Alice Miller pioneered the idea that violence towards
children engenders violent adults. Her latest book reveals that
many of this century's worst dictators were beaten as children.
For many years Alice Miller was a lone voice in the dark. Her
message, devastatingly simple but with the kind of implications
people refused to face, was considered far too controversial:
violence towards children engenders a violent society.
Gradually, though, she has won wide acceptance around the world
for her central theory that abuse runs in the family. The slapped
child of one generation becomes the abuser of the next. Violence
towards "a bad child" may create a bad adult and
eventually foster the creation of a bad society.
Her latest book, Paths Of Life, takes this argument still further, declaring that
tyranny and totalitarianism are born in the nursery. Having
studied some of the worst dictators known to the modern world -
Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Ceaucescu - she says all four were
systematically beaten throughout their childhood, and all denied
Dr Miller says: "These men learned very early to glorify
cruelty and to be able to justify it to themselves without
remorse." Crucially, they were also
born into societies in which violence towards children was
commonplace. In Hitler's case, for instance, harsh rearing of
children was fashionable in Germany in the 1900s. So there is a
causal connection between that practice and the terror unleashed
40 years later by so many willing executioners.
If that seems far-fetched, then we must follow Miller's path of
self-discovery and enlightenment. Born in 1923 in Poland to what
she describes as ordinary middle-class parents - father, a banker
and mother, a housewife - she imagined her childhood to have been
She says: "My parents wanted the best for me, but like so
many others at that time they had not the slightest idea of a
baby's need for attachment, loving contact, respect and
orientation. "My mother had been
emotionally neglected during her childhood, so that her body had
no recollection of what it meant to be loved and cared for. Her
only concern was to make me obedient as soon as possible. And she
succeeded. I became the good girl my parents needed me to be.
Today I know that such an achievement was only possible through
systematic corporal punishment.
"My parents' strategy demanded a huge price: the
repression of my own feelings and needs. Consequently, when I
became a mother, I couldn't understand my first baby the way it
needed to be understood. Although I never hit either of my two
children, I was sometimes careless and neglectful of that first
Miller's first discipline was philosophy and she obtained a
doctorate from the University of Basle. She then switched to
psychoanalysis, training in Zurich as a Freudian and working for
20 years as an analyst and teacher. But
her road away from this conformism, and on to her own path of
self-discovery, began in 1973 when she took up
painting. "Until then, I believed my childhood had been a
good one, but my body and my hands knew more than my mind. They
showed me in my painting that I had survived a horror, and that I
had repressed this knowledge because no-one was there to
The result of her inner turmoil, and her resolution of it,
stimulated her first book, The Drama Of Being A Child, a totally
new contribution to the eternal debate on the root causes of
violence and its devastating toll on society. It was the opening
salvo in her struggle to change the way we think about our
treatment of children.
The central question, to which she has devoted the last 20
years of her work, seems deceptively simple: why is it so hard not
to smack a child? Why do people who wouldn't dream of striking
their friends slap their children?
Her answer, equally straightforward, compels us to re-examine
both our history as children and our roles as parents:
"Beating children teaches short term obedience, but in the
long term, only violence and anxiety.
"As beaten children, we have to learn to forget our
physical and psychic pain. This blocking out enables us to
continue punishing our own children while we insist to ourselves:
smacks teach lessons. Sadly, all we are accomplishing is sowing
the seeds of cruelty for another generation.
"Almost everyone agrees that we should not maltreat
children, yet they also claim that corporal punishment is not a
maltreatment, labeling it as 'educational discipline'. This is a
dangerous error which can only be solved by a law preventing the
punishment of children within the home as well as school. The goal
of this law should not be the punishment of parents. It should
educate them into understanding that every beating is a
maltreatment, both socially and emotionally."
This central message, born out of self-knowledge and from what
she had learned from dealing with thousands of patients, gradually
gained Miller recognition as one of leading figures in the study
of abused children, in spite of years of skepticism from her
Her seven best-selling books have become an inspiration.
Novelist Edna O'Brien has described her as the child expert
"every parent should read." Another writer, Sara
Paretsky, believes Miller's books "changed the way I think
about my life".
Many professionals in the field also agree, such as Brenda
Robinson-Fell, an independent child abuse consultant based in
Brighton who works for a variety of bodies, including the NSPCC,
the police and social services departments.
