There is still a widespread belief that children are incapable of feeling: either the things done to them will have no consequences at all, or those consequences will be different from what they would be in an adult. The simple reason advanced for this belief is that they are “still children.” Only a short while ago it was permissible to operate on children without giving them an anesthetic. Above all, the costume of circumcising boys and girls and subjecting them to sadistic initiation rituals is still quite normal practice in many countries. Blows inflicted on adults count as grievous bodily harm or torture; those inflicted on children go by the name of upbringing. Is this not in itself sufficient and inconvertible proof that most people have suffered serious brain damage, a “lesion” or a gaping void where we would expect to find empathy, particularly for children? Effectively, this observation is evidence in favor of the theory that all those beaten in childhood must have sustained subsequent damage to the brain, as almost all adults are more or less impervious to the violence done to children!
In my quest for an explanation of this fact, I decided in 2002 to find out at what age parents thought they might begin impressing the necessary of good behavior on their children by giving them “little” smacks and slaps. As there were no statistics available on this point, I instructed a survey institute to ask one hundred mothers from different strata of society how old their children were when they first decided it was necessary to make them behave better by administering slaps to their hands or bottoms. The responses were extremely enlightening. Eighty-nine of the women were almost unanimous in saying that children were about eighteen months old when they first inflicted physical “correction” on them. Eleven mothers were unable to recall the exact age, but not one of them said that she had never stuck her child.
These findings were published in the French journal Psychologies the same year. But they aroused no reactions of any kind, neither incredulity or indignation. My conclusion from this is that such treatment is widespread and its justification hardly ever challenged. The question it posted for me was what actually happens in the brain of a child exposed to smacking at such an early age. Through the pain inflicted may not be severe (at least we assume this to be the case), children will surely register the fact that they have been attacked by the very person they instinctively expect to protect them from attacks by others. This is bound to cause ineradicable confusion in the infant brain, which at this stage is not fully formed. Such children will inevitable wonder whether their mother is there to protect them from danger or is in fact a source of danger herself. Accordingly, they will adjust to the situation by registering violence as something normal and integrating it as such into their learning process. What remains is fear (of the next bow), distrust, and denial of the pain inflicted on them.
What also remains is something I refer to in my book The Truth Will Set You Free as mental blockages. Later, in adulthood, the combination of infant confusion and denial of suffering obviously instills reluctance or downright refusal to reflect on the problem posed by inflicting physical punishment on small children. Mental blockages (and the fear underlying them) prevent us from asking ourselves how this confusion originated in the first place. Accordingly, we fend off everything that would lead to such reflection.
As far as I know, what infants feel when they are psychically attacked and the effects that the suppression of these feelings have on life of individual adults and the whole fabric of society are issues that have never been addressed by philosophers, sociologists, or theologians. The lengths to which the evasion of these issues has gone struck me with full force recently when I was reading a superbly written and highly informative book on the subject of anger. The book describes with minute precision the disastrous effects of anger directed at scapegoats in the course of history. But nowhere in these hundred pages is there any reference to the origins of such anger. At no point does the author indicate that the anger felt by every individual person stems from the primary, justified anger of the small child at the blows inflicted on it by the parents. The immediate expression of that anger is suppressed, but at a later stage this suppressed fury will be directed at innocent victims with uninhibited savagery.
As the torture of children and the suppression and denial of that torture are so widespread, one might assume that this protective mechanism is part of human nature, that it is designed to spare us pain and hence plays a salutary role. But there are at least two facts that militate against this interpretation:
First, the fact that suppressed abuse is passed on to the next generation so that the progression of violence cannot be halted; and second, the fact that remembrance of abuse we have been subjected to causes the symptoms of illness to disappear.
The established fact that the discovery of our own childhood sufferings in the company of an empathic witness (see pages 26-27 and 51) leads to relief from physical and mental symptoms (such as depression) forces us to look for an entirely new form of therapy. Unlike the denial of these sufferings—a recourse typically advocated by therapists—it is, in fact, the confrontation with our own painful truth that leads to liberation.
To my mind, this realization applies equally to therapy for children. Like most of us, I believed for a long time that children are in need of illusion and denial of unpleasant facts in order to survive, simply because the painful truth would be too much for them to bear. But today I am convinced that, as in the case of adults, conscious knowledge of their own truth and the actual story of their lives will protect them from illness and the disorders. But for that, they require the help of their parents.
In our day and age, there are very many behaviorally disturbed children and also very many therapeutic programs designed to help them. Unfortunately, most of these are based on the pedagogical conviction that it is both desirable and feasible to induce “difficult” children to become well adapted, obedient, and docile. What we are confronted with here is a more or less successful form of behavioral therapy designed to “repair” the disturbed child. Approaches of this kind willfully ignore the fact that problem children have invariably suffered a series of injuries to their integral personality dating back to the period between birth and fourth year of life, the period in which the brain becomes fully formed. The history of those injuries is usually suppressed.
