The Ignorance or How we produce the Evil

by Alice Miller

The Ignorance or How we produce the Evil
Thursday June 20, 2002

Today there can be no possible doubt that evil exists and that there are people who are capable of extremely destructive behavior. Any lingering doubts on this score will be swept away by an evening spent in front of the television. But the fact this is so is no confirmation of the widespread assertion that there are people who are born evil. On the contrary. The deciding factor is the reception they were given when they came into the world and the way they were treated later. Of course they have the genetic blueprint they inherited from their parents, and it may determine what kind of temperament a child will have, what inclinations, gifts, predispositions, but character depends crucially upon what a person is offered soon after his birth and over the first years of life.

Children who are given love, respect, understanding, kindness, and warmth will naturally develop different characteristics from those who experience neglect, contempt, violence or abuse, and never have anyone they can turn to for kindness and affection. Such absence of trust and love is a common denominator in the formative years of all the dictators I have studied. The result is that these children will tend to glorify the violence inflicted upon them and later to take advantage of every possible opportunity to exercise such violence, possibly on a gigantic scale. Children learn by imitation. Their bodies do not learn what we try to instill in them by words but what they have experienced physically. Battered, injured children will learn to batter and injure others; sheltered, respected children will learn to respect and protect those weaker than themselves. Children have nothing else to go on but their own experiences.

Born innocent

The well-known American pediatrician Dr. Brazelton once filmed a group of mothers holding and feeding their babies, each in her own particular way. More than 20 years later he repeated the experiment with the women those babies had grown into and who now had babies themselves. Astoundingly, they all held their babies in exactly the same way as they had been held by their mothers, although of course they had no conscious memories from those early years. One of the things Braselton proved with this experiment was that we are influenced in our behavior by our unconscious memories. And those memories can be life affirming and affectionate or traumatic and destructive.

In the 1970s the French gynecologist Frédéric Leboyer demonstrated that babies delivered without physical force and given a loving reception by their immediate environment show no signs of desperate crying or any kind of destructiveness. In fact they will even smile only a few minutes after birth. As long as they are not separated after birth, as was the custom in the 1950s, mother and child will develop a relationship of trust that will have positive repercussions on the entire further course of the children’s lives. In the physical presence of her baby, the mother will produce the so-called love hormone (oxytocin) enabling her intuitively to understand the signals emitted by the child and to care for its needs by a process of empathy. These phenomena are described by Michel Odent in his latest book (“The Scientification of Love”, London, Free Association, 1999).

Why have these important, groundbreaking insights on human nature failed to penetrate into the awareness of the public at large? True, the works of Leboyer have changed the face of birthing practices. But the philosophical, sociological, psychological, and ultimately theological implications of his discovery of the innocent newborn do not appear to have left any mark on society as a whole. We can see this in many areas: in schools, the penal system, and politics. All these areas are dominated by the notion that punishment – and notably the corporal punishment that goes by the name of “correction” – is effective and harmless. There is little awareness of the fact that physical punishment actually creates the evil that we later try – more or less ineffectually – to banish by inflicting more of the same.

