"I describe pictures of people, use
histories of them as mirrors. And then many come and say, `This is
exactly what I felt all my life but couldn't say.' I don't want to
be a guru. I don't want people to believe me. I only encourage
them to take their own experience seriously."
Alice Miller's stories portray abused and
silenced children who later become destructive to themselves and
to others. Adolf Hitler, says Miller, was such a child. Constantly
mistreated by his father, emotionally abandoned by his mother, he
learned only cruelty; he learned to be obedient and to accept
daily punishments with unquestioning compliance. After years, he
took revenge. As an adult he once said, "It gives us a very
special, secret pleasure to see how unaware people are of what is
really happening to them."
Miller, famed throughout Europe, wrote of
Hitler's childhood in For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in
Child-Rearing and The Roots of Violence. In the same
work she lets Christiane F. tell her own story: "I had
trouble telling the letters H and Kapart One evening my mother was
taking great pains to explain the difference to me. I could
scarcely pay attention to what she was saying because I noticed my
father getting more and more furious. I always knew what was going
to happen. He went out and got the hand broom and gave me a
trouncing. Now I was supposed to tell the difference between H,
and K. Of course by that time I didn't know anything anymore, so I
got another licking and was sent to bed." Christiane went
into the street and became a drug addict.
"We do not need books about psychology
in order to learn to respect our children," Miller says.
"What we need is a total revision of the methods of child
rearing and our traditional view about it.
The way we were treated as small children is
the way we treat ourselves the rest of our lives: with cruelty or
with tenderness and protection. We often impose our most agonizing
suffering upon ourselves and, later, on our children."
In 1979 Miller's first book, The Drama of
the Gifted Child, was published in Germany. First titled Prisoners
of Childhood, its three short essays described how parents
project their feelings, ideas, and dreams upon their children. To
survive and be loved, a child learns to obey. In repressing his or
her feelings, the child stifles attempts to be herself or himself.
The result, said Miller, is all too often depression, ebbing of
vitality, the loss of self. The Drama drew wide audiences in
Europe and then the United States. Two more books quickly
followed: For Your Own Good and Thou Shalt Not Be Aware
continued to focus on the child but moved into deeper studies of
child abuse, attitudes of child rearing, psychological theory, and
Last summer Miller published Pictures of
a Childhood. A collection of 66 watercolor paintings, it
represents a small fraction of her art. As she tells us in the
book's introduction, Miller started to paint 14 years ago.
"Five years after I began painting spontaneously, I started
writing books. This never would have been possible without the
inner liberation painting has given me. The more freedom I got
playing with colors, the more I had to question what I had learned
twenty years ago.
"It wasn't until I wrote my books that
I found out just how hostile society was toward children,"
she says. "I have come to realize that hostility toward
children is to be found in countless forms, not only in death
camps but throughout all levels of society and in every
intellectual discipline -- even in most schools of therapy."
Born in Poland in 1923, Miller was educated
and lives in Switzerland. She studied philosophy, sociology, and
psychology and took her doctorate in 1953. She completed her
psychoanalytic training in Zurich, and as a practicing
psychoanalyst she has been involved in teaching and training for
more than 20 years.
As her writing progressed, Miller's view of
the child became more and more opposed to that of traditional
Freudian theory. Miller at first dedicated Thou Shalt Not Be
Aware to Freud on the one hundred twenty-fifth anniversary of
his birth. "His discoveries of the survival of childhood
experiences in the adult unconscious and the phenomena of
repression have influenced my life and way of thinking," she
says. "But I came to different conclusions than Freud when I
could no longer deny what I learned from my patients about the
repression of child abuse."
Today Miller has departed from the
traditional analytic approach to treatment and from Freudian
theory. Early in his work Freud believed that the root of neurosis
was actual trauma, often violent and sexual in nature, that had
been repressed in childhood. Later he altered his view, deciding
that the child is by no means innocent but is born with drives
that are sexual and destructive in nature. Why has Freud's Oedipus
complex lasted so long? Miller asks. "Because in the Freudian
view the parents, not the child, are innocent. The Freudian view
fits society; it overlooks in Oedipus the abused child and sees
him with incestuous wishes that lead to his killing his father,
marrying his mother, and ultimately blinding himself."
