The Wellsprings of Horror in the Cradle

by Alice Miller

The Wellsprings of Horror in the Cradle
Monday June 10, 2002

Whoever they are and however dreadful their crimes, deep down inside every dictator, mass murderer, terrorist cowers the humiliated child they once were, a child that has only survived through the complete and utter denial of its feelings of helplessness. But this complete denial of suffering once borne creates an inner void. Very many of these people will never develop a capacity for normal human compassion. Thus they have few if any qualms about destroying human life, neither that of others nor the void they carry around inside themselves.

In my view, and on the basis of the research I have done into the childhood histories of the most ruthless dictators, like Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Ceaucesco, terrorism in general and the recent horrifying attacks on the United States are a macabre but precise demonstration of what happens to millions and millions of children the world over in the name of good parenting. And unfortunately, society turns a blind eye. The horrors of terrorist violence are something we can all watch on our television screens; the horrors in which children grow up are very rarely shown in the media. Thus, most people are not informed about the main source of hatred. They speculate about political, religious, economic or cultural reasons but the speculations are turning in darkness because the true reason must remain obscured: the suppression and subsequent denial of early rage that often ends up in hatred with an endless number of ideologies.

Hatred is hatred and rage is rage, all over the world and at any time the same, in Serbia, Rwanda or Afghanistan. They are always the fruits of very strong emotions, reactions to injuries to their dignity endured in childhood, normal reactions of the body that were not allowed to express themselves in a safe way. Nobody comes to the world with the wish to destroy. Every newborn, independently from the culture, religion or ethnic origins needs to love, be loved, protected, and respected. This is his biological design. If he is maltreated by the cruel upbringing he will develop the very strong wish to take revenge. He will be driven to destroy others or himself but only by his history and never by inborn genes. The idea of destructive genes is a modern version of the fairy tale talking about the “devil’s children” who need to be chastised to become obedient and nice.

In these dreadful weeks, all of us have experienced as adults what many children go through every single day. They stand helpless, speechless, and trembling before the unpredictable, incomprehensible, brutal, indescribable violence of their parents, who thus avenge themselves unconsciously for the sufferings of their own childhood, sufferings they have never come to terms with because they too have denied their very existence. We only need to recall our feelings on September 11 to have some idea of the intensity of those sufferings. All of us were gripped by horror, dread, and fear. But the connections between terrorism and childhood are still hardly recognized. It is time to take the facts seriously.

The statistics (Olivier Maurel, La Fessée, Editions La Plage 2001) tell us that over 90% of the people living in this world are firmly convinced that beating children is for their own good. As almost all of us have endured the humiliation inflicted on us by this mentality, the cruelty of it is something we have learned to consider as normal. But like the Holocaust and other forms of supreme contempt for human life and dignity, these latest terrorist attacks show the effects of the system in which we have all grown up. In early childhood we have learned to suppress the pain, ignore the truth, and deny the feeling of infinite helplessness and humiliation inflicted on small children by power-seeking adults.

Contrary to former belief, we do not arrive into this world with a brain fully formed. The brain only develops fully in the first few years of life. The things done to the child in that period leave lifelong traces, good and bad. For our brain contains the complete physical and emotional – though unfortunately not the mental – memory of everything that has happened to us. Today, we can actually see the lesions in the brains of beaten or badly neglected children on the screen of a computer. Numerous articles by brain specialists, notably Bruce D. Perry, have indicated these facts. If the child has no helping witness to turn to, it will learn to glorify what has been inflicted on it: cruelty, sadism, hypocrisy, and ignorance. The simple reason is that children learn by imitation, not from the well-meant words addressed to them in the later stages of life. The mass murderers, serial killers, Mafia bosses, and dictators who grew up without helping witnesses will inflict, or connive in inflicting, the same terror on whole nations once they have the power to do so. And they will be doing nothing other than putting into practice what they learned by experience when they were small children.

Unfortunately, most of us prefer not to see the connections because accepting this knowledge would force us to feel the pain we had no choice but to suppress so long ago. And so we stay with the strategy we resorted to in childhood, the strategy of denial. But these latest events have shown that the time has come to stop turning a blind eye. We must grow out of the old traditional system geared to punishment and retaliation, we must refrain from reactions born of blind rage. Naturally, we must not neglect our own protection. But the video cameras at schools will not protect anybody as long as they only pretend but actually refuse to look at the facts and to know where the violence comes from.

According to an inquiry I have ordered in France in 2001, 89% of 100 mothers asked about the age of their children when they “had to hit them” for the first time, responded in the average: 1,8. 11% could not remember the exact age, but not one of the mothers said that she had never hit her children. These figures inform us with a disturbing clarity where and when children learn the violence they display in schools and later also on the political stage. Many of the big and expensive conferences dealing with violence and its sources would not at all be necessary if we stopped denying this truth. The facts are available to us if only we decide to look at them.

We must go in active search of different forms of communication from the ones imprinted on us in childhood, forms based on respect rather than the desire to inflict new humiliation by punishment. People who grew up in families where punishment-enforced totalitarianism reigned know only the language of war, and they will impose this language on others forcing them to defend themselves however they can. But this story is endless. As we know, we are easily able to exterminate thousands of people, indeed whole nations, but we cannot exterminate the disastrous effects of humiliations done to small children by their parents. Those humiliations will return to affect the whole of society as is happening today.

It is high time we awoke from our long sleep. As adults we are no longer threatened by the same danger of destruction that many of us really were confronted with in our infancy and that paralyzed us with fear and drove us to denial. Only in childhood did we have to deny in order to survive. As adults we can learn not to ignore the knowledge stored in our bodies so that we can become able to grasp and genuinely understand the true motives behind our acts. And true knowledge of our own histories can free us from the urge to revert to futile strategies and remain emotionally blind. Today, we have the chance to look around, to learn from experience, and to seek new, creative solutions for settling conflicts. Even if we have never learned to trust respectful communication, it is never too late to overcome that deficiency and to free ourselves from self-deception.

Today, the technical means of venting hatred, discharging long-ago accumulated, bottled-up rage, and directing it at innocent people continue to grow very fast. Many of these techniques for destruction are available to power-crazed dictators who are driven to take vengeance on whole nations for the humiliation inflicted on them in early childhood. To protect the world we definitely need a worldwide prohibition against hitting, hurting and other acts of cruelty against children by parents and others who have power over them. Children absolutely must be protected while their brains are developing, malleable and so easily damaged. We need to gather the courage to look deeply within ourselves and confront the wellsprings of horror. We need to spread this new knowledge through every available means–the knowledge that by humiliating small children we inevitably create fertile breeding-grounds of violence.

A new law, protecting toddlers from domestic violence, like the one which largely decreased criminality in Sweden, will doubtlessly bring about essential changes in society, if not immediately, then surely in 20 years when the never-beaten children will become adults and will not be interested in provoking wars.