Evil is born anew with every new generation

In the Middle Ages there was a widespread belief in “changelings.” The term referred to children of the devil smuggled into ordinary, well-meaning mothers’ cradles in exchange for the babies they had actually brought into the world. Though there is no indication whom the devil is supposed to have sired these wicked, diabolical children on, or what he did with the good ones he spirited away, the fact is that mothers of so-called changelings were instructed to bring those children up with especial strictness, meaning that they should beat them black and blue at the slightest sign of recalcitrance as this was the only hope of molding them into human beings worthy of the name. Though we no longer believe in changelings today, the belief in the effectiveness of corporal punishment, the idea that we can “beat some sense” into rebellious children, appears to be unshakable in the minds of most people. Even Sigmund Freud believed that a sadist takes pleasure in tormenting others because he has been unable to adequately sublimate the death instinct we are allegedly all born with. Genetics provides an “updated” version of the idea of innate evil. It is frequently asserted that there are genes that drive some people to commit evil deeds even if they have had “lots of love” in their childhood. I have yet to come across such an individual. All the childhood histories of serial killers and dictators I have examined showed them without exception to have been the victims of extreme cruelty, although they themselves steadfastly denied this. And in this they are not alone. Large sections of society are apparently determined either to deny or to ignore these facts. Taken to its logical conclusion, this genetic theory ought to be able to explain why, 30 years before the advent of the Third Reich, Germany should have brought forth millions of children whose genetic make-up was so badly contaminated that in adulthood they were ready and willing to lend themselves to Hitler’s atrocities without turning a hair. Why has there never been such an accumulation of rogue genes in Germany before or since? It is a question I have asked repeatedly and I have never received an answer. The reason is simple. There is no answer. Hitler’s henchmen were victims of their upbringing. They belonged to a generation of children who had been exposed to brutal physical correction and humiliation and who later vented their pent-up feelings of anger and helpless rage on innocent victims. Safe in the knowledge that they were doing so with the Führer’s blessing, they were finally able to give free rein to those feelings without risk of punishment. Today children are brought up very differently in Germany. But wherever cruelty and humiliation still plays a part in parenting, those methods are faithfully reflected in the behavior of young people denying the pain of the humiliation they have been through, selecting and attacking scapegoats, and advancing harebrained ideological reasons for their depredations. The gene theory is just as incapable of explaining evil as the changeling legend or the death instinct. According to statistical surveys (see Olivier Maurel, La Fessée, La Plage, 2001) 90% of the people alive today believe that children need a “good” smacking from time to time if anything is to come of them. The truth is very different, and it is high time we faced up to it. Evil exists. But it is not something that some people are born with. It is produced by society, every day, every hour, unceasingly, all over the world. It starts with the treatment meted out to newborn babies and carries on in the parenting methods practiced on small children. Such children may BECOME criminal at a later stage, if they have no helping witness to turn to. In their childhood years, serial killers and dictators all have one thing in common: they had no such witnesses to turn to for help.

Dictators and the dynamics of cruelty

Every dictator torments his people in the same way he was tormented as a child. The humiliations inflicted on these dictators in adult life had nothing like the same influence on their actions as the emotional experiences they went through in their early years. Those years are “formative” in the truest sense: in this period the brain records or “encodes” emotions without (usually) being able to recall them at will. As almost every dictator denies his sufferings (his former total helplessness in the face of brutality) there is no way that he can truly come to terms with them. Instead he will have a limitless craving for scapegoats on whom he can avenge himself for the fears and anxieties of childhood without having to re-experience those fears. Here are some examples.

Adolf Hitler’s father Alois was an illegitimate child. He was suspected of being the son of a Jewish merchant from Graz because his mother, Maria Schickelgruber, became pregnant when she was in his domestic employ. The suspicion was not easy to disprove because Adolf Hitler’s grandmother received alimony from the merchant for a period of 14 years. Alois must have suffered greatly from this social stigma; the fact that his name was so often changed (Heidler, Hydler, etc.) is a clear indication of the fact. For him, the opprobrium of being both illegitimate and of Jewish descent was a source of unbearable shame. But there was no way he could rid himself of this humiliation. The easiest way for him to vent his pent-up resentment was to take it out on his son Adolf in the form of regular, merciless floggings. I have given a detailed account of this in my book “For Your Own Good” and I return to it in my two latest books “Paths of Life”, Pantheon, 1999 and “The Truth Will Set You Free”, Basic Books, 2001. In the entire history of anti-Semitism and persecution of the Jews, no other ruler had ever hit upon the idea that, on pain of death, every citizen in his country must provide proof of non-Jewish descent extending back to the third generation. This was Hitler’s OWN PERSONAL BRAND OF MANIA. And it is traceable to the insecurity of his existence in his own family, the insecurity of a child constantly living under the threat of violence and humiliation. Later millions were to forfeit their lives so that this child – now a childless adult – could avenge himself by unconsciously projecting the grim scenario of his childhood onto the political stage. We have an instinctive reluctance when it comes to acknowledging that the activity of our bodily and emotional memory is independent of our consciousness. This is understandable, not only because these insights are new and unaccustomed but above all because we have no control over the way that memory operates. But accepting the existence of these phenomena can in fact improve the control we have over their effects and afford better protection against them. The average mother who gives her child an “involuntary” smack will not be aware of the fact that the reason she does so is that her body and its memories are prompting her to. (Mothers not beaten as children do not normally slap their children “involuntarily.”) But if she knows the reason, she will be better able to cope with it. Her self-control will be greater and she will spare both herself and her child the suffering that comes from such treatment.