"Alice Miller was a pioneer," she says. "Her
breakthrough was in asserting that parents carry responsibility
for the adults their children become. Fortunately, her beliefs
have become mainstream, and like many of my colleagues I regard
her as one of the main influences on my generation of
professionals. We owe her a great deal."
But the parent reading for the first time of Miller's work will
doubtless have two lingering questions. The first is the most
common defense for slapping: surely the occasional smack can't
possibly cause any lasting damage?
The second: how do we account for the fact that every smacked
child doesn't become a Hitler?
Surely, I asked Miller, an infrequent cuff, or a spontaneous
slap delivered in a moment's fury when one child is caught being
cruel to another, is reasonable?
Not so, says Miller. "The claim that mild punishment, such
as smacks or slaps, have no detrimental effects is still
widespread because we got this message from our parents, who got
it from theirs.
"It is this conviction which helps the child to minimize
or numb their suffering so that each generation is subjected to
the seemingly harmless effects of physical correction. 'What
hasn't harmed me cannot harm my child', we tell ourselves. Such a
conclusion is wrong because people have never challenged their
Violent behavior in teenagers, especially young male rapists
can, according to Miller, be linked with early emotional neglect,
not only with brutal treatment. "I
think violent teenagers are demonstrating what happened to them
when they were small. I have no doubts about that. It might not
have been a harsh discipline, but through emotional neglect, lack
of warm friendly contact, substituted by 'spoiling' (buying lots
of expensive objects to replace love) a child learns to repress
its own history.
"The more cruelty is denied, the less these young people
are able to feel, to confront the actual reasons for their
distress. Therefore the urge towards destructive behavior grows
stronger. "As beaten children we
learn very misleading lessons. Because the slaps come from the
most important figures in our lives we believe such behavior is
normal and beneficial. I am not the only one to speak out against
such treatment of children. Hundreds or articles and books are
written by other experts on the dangerous consequences and
uselessness of corporal punishment, yet many people continue to
act and think as though such information did not exist.
"I often hear mothers saying they smack their babies
without violence just to teach them a lesson. Once, a nice young
mother who breast fed her little boy complained to me that he
seemed a very anxious child. I asked if she thought the child
might be waiting for the next slap? "Never, she said. At 15
months old he was far to young to make such connections. I then
asked if she had been beaten as a child. Yes, she said, all the
time, by both parents. I asked her how she would feel if a friend
told her she was being beaten by her husband. Would she advise her
to leave? Of course, she said.
"Why then was she able to sympathize with her friend, but
not her child? Simple. Her upbringing taught her this is the
correct way to treat children."
Opposing Miller are those who claim that a law forbidding
parents to hit their children brings us uncomfortably close to
totalitarianism. Many people believe
that smacking children remains a private right, and would have
grave misgivings if government legislation intruded into an area
as sacrosanct as the home.
Her answer is emphatic: "You can't claim the right to play
with nuclear weapons on your territory because they belong to you.
Similarly, society's interests must go before your pleasure and
your habits, and the government must defend these interests.
"Parents may claim the right to hit children when they are
small as though they are property. Yet as soon as those children
become violent delinquents or drug abusers the same parents are
eager to turn the problem over to society. The anonymous taxpayer
has to fund the hospitals and prisons these once so eagerly
disciplined teenagers will need."
What then of the argument that so many smacked children do not
turn into tyrants? "Of course not all children who have been
violently treated grow into monsters. The key factor in such
instances is the presence of what I call 'a helping witness',
someone who serves as a protector or friend. It could be a
relative, a grandparent for example, or a teacher, or even a
neighbor. Thanks to this good experience these children are not
forced to repeat the abuse."
Miller's theory doesn't rest only on her observations as a
psychoanalyst. She has found confirmation in the latest research
by neurobiologists who have proved the influence of experiences
during the first three years of life to the developing structure
of the brain.
"For some years now, it has been possible to prove, thanks
to the use of new therapeutic methods, that repressed, traumatic
experiences in childhood are stored up in the body and, although
remaining unconscious, exert their influences even in adulthood.
In addition, electronic testing of the fetus has revealed a fact
previously unknown to most adults: a child responds to, and
develops, both tenderness and cruelty from the very
She is also convinced that the terrible savagery in Rwanda is
also explained by the cruel way in which infants are socialized in
that country. "Wherever I look, it is the same. What we do to
our children affects all of society."