But we cannot genuinely help an injured person to heal their wounds by refusing to acknowledge them as such. Luckily, youthful organisms have better prospects of healing, and the same is true of mental lesions. Accordingly, the first step must be to look closely at those wounds, take them seriously, and refrain from denying their existence. The task in hand is not to “repair” a ‘disturbed” child but to minister to his or her wounds, something which can only be achieved by empathy and the conveyance of correct information.
Children need more than well-adjusted behavior for their emotional development and genuine maturity. They need access to their own history if they are not to fall victim to depression, eating disorders, or drug dependency at a later stage. It is my firm belief that, in the case of children with a history of physical abuse, even well-intentional parental or therapeutic efforts are doomed to fail in the long term if the humiliations these children have been subjected to are never addressed, in other words, if they are left alone with their experiences. To free them from this isolation—the feeling of being the sole guardian of a guilty secret—parents would need to summon up the courage to admit their errors to their children. This would change the whole situation. In calm and collected conversation with their children they might say something like this:
“when you were small, we hit you because we were brought up that way and believed that this was the right thing to do. Only now have we realized that we should never have done it, and we want to apologize. We are truly sorry that we humiliated you and inflicted pain on you. We shall never do this again. If we should ever be tempted to break this promise, we want you to remind us of this conversation. In twenty-three such behavior is a punishable offense; it is against the law. In the last few decades, people have realized that beaten children live in constant apprehension. They grow up fearing the next blow. This interferes with many of their normal functions. Later they may be unable to defend themselves when they are attacked, or they may retaliate excessively in a state of shock caused by limited fear. Anxious children find it hard to concentrate, both at home and at school. Their attention is directed less at things they have to do than at the behavior of their teachers and parents, as they can never be sure when the next blow may be inflicted on them. Adult behavior appears totally unpredictable to them, so they constantly have to be on their guard. These children lose all trust in their parents, whose task it is to protect them from attacks by others and not turn into aggressors themselves. Loss of trust in their parents makes children anxious and isolated because society takes sides with parents and not with children.”
This information divulged by parents is no revelation to the children because their bodies already know this. But the parents’ courage and their decision to look in the face will certainly have a lasting beneficial and liberating effect. Also, this behavior will act as an important model for children, demonstrating personal courage and respect for truth and the dignity of their children, rather than violence and lack of self-control. As children learn from their parents’ behavior and not from what they say, the effect of such a confession can only be beneficial. The secret the children have been left alone with has given a name and explicitly into the relationship, which from then on can be based on mutual respect instead of the authoritarian exercise of power. The unspoken injuries can heal if they are not left to fester in the unconscious. When children given this kind of information later become parents themselves, they will no longer compulsively repeat the sometimes brutal or perverted behavior of their parents, as the suppression of their injuries will not drive them to do so. The regret expressed by parents has expunged the tragic events and deprived them of their malevolent after effects.
Children beaten by their parents learn from such behavior to regard violence as a viable expedient. This can hardly be denied. Nursery-school teachers would readily corroborate this view if they allowed themselves to see things as they are. Children beaten at home will take it out on their weaker classmates or siblings. In the family, they are punished for such behavior, which leaves them completely at a loss. Isn’t this what they have learned from their parents? In this way confusion sets in at an early age, later manifesting itself as a “disturbance.” These children are then sent to a therapist. But no one dares to get down to the roots of the problem, although this would seem to be such an obvious course.
Play therapy under the guidance of an empathic therapist can help children express themselves and develop trust in the framework of a protected, consistent environment. But as such therapy hardly ever addresses the early injuries inflicted on the children, they are normally left alone with these experiences. Even the most gifted therapists cannot break down this isolation if, for the sake of their parents, they hesitate to include the injuries of the early years in their considerations. But their task is not to address these injuries themselves, as the frightened children would then expect punishment from their parents. Instead, a therapist should work with parents and explain to them why such exchanges could be liberating both for themselves and for their children.
Naturally, not all parents will respond to such a suggestion, even if it is recommended to them by a therapist. Many of them will scorn such an idea, accusing the therapist of naiveté, insisting that he or she has no idea of how devious children can be, and fearing that if they were foolish enough to fall in with this proposal their children would merely take advantage of them. Such reactions are anything but unexpected. Most parents see their own parents in their children. They are afraid of admitting an error because severe penalties were inflicted on them every time they made a mistake when they were children. They cling desperately to the mask of infallibility, and it is this that makes it so hard for them to respond.
But I am happy to concede that not all parents are such incorrigible know-it-alls. I believe that despite these fears there are many parents who would gladly desist from such power play, parents who would be prepared to help their children if their fear of a frank and open exchange had not prevented them from doing so. Such parents will presumably find it easier to address the “secret” that has been tormenting their children, and they will be rewarded for their efforts by witnessing the salutary effect that the revelation of the truth will have on their children. They will realize how futile the authoritarian preaching of values is in comparison with the honest confession of the errors they have made, a confession that gives adults the genuine authority that is born of credibility. Children require such authority because it helps them to find their bearings in the world. Children who are told the truth and are not brought up to tolerate lies and cruelty can develop as freely as a plant whose roots have not been attacked by pests (in our case, lies)
I have tested these ideas on my friends, and I have asked parents and children for their opinions. Frequently, I found that I had been misunderstood. My listeners assumed that I was talking about an apology on the part of the parents; the children replied that it must be possible to forgive their parents, etc. But this has very little to do with what I am getting at. If parents apologize, then their children may easily get the idea that forgiveness is expected of them, that it is their job to “let the parents off the hook” and free them of their feeling of guilt.