Like Hitler, Stalin was exposed to immense brutality as a child and had no helping witness to turn to. He did not know that it was his body memory that forced him to play out his own childhood tragedy on the stage of the Soviet Union. Had he known, he would have been better able to control his unconscious anxieties, and millions would have been spared. If this knowledge had been in general currency at the time, the governments of the world might have devised suitable strategies over the last 50 years to prevent the dangerous accumulation of power in the hands of one person for the purpose of reducing their personal childhood traumas to silence. Very little has been done in this connection. Stalin was an only child. Like Hitler he was the first child to survive after three siblings who had died in infancy. His irascible father was almost always drunk and laid into his son from an early age. Despite the fame and power he later achieved, Stalin suffered throughout his life from a persecution mania that drove him to order the killing of millions of innocent people. Just as the infant Stalin lived in fear of sudden death at the hands of his unpredictable father, so the adult Stalin lived in fear even of his closest associates. But now he had the power to fend off those fears by humiliating others.

Mao was the son of a “strict” teacher who attempted to instill obedience and wisdom in him by means of severe physical correction. We are only too familiar with the “wisdom” Mao set out to drum into the huge population of his country, naturally with the “best of intentions.” The methods he used to do so cost the country 35 million lives. Ceaucescu grew up sharing a room with ten brothers and sisters. His delayed response to this was to force Romanian women to have unwanted children.

The examples are endless. Unfortunately we refuse to look these facts in the face. If we did, we might learn how hate comes about. And if we took its origins seriously we would be less prone to think that there is nothing we can do about it.

The roots of hate

Why are we so anxious to find innate evil tucked away in our genetic make-up? Quite simply because most of us were beaten when we were small and fear nothing so much as the revival of the pain caused by the humiliation we went through. At the same time, we were told that it was all for our own good. So we learned to suppress that pain. But the memory of those humiliating beatings was stored away in our brains and our bodies. We loved our parents, so we believed them when they told us it was for our own good. Most of us still believe it and go around asserting that one cannot bring up children without blows, slaps, and smacks – in other words, without resorting to humiliation. And then there is no way out of the vicious circle of violence and denial of the humiliation inflicted on them. The need for revenge, reprisal, punishment lives on within them. The rage suppressed in childhood is transformed into murderous hate. Religious and ethnic groups are only too willing to provide the ideologies justifying the cultivation and projection of that hate. Humiliation is a poison that is difficult to exterminate because it is used for extermination and the production of new humiliation that fuels the proliferation of violence and masks the underlying problems.

To get out of this vicious circle we must face up to our own truth. We WERE humiliated children, we WERE the victims of our parents’ ignorance, the victims of their histories, of the unconscious scars their childhood left on them. We had no choice but to deny the truth. For a maltreated child, denying suffering is the only hope of survival in an unbearable situation.

But as adults we can break out of that mold. We don’t need to spend all our lives playing down the pain involved and asserting that children need spanking. We can face up to our own history, recognize that hitting children is not only useless but actively dangerous. We can come to understand that it encourages hate and the desire for revenge, feelings that will be unleashed against ourselves and society as a whole if we remain imprisoned in our self-inflicted ignorance. Unlike children, we adults have other – and healthier – alternatives than denial. We can decide in favor of knowledge and awareness, rather than allowing ourselves to be driven by the emotional, unconscious knowledge stored in our bodies and the fear of the truth it instills in us. Maybe there is a little Stalin inside many of us. For all the infinite power at his command, he spent all his life in fear of his father and clinging to the “blessings” of denial. Like Hitler, he believed that the annihilation of millions of people would one day free him of the tormenting fear of his father. But it did not. Such illusions drive many former humiliated children into crime. Equipped with the knowledge we now have at our disposal, we can gradually espouse different ideas and solutions from the ones passed on to us in a thousand-year tradition of violence, punishment, retribution (and sustained by weakness, ignorance, and fear). Electing to remain bogged down in those inherited notions is tantamount to a refusal to learn from the facts we have at our disposal. Those facts are to be found not only in the biographies of mass murderers but also in the positive examples history has to offer. They too have been ignored for thousands of years.

