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Childhood Trauma
By Alice Miller, Ph.D.

Since adolescence I have wondered why so many people take pleasure in humiliating others. Clearly the fact that some are sensitive to the suffering of others proves that the destructive urge to hurt is not a universal aspect of human nature. So why do some tend to solve their problems by violence while others don't?

Philosophy failed to answer my question and the Freudian theory of the death instinct has never convinced me. Nor could I make sense of genetic explanations of the evil, of the naive idea that a human being can be "born bad." Nobody could answer the crucial question: How is it that so many turn-of-the-century German children were born with such malignant genes that they'd later become Hitler's willing executioners? It has always been inconceivable to me that a child who comes into the world among attentive, loving and protective caregivers could become a monster. Then, by closely examining the childhood histories of murderers, especially mass murderers and dictators, I began to comprehend the roots of good and evil: not in the genes, as commonly believed, but in the earliest days of life. Today, neurobiological research seems to fully corroborate what I discovered almost twenty years ago.

At that time I quoted in For Your Own Good at length the pedagogical advice given to parents in Germany a century ago, and detailed what I believed to be a connection between the systematic cruelty of these methods and the systematic cruelty of Hitler's executioners forty years later. The numerous and widely-read tracts by Dr. Daniel Gottlieb Schreber, the inventor of the Schrebergärten (the German word for "small allotments"), are of major interest here. Some of his books ran to as many as forty editions around the year 1860, and their central concern was to instruct parents in the systematic upbringing of infants from the very first day of life. Many people - motivated by what they thought to be the best of intentions complied with the advice given them by Schreber and other authors about how best to raise their children. Today we would call it a systematic instruction in child persecution and maltreatment. One of Schreber's convictions was that when babies cry they should be made to desist by the use of spanking, assuring his readers that "such a procedure is only necessary once, or at the most twice, and then one is master of the child for all time. From then on, one look, one single gesture will suffice". Above all, these books counseled that the newborn child should be forced from the very first day to obey and to refrain from crying.

We all know - or, today, we should all know - that physical punishment only produces obedient children but cannot prevent them from becoming violent or sick adults precisely because of this treatment. This knowledge is now scientifically proven and was finally officially accepted by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1998. Contrary to common opinion prevalent as recently as fifteen years ago, the human brain at birth is far from being fully developed. It is use-dependent, needing loving stimulation for the child from her first day on. The abilities a person's brain can develop depend on experiences in the first three years of life.

Studies on abandoned and severely maltreated Romanian children, as an example, revealed striking lesions in certain areas of the brain. The repeated traumatization has led to an increased release of stress hormones which have attacked the sensitive tissue of the brain and destroyed the new, already built-up neurons. The areas of their brains responsible for the "management" of their emotions are twenty to thirty percent smaller than in other children of the same age. Obviously, all children (not only Romanian) who suffer such abandonment and maltreatment will be damaged in this way.

The neurobiological research makes it easier for us to understand the way Nazis like Eichmann, Himmler, Hess and others functioned. The rigorous obedience training they underwent in earliest infancy stunted the development of such human capacities as compassion and pity for the sufferings of others. Their total emotional atrophy enabled the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes imaginable to function "normally" and to continue without the slightest remorse to impress their environment with their efficiency in the years after the war. Dr. Mengele could make the most cruel experiments with Jewish children in Auschwitz and then live for thirty years like a "normal," well adjusted man.

Those turn-of-the-century children who were "subjugated by looks" and systematically subjected to obedience drilling were not only exposed to corporal correction but also to severe emotional deprivation. The upbringing manuals of the day described physical demonstrations of affection such as stroking, cuddling and kissing as indications of a doting, mollycoddling attitude. Parents were warned of the disastrous effects of spoiling their children, a form of indulgence entirely incompatible with the prevalent ideal of rigor and severity. As a result, infants suffered from the absence of direct loving contact with the parents, which also caused certain areas of the brain to remain underdeveloped.

I found it logical that a child beaten often and deprived of loving physical contact would quickly pick up the language of violence. For him this language became the only effective means of communication available. However, when I began to illustrate my thesis by drawing on the examples of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Ceaucescu, when I tried to expose the social consequences of child maltreatment, I first encountered strong resistance. Repeatedly I was told, "I, too, was a battered child, but that didn't make me a criminal." When I asked these people for details about their childhood, I was always told of a person who made the difference, a sibling, a teacher, a neighbor, just somebody who liked or even loved them but, at least in most cases, was unable to protect them. Yet through his presence this person gave the child a notion of trust and love.

