Violence Kills Love: Spanking, the Fourth Commandment and the Suppression of Authentic Emotions
ONA: You have found out that the Fourth Commandment ("Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother") is detrimental to the healthy emotional life of a child. This will be quite shocking for many people. How did you discover that the only function of this "honorable injunction" is in fact manipulation and subordination of the child?
AM: The commandment is not detrimental to the child but later to the adult. All children love their parents and they wouldn't need the commandment to tell them to do so. But when we become adults and realize that our love was exploited and we were abused, we should be able to experience our true feelings, including rage, and not be forced to love parents who were cruel to us. Most people are afraid of these "negative" feelings towards their parents, so they take them out on their children and in this way perpetuate the cycle of violence. It is here that I see the destructive effect of the fourth commandment. Since a commandment or a law that would inhibit parents to dump their anger on their offspring doesn't yet exist, even the parents' most violent behavior can still be called "child rearing".
ONA: You go so far as to state that the fourth commandment causes physical ailments. How would you explain this link? Did it cause physical ailments in your case?
AM: It is the suppression of authentic emotions that makes us ill. We suppress them out of fear. The child's unconscious fear of violent parents can stay with us our whole life if we refuse to confront it by staying in a state of denial.
ONA: We take it for granted that parents "love" their children. Unfortunately, this is more often than not a myth. Is love, seasoned with "only" occasional "educational" spanking, possible?
AM: As parents we should know that violent upbringing, however well-intended, kills love.
ONA: Why is spanking always wrong?
AM: Spanking is always an abuse of power. It is humiliating and it creates fear. A state of fear can only teach children to be distrustful and hide their true feelings. They learn from their parents that violence is the right way of resolving conflicts and that they are bad or unworthy and thus deserve correction. These children will soon forget why they were spanked. They will submit very quickly, but later in life, they will do the same to weaker persons. By spanking we teach violence. The child's body has learned the lesson of violence from their parents over a long period and we cannot expect it to suddenly forget these lessons at the behest of religious values, which the body doesn't understand anyway. Instead, it retains the memory of being spanked.
ONA: Many despicable acts are committed in the name of parental love. How would you define real parental love?
AM: I love my children if I can respect them with their feelings and their needs and try to fulfill these needs as well as I can. I don't love them if I see them not as persons equal to me but as objects that I have to correct.
ONA: You speak of child abuse in our cultures as a forbidden issue. Why is this so? What is needed to change this state of affairs?
AM: The issue is forbidden because most of us were spanked in childhood and we don't want to be reminded of that. We learned as children that spanking is harmless. We had to learn this lie in order to survive. Now, as adults, we don't want to know the truth, that in fact spanking is harmful. It is interesting that when you say "don't spank your child" people become aggressive with you. They become even more aggressive if you say "you were spanked yourself and suffered as a child, you were forced to deny your pain in order to survive". They would rather kill you than admit the truth and feel the pain of having been humiliated and unloved when they were spanked by someone five times bigger than themselves. These aggressive reactions are understandable. Imagine how you would feel if you went out on the street and suddenly somebody five times bigger than you beat you in a rage and you didn't even understand why. A child cannot bear this truth, it must repress it. But an adult can face up to it. As adults we are not so alone, we can look for witnesses, and we have a consciousness we didn't have when we were children.
ONA: You say that hatred is better than the adoration of abusive parents, because it is a sign of our vitality. With regard to their parents many people find themselves trapped in a chain of self-deception (they idealize them). How can we direct hatred, rage and anger at the proper recipient (and not at ourselves or our partners)?
AM: We can try to become emotionally honest with ourselves and find the courage to confront the reality of our childhood. Unfortunately there are not many people who really want to know what happened in the first years of their lives. But their number seems to be growing. Some years ago we created forums in different languages on the Internet. They are called ourchildhood. Adults who were abused as children and who want to know more precisely what happened to them and how they actually feel about it can share their memories with other survivors in a safe environment and get more and more in touch with their true histories. Thanks to the compassion of these feeling witnesses they achieve more emotional clarity that helps them to change the way they treat their own children. Of course, they become more authentic with their partners once they understand better the causes of the strong emotions that were previously repressed.
ONA: One of the basic psychological truths is that persons emotionally deprived in childhood hope all their lives to receive the love denied to them. Why is it so hard to accept that we weren't important to anyone? Many even prefer to commit suicide instead.
AM: Yes, you are quite right. Some prefer to commit suicide or willingly accept a chronic illness and some prefer to become dictators over whole nations, or serial murderers, and to show to others what they learned as children (violence, cruelty, and perversion), rather than acknowledge their early deprivation. The more deprived and mistreated people were in their childhood, the more they stay attached to their parents, waiting for them to change. They also seem to be stuck with their fear. This fear of the tormented child makes any kind of rebellion unthinkable, even if the parents are already dead.
ONA: While we are on the subject, Slovenia is famous for its high percentage of suicides. How would you tackle this problem?
