How to combat denial

How to combat denial

Interview given by Alice Miller to Borut Petrovic Jesenovec in July 2005

Fairytales and myths can tell us a great deal about our culture and our perception of the world. One of the best-known fairytales that small children are sooner or later “forced” to listen to and read is Little Red Riding-Hood. Among thousands of other folk tales this particular one stands out as incredibly popular? What does it tell us about our attitude to children in our culture?

It tells us that it is obvious to use children as victims. The mother sends the child alone to the grandmother and doesn’t care about the danger (the wolf) in the forest.

I am always shocked by the “official” interpretation that the mother of Little Red Riding-Hood is well-intended and caring. She sends her young daughter into a dangerous forest explaining that this is an honourable task (poor grandmother is sick after all). I find this mother cruel, wicked, even perverse. Would you agree?

Yes, I agree because she must have known about the existence of wolves. However, she doesn’t prepare the child for the danger that she denies. As a result the child trusts the wolf, tells him where her grandmother lives and even when she later sees the wolf in grandma’s bed, talks to him as if he were the grandma. She has already taken over her mother’s denial, shares her blindness, and becomes the naïf victim of the wolf who can symbolically represent here the incestuous father to whom mothers often deliver their daughters. They protect their own fathers by suppressing the memories of being abused in their childhood and THUS become blind to the dangers to their daughters.

When I wanted to talk about some of the nasty aspects of my childhood, I was turned down and reminded that everything has its good and its bad side and that’s why we should concentrate on the bright side of life and adopt a positive attitude. In such argumentation even abuse has something valuable. How would you react to such relativisation and relativism?

This kind of thinking is almost necessary in childhood, it is our strategy of survival. Even with the most brutal parents, the child doesn’t want to die, so s/he must absolutely believe that what s/he has to endure is not the whole truth. And of course there are moments when the brutal father seems to change, he takes you out for fishing and you can than feel loved for a while. If he later uses you as a toy or as an object of his sexual desires you can escape your fear, for you have still the good memory of the fishing or other occasions. In this way we survive our childhood, and most people try to live only with these good memories by suppressing the bad ones. In so doing, they are supported by religions and almost all philosophies known to me. But I think that as adults we have the ability to take the facts seriously and to know that by doing this we are no longer in mortal danger. We can make the effort to see that our parents for whatever reasons didn’t love us if they could victimize us so many times, without caring for our feelings, our pain and our future. This awareness helps us to get rid of our self- destructive feelings of guilt. By rejecting our parents’ deeds we become free from the compulsion to repeat such acts with our own children.

How would you define abuse?

Abuse means to me using a person for whatever I want from her, him, without asking for their agreement, without respecting their will and their interests. With children, it is very easy to do so, because they are loving, they trust their parents and most adults, and they don’t realise that they were abused, that their love had been exploited. Especially if they were forced to ignore their emotions from the beginning, they might have lost their sensibility for the warning signals.

A small girl will follow to the cellar the neighbour who promised her chocolate, although she may feel uncomfortable. But if she learned from the beginning of her life that her feelings didn’t matter and that she should obey every adult person, even if she feels resistance, she will follow the neighbour. She will behave like the Little Red Riding-Hood in the fairytale. And she may later suffer in her relationship with men for her whole life if she didn’t work out this early experience in the cellar. However, if she does, she will no longer be in danger of becoming a victim of rape or any other kind of molestation.

How many people do you think were abused in their childhood?

It is difficult to estimate how many people were not abused. I do know people who were not exploited in their childhood, who were loved, cared for and allowed to live their true feelings. I saw them as babies and I see that they are able to give their children the same respect which they got from their parents. But I don’t know many like that. Spanking children is still regarded as harmless and useful all over the world. I think that about 90% of the world population has been abused in this way more or less severely. You can see every day on the TV what the most severely abused are doing when they become adults who deny their suffering and admire and respect their abusing parents. You can test it, you can go around the world and ask the most cruel people how their parents were. The answer of the biggest tyrants will often be: My parents were wonderful people. They wanted the best for me, but I was a stubborn child.

Human blindness to abuse can be astonishing. Even when confronted with their own obvious abuse, people still believe in the myth of being loved, and keep abusing their children (and children of others). How would you most effectively “open their eyes” to what they are doing? Is this possible at all?

I can’t open the eyes of others; they will quickly close them again, and they don’t want to see – or they are afraid to see – the truth because they expect to be punished by their parents or by God who represents them. I can only open my own eyes and say what I am seeing. And sometimes people feel encouraged to open one eye or even both. They are then surprised that they were not punished, that they feel even relief since they have stopped betraying themselves.

People normally prefer to deny that they were abused. Would you interpret eating disorders, obsession with diets, nail biting, “non-offensive social drinking”, thinking about suicide, asthma, taking drugs or even the self-destructive “need” for unhealthy junk food or cigarettes as unambiguous proofs of emotional or physical abuse?

Yes, absolutely. All these illnesses or addictions are screams of the body that want to be heard. Instead of hearing and trying to understand these screams, many have chosen to fly.