I call these persons "helping witnesses." Dostoyevsky, for instance, had a brutal father, but a loving mother. She wasn't strong enough to protect him from his father, but she gave him a powerful conception of love, without which his novels would have been unthinkable. Many have also been lucky enough to find "enlightened" and courageous witnesses, people who helped them to recognize the injustices they suffered, the significance the hurtful treatment had for them, and its influences on their whole life. They may even suffer much in their life, may become drug addicted, and have relationship problems, but thanks to the few good experiences in their childhood usually do not become criminals. The criminal outcome seems to be connected with a childhood that didn't provide any helping witness, that was a place of constant threat and fear.

In my book The Untouched Key I mention the severe trauma that the child Pablo Picasso underwent at the age of three: the earthquake in Malaga in 1884, the flight from the family's apartment into a cave that seemed to be more safe, and eventually witnessing the birth of his sister in the same cave under these very scary circumstances. However, Picasso survived these traumas without later becoming psychotic or criminal because he was protected by his very loving parents. They were able to give him what he most needed in this chaotic situation: empathy, compassion, protection and the feeling of being safe in their arms.

Thanks to the presence of his parents, the two enlightened witnesses of his fear and pain, not only during the earthquake but also throughout his whole childhood, he was later able to express his early, frightening experiences in a creative way. In Picasso's famous painting "Guernica" we can see what might have happened in the mind of the three-year-old child while he was watching the dying people and horses and listening to the children screaming for help on the long walk to the shelter. Small children can go unscared even through bomb-raids if they feel safe in the arms of their parents.

It is much more difficult for a child to overcome early traumatization if they are caused by their own parents. In my book Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, which has now come out in a new edition, I analyze the childhood of the writer Franz Kafka. I try to show that the nightmares he describes in his stories recount exactly what might have happened to the small, severely neglected infant Kafka. He was born into a family in which he must have felt like the hero of "The Castle" (ordered about but not needed and constantly misled) or like K. in "The Trial" (charged with incomprehensible guilt) or like "The Hunger Artist" who never found the food he was so strongly longing for. Thanks to the love and the deep comprehension of his sister Otla in his puberty, his late "helping witness," Kafka could eventually give expression to his suffering in writing. Does it mean that he therefore overcame his traumatic childhood? He could indeed write his work, full of knowledge and wisdom, but why did he die so early - in his thirties - of tuberculosis? It happened in a time when he knew many people who loved and admired him. However, these good experiences could not erase the unconscious emotions and memories stored in his body.

Kafka was hardly aware of the fact that the main sources of his imagination were deeply hidden in his early childhood. Most writers aren't. But the amnesia of an artist or writer, though sometimes a burden for their body, doesn't have any negative consequences for society. The readers simply admire the work and are rarely interested in the writers' infancy . However, the amnesia of politicians or leaders of sects does afflict countless people, and will continue to do so, as long as society remains blind to the important connections between the denial of traumatic experiences in early childhood and the destructive, criminal actions of individuals.

Anyone addressing the problem of child abuse is likely to be faced with a very strange finding: it has been observed again and again that parents who tend to maltreat and neglect their children do it in ways which resemble the treatment they endured in their own childhood, without any conscious memory of their early experiences. Fathers who sexually abuse their children are usually unaware of the fact that they had themselves suffered the same abuse. It is rather in therapy, even if ordered by the courts, that they can discover, sometimes stupefied, their own history. And realize thereby that for years they have attempted to act out their own scenario, just to get rid of it.

The explanation of this fact is that information about the cruelty suffered during childhood remains stored in the brain in the form of unconscious memories. For a child, conscious experience of such treatment is impossible. If children are not to break down completely under the pain and the fear, they must repress that knowledge. But the unconscious memories of the child who has been neglected and maltreated, even before he has learned to speak, drive the adult to reproduce those repressed scenes over and over again in the attempt to liberate himself from the fears that cruelty has left with him. Former victims create situations in which they can assume the active role. In this way the emotion of fear can indeed be avoided momentarily - but not in the long term, because the repressed emotions of the past don't change as long as they remain unnoticed. They can only be transformed into hatred directed towards oneself and/or scapegoats, such as one's own children or alleged enemies. I see this hatred as a possible consequence of the old rage and despair, never consciously felt, but stored up in the body, in the limbic brain.