Traditional analysis, says Miller,
duplicates the parent-child relationship. with the conventional
analyst in the position of power. But there is hope in therapy if
the therapist is a true advocate of the patient. Respect for the
child within the patient and his discovery of his real history
must play a role in the treatment process. The child undergoes a
long inner struggle "between the fear of losing the person he
loves if he remains true to himself, and panic at the prospect of
losing himself if he has to deny who he is. A child cannot resolve
a conflict of this nature and is forced to conform because he
cannot survive by himself. Therapy should not repeat this
Miller uses the phrase "poisonous
pedagogy" to describe what we inflict on children "for
their own good" out of our hypocrisy and ignorance. She
perceives that we instill humiliation, shame, fear, and guilt as
we are "training" children. By encouraging conformity,
suppressing curiosity and emotions, a parent reduces a child's
ability to make crucial perceptions in later life. "Children
are tolerant. They learn intolerance from us."
While Miller's work is ignored or attacked
by the orthodoxy, farsighted therapists often hail it as
monumental in its analysis of hidden cruelty and the roots of
violence. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu stated that Thou Shalt
Not Be Aware "will undoubtedly prove to be a watershed in
the history of psychoanalysis."
"My antipedagogical position is not
directed against a specific type of pedagogy," Miller notes,
"but against pedagogical ideology in general, which can be
found also in the permissive theories." She fears that as a
consequence of adults' arrogant attitudes -- including
"permissive" attitudes -- toward children's feelings,
children are trained to be accommodating. But their own voices
will be silenced, and their awareness killed. And more blind and
arrogant adults will be the result.
Interviewer Diane Connors, also a
psychotherapist, visited Miller in her apartment near Zurich.
Small in stature, Miller radiates a sense of both caution and
fragility, and a clear-eyed, unflinching commitment to what she is
saying, and an awareness of society's resistance to her work.
When did you realize respect for the child would be your
I looked from the beginning, I think from my childhood, for
the answer to why people behave in such an irrational way. I
always needed to understand and make things clear. I didn't get
much information from my mother, who would say, "It is this
way; it is so and so and so." She never gave me an
explanation if I asked. I was very alone as a child.
Maybe I was five years old when I saw a
woman with a child. The girl was three or four. She fell down and
was hurt. Her mother, who was talking to another mother, slapped
the child just because she came crying with bloody knees. I
remember my question then: "This child is punished twice:
first by falling down and then by the mother. Why does she punish
the child? She is not guilty -- she needs her mother's help, not
Did you ask your mother?
I did not dare ask this question, but it was the
"prequestion" of my life. Then I saw the war, and I
asked why people hate so much and behave in this absurd way. They
must have a hidden reason, I guessed. I found no answer in
philosophy and none in psychoanalysis. I found it in the later
years of my life when I faced the child within myself and when I
began to listen to the child in my patients.
I had to forget the theories. Even Freud
says that the child is guilty if he is hurt. The child is always
guilty. The mother of my childhood memory was angry that the child
was a problem when she wanted to talk to a friend. I could see
that because I was five and didn't know any theories at that time.
Grown-ups don't see. They learn theories that cover up the most
obvious explanations, and they believe these theories.
You know Andersen's tale "The Emperor's
New Clothes"? I think it is my role in society now, and in
analytic society, to say the emperor is without clothes. And many
now say, "Oh, I am so glad because I knew it too but didn't
dare say it." Yet there are others who say he is wearing
clothes, because they are afraid of losing power.
In The Drama I'd hoped to reach the
professionals, my colleagues; so I spoke in psychoanalytical
language. Meanwhile I went beyond this language, and I don't use
it anymore: I no longer try to reach people trained as I was. Even
as they deny what I wrote, their patients say, "She describes
my own experiences. I know what she is talking about."
Why do some professionals deny what you're saying?
Because they are not allowed to face reality. You know, it was
interesting. The first time I talked on these ideas was when I
spoke to about three hundred analysts on the narcissism of
psychoanalysts. They were so surprised, because it was very
unusual to hear a colleague side with the child. First they
reacted naturally, were just grateful and did not show much
resistance to their feelings. They thanked me and said, "But
how did you know it was my life you described?" And I said,
"It was my own life I described." Many men had tears in
their eyes. Then I tried to publish this article in a German
professional review, but the editors refused it. Resistance was
already established. They sent it back because they had to see
everything as Freud would have; otherwise it is frightening or
dangerous. The International Analytic Society published it in the
International Journal of Psychoanalysis. But the German review,
Psyche, did not. It was too provoking for the Germans.
What were the provocative issues?