AM: Suicide is always the consequence of denied suffering in childhood, as is depression. I have written an article about depression, which you can read on my website. There I refer to many examples of very successful stars, such as Dalida for instance, the famous Egyptian singer, who in their lives got everything they wanted and were admired and famous. But in the middle of their lives they became depressive and many committed suicide. In all these cases it was not the present that made them suffer, it was the denied traumas of their childhood that made them feel miserable because they were never consciously acknowledged. The body was left alone with its knowledge.
ONA: How do you think morality and ethics come about? Why does someone become immoral?
AM: Never by preaching, only by experience. Ethical values are not transmitted by words, not even by the most holy words, only by experience. Nobody is born wicked. It is ridiculous to think, as people thought in the Middle Ages, that the devil put a wicked child into the family which should correct it by spanking, so that it could become a decent person. A tormented child will become a tormentor and certainly a cruel parent unless in childhood he/she found a helping witness, a person with whom they could feel safe, loved, protected, respected and thanks to these experiences learn what love can be. Then such a child will not become a tyrant; he/she will then be able to respect other people and have empathy for them. It is very significant that in the childhood of all the dictators I have examined, I didn't find even one helping witness. The child thus glorified the violence it had endured.
ONA: Religious education teaches us to forgive our tormentors. Should we really forgive them? Is it in fact possible to do so?
AM: It is understandable that we want to forgive and forget and not to feel the pain, but this outcome doesn't work. It turns out sooner or later that this is not an outcome at all. Take the many sexual abusers among the people of the Church. They have forgiven their parents for sexual abuse or other abuses of their power. But what are many of them doing? They are repeating the "sins" of their parents because they have forgiven them. If they could consciously condemn the deeds of their parents they wouldn't be urged to do the same, to molest and to confuse children by forcing them to stay silent - as if this was the most normal thing to do and not a crime. They just deceive themselves. Religions can have an enormous power over our minds and force us to many kinds of self-deception. But they have not the slightest influence on our body, which knows perfectly well our emotions and insists on our honesty.
ONA: Is compassion for Milosevic or Saddam Hussein acceptable?
AM: I have always had compassion for children but never for an adult tyrant. Here, I have sometimes been misunderstood, especially when I described the childhood of Adolf Hitler. Some readers didn't understand that I could feel compassion for the infant but never for the adult Hitler, who became a monster exactly because he denied how he suffered from being severely humiliated by his father (who by the way was an illegal child of a Jew). (See For Your Own Good). As a child, Adolf Hitler was of course unable to defend his dignity but he also remained submissive in adulthood. He feared and honored his father his whole life, suffered from attacks of panic at night, and his unconscious hatred was directed at all Jews and half-Jews.
ONA: The fiercest adorers of their parents are those who were the most emotionally deprived by them. There is a very cruel mechanism at work here and it produces a very pessimistic vision of life. Is there hope for the badly wounded?
AM: I don't think that my view is pessimistic. On the contrary, I think that if we can understand how the cycle of violence functions we can share our knowledge with others and cooperate in putting a stop to it. But if we believe that people are born with genes that make them violent we can't change anything. Although this opinion is highly pessimistic and feeble-minded, it is shared by many so-called intelligent individuals. I have never got an answer to my question why so many "genetically" defective persons should have been born under the rule of Hitler in Germany or of Milosevic in Serbia. The reasons for these misleading ideas are always the same: people prefer to believe in genes than to see how their parents treated them and to feel the pain. But by feeling the pain they could liberate themselves from the compulsion to repeat and thus become responsible adults. This statement is by no means pessimistic.
ONA: Is there hope for those who don't find a witness?
AM: An informative book can also function as a witness. The more we speak and write about this problem, the more witnesses will be available in the world, well-informed witnesses who can help children to feel respected and safe and help adults to bear their truth. Denial not only urges us to repeat, it also consumes a great deal of energy. Illnesses, eating disorders and substance addictions are the consequences.
ONA: "Positive thinking" can be just as harmful as religious injunctions to forgive and love those who hate us. Should we avoid new age self-help manuals?
AM: Yes, you are right. "Positive thinking" is in no sense a remedy, as it is a form of self-deception, it is a flight from the truth and cannot help because the body knows better. In my recently published article on my website, "What is Hatred?" I explain this point more extensively. I do the same in my latest book, which will soon be published in your language.
ONA: What are the political consequences of your writing?
AM: They could be beneficial indeed if politicians were not afraid of confronting the truth of their childhood. Emotionally, most of them are two-year-old children who were never loved and respected as the persons they were, with their feelings and needs, even if some of them were admired for their skills. They deny their frustrations of the past and are looking for loving parents in the persons of their voters. The more money they get for the election campaign, the more they feel loved. But as this "love" can never make up for the absence of love that the child of a strict, cold demanding and resentful mother had to suffer, the struggle for love can never stop. And thousands of people will pay the price.