The German reformer Martin Luther, for example, was an intelligent and educated man, but he hated all Jews and he encouraged parents to beat their children. He was no perverted sadist like Hitler's executioners. But 400 years before Hitler he was disseminating this kind of destructive counsel. According to Eric Ericson's biography, Luther's mother beat him severely even before he was treated this way by his father and his teacher. He believed this punishment had "done him good" and was therefore justified. The conviction stored in his body that if parents do it then it must be right to torment someone weaker than yourself left a much more lasting impression on him than the divine commandments and the Christian exhortations to love your neighbor and be compassionate toward the weak.

Similar cases are discussed by Philip Greven in his highly informative book Spare the Child. He quotes various American men and women of the church recommending cruel beatings for babies and infants in the first few months of life as a way of ensuring that the lesson thus learnt remains impressed on them for the rest of their life. Unfortunately they were only too right. These terrible, destructive texts which have misled so many parents are the conclusive proof of the long-lasting effect of beating. They could only have been written by people who were exposed to merciless beatings as children and later glorified what they had been through. Their cruel beliefs could only grow up in the darkness of their own cruel and repressed infancy. Fortunately, these books were not published in forty editions in the USA.

As the example of Luther shows, nothing that a child learns later about morality at home, in school or in church will ever have the same strong and long lasting effect as the treatment inflicted on his or her body in the first few days, weeks and months. The lesson learned in the first three years cannot be expunged. If the body of a child learns from birth that tormenting and punishing an innocent creature is the right thing to do, and that the child's suffering must not be acknowledged, that message will always be stronger than intellectual knowledge acquired at a later stage. Greven's examples eloquently demonstrate that people subjected to maltreatment in childhood may go on insisting all their lives that beatings are harmless although there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Can a person who still supports corporal punishment of children be considered as somebody who has overcome his or her abuse? He may still remain a blind victim who refuses to face his history and to work on it. Instead he will give destructive advice until his death and continue to ignore the child's pain, because his view of reality is severely distorted by early unconscious experience. On the other hand, a child protected, loved and cherished from the outset will thrive on that experience for a lifetime and develop empathy for others.

It is interesting that almost all rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust who were interviewed reported that their parents had attempted to discipline them with arguments and support rather than punishment. They were not beaten. People given early affection and support are quick to emulate the sympathetic and autonomous natures of their parents. Common to all the rescuers were self-confidence, the ability to make immediate decisions and the capacity for empathy and compassion with others. Seventy per cent of them said that it only took them a matter of minutes to decide they wanted to intervene. Eighty percent said they did not consult anyone else.

This attitude, prized in all cultures as "noble," is not something instilled in children with fine words. If the behavior actually displayed by caretakers is such as to contradict their own words, if children are spanked in the name of lofty ideals, as is still the custom in some parochial schools, then those elevated sentiments are doomed to go unheard or even to provoke rage and violence. The children may end up aping those high-minded phrases and mouthing them in later life, but they will never put them into practice because they have no example to emulate.

In my most recent book, Paths of Life, I try to illustrate this dynamic by describing Hitler's childhood, a childhood that offers us many still untouched keys. Hitler's specific problems with Jews can in fact be traced back to the period before his birth. In her youth, Hitler's paternal grandmother had been employed in a Jewish merchant's household in Graz. After her return home to the Austrian village of Braunau, she gave birth to a son - Alois, later to become Hitler's father - and received child-support payments from the family in Graz for fourteen years. This story, which is recounted in many biographies of Hitler, represented a dilemma for the Hitler family. They had of course an interest in denying that the young woman had been left with a child either by the Jewish merchant or his son. On the other hand it was impossible to assert that a Jew would pay child-support for so long without good reason. Such generosity on the part of a Jew would have been inconceivable for the inhabitants of an Austrian village. Thus the Hitler family was faced with the insoluble dilemma of devising a version that would serve to nullify their "disgrace."