That neurosis and psychosis result from repressed feelings
that are a reaction to trauma. The child's anger and all the other
feelings we don't like are reactions to child abuse.
Today we know that we have a lot of child
abuse. It was silenced before. The child must repress the memory
of this abuse and deny the pain in order to survive; otherwise he
would be killed by the pain.
Might this happen so early in the child's development that he
lacks words, understanding, or permission to express the pain?
The words have to be found. A good therapy should help the
patient evolve from a "silent child" to a "talking
child." The child couldn't have found the words if the trauma
were too early, or the environment too hostile. But now, in
therapy, if you have a therapist who is really your advocate, your
conscious witness for when you experienced your trauma for the
first time, then you become a talking child. Therapy exists to
help you find the words to tell your mother or father how you felt
at that time when they hurt you or how you felt when you could not
talk -- even that.
What do you mean by advocate?
One who sides with the child. Always. The therapist must not
say the parents were disturbed but well meaning, because he is
then siding with the grown-ups. If the child thinks that the
parents who behaved so strangely and humiliated him were well
meaning, he cannot feel his pain, and he sympathizes instead with
his parents. It is a crime to beat a child because the beating is
a damage, and you can never change this reality. A battered child
feels humiliated, confused, isolated; and he is made to feel
guilty because he is told he is bad. We are afraid to say that
child abuse is a crime because we want to protect the parent from
his guilt. But we really fail to help them when we support their
blindness, because in this way we also betray the child in the
How do you deal with pain in the healing process?
Pain is the way to the truth. By denying that you were unloved
as a child, you spare yourself some pain, but you are not with
your own truth. And throughout your whole life you'll try to earn
love. In therapy, avoiding pain causes blockage. Yet nobody can
confront being neglected or hated without feeling guilty. "It
is my fault that my mother is cruel," he thinks. "I made
my mother furious; what can I do to make her loving?" So he
will continue trying to make her love him. The guilt is really
protection against the terrible realization that you are fated to
have a mother who cannot love. This is much more painful than to
think, "Oh, she is a good mother, it's only me who's
bad." Because then you can try to do something to get love.
But it's not true; you cannot earn love. And feeling guilty for
what has been done to you only supports your blindness and your
There are some treatments where the patients
cry a lot -- they really suffer -- but do not talk. I saw a
videocassette where for one hour the patient relived the pain of
birth but didn't talk about it. Only later did he report on what
he had felt. But in my opinion it is important to speak, to
verbalize, during the experience of pain. Even if the patient felt
as if he were in the womb, he should try to talk to the mother and
tell her how he feels. The link between feelings and their verbal
expression is crucial to the healing process. But he can't do it
without assistance; he has to know someone is there who
understands how he feels, who supports and confirms him. If a
child has been molested and the therapist doesn't deny this fact,
many things can open up in the patient. The therapist must not
preach forgiveness, or the patient will repress the pain. He won't
change, and the repressed rage will look for a scapegoat.
Do you think the child has no history, that a child is born
into the world like a tabula rasa on which experience
inscribes his or her character?
No, I don't. The child comes from the womb with his or her
history as experienced in the womb. But he doesn't come with
projections. He is born innocent and ready to love. And the child
can love -- much more than we grown-ups can. This idea of the
child as a loving being meets so much resistance because we
learned to defend our parents and to blame ourselves for
everything they have done.
In what ways does your style reflect these views?
I try to reach the child in the readers, allow them to feel. I
see my style as ranking keys. Everybody can take one so that they
can go open their own door to find something. Or they can say no,
I don't want to go through this door; I will return the key. I try
to evoke feelings, images. In this way I offer keys to your own
experience. You can then go look at your children and learn from
them, not from me. Because only from your own experience can you
In my first studies I was very abstract; I
wanted to understand the most abstract ideas -- of Kant, Hegel, or
Marx. My dissertation in philosophy was very abstract. Now I see
that each philosopher had to build a big, big building in order
not to feel his pain. Even Freud.
Why did you decide to become an author and lecturer?
I want to inform people that there is no one person in the
whole world who abuses children without having been abused as a
child. I think this finding is crucial and can help to understand
a lot of things. As an analyst, I couldn't share my findings with
anybody of this profession. It wasn't possible, and I had to
understand why not. So I wrote my third book, Thou Shalt Not Be
Aware. Again I was in the position of the child who sees so many
people admiring the emperor without clothes. I wanted to
understand this too, their motive. Why are they not aware?
