Concerning Foregiveness: The Liberating Experience of Painful Truth

by Alice Miller

Concerning Foregiveness: The Liberating Experience of Painful Truth
Saturday March 01, 2003

The mistreated and neglected child is completely alone in the darkness of confusion and fear. Surrounded by arrogance and hatred, robbed of its rights and its speech, deceived in its love and its trust, disregarded, humiliated, mocked in its pain, such a child is blind, lost, and pitilessly exposed to the power of ignorant adults. It is without orientation and completely defenseless.
Its whole being would like to shout out its anger, give voice to its feeling of outrage, call for help. But that is exactly what it may not do. All its normal reactions, the reactions with which nature has endowed it to help it survive, remain blocked. If no witness comes to its aid, these natural reactions would enlarge and prolong the child’s sufferings. Ultimately, the child could die of them.
Thus, the healthy impulse to protest against inhumanity has to be suppressed. The child attempts to extinguish and erase from memory everything that has happened to it, in order to banish from consciousness the burning outrage, fury , fear, and the unbearable pain – as it hopes, forever. What remains is a feeling of its own guilt, rather than outrage that it is forced to kiss the hand that beats it and beg for forgiveness – something that unfortunately happens more than one imagines.
The abused child goes on living within those who have survived such torture, a torture that ended with total repression. They live with the darkness of fear, oppression, and threats. When all its attempts to move the adult to heed its story have failed, it resorts to the language of symptoms to make itself heard. Enter addiction, psychosis, criminality.
If, as adults, we nevertheless begin to have an inkling of why we are suffering and ask a specialist whether these sufferings could have a connection with our childhood, we will usually be told that this is very unlikely to be the case. And if it were, that we should learn forgiveness. It is the resentment at the past, we are told, that is making us ill.
In those by-now familiar groups in which addicts and their relations go into therapy together, the following belief is invariably expressed. Only when you have forgiven your parents for everything they did to you can you get well. Even if both parents were alcoholics, even if they mistreated, confused, exploited, beat, and totally overloaded you, you must forgive them everything. Otherwise, your illness will not be cured. There are many programs going by the name of “therapy”, whose basis consists of first learning to express one’s feelings in order to see what happened in childhood. Then, however, comes “the work of forgiveness”, which is apparently necessary if one is to heal. Many young people who have AIDS or are drug-addicted die in the wake of their effort to forgive so much. What they do not realize is that they are trying to keep the repression of their childhood intact.
Some therapists fear this truth. They work under the influence of various interpretations culled from both Western and Oriental religions, which preach forgiveness to the once-mistreated child. Thereby, they create a new vicious circle for people who, from their earliest years, have been caught in the vicious circle of pedagogy . This, they refer to as “therapy”. In so doing, they lead them into a trap from which there is no escape, the same trap that once rendered their natural protests impossible, thus causing the illness in the first place. Because such therapists, caught as they are in the pedagogic system, cannot help patients to resolve the consequences of the traumatization they have suffered, they offer them traditional morality instead.
In recent years I have been sent many books from the United States of America describing different kinds of therapeutic intervention by authors with whom I am not familiar. Many of these authors presume that forgiveness is an indispensable condition for successful therapy. This notion appears to be so widespread in therapeutic circles that it is not always called into question – something urgently needed. For forgiveness does not resolve latent hatred and self-hatred but can cover them up in a very dangerous way.
I know of the case of one woman, whose mother was sexually abused as a child by both her father and brother. Reared in a convent, this woman learned “the blessing of forgiveness” by heart. She continued to worship her father and brother without the slightest trace of bitterness. While her daughter was still an infant, she frequently left the child “in the care of” her thirteen-year-old nephew, while she went blithely off to the movies with her husband. While she was gone, the pubescent babysitter indulged his sexual desires on the body of her baby daughter. When the daughter later sought help in psychoanalytic counseling, the analyst told her she should on no account blame her mother. Her intentions had not been bad, she was told. She had had no idea that her babysitter was routinely abusing her child. The mother, it seems, was literally clueless. When the child began to develop dietary disturbances, she anxiously consulted a number of doctors. They assured her that the disturbances in her eating habits came from “teething.” Thus, the gears of this forgiveness machine were functioning almost perfectly – and, at the expense of the truth and the lives of all concerned. Fortunately, they don’t always function as well.
In her highly creative, remarkable book THE OBSIDIAN MIRROR: AN ADULT HEALING FROM INCEST (Seal Press, 1988), Louise Wisechild describes how she succeeded in deciphering her body’s messages and communications, and thereby her feelings, so that she was gradually able to free her childhood from repression. This took place in a successful therapy involving bodywork and written accounts of her experiences. Gradually, she discovered in detail what she had totally banished from consciousness: that she had been sexually molested by her grandfather at the age of four; that she was subsequently abused by an uncle and finally also by her stepfather. A woman therapist was willing and brave enough to work with her on this horrific journey of self-discovery, in spite of the manifest torture to which the patient had been subjected. Nevertheless, even in this most successful therapy Louise sometimes felt that she should forgive her mother. On the other hand, she strongly felt that this might be wrong. Fortunately, the therapist didn’t insist too much on this point. She gave Louise the freedom to follow her own feelings and to discover that it was not forgiveness that made her strong in the end. Helping the patient to resolve the guilt feelings that had been imposed upon her – the ultimate purpose, presumably, of therapy – doesn’t mean to burden her with an additional demand, a demand that could only serve to cement those feelings of guilt. A quasi-religious act of forgiveness can never resolve patterns of self-destruction.
