Tuesday, October 07, 2008


Another one from the files: Childhood Trauma by Alice Miller, a Polish born psychologist born in 1923. She makes the case that horrific murderers and tyrants were practically always abused children. I am not sure why I printed this out several years back, but it is certainly disturbing reading, and fits in with several books I have read recently about attachment and the deprivation of attachment. Children who are abused and severely neglected don’t always become horrific criminals, by any means. But people don’t generally become human monsters unless they have undergone monstrous treatment in their early years. The children who are “saved” and grow up to be conscientious folk trying not to repeat the violent cycle have generally had what Miller calls a “helping witness” in their background, someone who did not support the mistreatment even if he or she was not powerful enough to stop the abuse. That seems to be a lifeline for the child’s soul and spirit, enabling him to disassociate the mistreatment from his own identity and move away from it.

when I tried to expose the social consequences of child maltreatment, I first encountered strong resistance. Repeatedly I was told, “I, too, was a battered child, but that didn’t make me a criminal.” When I asked these people for details about their childhood, I was always told of a person who made the difference, a sibling, a teacher, a neighbor, just somebody who liked or even loved them but, at least in most cases, was unable to protect them. Yet through his presence this person gave the child a notion of trust and love.

I call these persons “helping witnesses.” Dostoyevsky, for instance, had a brutal father, but a loving mother. She wasn’t strong enough to protect him from his father, but she gave him a powerful conception of love, without which his novels would have been unthinkable. Many have also been lucky enough to find “enlightened” and courageous witnesses, people who helped them to recognize the injustices they suffered, the significance the hurtful treatment had for them, and its influences on their whole life.

Later on in life, a person can be helped by what Dr Miller terms an “enlightened witness”, someone who can help one sort through one’s childhood and provide insight and opportunity for reflection. For this reason, she thinks prison interventions are important. Of course, the person has to WANT to be helped, to be willing to do the hard work to revisit and work through his past, and this is where free will comes in.

One thing that fascinated me in the article was the influence of the psychologist Daniel Gottlieb Schreber.

At that time I quoted in For Your Own Good at length the pedagogical advice given to parents in Germany a century ago, and detailed what I believed to be a connection between the systematic cruelty of these methods and the systematic cruelty of Hitler’s executioners forty years later. The numerous and widely-read tracts by Dr. Daniel Gottlieb Schreber, the inventor of the Schreberg√§rten (the German word for “small allotments”), are of major interest here. Some of his books ran to as many as forty editions around the year 1860, and their central concern was to instruct parents in the systematic upbringing of infants from the very first day of life. Many people - motivated by what they thought to be the best of intentions complied with the advice given them by Schreber and other authors about how best to raise their children. Today we would call it a systematic instruction in child persecution and maltreatment. One of Schreber’s convictions was that when babies cry they should be made to desist by the use of spanking, assuring his readers that “such a procedure is only necessary once, or at the most twice, and then one is master of the child for all time. From then on, one look, one single gesture will suffice”. Above all, these books counseled that the newborn child should be forced from the very first day to obey and to refrain from crying.

Miller’s question was why so many German citizens went along with Hitler’s crazy ideas. When she started researched Schreber and his influence on German parenting of the time, she theorized that the parenting techniques he espoused were carried out by the German people and that their children developed a certain hardness of heart that prevented them from compassion and intervention as their neighbors were carted off to concentration camps. In contrast, she found that the Germans who did interfere and try to help the persecuted Jews and others were generally brought up in a kindlier way, disciplined by exhortation and example and affection rather than by detachment and physical discipline.

Schreber believed that cuddling and physical affection made a child weak, so he discouraged these things. Now there is physical neurological evidence, brought out in the book Becoming Attached by Robert Karen and by books like The Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel, that emotional deprivation and physical abuse actually change the structure of the brain and prevent normal development in some areas that are responsible for certain types of higher thinking. As Miller writes:

Contrary to common opinion prevalent as recently as fifteen years ago, the human brain at birth is far from being fully developed. It is use-dependent, needing loving stimulation for the child from her first day on. The abilities a person’s brain can develop depend on experiences in the first three years of life.

Studies on abandoned and severely maltreated Romanian children, as an example, revealed striking lesions in certain areas of the brain. The repeated traumatization has led to an increased release of stress hormones which have attacked the sensitive tissue of the brain and destroyed the new, already built-up neurons. The areas of their brains responsible for the “management” of their emotions are twenty to thirty percent smaller than in other children of the same age. Obviously, all children (not only Romanian) who suffer such abandonment and maltreatment will be damaged in this way. The neurobiological research makes it easier for us to understand the way Nazis like Eichmann, Himmler, Hess and others functioned.

Alice Miller advocates passing laws to make corporal punishment illegal. What she observes as a psychologist is that children who were physically mistreated will sometimes grow up to deny and justify their own abuse “it did me good” and thus be way more likely to pass on the behavior to another generation. So I suppose she thinks legislation will break the cycle. That goes too far for me, for several reasons. I am editing this a bit because I realized that if I go into that at all, it raises a whole bunch of questions that aren’t directly connected with the point of this post. Let it suffice to say that I don’t agree with everything she says.

I think she is perceptive though about the tendency to “commit” to something unhealthy in your own past and repeat the cycle. You see a parallel to this sometimes in some of the more emotional “anti-unschooling” reactions — “How will a kid ever read Shakespeare if he is not forced to study it in school?” “How can you grow up OK if you haven’t had to deal with the schoolyard bully?” “I wouldn’t do hard things if someone didn’t force me to, so why should my kids?” My family’s been able to debunk these personally. The idea here is that if one doesn’t examine one’s life a bit, one can end up reflexively following patterns set in childhood even if they aren’t really true or the best for the situation.

Incidentally, Hitler was beaten often in childhood, and Miller theorizes that because his father was the illegitimate child of a Jewish man, that Alois Hitler (Adolf’s father) passed on an intense self-hatred and shame literally physically to his own son. Of Daniel Schreber’s two sons, one commited suicide and one became spectacularly mentally ill and wrote a book about his illness. Really interesting! Miller has collected a lot of case studies about childhood abuse in famous historical figures, and it’s interesting to see the same story played out in so many ways in different time periods, with variations for individual personalities.

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