Then others began showing interest in my
work. Ashley Montagu confirmed my view of the child, and I also
found confirmation from other writers who wrote about child abuse.
Montagu sent me his book Growing Young, in which he quoted
the famous British psychoanalyst Edward Glover. Glover describes
the perfectly normal infant as "egocentric, greedy, dirty,
violent in temper, destructive in habit, profoundly sexual in
purpose, aggrandizing in attitude, devoid of all but the most
primitive reality sense, without conscience of a moral feeling,
whose attitude to society as represented by the family is
opportunist, inconsiderate, domineering, and sadistic." So
when we compare the normal baby to the criminal type labeled
psychopath, the baby for all practical purposes is a born
criminal. This view is dangerous to humanity. We pretend to give
the child the norms of society to make him into a "human
being." This is the Freudian view of the infant. Melanie
Klein also saw the infant as a destructive creature. I once talked
to a Kleinian analyst, a nice young woman, and she said,
"Haven't you seen destructive babies?" And I said.
"What do you mean?" She said, "Small siblings that
give you a slap." And I said, "Why are you so appalled
by this play? The baby doesn't understand. But if you believe it
is wrong and bad, he will feel wrong and bad, will not understand,
and will finally become destructive out of this distress." I
think our attitude toward infants will make them either good,
loving, and trusting or hating and destructive.
Do you have reactions from Kleinian analysts to your works?
A Dutch psychiatrist trained in the Kleinian school once wrote
me: "What you have written seemed terrible at first and
turned around everything I had learned, and it scared me. But now
I am grateful. Every day at the hospital is fascinating. Each
patient is a history, and I learn from each of them."
When I say I'd like to open my eyes and ears
to the suffering of the child, it's close to what [Frederick]
Leboyer did with the newborn. So many people have witnessed birth,
yet nobody saw the child was suffering, crying out in psychic
pain. Nobody could feel with the child. They were convinced it was
necessary to cry after birth. Leboyer said that this pain was
unnecessary. "I can show that the child will smile some
minutes after birth," he said. Many mothers know he was
right, but not the professionals, who still prevent mothers from
making birth a good experience for their newborns. They learned
thirty years ago that it is necessary for the baby to scream and
be spanked, and they continue to believe what they learned.
It is the same for my work. To protect what
they learned, the professionals ignore what I'm showing them. What
Leboyer did for the newborn, I'm trying to do for the older child
to explain his behavior, to bring adults closer to his suffering,
which they deny; to explain how he feels and in this way prevent
child abuse in the future. As long as we deny the child abuse, we
can't stop it. We just call it upbringing. I am trying to listen
to the child's voice. make people aware of the child's feelings,
feelings that I first faced in myself when I started to paint.
Do you think painting opened up a lot of feelings for you?
Because I could begin without theoretical knowledge, without
luggage, really, as a child. And I had so much fun when I began. I
knew something was going to be created, to come out. And it did.
The first five years of painting enabled me to write The Drama
in this unconventional way. I was playing with thoughts. And as I
experienced creativity in my painting, I became much more critical
about what I had learned as theory.
In The Drama you connect repressed feeling with loss of
vitality. Was that your experience here?
Yes, experiencing the pain of my life gave me back my
vitality. First pain, then vitality. The price of repressing
feelings is depression. I also had to resist the usual way of
learning. If you are forced to do something, you cannot have fun.
But for me, having fun is the first condition of creativity. I
learned when I played with color. But I resisted learning about
color by reading theories from books. For me painting, dreaming,
and writing have something in common. I paint as I dream. I have
many impulses and associations. I never have a plan, a concept of
what I want to do. I do have a concept sometimes, but I cannot
realize it because while painting, I start to dream of something
else and I forget my plan. In the beginning I had a sort of
narrative style. I wanted to tell a story, or a story in myself
wanted to be told. Now it's more like needing this color, this
form, this line. It's improvisation. I'd say I am painting like a
I don't want to make a masterpiece, or even
good pictures. Fortunately, I don't need to sell my paintings. I'm
only compelled to work further and further into what is true.
Sometimes I destroy my paintings. I change and change them, even
though they may have been nicer before. In the end I'm happy
because it's what I wanted to say. I don't care if someone says
it's good or not. In painting I feel absolutely free. I have my
palette, my white paper; and nobody can tell me what is right or
You admire Goya and Turner?
