Saturday, January 15, 2011

Three paragraphs from Alice Miller

From her book Banished Knowledge. This comes from chapter 2, "Innocence of the Parents," page 34 of the paperback, after a quote from a book by Phil Donahue, in which he is his usual, "even-handed," "moderate" self:
Although Donahue's discussion ostensibly proceeds from the question of which parental behavior might exert a traumatizing and lasting effect on the child, and although it would appear to give priority to concerns for the child, the second paragraph shows that basically it is concerned only with liberating parents from justified guilt feelings. They are assured that their actions pose no danger: The child will suffer no harm if he knows that he is being tormented out of "love" and "for his own good." This kind of reassurance that relies on untruths is based on the statements of "experts" quoted here and, I need hardly say, corresponds to the wishes of all parents who are not prepared to question their own behavior.

But might not there be a different way, other than reassurances? Might not one explain to the parents, in all honesty and frankness, why they traumatize their children? Not all of them would stop tormenting their children, but some would. We can be certain, however, that they would not stop if they were told, as were their own parents thirty years earlier, that one slap more or less does no harm, provided they love the child. Although this phrase contains a contradiction, it can continue to be handed down because we are used to it. Love and cruelty are mutually exclusive. No one ever slaps a child out of love but rather because in similar situations, when one was defenseless, one was slapped and then compelled to interpret it as a sign of love. This inner confusion prevailed for thirty or forty years and is passed on to one's own child. That's all. To purvey this confusion to the child as truth leads to new confusions that, although examined in detail by experts, are still confusions. If, on the other hand, one can admit one's errors to the child and apologize for a lack of self-control, no confusions are created.

If a mother can make it clear to a child that at that particular moment when she slapped him her love for him deserted her and she was dominated by other feelings that had nothing to do with the child, the child can keep a clear head, feel respected, and not be disoriented in his relationship to his mother. While it is true that love for a child cannot be commanded, each of us is free to decide to refrain from hypocrisy. I don't know whether hypocrisy exists in the animal world; at least I have never heard of a young animal growing up with the idea that it has to be tormented almost to death so that one day it may become a "decent and disciplined animal." Kagan's well-meant but naive trust in the ability of the "human animal" to survive a traumatic childhood unscathed ignores completely the potent, destructive, and disastrous nature of the traumas inflicted on the child. Many comparisons between human and animal aggression also ignore the fact that, in light of humans' destructive atomic power and readiness to destroy (as documented by Hitler and Stalin), all the bared animal teeth in the world are bound to appear downright innocuous. Is it possible that Harvard professors don't know this? Absolutely. If they derived their trust in the harmless nature of childhood traumas from the convictions of the grandmothers, they will learn nothing from facts because this trust clearly remains unshaken throughout their lives. But in view of the great confusions they are causing, in view of the dangerous hypocrisy they support, this trust is anything but harmless, since it is precisely the consequences of those universally ignored childhood traumas that threaten the world today.
This is the conclusion of the chapter.  The preceding pages support the conclusion.  Her discussion of Hitler and Stalin is in her book, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence.  She produces much more evidence for her conclusions, including her own experiences, patient cases as a psycho-therapist and other studies.

I don't think that bringing up Hitler and Stalin is hyperbole.  That they existed in the real world, and similar people and their admirers exist now, is evidence that the problem she is fighting is not an imaginary one.  They are simply the most widely known and acknowledged exemplars of evil.  Miller's theory explains how they could do what they did and why people cooperated with them.  And how we can keep from repeating that history. Other theories do a suck-@$$ job of that.

And, when I say "we", I mean you and me; right here, right now.


The probligo said...

I am struck by the extension to this line of thought, that mental illness (from its "best" to its "worst") is in some way the product of how parents raise their children.

I "traumatised" my son at the age of two months when the little bugger woke us up at 0330. You could hear him, "BELLOW", silence ("is someone coming?"), "BELLOW!", silence... He never woke at night again.

As for that Hitler and Stalin argument, it is an insane proposition of prim miss and delusion. If the logic were right, then the insanity of a schizophrenic (I have in mind here a case from NZ) who kills his family (parents and brother) and visiting friends was "traumatised" by his parents. In fact, the subsequent Coroner's enquiry showed this to not be the case but quite the opposite.

Yes, there are evil people in this world. Some might have been "traumatised" as children, but there is as much likelihood that the "traumatising" was the consequence of futile attempts at justified correction rather than cause.