Why should this woman, after showing her concern for her mother for thirty years, forgive her crime, when that mother had never made the slightest effort to see what she had done to her daughter? On one occasion, as the child, rigid with fear and disgust, was forced to lie under the heavy , male body of her uncle, she caught sight of her mother in the mirror as she approached the door. The child hoped to be saved, but the mother turned and disappeared. When Louise was an adult, she heard her mother say that she could only cope with her fear of that uncle if her children were around her. When the daughter tried to discuss her rape at the hands of her stepfather, her mother wrote her that she never wished to see her again. Even in many such blatant cases, the pressure to forgive, which effectively prevents the chance of a successful therapy, is hardly seen as the absurd demand that it is. It is just this common pressure to forgive that mobilizes old fears in the patient that oblige him or her to believe such an authority. What can it possibly achieve, except a quiet conscience for the therapist?*
In many cases much can be destroyed with a single, fundamentally wrong, confusing sentence. That it is well anchored in tradition and has been implanted in us since our earliest childhood only makes matters worse. What is involved here is an outrageous misuse of power , by which therapists are wont to ward off their powerlessness and fear. Patients, for their part, are convinced that the therapist holds this view as a result of the incontrovertible evidence of experience and so believe this “authority”. They cannot know-and it is almost impossible for them to discover-that what this claim in fact discloses is the therapist’s own fear of the mistreatment suffered at the hands of his or her parents. How are patients meant to resolve their feelings of guilt under such circumstances? On the contrary , they will simply be confirmed.
Preaching forgiveness reveals the pedagogic nature of some therapies. In addition, it exposes the powerlessness of the preachers. In a sense, it is odd that they call themselves “therapists” at all. “Priests” would be more apt. What ultimately emerges is the continuation of the blindness inherited in childhood, the blindness that a real therapy could relieve. What is constantly repeated to patients -until they believe it, and the therapist is mollified – is: “Your hate is making you ill. You must forgive and forget. Then you will be well.” But it was not hatred that drove patients to mute desperation in their childhood, by alienating them from their feelings and their needs. It was such morality with which they were constantly pressured.
It was my experience that it was precisely the opposite of forgiveness – namely, rebellion against mistreatment suffered, the recognition and condemnation of my parents’ misleading opinions and actions, and the articulation of my own needs – that ultimately freed me from the past. In my childhood, these things had been ignored in the name of “a good upbringing,” and I myself learned to ignore them for decades in order to be the “good” and “tolerant” child my parents wished me to be. But today I know: I always needed to expose and fight against opinions and attitudes that I considered destructive of life wherever I encountered them, and not to tolerate them. But I could only do this effectively once I had felt and experienced what was inflicted on me earlier. By preventing me from feeling the pain, the moral religious injunction to forgive did nothing but hinder this process.
The demand for good behavior has nothing to do with either an effective therapy or life. For many people in search of help, it closes the path to freedom. Therapists allow themselves to be led by their own fear – the mistreated child’s fear of its parents’ revenge – and by the hope that good behavior might one day be able to buy the love their parents denied them. The price that patients have to pay for this illusory hope is high indeed. Given false information, they cannot find the path to self-fulfillment.
By refusing to forgive, I give up my illusions. A mistreated child, of course, cannot live without them. But a grown-up therapist must be able to manage it. His or her patients should be able to ask: “Why should I forgive, when no one is asking me to? I mean, my parents refuse to understand and to know what they did to me. So why should I go on trying to understand and forgive my parents and whatever happened in their childhood, with things like psychoanalysis and transactional analysis? What’s the use? Whom does it help? It doesn’t help my parents to see the truth. But it does prevent me from experiencing my feelings, the feelings that would give me access to the truth. But under the bell-jar of forgiveness, feelings cannot and may not blossom freely.” Such reflections are, unfortunately, not common in therapeutic circles, in which forgiveness is the ultimate law. The only compromise that is made consists of differentiating between false and correct forms of forgiveness. But therapy requires only the “correct” form. And this goal may never be questioned.
I have asked many therapists why it is that they believe their patients must forgive if they are to become well, but I have never received a halfway acceptable answer. Clearly, they had never questioned their assertion. It was, for them, as self-evident as the mistreatment with which they grew up. I cannot conceive of a society in which children are not mistreated, but respected and lovingly cared for, that would develop an ideology of forgiveness for incomprehensible cruelties. This ideology is indivisible with the command “Thou shalt not be aware” and with the repetition of that cruelty on the next generation. It is our children who pay the price for our lack of awareness. Our fear of our parents’ revenge is the basis of our morality.
However, by means of gradual therapeutic disclosure that dispenses with bogus morality and pedagogy , this misleading ideology can be stopped. Survivors of mistreatment need to discover their own truth if they are to free themselves of its consequences. Moralizing leads them away from this truth.