The political consequences of my writing are not yet understood by many. People love to see human cruelty as a mystery and to consider it as innate. Also some ideologies seem good enough to cover the actual reasons for cruelty. Look what happened in Yugoslavia when Serbian soldiers were allowed to take revenge for the denied pain of children beaten in their early years. Milosevic gave them the permission to do so, and this was enough. There was no need for any instructions for cruelty, the soldiers had them in their bodies. For years they had been exposed to cruelty as children and were never allowed to react. Now they could take revenge on innocents, pretending that they were fighting for an ethnic cause. Equally, millions of Germans who were beaten into submission as children became sadistic and perverted adults as soon as they were allowed by Hitler's regime to act in this way.
Twenty-five years ago, in my book For your Own Good (Am Anfang war Erziehung), I showed how all the Germans were brought up who as adults followed Adolf Hitler. At that time people thought it was necessary to beat a child as soon as possible, immediately after birth, so that they would become "decent" people. Now, thanks to increasing research on the child's brain in the last ten years we know that the structure of the brain is use-dependent. Each human being is born with a brain that is not yet fully structured, it takes at least the first three years to complete this process. According to the early experiences of the child (whether he receives love or cruelty), his brain will be structured. So you must not be surprised that in countries where beating small children is allowed and customary, wars and even genocide and terrorism seem inevitable. For that reason we must adopt a law forbidding corporal punishment of children, as some European countries have already done. Unfortunately, these are only small countries and the bigger ones like the United States are far from considering such a law. There, physical correction for children at school is permitted in as many as twenty-two states.
From the Project NoSpank web site you can learn that spanking at home and paddling in schools still seem self-evident to American people. They were spanked and paddled and now they insist on their right to do the same with their offspring. There is hope, however, that this important web site and others like it will bring about a change sooner or later. The links between so-called "educational" violence and atrocities in our "political" life today have become so obvious to some people that they can't be silenced forever. Some day everyone will know that human cruelty is not innate, that it is produced and learned in childhood.
The first commandment should say: "Honor your children so they wouldn't need later to build inside themselves walls of protection against old pain and to defend themselves against phantom enemies with awful weapons that can destroy the world."
ONA: What is wrong with current psychoanalytic practice? Why were you "expelled" from the psychological movement?
AM: I was not expelled from the psychological movement; I just challenged their traditional view of thinking and their denial of childhood suffering. I eventually had to admit that psychoanalysis is no exception in this respect. The way in which Freud used the story of Oedipus is very significant. It shows very clearly the betrayal of the child and the tendency to protect the parents. Freud seems to have forgotten that Oedipus was first a victim of his parents and was pushed by them into the role of a "sinner." His parents sent him away as a very small child. It is quite enlightening to read the true story of Oedipus. You can also find it on my website in an article written in German by Thomas Gruner.
ONA: You describe the emotional life of quite a few of the most highly regarded writers of the modern age. Who would you cite as the example of a hero who successfully overcame the traumatic conflict with his/her parents?
AM: This is a very interesting question that nobody has asked me before. I have been looking around for a long time but I cannot find even one well-known writer who doesn't believe that we must eventually forgive our parents. Even if they see the cruelty of their upbringing they feel guilty for seeing it. Franz Kafka was one of the bravest writers on this subject but at that time nobody could support his knowledge. So he felt guilty and died as a very young man, like Proust, Rimbaud, Schiller, Cechov, Nietzsche and so many others who began to grasp the truth but were scared of it. Why is it so difficult to bear the truth of having been abused in childhood? Why do we rather blame ourselves? Because blaming ourselves protects us from the pain. I think that the worst pain we must experience in order to become emotionally honest is to admit that we were never loved when we needed it most. It is easy to say this but it is very, very hard to feel it. And to accept it. To get rid of the expectation that one day my parents will change and will love me. In contrast to children, adults can get rid of this illusion - to the benefit of their health and their offspring.
People who absolutely want to know their truth can do it. And I do think that these individuals will change
the world. They will not be "heroes", they might be quite modest people but there is no doubt that
their emotional honesty will once be able to break down the wall of ignorance, denial and violence. The pain
of not being loved is only a feeling; a feeling is never destructive when it is directed at the person who
caused the pain. Then even hatred is not destructive as long as it is conscious and not acted out. But it can
be very destructive, even very dangerous, for oneself and others, if it is denied and directed at scapegoats.
Alice Miller is author of
The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting
W. W. Norton & Company, 2005
Other books by this author:
- The Truth Will Set you Free: Overcoming Emotional Blindness
- Paths of Life: Seven Scenarios
- Breaking Down the Wall of Silence: The Liberating Experience of Facing Painful Truth
- Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries
- The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness
- Pictures of a Childhood: Sixty-six Watercolors and an Essay
- Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child
- For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence
of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self
(originally published as Prisoners of Childhood)
© Alice Miller, June 2005 www.alice-miller.com