February 17, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: The Institutionalized Destruction of Innocence -- and of Life

In her book, The Untouched Key, Alice Miller discusses the story of Abraham and Isaac at length. She had been looking for a jacket illustration for her earlier book, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, and came across the Rembrandt painting which I suggested you look at. She notes that "the father's hand completely covers the son's face, obstructing his sight, his speech, even his breathing. The main concerns expressed in my book (victimization of the child, the Fourth Commandment admonishing us to honor our parents, and the blindness imposed on children by parents) seemed to find a central focus in Abraham's gesture."

She eventually found thirty illustrations of the Abraham story, and all of them presented this image in essentially the same way. I have not been able to determine Miller's precise political beliefs, and it is not clear to me if she is a pacifist across the board (a position I would not agree with, and I also tend to doubt that is her position for a number of reasons) -- but setting that issue aside, consider what she says. Remember that this was written about fifteen years ago, and also consider its relevance to events of the last few years:
As I sat in the archive looking at the pictures, I suddenly saw in them the symbolic representation of our present situation. Inexorably, weapons are being produced for the obvious purpose of destroying the next generation. Yet those who are profiting from the production of these weapons, while enhancing their prestige and power, somehow manage not to think of this ultimate result. Like Abraham, they do not see what their hands are doing, and they devote their entire attention to fulfilling expectations from "above," at the same time ignoring their feelings. They learned to deny their feelings as children; how should they be able to regain the ability to feel now that they are fathers? It's too late for that. Their souls have become rigid, they have learned to adapt. They have also forgotten how to ask questions and how to listen to them. All their efforts are now directed toward creating a situation--war--in which their sons too will be unable to see and hear.

In the fact of mobilization for war--even a conventional one, a nonnuclear war--the questions of the younger generation are silenced. To doubt the wisdom of the state is regarded as treason. Any discussion or consideration of alternative possibilities is eliminated at a single stroke. Only practical questions remain: How do we win the war? How do we survive it? Once the point of asking these questions has been reached, the young forget that prosperous and prominent old men have been preparing for war for a long time. The younger generation will march, sing songs, kill and be killed, and they will be under the impression that they are carrying out an extremely important mission. The state will indeed regard highly what they are doing and will reward them with medals of honor, but their souls--the childlike, living, feeling part of their personality--will be condemned to the utmost passivity. They will resemble Isaac as he is always depicted in the sacrificial scene: hands tied, eyes bound, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to wait unquestioningly in this position to be slaughtered by one's father. (In my German translation of the Bible the verb used in this passage is schlacten, which refers to the butchering of animals.)
An illuminating interview with Miller begins this way:
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 the pain.

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.
In her books, Miller offers lengthy and detailed histories of these political figures, and also of famous writers and artists, including Nietzsche, Picasso, Kafka, and Plath. Later in this same interview, Miller says the following -- which I recommend every parent think about for a long, long time. In fact, every adult ought to think about it, because every single one of us is affected by these issues:
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."
I should add, as Miller also discusses in her work, that violence toward children need not involve physical abuse (in which category I include even "occasional" spanking; violence is violence, and the damage it does to a child is incalculable, even if inflicted only once or twice). Parents frequently abuse their children terribly in emotional and psychological ways, and such damage can be just as severe, or even worse.

Miller often reports profoundly disturbing stories and polls about the commonplace approval given to corporal punishment in Europe, even today. Let us consider this recent story from the United States:
The public by a 2-1 margin approves of spanking children in principle, and half of parents say they sometimes do it to their own kids, an ABCNEWS poll found. But an overwhelming majority disapproves of corporal punishment in schools.