An effective therapy cannot be achieved if the mechanisms of pedagogy continue to operate. It requires recognition of the damage caused by our upbringing, whose consequences it should resolve. It must make patients’ feelings available to them-and accessible for the entirety of their lives. This can help them to orientate and be at one with themselves. Moralizing appeals can result in barring access to this self-knowledge.
A child can excuse its parents, if they in their turn are prepared to recognize and admit to their failures. But the demand for forgiveness that I often encounter can pose a danger for therapy, even though it is an expression of our culture. Mistreatment of children is the order of the day, and those errors are therefore trivialized by the majority of adults. Forgiving can have negative consequences, not only for the individual, but for society at large, because it can mean disguising erroneous opinions and attitudes, and involves drawing a curtain across reality so that we cannot see what is taking place behind it.
The possibility of change depends on whether there is a sufficient number of enlightened witnesses to create a safety net for the growing consciousness of those who have been mistreated as children, so that they do not fall into the darkness of forgetfulness, from which they will later emerge as criminals or the mentally ill. Cradled in the “net” provided by such enlightened witnesses, these children can grow to be conscious adults, adults who live with and not against their past and who will therefore be able to do everything they can to create a more humane future for us all.
It has already been scientifically proved that weeping caused by sadness, pain, and fear not only causes tears to fall. Stress hormones, which lead to a general relaxation of the body, are also released. Of course, this cannot be equated with therapy. Nevertheless, it is an important discovery that should find its way into the treatments used by therapeutic practitioners. So far, though, the opposite has been the case. Patients are given tranquilizers to calm them. What would happen if they began to gain access to the causes of their symptoms! The problem with medical pedagogy is that the majority of those involved, the institutions and specialists, in no way wish to know why it is people become ill. The result of this denial is that countless chronically ill people become permanent residents of our prisons and clinics, while billions are spent by the government on keeping mum about the truth. Those affected must on no account realize that they can be helped to understand the language of their childhood, thereby truly reducing their suffering or even relieving it altogether .
If we had the courage to confront the facts about the repression of childhood mistreatment and its consequences, this would be possible. One look at the specialist literature on the subject, however, shows just how lacking such courage is. By contrast, the literature is full of appeals to our good intentions, all kinds of noncommittal and unverifiable advice, and, above all, moral preaching. Everything, all cruelty endured in childhood, is to be forgiven. If that doesn’t do the trick, then the state must pay for the lifelong care and treatment of invalids and the chronically ill. But with the help of the truth, they could be cured.
It has now been proved that though repression may be crucial for a child, it should not necessarily be the fate of adults. A small child’s dependency on its parents, its trust in them, its longing to love and be loved, are limitless. To exploit this dependency, to deceive a child in its longing, confuse it, and then proceed to sell this as “child rearing” is a criminal act – a criminal act committed hourly and daily out of ignorance, indifference, and the refusal to give up such behavior. The fact that the majority of such crimes are committed unconsciously does not, unfortunately, allay the calamitous consequences. The abused child’s body will register the truth, while its consciousness refuses to acknowledge it. By repressing the pain and the accompanying situations, the infantile organism averts death-its fate, were it to consciously experience such traumatization.
What remains is the vicious circle of repression: the true story, which has been suppressed in the body, produces symptoms so that it could at last be recognized and taken seriously. But our consciousness refuses to comply, just as it did in childhood – because it was then that it learned the life-saving function of repression, and because no one has subsequently explained that as grown-ups we are not condemned to die of our knowledge, that, on the contrary , such knowledge would help us in our quest for health.
The dangerous teaching of “poisonous pedagogy” – “Thou Shalt Not Be Aware Of What Was Done To You ” – reappears in the methods of treatment practiced by doctors, psychiatrists, and therapists. With medication and mystifying theories they try to influence their patients’ memories as deeply as possible, in order that they never find the cause of their illness. These lie, almost without exception, in the psychic and physical mistreatment and neglect suffered in childhood.
Today, we know that AIDS and cancer involve a drastic collapse of the body’s immune system, and that this physical “resignation ” precedes the sick person’s loss of hope. Incredibly, hardly anyone has taken the step that these discoveries suggest: that we can regain our hope, if our distress signals are finally heard. If our repressed, hidden story is at last perceived with full consciousness, even our immune system can regenerate itself. But who is there to help, when all the “helpers” fear their own personal history? And so we play the game of blindman’s buff with each other-patients, doctors, medical authorities-because until now only a few people have experienced the fact that emotional access to the truth is the indispensable precondition of healing. In the long run, we can only function with consciousness of the truth. This also holds for our physical well-being. Bogus traditional morality, destructive religious interpretations, and confusion in our methods of child rearing all make this experience harder and hinder our initiative. Without a doubt, the pharmaceutical industry also profits from our blindness and despondency. However, each of us has been given only one life and only one body. It refuses to be fooled, insisting with all means at its disposal that we do not deceive it. …

*I have slightly revised the last two paragraphs for this revised edition after reviewing a letter from Louise Wisechild, who provided me with more specific information about her own view of her therapy.