Jesus and his parents

Jesus is worshipped by all Christian churches. He grew up in the company of parents who believed him to be the son of God. We may safely assume that they never hit him. Instead, they treated him with immense respect and gave him all their love. We know what this upbringing based on love, tolerance, and respect made out of him. He passed on to others what he received from his parents: sympathy, tolerance, love, respect. Why is it that in the subsequent 2,000 years no representative of the church modeled himself on Jesus’ example? Why has the church never spoken out against corporal punishment for little children? The church preaches – and practices – charity, tolerance, and forgiveness for adults but expressly denies these blessings to children. Why were Jesus’ parents never held up as an example to Christian believers? Why do Christian schools in Africa get up in arms when the republic of Comores sets out to prohibit physical correction for children in school? The reason given in the corresponding petition is that physical correction for pupils in school is a religious obligation. The only explanation there can be for this extreme psychological ignorance is that the adults involved stand in a tradition of power, reprisal, and revenge for denied humiliation. Unwittingly they are thus passing on this tradition to the coming generation.


Today the computer screen can actually show us the lesions inflicted on the brains of children by violence and neglect. Numerous articles by brain researchers inform us of the facts, not only in specialist journals but also on the internet. It is time to give up the denial. The mortal dangers many of us were exposed to in childhood are no longer there to threaten us. We no longer need to arm ourselves against something that happened long ago. The real hazards come from within, the risks involved in ignoring the knowledge stored in our bodies. Unawareness of the true motives behind our actions can be dangerous indeed, whereas knowledge of our own histories can free us from the urge to flee from past dangers, by using mindless and destructive strategies. Humiliating others can never be a genuine, lasting solution. All it does – in politics and parenting alike – is create new hotbeds of violence. Children who learn the methods of humiliation and menace from their parents will put that into practice in school. And, as a survey has shown, they learn it at the age of 18 months at the latest, that is, at a time when their brains are not yet fully formed. Hence the long-term impact of these lessons, this school of violence. By teaching infants violence and emotional ignorance (due to the necessary repression of pain) we constantly produce the Evil in the world. But with more knowledge we can decide to stop this production. Sweden did it 22 years ago by promulgating a law forbidding corporal punishments to children and some countries did already the same, with good results.

To believe that we can combat violence by using more violence is an obvious illusion cherished however for millennia and visible in the continuing production of weapons. Organizing wars rather helps avoiding the truth, at the cost of human lives, than to open our eyes and increase our insight. We are going to have to try a little harder than that: listening to ourselves, acknowledging our true motives and cultivating a sincere and respectful attitude, rather than believing in the protection of punitive, destructive power. Having the power to destroy doesn’t mean being strong. Real strength means being able to understand our feelings and our history so that we become free to act from conscious motives instead of being driven by unconscious fears like Stalin, Hitler, and others. Though we may not have learned to trust respectful communication as children and to understand our feelings we can learn it in adulthood. Many have already succeeded in doing so. But many still think they don’t even need to try. Thus they know near to nothing about themselves.

However, precisely with this knowledge are we able to make constructive decisions and to find effective solutions. The examples of Stalin and Hitlers show how dangerous it can become for millions if leaders of big countries don’t know the true reasons of their decisions. In the ignorance of suffering endured in childhood lies the source of suffering inflicted to others. We can’t change the past but we can give up our ignorance and – with time – the source will dry out.

I think that only by understanding the dynamics of hatred and by becoming aware of its roots, and not by using weapons, can we offer to the next generation real peace.