They are not models for me but are examples of true and great
artists. Both were successful and admired. Then suddenly they
absolutely changed their styles. Goya, who had made wonderful
portraits, began painting ghosts and his inner world. And Turner
began painting light. And when people began to say, "This is
not good -- you made really good paintings before," he didn't
care; both he and Goya did what they needed to do. So for me they
are examples of courage.
Picasso, too, did this so many times. To go
out of what for most people is comforting -- to be good, skillful,
admired, famous, and then to abandon all this to go your own way
-- is so very frightening to most people. But I had to do this in
order to get in touch with myself, to become free. Otherwise I
feel like I am in a prison.
Who are your heroes?
The older I become, the less I have heroes. Even Freud was not
a hero but for a long time a father figure. But when I discovered
his denial of the truth, he wasn't even that anymore. I cannot
idealize anybody as I did twenty or forty years ago. In my school
days Socrates was a big figure; and he's someone I've liked for my
whole life because he questioned so many things. I also liked the
honesty of Montaigne; I liked Kafka, and I adored Shakespeare. Now
I can't read novels so easily anymore. I am bored if I see the
lie. I like reports on childhood if they are written honestly,
which is rare. The childhood offers the keys to the whole
personality. I wrote essays on Nietzsche, Picasso, [German
expressionist] Kathe Kollwitz after I discovered facts from their
childhoods that cast new light on their works. It is amazing that
the importance of these facts was overlooked. The essays are still
unpublished because I haven't had the time to put them in a new
book. And I'm tired of publishing books. I love to write but not
to publish. It takes so much time and is not really creative.
When did you ultimately decide to write The Drama?
Oh, it was funny. Actually, I didn't. I told you I did a paper
for a conference; then I wrote another on depression. After the
German professionals refused to print the first one, I wrote the
third paper, and made it all into a book. Although I wrote it in
three weeks, it was an expression of twenty years' experience. I
sent it to a small publisher in Switzerland who said they were not
interested, that they had four other books "on
narcissism." Then I sent it to Suhrkamp, my present German
publisher. The editor telephoned me the next day and said,
"Wait, please, and you will have the contract in three days.
It's extraordinary; it's so unusual." And then the publisher
came to visit me and said, "Usually I take new manuscripts
home with me at lunchtime. This time I couldn't take my nap; I had
to finish it. I didn't return to work that day, either. You made a
Does response to your work differ from country to country?
Yes. The Scandinavian lands, Holland, and the United States
are most liberal and open. Most of my books are sold in Germany,
but many Germans are still very much formed by the poisonous
pedagogy. Swiss people, too. So many are not allowed to criticize
parents or see the poison of their upbringing. These people say my
work describes the education of the nineteenth century. They don't
realize that they still live according to nineteenth-century
This response is also a reaction to Hitler's
time. The denial of Hitler is so deep that the German cannot learn
from his history. As a child, Hitler had no witness. His father
destroyed everything his son did. He could never tell anyone the
pains he was suffering. In Sweden they made a play, "Hitler's
Childhood," from a chapter in my book. The story shows how
that child looked for contact, longed for a glance, but was
constantly treated like a dog.
A reaction similar to Germany's also comes
from Japan, but also from Japan come reactions from people who
already have become aware. Their awareness is not damaged by
theories like the Freudian drive theory, so these Japanese can
face what I write, use it in their reality. They can realize the
ever-present child abuse, and they can really help.
Behind every act of violence there is a
history. A history of being molested, a history of denying. The
denial is a law governing us, but it is ignored by society and
still not investigated by the professionals. Yet it holds the keys
to our understanding why pure nonsense can be still held in high
esteem in our culture, such nonsense as Sigmund Freud's idea that
a child would invent traumas.
Are there cultures that have a different attitude toward
Despite variations in cultures, abuse is found in almost every
one. But there are some that are different. For instance, there
are people on an island of Malaysia called Senoi who have a
nonviolent culture. They talk with their children about dreams
each morning. They never have had war. Our culture is so violent
because as children we learned not to feel.
What, in general, are your thoughts about dreams?
Dreams tell me the story of childhood, but childhood
transformed. The problems of the previous day are mixed in. Dreams
sometimes reveal repressed traumas, but they also help the dreamer
to master them. Dreams are a creative force everybody has each
night when the control is lessened.
Can therapy effect a change?
