Body and Ethics

by Alice Miller

Body and Ethics
Monday December 01, 2003

A book entitled “The Body rebells” will be published in 2004.

I recently read about group therapy with war veterans, who had worked for two years on the severe traumas they had suffered in Vietnam. After they had learned, thanks to the empathy of the group, to allow themselves to feel their frozen emotions the traumas of their childhood began to surface. Every member of the group shared the opinion that their childhood traumas were much more painful than their later experiences during a cruel war. It was this account that motivated me to write this article, along with my desire to comment on a revealing letter and report of a San Diego research team which I had received several weeks ago.
The team investigated 17.000 people with an average age of 57 on the character of their childhood and asked whether they had suffered from physical illnesses during their later lives. The result clearly showed the amount of severe illnesses to be much higher in cases of persons who had been maltreated as children, in comparison with those who had grown up without any maltreatment or “pedagogical” spanking. Actually, these who had not been abused did not have to complain at all of illnesses during their adult lives. In the report How to Make Lead out of Gold the author commented: The results are clear and meaningful, but hidden and concealed.
Why concealed? Because these results cannot be published without implicit accusation against parents, still forbidden in our society. It is the same with contemporary therapies when clients are encouraged to feel their intense emotions. This is almost common practice nowadays. However, when emotions are awakened repressed memories from childhood usually emerge. The patient is now able to remember incidents of abuse, exploitation, humiliation and injury, endured during the first years of life but may be too often confronted with the doubtful attitude of his helper. Therapists who have not undergone this development can seldom appropriately deal with patient’s memories of mistreatments. The ones who can are rare and hard to find. Most of them offer their clients the “Poisonous Pedagogy”, the very same morality that once has made them sick. Our body is unable to understand. this, it has no need for the Fourth Commandment: “Honour thy parents”. Also, in contrast to our conscious mind our body cannot be deceived by intellectual arguments. It is the guardian of our truth because it carries within the experiences of our whole life and makes sure that we can live with the truth of our organism. With the help of symptoms it forces us to acknowledge this truth, not only emotionally but also mentally, to provide that we can live in harmony with our “inner child”, once disrespected and humiliated.
A child has no other choice than to idealize and to love his persecutors, to hope they will eventually change and to cling to them, because there is nobody else. Especially the most seriously abused children cling a lifetime to their parents if they have not experienced a successful therapy. The adult however, whose health is suffering as a consequence of the early mistreatment, does have the choice. Adults can get rid of their expectations as well as of their idealisations and attachments to their parents, they call love. Otherwise they remain in the position of a dependent child and pay for it not only with illnesses but also very often with a reduced sensibility for their own children. If successful, they will be able to give their children the authentic love they never could feel for their own parents.
I know these thoughts differ from what we have been taught in religious classes and in our parents’ house, to honour above all the Fourth Commandment. However, it is only now that we understand this correlation and that, as adults, we can benefit from this knowledge. We can decide whether we want to remain the ever-lasting child, because we are not able to free ourselves from our once abusive parents, and, we pay for this with illnesses, or, if we dare, to grow up into adults, even if we have to offend traditional morality.
The Hungarian writer and Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz writes in his famous book Fateless of his arrival in an Auschwitz’ concentration camp. He was only a fifteen-year-old boy then, and he describes accurately how he tries to interpret everything abnormal and cruel, which happened to him on his arrival, as something positive and beneficial. I think every abused child has to adopt such an attitude in order to survive. He reinterprets his perceptions and tries to see kindness, even, where an objective observer would recognise an obvious crime. A child has no choice; if he has no helping witness, if he is completely at the mercy of his persecutor, he is forced to repress the truth of his experience. However, later being adult, if these people are fortunate enough to find enlightened witnesses, they do have a choice. They can acknowledge their truth and they can stop pitying, understanding and wanting to help the perpetrator. They can unambiguously condemn his actions. This step implies a great relief. Now the body does not have to remind the adult of the child’s tragic history by threats. As soon as the adult is willing to know his whole truth the body can feel understood, respected and protected.
We may not always be able to give ourselves everything we have missed as children, but as adults we can certainly learn to give ourselves the respect, which our parents should have given us. Thus we can learn to understand ourselves better. With respecting ourselves starts the repair of the consequences of mistreatment. We can rebuilt the dignity that was stolen from us by not being treated as feeling human beings, but being used as obedient, lifeless objects. Regaining our own dignity and realising our individual truth we desist from idealising our parents, as we needed to do as children. Today we know: Even if our parents should change, nothing can heal the early trauma unless WE have changed.
It does not make sense to want to change our parents. Only they themselves could change their attitude and their behaviour. Our symptoms are the child’s unheard language. The child knows the full truth and is yearning for our respect. If we at last intend not to abandon the child within anymore but to give him the respect he has been longing for such a long time, the body does not need any symptoms in the future. The child inside needs to experience our unambiguous rebellion without ifs and buts. Therefore we require a companion, an enlightened witness, who is able to share our rebellion against our parents, who gives us support and does not have to turn to analytical neutrality for fear of his own parents’ punishments.