For Alois Hitler the suspicion that he might be of Jewish descent was insufferable in the context of the anti-Jewish environment in which he was raised. All the plaudits he earned himself as a customs officer were insufficient to liberate him from the latent rage at the disgrace and humiliation visited on him through no fault of his own. The only thing he could do with impunity was to take out this rage on his son Adolf. According to the reports of his daughter of a former marriage, Angela, Alois beat his son mercilessly every day. In an attempt to exorcise his childhood fears, his son nurtured the manic delusion that it was up to him to free not only himself of Jewish blood but also all Germany and later the whole world. Right up to his death in the bunker, Hitler remained a victim of this delusion because all his life his fear of his half-Jewish father had remained locked in his unconscious mind.

I have set out these ideas in greater detail in my book For Your Own Good. One can find them highly unsettling and in no way sufficient to explain Hitler's actions. Not all his actions, I agree, but certainly his delusions. And those delusions were at the very least the foundation of his actions, as all our unconscious emotions can become. I can certainly picture the boy Hitler swearing vengeance on "the Jews," those monstrous fantasy-figures of an already diseased imagination. Consciously, he probably thought he could have led a happy life if "the Jew" had not plunged his grandmother into the disgrace that he and his family had to live with. And it was this that in his eyes served to excuse the beatings he received from his father, who, after all, was himself "a victim of the evil and omnipotent Jew." In the mind of an angry, seriously confused child, it is only a short step from there to the idea that all Jews should be exterminated.

Not only Jews. In the household of Hitler's family lived for years the very unpredictable schizophrenic aunt Johanna whose behavior is reported to have been very scary for the child. As an adult Hitler ordered to be killed every handicapped and psychotic person to free the German society from this burden. Germany seemed for him to symbolize the innocent child who had to be saved. Consequently, Hitler wanted to protect his nation from the dangers he himself had faced. Absurd? Not at all. For an unconscious mind this kind of symbolization might sound very normal and logical.

Besides those fears connected to father and aunt there was his early relationship with his very intimidated mother, who herself lived in constant fear of her husband's violent outbursts and beatings. She called him "uncle Alois" and endured patiently his humiliating treatment without any protest. Adolf's mother had lost her first three children to illness and Adolf was her first child to survive infancy. We can easily imagine that the milk he drank from his mother was in a way "poisoned" by her own fear. He drank her milk together with her fears but was of course unable to understand or integrate them. These irrational fears - that an outsider, watching his speeches on videos, can easily recognize - stayed unrecognized and unconscious to Hitler until the end of his life. Stored up in his body, they drove him constantly to new destructive actions in his endless attempt to find an outcome. To his dying day, Hitler was convinced that only the death of every single Jew could shield him from the fearful and daily memory of his brutal father.

In the absence of positive factors, affection and helping witnesses, the only course open to the mistreated individual seems to be the denial of personal suffering and the idealization of cruelty with all its devastating after-effects. Undergoing an exceedingly humiliating and cruel upbringing at the pre-verbal stage without helping witnesses may instill into the victim admiration of this cruelty if there is no one in the immediate vicinity of the child to query those methods and stand up for humane values.

Therefore it didn't surprise me that in the childhood of people who later became dictators, I have always found a nightmarish horror, a record of continued lies and humiliations, which, upon the attainment of adulthood, impelled them to acts of merciless revenge on society. These vengeful acts were always garbed in hypocritical ideologies, purporting that the dictator's exclusive and overriding wish was the happiness of his people. In this way, he unconsciously emulated his own parents who, in earlier days, had also insisted that their blows were inflicted on the child for his own good.

In the lives of all the tyrants I analyzed, I also found without exception paranoid trains of thought bound up with their biographies in early childhood and the repression of the experiences they had been through. Mao had been regularly whipped by his father and later sent 30 million people to their deaths but he hardly ever admitted the full extent of the rage he must have felt for his own father, a very severe teacher who had tried through beatings to "make a man" out of his son. Stalin caused millions to suffer and die because even at the height of his power his actions were determined by unconscious, infantile fear of powerlessness. Apparently his father, a poor cobbler from Georgia, attempted to drown his frustration with liquor and whipped his son almost every day. His mother displayed psychotic traits, was completely incapable of defending her son and was usually away from home either praying in church or running the priest's household. Stalin idealized his parents right up to the end of his life and was constantly haunted by the fear of dangers, dangers that had long since ceased to exist but were still present in his deranged mind. His fear didn't even stop after he had been loved and admired by millions.