Yes, but only if the therapy will come to the pain, which is
blocked in our feelings of guilt. The idea "I was guilty for
what happened to me" is a blockage. Since I discovered that
Freud's drive theory not accidentally but necessarily conceals the
reality of child abuse, I have looked for a new form of
psychotherapy, an effective therapy to be based on the whole
knowledge of child abuse available to us today. I finally found
it, and I will describe this concept in my next book. This therapy
enables the patient and the therapist to systematically come in
touch with their traumas and pain -- step by step without suddenly
breaking the defenses, without moralistic and pedagogical
attitudes, and without bringing people into dangerous states where
they experience chaotic feelings and are stuck with them.
One can find plenty of irresponsible and
harmful techniques and mixtures of techniques that don't provide a
systematic confrontation with the past. Some leave people with
different mystical offerings or with their unresolved pain. These
patients are victims first of child abuse and finally of therapy
abuse. And they try to "help" themselves by taking
drugs, joining sects or gurus, or looking for other ways of
denying reality and killing pain. Political activity can be one of
What advice would you give today to a therapist in training?
First try to discover your own childhood, then take the
experience seriously. Listen to the patient and not to any theory;
with your theory you are not free to listen. Forget it. Do not
analyze the patient like an object. Try to feel, and help the
patient to feel instead of talking to the patient about the
feelings of others.
The child needs fantasies to survive, to not
suffer. Believe what the patient tells you, and don't forget that
repressed reality is always worse than a fantasy. No one invents
traumas, because we don't need traumas in order to survive. But
neither do we need their denial. Some of us pay with severe
symptoms for this denial. Study the history of childhood. Therapy
has to open you as well as the patient for feeling in your whole
life. It has to awaken you from a sleep.
It is tragic to go to therapy and find,
instead of help, confusion. I have a letter from a
seventy-nine-year-old woman saying that for "forty years of
my life I went to psychoanalysis. I saw eight analysts. But for
the first time, after reading your book, I didn't feel guilty for
what happened to me. I always tried, and the analysts were nice
people. They wanted to help me. But they never doubted that my
parents were good to me. I am so grateful now that I don't feel
guilty since I read your books. I now see how terribly they abused
me. It was first my parents and then my analysts who made me feel
wrong and guilty." This insight came from a
seventy-nine-year-old woman! Then she quoted from the last line of
For Your Own Good "For the human spirit is virtually
indestructible, and its ability to rise from the ashes remains as
long as the body draws breath."
Does TV violence affect children?
Children who have really been loved and protected will not be
interested in these films and shows and will not be in danger. But
the child who was hurt and humiliated -- maybe at school, not
necessarily by his parents -- is looking for outcomes, for
material; he is looking for an object to hate and on whom to take
revenge. Of course there are people who make a business of the
suffering of children. But the violence doesn't come from TV
films. Its sources are deeper. Protected and loved children cannot
become murderers. It is impossible to find one person who was not
beaten who beats a child.
Why does violence beget itself through the generations?
If you go back you can see that the abuser was always abused.
But in most cases you will not hear it from him or her, because
there is so much denial. If you go to a prison and ask a murderer,
"How was your childhood?" he will say, "Oh, it was
not so bad. My father was severe and he punished me because I was
so bad. And my mother was a nice woman." This is the problem:
You can't find the truth because the person, the murderer himself,
will prevent you from seeing his cruel childhood as it actually
was. Because he cannot bear that pain, he kills innocent people
instead of feeling the pain of his childhood.
Do you think a child can experience abuse in the womb?
Of course. Each child has its own experience; some experience
real martyrdom. There was a child born with three ulcers. It died.
The mother was fifteen years old. She was beaten during pregnancy
as well, and she used drugs. Nobody knows what a child, even in
the womb, has to go through. We are so ignorant, and we refuse to
You heard about the McMartin School in Los
Angeles? At this day-care center of more than three hundred
children it was charged that many of them were sexually molested.
For seven months attorneys asked the children what happened to
them there. This questioning was torture for the children. Some of
them reported that they helped kill a baby. The grown-ups found
this wasn't true, so they called the children liars. Eventually
charges were dropped against five of the seven accused molesters.
But obviously this was a symbolic way to say, "When I agreed
to be sexually abused I killed the child in myself."