Referring to Franz Kafka’s and other writers’ biographies I pointed out in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware that, although their creativity helped them to survive, it did not suffice to liberate completely the imprisoned child and to restitute the vitality, and the safety he once had lost. The presence of an enlightened witness is indispensable for this deliverance.
I could observe this mechanism of splitting-off the consciousness and presenting the repressed truth in literature in the case of many writers. Art enables the artist to hide the truth, so he does not have to fear the moral judgements of society, because in art everything is allowed. But often the price of the writer’s denial is very high, as numerous examples show. Today this would not be necessary, if we took the existing knowledge seriously.
People who have been loved as children without any precondition do not have to force themselves as adults to give their parents the very affection they once have received. People however who have been mistreated, and betrayed as children often develop a latent hatred, they frequently vent on their children and propagate the opinion that spanking is necessary and harmless. They spread these opinions without any hesitation, though the contrary has been proven long ago. They are doing this because the Fourth Commandment forces them to deny the damage done to them, the damage to their brain and to their inborn capacity of compassion. Unfortunately, without this compassion they are able to spank their children without feeling their suffering, and they accept the own mutilation without complaining, so that they can “honour their parents”. They do their parents biddings, because of a mere sense of duty mostly linked with the expectation that their mothers and fathers at last will become those parents the child had been longing for. Thus the adult’s childlike loyalty combined with morality (“I deserved the violence”, “all parents every now and then make mistakes”) often leads to hypocrisy and to violence toward innocent people.
What do we obtain by the Fourth Commandment? Is a commandment able to create genuine sympathy? Can we dictate love to a human being, whose body has stored violence instead of love in the earliest, crucial years of his life? We know that he deeply represses his authentic feelings in favour of morality, that often leads to illnesses like cancer or cardiac and circulatory troubles. Indeed we cannot dispose of, once and for all, the repressed hatred often targeted at oneself; howsoever we try it with the aid of morality.
So it hardly happens that somebody takes the heart to say clearly and honestly: “I never have received love from my mother and therefore I do not feel love for her. In truth she is an alien for me. She is lonely and may be in need of a loving son, but I do not want to lie in order to give her this illusion. I owe her and myself the truth that I cannot feel genuine love for her as an adult, because I suffered so much from her blindness as a child.” Someone who dares to reflect that way will not be dangerous to his children anymore and will hardly have to anticipate severe, incomprehensible illnesses, because he is able to realise his body’s signals before it is too late.
Since I have experienced this in my own biography as a daughter and mother, and, on the basis of other persons’ lives I have understood why primal therapy could not help me. In the vicious circle of repeated, agonising pain, I, in fact, succeeded in realising fragments of my childhood story, but I was not able to abandon the position of the helpless child, who remained trapped in her powerlessness. Psychoanalysis could not help me at all because it takes the parents’ side thus hardening the child’s feelings of guilt and dependence.
Having read numerous biographies and moreover fiery reports in the ourchildhood-forums I have arrived at conclusions I briefly shall outline.
1. The once abused child’s feelings for his parents we generally call “love” actually are not authentic love. Instead it is a matter of an emotional attachment burdened with expectations, illusions and denial demanding a high price from everyone being involved.
2. Primarily our own children pay the price for this attachment. They have to grow up in a spirit of hypocrisy, because we are automatically tempted to inflict the very same “educational method” upon our children. But we are also commonly paying for our denial, with damages caused to our health, because our “gratitude” is contradictory to our body’s knowledge.
3. The failure of many therapies is explainable by the fact that the majority of therapists are looped in traditional morality and are trying to manipulate their clients in this way, because they have never learned anything else. As soon as the client starts to experience her feelings and for instance becomes capable of condemning her incestuous father’s misdeeds unambiguously, the therapist will presumably become scared of her own parents’ punishments, if she dared to realise and articulate her own truth. How else could we explain that forgiveness is offered as cure? In almost the same manner as once the parents therapists often suggest forgiveness only to calm down themselves. And because this sounds so familiar the client needs a lot of time to be able to see through the pedagogy. By the time she at last discovers the therapist’s educational methods, she will hardly be able to leave her, because, in the meantime, a new poisonous attachment has been developed. Now the therapist is like a mother for her, who has enabled her emotional birth, because she has begun here to feel her emotions. Thus she continues to expect salvation from her therapist, instead of acknowledging her body’s signals which offer help.
4. If a client however, accompanied by an empathic witness, could undergo and understand his fear of his parents or other caregivers, he gradually will be able to dissolve the destructive attachment. He will not have to wait long for a positive reaction of his body and its messages will be more and more comprehensible for him, because the body will stop speaking by means of mysterious symptoms. The client may realise now that his therapists (mostly unintentionally) deceived themselves and him, for forgiveness almost inhibits the closing of psychic wounds. The obsession to repeat the damage done to you doesn’t stop with forgiveness.