Yes, there are evil people in this world. Some are the product of their society, rather than of their parents. You want an example? Try Pol Pot, or Mugabe.

And yes, there are evil people in this world. Some of them are the product of genuine "mental illness"; whether a disease (George III), physiological defect (genetic disorder giving rise to chemically treatable disorders such as schizophrenia), or just "not made right" (natal oxygen deprivation through to physical deformation).

Al said...

And the people who do their bidding? Everybody who believes that violence is the way to solve their personal distress was taught that by their parents. Why do you object to this theory, Prob?

The probligo said...

The followers? There are multitudes... the people who follow the likes of Hannity, the people who follow the likes of The Pope.

The question is WHY?

First response in my mind is that those who lead - be it politician or media - have taken the initiative, the "first response", the ability to analyse even simple situations, from Joe Public. People "don't have the time" to ponder and wonder. People are conditioned to accept the 5 second news bite rather than detailed analysis.

In the cases of pre-Stalin Russia, or pre-PolPot Cambodia, or Palestine even the level of education, the standard of living is such that there is no "analysis". Life drags from one day into the next. Children are born. People die. The means of their death becomes immaterial.

The acceptance of Hitler in 1920's Germany is problematic. The best I can come up with is "anything new would be better than what we have...". Not good, but best I can do.

So, we get to the nub of "Everybody who believes that violence is the way to solve their personal distress was taught that by their parents.".

That is part of the story.

The larger part is "people use violence because they can not imagine an alternative". I will leave it at that, because it will open too many side arguments, all "anti-American".

That statement can be turned to the converse with frightening accuracy -

"People accept violence because they can not imagine an alternative".

The probligo said...

Sorry to get so long-winded, me old china, but those were important points to be made - and I was interrupted by my dinner :).

Having said all of that, I will contradict myself in part.

Where there is no other external cause, we do get down to the level of "learned behaviour".

IF Alice Miller constrained her enthusiasm to just that class of "evil person" she would have my whole-hearted agreement.

Regrettably it seems that she can not (solely on the evidence of three paras taken out of their context). She seems so enthusiastic about a Unified Theory of Evil that she fails to recognise the exclusion of probably (I am guessing for the sake of emphasis) 90% of those whose behaviour can be classified as "evil" but is actually due to causes other than learned behaviour.

Look back to the context of my previous comment - if the parents know no better, what can we possibly expect of the children?

I have frequently and forcefully criticised the cessation of teaching of "Home Economics" (previously called "Homecraft")in NZ schools in years 6 and 7 as compulsory subjects, and as optional to year 10. That change happened when I was at school myself in about year 12. Is there a significance in the rise of family violence particularly against children over the past 20 years? (Is it coincidental that the curriculum included topics such as childbirth, child care, good diet, and money?)

We are at the point where the second generation after the loss of those taught skills are now having children of their own. I suspect that if someone were to undertake a genealogy of recent family violence in NZ there would be a surprisingly accurate correlation between that violence, the loss of taught skills, and parental failing by a comparatively small number of individuals.

I think that is the last of the rant... Sorry again Al.

The probligo said...

An afterthought from about 0300 this morning... that relates to the Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot factor in the debate. I am no psychiatrist. I have no profound qualification for my opinion.

I don't think it would matter what kind of up-bringing these people had. I believe that, f'rinstance, Hitler would probably gone on to murder at least once had he not found his way into politics.

More importantly, we must remember that Hitler was not a lone dictator. Stalin was "lone" to a greater extent than Hitler but still retained a massive state machine behind him to carry out his policies.

To take a more recent example without the emotive connotations of Stalin/Hitler we should look to Mugabe.

Mugabe's history in Zimbabwe has quite close and direct parallels with both Hitler and Stalin. He is seen as the "liberator" of the country. His support comes directly from a personal following; a disciple army. That army owes as much to Mugabe as he does to them for his power. In Hitler's case it was the German workers who formed a greater part of the equivalent. His power is enforced by that army of irregulars (there is no State Army as such).

Personal wealth and income is determined by one's "use to the State". You want to be rich? Be the "enforcer". You want that farm? Take it, murder the occupants, use it for what you want... I will make it legal...


Al said...

This is what I'm talking about:

The probligo said...

Hmm, Al that would be nice if it would let me in. I am apparently "banned", or "Not Permitted" or somesuch.