To assert the opposite is to evade the simple fact that in the formative years of their lives tormented children suffer not only one death, like a murderer’s victim, but countless psychic deaths and tortures at the hands of the people they are dependent on and cannot find a substitute for.

The German news media recently reported the death of a seven-year-old girl named Jessica, who was starved to death by her mother and only weighed 18 pounds when she died. The press was horrified, and there was a funeral ceremony for Jessica, with flowers, candles, and fine words, as is appropriate in such a case. All over the world dead and unborn children are loved and mourned for. But the sufferings of living children are persistently trivialized. Neither at the ceremony nor in the press did anyone ask how a mother can leave her child to starve, how she could look on imperviously as the little body wasted away, why there was no feeling of compassion, why she left the child alone in her torment.

It is hard for us to imagine such sadism, although we are only sixty years away from Auschwitz, the place where millions were intentionally starved and left to stare certain death in the face. But neither then, nor later, nor today has there been any inquiry into the question of how people become so sadistic. How were they brought up, how were they deprived of the capacity to rebel against such wrongs, to recognize their parents’ cruelty, to defend themselves against it? Instead, they were taught to approve their parents’ sadism in all its forms. And this succeeded so completely because children want to love their parents and prefer not to look the truth in the face. The truth is too awful for these children to bear, so they avert their eyes. But the body remembers everything, and as adults, those children unconsciously and automatically rehearse their parents’ sadism on their own children, on their subjects or employees, on everyone dependent on them. They do not know that they are doing to others precisely what their parents did to them when they were in a state of complete and utter dependence. Some may suspect the fact and seek therapeutic aid. But what do they find?

Therapy: neutrality versus partiality

When I trained to be a psychoanalyst a great deal of importance was attached to the analyst’s neutrality. This was one of the basic rules considered since Freud to be self-evident and required to be strictly observed at all times. At that point, I had no idea that there was any connection between this stricture and the compulsion to protect the patient’s parents from any kind of blame. My colleagues seemed to have no difficulty maintaining their neutrality, they appeared to have no interest in empathizing with the torments suffered by a beaten and humiliated child exposed to incestuous exploitation. Perhaps some of them had been the victims of such cruelty. But in their training, they were themselves treated with the neutrality demanded by Freud, so they had no opportunity of discovering the pain they had been denying all along. To be able to break with that denial, they would have needed not a neutral therapist but a partial one, someone who sided unequivocally with the tormented child and displayed indignation at the wrongs done to that child before the client is capable of doing so. The point is that at the outset of therapy most clients do not feel any indignation. Though they recount facts that invite revulsion and indignation, they have no sense of rebellion, not only because they are dissociated from their feelings but because they do not know that parents can be any different.

My experience has repeatedly shown me that my genuine indignation at what clients have been through in their childhood is an important vehicle of therapy. This becomes especially apparent in group therapy. Individual members of the group may tell us calmly, possibly even with a smile, that they were locked in a dark cellar for hours if they dared to contradict their parents. This will arouse a murmur of horror among the other members. But the person telling the story is not yet capable of such feelings, they have no basis for comparisons. For them this treatment is normal.

I have also met people who spent years in primal therapy and who had no difficulty in weeping over the sufferings they had been through in their childhood. But they were still far from feeling any indignation at the incestuous exploitation or the perverted ritual beatings they had suffered at the hands of their parents. They believed that such inflictions are a normal part of any childhood and that the simple re-discovery of their former feelings would heal them. But this is not always the case, and certainly not if the strong attachment to their unconscious parents and the expectations they have of them continue to subsist. I believe that this attachment and these expectations cannot be resolved as long as the therapist remains neutral. This has struck me in my discussions with therapists working quite correctly with their clients on access to their emotions but still subject to the idealization of their own parents. They could only help their clients when they had been encouraged to admit their own feelings and consequently to express the indignation aroused in them, as therapists, by the perversions inflicted on the clients by their parents.

The effect of this is frequently very striking. It is like clearing away a dam that has been blocking the course of a river. Sometimes the therapist’s indignation will quickly release a veritable avalanche of indignation in the client. But this is not always the case. Some clients need weeks, months, even years before this happens. But the open display of indignation on the part of the therapist as witness ultimately sets off a process of liberation that has previously been impeded by the moral standards upheld by society. This unleashing of emotion is due to the free and committed attitude of a therapist able to show the former child that it is legitimate to be scandalized at the behavior of one’s parents, that EVERY FEELING INDIVIDUAL WOULD BE SCANDALIZED, WITH THE SOLE EXCEPTION OF THE PERSON WHO HAS ACTUALLY BEEN THIS TORMENTED CHILD.

My remarks on this point may be understood as an attempt on my part to write a prescription for therapists, advising them to develop feelings of indignation so as to help their clients achieve this breakthrough. But that would be a major misunderstanding. I cannot advise someone to have feelings they do not have, and no one can possibly follow such advice. However, I assume that there are therapists who are sincerely indignant when they hear of the scandalous behavior of their clients’ parents. It is entirely possible that some of them believe that they should not give expression to this indignation because in their training they have been told that this must be avoided at all costs. From Freud’s school of thought they may even have learned to regard their feelings as “counter transference,” i.e. as a mere “personal” reaction to their clients’ feelings. This way they have accustomed themselves to avoiding the perception and expression of their own feelings, their simple and eminently understandable response to cruelty.

The general tendency to evade feelings of indignation is understandable because this feeling can easily spark off a perception of childlike impotence and memories of a time when some of us were hopelessly exposed to the sadism of adults and unable to defend ourselves. The fact that despite all my efforts I myself am still not entirely free of this instinctive evasion was brought home to me recently by a letter from one of my readers. She wrote that her daughter was working for an emergency telephone service for the victims of the ritual mistreatment of children and had found out that in isolated cases children had been forced to kill babies. This reminded me that in my book Banished Knowledge I had written that the tortured child believes it has killed the baby in itself when it is forced to lie or to hold its tongue. But in perverted and sadistic rituals, it now becomes apparent that children may be literally forced to kill babies, in the same way as they are sometimes forced to torment animals.

It is understandable that we should prefer not to hear about these things and to regard people who engage in such practices as monsters. But as we are increasingly confronted with terrorist violence, we cannot afford to demonize perversion and close our eyes to the way in which people who practice such sadistic rituals were turned into sadists in the first place. The production of perversion goes on unhindered. And if we do not learn to understand the connections and prevent parents from the exercise of their perverted upbringing rituals, then humanity is ultimately doomed to be wiped out by its own deeply rooted ignorance.

Alice Miller.

Further reading: Frenzy (the article by Thomas Gruner referred to above).