Sixty-five percent of Americans approve of spanking children, a rate that has been steady since 1990. But just 26 percent say grade-school teachers should be allowed to spank kids at school; 72 percent say it shouldn't be permitted, including eight in 10 parents of grade-schoolers.
At the bottom of the story, there is a section entitled, "The Right Way to Spank." Among its admonitions -- don't do it in front of other students, specify the number of spanks in advance, have a witness to ensure that "proper procedures" are followed (that has an especially unpleasant historic resonance, doesn't it?) -- there is this one:
The person administering the punishment is not the person who the student directly got into trouble with, to assure that there are no emotions involved in the administration of the spanking.
And that one short phrase contains the entirety of this deeply tragic phenomenon -- a phenomenon which has resulted in worldwide horror and catastrophe. Thus do adults deny the reality of what is occurring directly in front of them, including its emotional reality -- and they continue the denial of what was done to them as children, what they are doing to the next generation, and the deadening of the soul that inevitably results.

In For Your Own Good, Miller discusses this "poisonous pedagogy" and its consequences in detail. At one point, she quotes from a journal kept by poet and writer Christoph Meckel's father during World War II:
On a roundabout way to have lunch I witnessed the public shooting of twenty-eight Poles on the edge of a playing field. Thousands line the streets and the river. A ghastly pile of corpses, all in all horrifying and ugly and yet a sight that leaves me altogether cold. The men who were shot had ambushed two soldiers and a German civilian and killed them. An exemplary modern folk-drama. (1/27/44)
Miller says: "Once feelings have been eliminated, the submissive person functions perfectly and reliably even if he knows no one is going to check up on him..."

And she goes on:
This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called "healthy normality"--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselve are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology. Since authoritarian parents are always right, there is no need for their children to rack their brains in each case to determine whether what is demanded of them is right or not. And how is this to be judged? Where are the standards supposed to come from if someone has always been told what was right and what was wrong and if he never had an opportunity to become familiar with his own feelings and if, beyond that, attempts at criticism were unacceptable to the parents and thus were too threatening for the child? If an adult has not developed a mind of his own, then he will find himself at the mercy of the authorities for better or worse, just as an infant finds itself at the mercy of its parents. Saying no to those more powerful will always seem too threatening to him.

Witnesses of sudden political upheavals report again and again with what astonishing facility many people are able to adapt to a new situation. Overnight they can advocate views totally different from those they held the day before--withou noticing the contradiction. With the change in power structure, yesterday has completely disappeared for them.

And yet, even if this observation should apply to many--perhaps even to most--people, it is not true for everyone. There have always been individuals who refused to be reprogrammed quickly, if ever. ...

Morality and performance of duty are artificial measures that become necessary when something essential is lacking. The more successfully a person was denied access to his or her feelings in childhood, the larger the arsenal of intellectual weapons and the supply of moral prostheses has to be, because morality and a sense of duty are not sources of strength or fruitful soil for genuine affection. Blood does not flow in artificial limbs; they are for sale and can serve many masters. What was considered good yesterday can--depending on the decree of government of party--be considered evil and corrupt today, and vice versa. But those who have spontaneous feelings can only be themselves. They have no other choice if they want to remain true to themselves. Rejection, ostracism, loss of love, and name calling will not fail to affect them; they will suffer as a result and will dread them, but once they have found their authentic self they will not want to lose it. And when they sense that something is being demanded of them to which their whole being says no, they cannot do it. They simply cannot.

This is the case with people who had the good fortune of being sure of their parents' love even if they had to disappoint certain parental expectations. Or with people who, although they did not have this good fortune to begin with, learned later...to risk the loss of love in order to regain their lost self. They will not be willing to relinquish it again for any price in the world.
What Miller discusses at the conclusion of that passage is the simplest reason, and an eloquent explanation, for why -- despite my frequent discouragement, depression, anguish and deep anger at our contemporary intellectual climate and the nature of our public discourse -- I have returned to writing once again.

And why I always will, no matter how painful it sometimes is.

P.S.: Many thanks to the reader who reminded me of Wilfred Owen's World War I retelling of the Abraham and Isaac story. Here is Owen's version:
Parable of the Old Men and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Historically, as Owen himself witnessed and knew all too well -- paying the ultimate price himself, when he was killed just one week before the Armistice that ended The Great War -- it is Owen's version that has transpired, over and over and over.

How profoundly tragic that the poet's insight and forbidding warning has still not been heeded, down to this day. Will we ever, ever learn? One can only wonder -- and hope against hope that we do, before it is finally too late.