You say the body is wise and can’t be fooled. The good news is that if we listen to it we can be cured of physical symptoms. But if we are too busy denying its needs and its memory we condemn ourselves to living in an invisible hell. Everything is perfect, but we are cut off from our true emotions and destined to live a hollow superficial life and our body becomes our enemy. How can we become friends with our body which demands extremely unpleasant truth?

First we have to stop avoiding the truth and live through one or more experiences that the truth didn’t kill us, that in fact it made us feel better eventually. If you decide not to take your pills when you get your headache and to find out instead when exactly the headache started, what happened just before, you might be lucky enough to understand WHY your body needed a headache just now, what happened today that would make you feel miserable if you gave your full attention to the event. Once you do it, a very painful emotion may arise that must be felt. However, after this feeling is over, a solution to your plight may appear. But in any case, to your great surprise, you realize that your headache disappeared without any medication. If you have already experienced such a spontaneous disappearance of a symptom, nobody will ever be able to convince you that your headache absolutely needs aspirin to go away. The drug prevents you from understanding yourself. But this understanding may be essential for your health.

The distinction between feelings (Gefühle) and emotions (Emotionen) is fundamental for understanding the mechanism of denial. Why is it so important to know the difference?

If you no longer try to deny your past you are more free to trust your emotions. They convey your history to you, often unconsciously and often through the messages of your body. Your mind can learn to understand these messages and in this way to transform the emotions into conscious feelings. If you know your feelings you have the best protection in your life, whereas by fighting against them you feel constantly in danger, afraid of things that already happened decades ago and are no longer real dangers.

A child must repress the experience of abuse in order to survive. How does such a life-enhancing mechanism transform itself into a life-stifling one?

This mechanism doesn’t transform itself. It remains the same but it is no longer adapted to new circumstances. We don’t need it as adults. Thus we must let it go. Otherwise we can’t take advantage of being an adult; we continue to live as dependent children. If you made a trip in a plane, you needed to fasten your seat-bells for your security. But after having left the plane, when you are walking on the earth, you no longer need it. You would not keep it. But most people do exactly that. They keep on the earth what was life-saving to them in the air. They walk as adults with the denial that saved their lives in childhood. And what was necessary THEN, becomes life-stifling NOW.

You use the term “black education” (schwarze Pädagogik). I understand it as an authoritarian education. Has permissive education similar effects?

The notion “Schwarze Pädagogik” has in my English editions the name “Poisonous Pedagogy”. In my book “For Your Own Good” I describe how these methods for producing obedient, submissive children kill in them the natural capacity for empathy. The permissive education of 1968 was harmful in another way. But may be less destructive. It did mean often a total neglect of the children’s need for protection and communication. And it was also a kind of exploitation of children’s love for the adult’s ideology. This very often led to severe sexual abuse, concealed by Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality, and to a deep confusion of the sense of identity in the child. But I don’t think that the permissive education was as brutal as the authoritarian, which eventually led to millions of obedient servants willingly following Adolf Hitler.

When I had to prepare a short summary of your book, I wrote that you discuss the abuse of gifted children. Then I was reminded that I should avoid the term abuse, because it is too offensive, brutal and revolting. Instead I had to write that you deal with parents’ “non-understanding” and “disregard” of their children. What’s your comment?

It is very common that you are accused of being offensive if you “call a spade a spade”, instead of using euphemistic words. It is everywhere good fashion to conceal the brutality of parents and to offend the people who denounce them. As this is the way we learned to behave, we don’t dare to give it up and we are quickly intimidated. But actually, it is a stifling way.

You wrote: “Traumata stored in the brains but denied by our conscious minds will always be visited on the next generation.” Can you describe this mechanism? Is the innocence of the infant bound to be taken away simply because it was born to parents who deny traumata?

Yes, unfortunately, miracles are very rare. If parents say: “Spanking didn’t do me any harm”, they will do the same to their offspring without a second thought. But if they can see that the treatment of their parents mutilated their lives, they will try to spare their children from the same destiny, they will look for information and will not want to be blocked in denial and ignorance.

I notice that a lot of people become allergic when they see a truly childlike child unburdened by guilt and abuse. They just can’t stand it. They repeat that every child must be socialised as soon as possible, in other words taken away from parents and put into kindergarten so that he/she becomes “available” to anyone. They preach the benefits of socialisation as if it was a most sacred, noble cause. I find this social pressure enormous. But in this context socialisation equals adaptation to cruelty. Why is a child who is alive, genuine and pure, in their eyes unbearable, even sinful, and must by all means be mutilated so he/she would become similar to them?

Because the child’s creativity and liveliness triggers in the parents the repressed pain of being suffocated. They are afraid of feeling the pain, so they do whatever they can to avoid the triggers. By insisting on obedience they kill the lively child, they victimize him or her as they themselves were victimized before. For that reason, they absolutely need information. This is why we talk and work on this interview. Most parents don’t want to hurt their children, they do it automatically, just by repeating what they themselves learned as children. We can help them to stop this destructive behaviour by explaining to them why it is actually destructive. So that they can wake up and make a choice.