I want to show how society reacts to
children's reports. Abuse means killing the soul of a child. We
cannot understand the child's symbolic language, so we say the
child is lying. Then abusing teachers go free, and we think that
everything is legally correct. The problem is that children
protect the abuser. Sometimes the abuser is exchanged for another
person in their reports. They perhaps say, "I'm afraid of the
mailman because he was bad to me." And the parents know that
the mailman had no body contact with their child. But behind the
"made-up" story lurks a father or uncle. The lie
functions to protect the loved person but at the same time
expresses anxieties. Grown-ups say that these are children who
invent stories. But the story is not invented; a real event
Can society learn to understand the child's language?
I hope so. Otherwise we will commit a mass suicide with the
help of technology. The child's language is often very clear, but
we refuse to listen to it. Children can endure terrible abuse and
cruelty from the first moment of their lives, thanks to the
technology in hospitals. The abuse is stored up in the mind, and
it can remain active the whole life. Therefore, a mother
maltreating her small baby can repeat exactly what happened to her
without having any knowledge, any conscious memories. But the
stored-up memories in her body will compel her to repeat the same
Unless a child receives the warm arms of a
person who will console him and tell him with his arms that the
shock of birth is over, this child will wait his whole life
expecting a repetition of this shock. One of the first lessons is
that you are alone, in a dangerous place, and nobody sees your
pain. But this situation can easily be changed when we acknowledge
the newborn as a feeling and highly sensitive person. Very often
the child comes into life after a struggle, and we don't realize
that he needs consolation and the arms of a mother. We give him
medication, hospitals, and high technology instead. And we think
it is good for the child -- only because we had the same
experience years ago and think it is usual. What really happens in
the psyche of a newborn is absolutely not interesting to most
people. That is why I am giving you this interview.
What would you like to do now?
I would like to support people who are confronting child
abuse. I received a letter from a child therapist in California.
He was a consultant for a school. A girl told him stories of a
"hot box," a tiny windowless closet in which the
children were locked up as punishment. He believed her,
investigated, and, when he wrote a report about it, was fired. But
he kept on investigating and found these hot boxes used in other
schools. Newspapers reported about the case, and his voice and
experience were noticed. He thanked me because he felt supported
by my books. This shows one person can make people aware that
methods they never questioned before are, in fact, damaging. The
single advocate of a child can save a life; advocates say a crime
is a crime; they don't conceal the truth by calling it ambivalent
parent's love. An advocate can help keep a child from becoming a
criminal. The child learns from an enlightened witness to
recognize cruelty, to reject it, to defend himself against it, so
as not to perpetuate it. Experiments have conclusively proven that
no one learns anything by punishment. What you learn is how to
avoid punishment by lies and how to punish a child twenty to
thirty years later. People continue to believe, however, that
punishment can be effective.
Can you change this belief?
I hope so, at least partly. My life and work concentrate on
the problem of child abuse and on the question of how I can
transmit what I have learned about it to professionals, parents,
and people responsible for law. It's not easy, because most people
learned from the beginning of their lives that the child has to be
spanked in order to become as good, human, honest, tolerant as the
teachers, parents, ministers, and others around them believe that
In England, where I've given some radio
shows, interviewers often say, "You talk about the serious
forms of violence and brutality in families, but there are also
other forms -- spankings, caning, shouting at a child." The
interviewers claim these forms of exercising power are harmless
and not serious, and they argue that although they were often
spanked as children, they didn't become an Adolf Hitler. I see it
as my task to repeat that each kind of beating, caning, and
spanking of a child is a humiliation and is a serious damage for
his whole life. A child can avoid becoming a criminal if he has
the chance in childhood to meet at least one person who is not
cruel to him, who maybe even likes him or understands him. The
experience of love, compassion, or sympathy would help him to
recognize cruelty for what it is. Children who lack this
experience because there is no conscious witness will see cruelty
as a normal way of treating children and will continue with this
burden. They will become as Hitler, Eichmann, [Rudolf] Hoss, and
all the millions of their followers who in their childhoods never
found anything but cruelty.
What about the milder forms of cruelty, such as spanking,
shouting, and verbal humiliation?
The tragedy is that people treated this way -- even if they
don't become like Hitler -- pretend that this kind of treatment
was necessary. They reserve the right to do the same to their
children and are reluctant to pass laws forbidding spanking. In
Britain such a law was not passed until 1986, and I see this delay
as one of the effects of child abuse there.
The ignorance of our society is the result
of child abuse. We were spanked in order to become blind like
Oedipus. We have to become seeing in order to give our children
the chance to grow up with more responsibility and more awareness
than was available for our generation now producing atomic bombs.