February 18, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: Mel Gibson, A Public Case Study in Obedience and Denial

In Part II of this essay, I excerpted several passages from Alice Miller's work. To focus this discussion on the issue I now wish to address, let me summarize my understanding of Miller's central argument. By demanding obedience above all from a child (whether by physical punishment, by psychological means, or through some combination of both), parents forbid the child from fostering an authentic sense of self. Because children are completely dependent on their parents, they dare not question their parents' goodness, or their "good intentions." As a result, when children are punished, even if they are punished for no reason or for a reason that makes no sense, they blame themselves and believe that the fault lies within them. In this way, the idealization of the authority figure is allowed to continue. In addition, the child cannot allow himself to experience fully his own pain, because that, too, might lead to questioning of his parents.

In this manner, the child is prevented from developing a genuine, authentic sense of self. As he grows older, this deadening of his soul desensitizes the child to the pain of others. Eventually, the maturing adult will seek to express his repressed anger on external targets, since he has never been allowed to experience and express it in ways that would not be destructive. By such means, the cycle of violence is continued into another generation (using "violence" in the broadest sense). One of the additional consequences is that the adult, who has never developed an authentic self, can easily transfer his idealization of his parents to a new authority figure. As Miller says:
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 themselves 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.
I want to stress that my discussion in this series of essays gives only a brief, condensed sense of Miller's work, and of her extraordinarily important and valuable contribution to an area that has been largely neglected by our society at large. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you read Miller's books themselves. Here is a site with many links to Miller's work, and here is Miller's own site.

With regard to Miller's point that the idealization of authority figures is easily transferrable for those who have not been allowed to develop a true sense of self, events of the last few years have provided numerous examples. Let me emphasize one other point before moving on to some of the more notable ones. Nothing I am discussing here should be construed to mean that the ideas that people accept do not matter. In fact, as most of my writing here demonstrates, I view ideas, and whether they are true or false, as of critical importance. But the truly notable phenomenon is the following one: many of the ideas that people have accepted, in some cases even for thousands of years, can easily be shown to be wrong. So the obvious question arises: if the ideas are demonstrably wrong -- and as is often the case, when the consequences of certain ideas can easily be shown to be disastrous, and even horribly destructive -- why do people still cling to them so desperately, and absolutely refuse to give them up?

And this is where Miller's work is invaluable. Such tenacity in the face of overwhelming evidence cannot be explained simply by saying, "Well, they just refuse to think. And when someone refuses to think, no one else can make him." Obviously, certain people refuse to think at a certain point. But the question remains: Why? If one looks at the life histories of the great majority of people, keeping in mind Miller's work and her detailed personal histories of a number of individuals, the answer is clear: they dare not question the goodness of the authority figure, they dare not acknowledge the pain they have experienced as the direct result of the actions of the authority figure, and above all they dare not say: the authority figure is wrong. This underlying mechanism of obedience is set very, very early in life -- and the thought of dislodging it later on literally causes the adult to panic, in a sense that threatens his precarious (and false) sense of self. So the adult will do anything to avoid having to question the authority figure.

You can see this mechanism obviously, and very painfully, displayed in public, for all the world to see, by Mel Gibson in recent interviews. First, some background from some months ago:
Now, Mel Gibson is at the center of a storm that may be of his own making. As he was completing a film on the last 12 hours of the life of Christ, The New York Times Magazine published a March 9 cover story reporting that "The Passion" may reflect the radical Catholic view that Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus.

The Times story delved into the "traditionalist" beliefs of Gibson and his father — and it quoted 85-year-old Hutton Gibson denying that the Holocaust occurred.

Scoffing at the notion that 6 million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis, the elder Gibson told the Times that the Holocaust was fabricated in order to hide a secret deal between Hitler and "financiers" to move Jews from Germany to the Middle East. And he dismissed the notion that Osama bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, saying the planes were crashed by "remote control."

The Times also reported that both Gibson men are Catholic "traditionalists" who reject the 1962-65 Vatican II reforms. (A key reform was the dropping of the doctrine that Jews are collectively responsible for Christ's murder.)
And here is a report about Diane Sawyer's interview of Gibson that was televised just the other night:
The only thing he refused to talk about was his father, a Catholic Traditionalist portrayed in a New York Times Magazine interview as a Holocaust-denying extremist inclined to blame Jews for the evils of the world.

"Gotta leave it alone, Diane," Gibson said angrily when she brought it up. "Gotta leave it alone."
I didn't see Sawyer's interview, but I heard parts of it replayed on the radio. Gibson did say a bit more about his father, and what he said, and his tone, were very revealing. Just before he said, "Gotta leave it alone, Diane," Gibson said, several times: "Diane, he's my father. My father. My father."