This is not the point at issue. What I have in mind is information that confirms the bodily knowledge of the children and focuses on their subjective experience. The children themselves are the essential factor, their feeling, and legitimate needs. When children realize that their parents are actively interested in the feelings aroused by their physical attacks, they will experience a major sense of relief and also something like justice. The operative factor here is not forgiveness but the removal of secrets that have a devise effect. The aim is to establish a new relationship based on mutual trust and to achieve the breakdown of the isolation from which these maltreated children have been suffering.
Acknowledgment by parents of the injuries they have inflicted on their children dismantles many barriers, and the effect is similar to a spontaneous healing process. This is something one normally expects of therapists, but they cannot achieve this without the help of parents. When parents display empathy for their children feelings and own up to their mistakes without saying “your behavior drove us to it,” then a great deal will change. The children then have something they can model themselves on. There is no attempt to evade realities, no attempt to “repair” them in line with the parents’ ideas. They have been shown that truth can be put into words and, once expressed, has the power to heal. Above all, when parents admit their feelings, their children no longer need to feel guilty for the mistakes their parents have made. Such feelings of guilt are the breeding ground for countless attacks of depression in later life.
Children who have sensed in such exchanges that their injuries and their feelings are taken seriously by their parents and that their dignity is respected are also more immune to the detrimental effects of television than those who harbor unconscious, suppressed desires for revenge on their parents and for that reason identify with scenes of violence on the screen. Politicians may envisage the prohibition of violence on television as a remedy, but this is unlikely to unlikely to have much effect.
By contrast, children who have been informed about the early injuries inflicted on them will be much more critical of brutal movies or quickly lose interest in them altogether. They may even find it easier to see through the dissociated sadism of the moviemakers than do the many adults who are unwilling to face up to the suffering of the maltreated children they once were. Such adults may be fascinated by scenes of violence without suspecting that they are being forced to consume the emotional trash peddled as “art” by filmmakers who are unaware that they are in fact parading their own histories.
This was forcibly brought home to me by an interview with a respected American film directed fond of including repulsive monsters and sadistic sex scenes in his movies. He said that modern film technology had made it possible for him to demonstrate that love has many faces and that sadistic sex is one of them. He appeared completely oblivious of where, when, and from whom he was forced to adopt this confusing philosophy as a small child, and this ignorance is quite likely to accompany him to the end of his days. His self-styled “art” enables him both to tell his own story and to erase it from his memory at the same time. Naturally, such blindness has severe social consequences.
The best time for conversation with one’s children about the injuries inflicted on them is probably between the ages of four and twelve, at all events before the onset of puberty. In adolescence, the interest in this topic will probably wane. At this stage defense mechanisms militating against the remembrance of early sufferings may already be firmly cemented, particularly as adolescent children will soon have children of their own and as parents can then experience a position of strength enabling them to completely forget how helpless they once were. But there are exceptions, and in adult life, there are also times when, despite considerable success in their present-day careers, some physical illness may force people to face up to the questions posed by their childhood. Almost all the letters I find in mailbox tell similar stories. “I was not abused, but frequently beaten and tormented. Despite this, I have managed to start a family of my own. I have children, a good job, etc. But now I have started suffering from depression, pain, and insomnia, and I don’t know why. Could it have something to do with my childhood? But that was such a long time ago, and I can hardly remember anything about it.”
It is by no means rare for people looking for answers to questions like this to discover their true selves, the story of a maltreated child and the pain he or she has been forced to deny. They start to live with their own genuine feelings instead of running away from them, and frequently they are astonished at the liberation they experience by pursuing this path. They give the child they once were what their parents were never able to give to them: permission to know their own truth, to live with it, to identify with it instead of fearing it. Because they know the truth about themselves they no longer need to lie to their bodies or to pacify them with drugs, medicines, alcohol, or ingenious theories. In this way, they save the energy they once had invest in fleeing from themselves.
THE LATER CHAPTERS of this book are made up of texts I have devoted over the last few years to the subject of inner liberation (through the reawakening of emotions such as fear, anger, and grief) and the issues connected with therapy. Some of them have already been published on my Web site. They are not chronological but are grouped according to the subjects they address, thus making it easier for readers to find their way around.
They consist of articles, interviews, and responses to readers’ letters, ending with a narrative describing the liberation of a mother from the prison of her childhood and the constraints of social convention.
As the collection contains various articles designed as independent entities rather than parts of a book, the reader will come across a number of repetitions that I could not remove without jeopardizing the argumentation of the article in question. In the context of the present compilation, this means that some issues are addressed on a variety of different occasions. This was necessary to preserve the internal logic of the respective text.
Preface of the book Free from Lies by Alice Miller