And the way Gibson said it clearly conveyed that his father, his father's goodness, the fact that his father was worthy of deep admiration, and -- above all -- his father's authority were not to be questioned; all of these were immutable facts, absolutes beyond all debate or questioning. It is this mindset, and this refusal to allow even the smallest possibility that his father might be mistaken -- even with regard to a supremely significant issue such as the Holocaust -- that lead Gibson to equivocate unforgivably in his own statements about whether the Holocaust actually occurred. Whatever else is open to discussion, the worth, the authority and the inherent goodness of his father cannot be broached.

If you read any of the numerous personal histories laid out by Miller, you will conclude that Gibson, like the other helpless victims Miller describes, undoubtedly had a brutal and cruel upbringing, especially in view of his father's particular beliefs. But Gibson has denied all of this -- first to himself, and later to the rest of the world. And even today, when he is a fully independent adult with wealth and power beyond the dreams of almost all of us, he dares not question any of this fable he has told himself about his father, and about his own childhood. It is this first denial that makes all the others possible -- as Miller sets forth in compelling detail, it is the denial of the reality of our lives in our earliest years, it is the denial of our own pain, which greatly lessens (or even completely destroys) our ability to empathize with others, and it makes possible denial of countless other facts, and even of events such as the Holocaust, which are documented to an extent which one would think would make such evasion literally impossible.

But the demands of this belief system are unending: after you have denied your authentic self, you will be prepared to believe anything. You will believe that the Holocaust never happened -- if your father tells you so; you will believe that Hitler is your country's savior -- if the surrogate father and authority figure leading your nation tells you so; or you will believe that a third-rate dictatorship which can threaten no one must be invaded, and tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis must die -- if enough authority figures tell you so.

Whatever else can be questioned, the parent's authority must never be doubted -- regardless of consequences, regardless of the pain and destruction that must follow such denial, regardless even of the countless deaths of innocent victims. This mechanism of denial and obedience leads to another tragic result, as well:
In a revealing interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer due to be aired at 10:00 p.m. E.T. Monday, on "Primetime," Gibson explained that for him the making of the controversial film was cathartic, that he set out to make it over 10 years ago because he had reached "the height of spiritual bankruptcy."

The Hollywood star admits that things got so bad he once contemplated suicide by hurling himself out a window.

"I just didn't want to go on," he confided to Sawyer. "I was looking down thinking, 'Man, this is just easier this way. You have to be mad, you have to be insane, to despair in that way. But that is the height of spiritual bankruptcy. There's nothing left."

Instead, he said he turned back to the word of God. "I think I just hit my knees. "I just said, 'Help.' You know? And then, I began to meditate on it, and that's in the Gospel. I read all those again. I remember reading bits of them when I was younger."

"Pain is the precursor to change, which is great," Gibson said. "That's the good news."

He recalled that the "spiritual bankruptcy" led him to reexamine Christianity, and ultimately to create "The Passion of the Christ" - "my vision . with God's help" of the final hours in the life of Jesus.
Two overwhelmingly important aspects of this must be noted. First, Miller documents in her work that one of the most common results of the child's suppression of anger at the parent/authority figure, and of the inability to develop an authentic self, is suicide or suicide attempts, or at least thoughts of suicide. If the suppressed rage cannot be directed outward, it will be taken out on oneself.

Second, and I cannot stress the following too much: Gibson's refusal to question his father's goodness, his refusal to allow himself even to doubt his father for one second, has now led Gibson to adopt a second authority figure as well: God. And despite the fact that I know this observation will undoubtedly enrage many people, it is this denial-obedience syndrome that underlies the faith of many (if not most) people who are deeply religious. It is precisely the same mechanism that they first experienced with the parent or other authority figure -- but now transferred to the supernatural realm.

A belief in God cannot be defended from even the simplest of arguments. But the primary reason people believe in God is not because they believe in the most primitive of superstitions: it is because they can only function by relying on an authority figure, who will tell them what to do, how to behave, and what to think. And they learned that in their very first years of life.

If you wonder why people refuse to give up a belief in God, why they are completely impervious when you point out the most obvious contradictions in their belief system, why they are perfectly content to accept what is easily shown to be nonsense, this is why: they have never escaped the parent who demanded obedience, and now as adults -- since they have never developed an authentic, independent sense of self -- they dare not question the goodness of their additional authority figure. But the underlying psychological mechanism is precisely the same.

And if you wonder why they become so angry when you point out the numerous inconsistencies in their beliefs, the obvious contradictions, the completely nonsensical nature of what they proclaim to believe, and why they may as well believe in the Easter Bunny -- this is the reason for that response, as well. You are not merely challenging one particular belief: you are challenging their entire sense of self -- or rather, their entire false sense of self. They have never been allowed to develop a true sense of self, and that is the real tragedy. The parent prevented them from developing one in the first instance, and now God does. Also, and this makes the tragedy even worse, they themselves now prevent themselves from doing so.

Do you think it is a coincidence that people so frequently address their prayers to "Father"? Or that people often plead, "Father, tell me what to do"? It isn't. And Miller helps us to see why.