The same might be true of many other tyrants. They often drew on ideologies to disguise the truth and their own paranoia. And the masses chimed in enthusiastically because they were unaware of the real motives, including those in their own biographies. The infantile revenge fantasies of individuals would be of no account if society did not regularly show such naive eagerness in helping to make them come true. Mad tyrants would not have any power if society understood that it is their damaged brains which are constantly driving them to avoid dangers that no longer exist.

Naturally, my references to Schreber and his methods are not sufficient to explain the history of the Holocaust but they do explain a lot. However, in no way should this explanation lead to an exoneration of the perpetrators, relieving them of their responsibility by declaring them "sick." No upbringing, however cruel, is a license for murder. But blaming the whole thing on a defective genetic blueprint doesn't make much sense either. As I asked before: Why should there have been so many people born in Germany thirty or forty years before the Holocaust with such a fateful genetic disposition? I do not know of any gene researcher who would try to answer this question. It is quite absurd to assume that some people are born with the genetic program to later become anti-Semites, racists, lynchers or rapists. The almost total neglect or trivialization of the infancy factor in the context of violence sometimes leads to explanations that are not only unconvincing and abortive but which actively deflect attention away from the genuine roots of violence.

Also, the existence of exceptions showed again and again that propaganda and manipulation at school alone were not sufficient to transform people into mass murderers. Only men and women who had experienced mental and physical cruelty in the first weeks and months of life and had been shown no love at all could possibly have let themselves be made into Hitler's willing executioners. As Goldhagen's archive material shows, they needed almost no ideological indoctrination because their bodies knew exactly what they wanted to do as soon as they were allowed to follow their inclinations. And as the Jews, young or old, had been declared non-persons, there was nothing to stop them indulging those inclinations. But no amount of indoctrination alone, at school or wherever, will unleash hatred in a person who has no preconditions in that direction. It is well known that there were also Germans, like Karl Jaspers, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, who immediately recognized the declaration that Jews were non-persons as an alarm signal and the rallying cry of untrammeled barbarism.

Doubtless there are people who grew up with loving and protecting parents who could later find a kind, sympathetic partner, could organize their life and become good parents, even if they had to go through the horror of a concentration camp during their adolescence. On the other hand, the lives of many were broken, even without catastrophic experiences in their later life. They just couldn't find the way to liberate themselves from their old fears, never identified as such. From many cases of survivors I learned that it was the quality of their infancy that determined the way they overcame later threats, including the Holocaust.

Adults who grew up without helping witnesses need the support and assistance of enlightened witnesses, of people who are well aware of the dynamics of child abuse, people who can help them to take their feelings seriously, understand them and integrate them, as part of their own story. In an informed society, adolescents will have the luck to talk to others about their early experiences. They will be able to verbalize their truth and to discover themselves in their own story, their own tragedy, without avenging themselves violently for their wounds, or to poison their systems with drugs.

I have wrongly been attributed to the thesis according to which every victim inevitably becomes a persecutor, a thesis that I find totally false, indeed absurd. To say that every cow is an animal doesn't include the statement that every animal is a cow. It has been proved that many adults have had the good fortune to break the cycle of abuse. Yet I can certainly aver that I have never come across persecutors who weren't themselves victims in their childhood, though most of them don't know it because their feelings are repressed. The less these criminals know about themselves, the more dangerous they are to society. So I think it is crucial to grasp the difference between the statement, "every victim becomes a persecutor," which is wrong, and the statement, "every persecutor was a victim in his childhood," which I consider true. The problem is that, feeling nothing, he remembers nothing, realizes nothing, and this is why surveys don't always reveal the truth. Yet the presence of a warm, enlightened witness ... therapist, social worker, lawyer, judge ... can help the criminal unlock his repressed feelings and restore the unrestricted flow of consciousness. This can initiate the process of escape from the vicious circle of amnesia and violence.

Working toward a better future cannot be done without legislation that clearly forbids corporal punishment toward children and makes society aware of the fact that children are people too. The whole society and its legal system can then play the role of a reliable, enlightened and protecting witness for children at risk, children of adolescent, drug addicted criminals who may themselves become predators without such assistance. The only reason why a parent might smack his children is the parent's own history. All other so-called reasons, such as poverty and unemployment, are pure mystification. There are unemployed parents who don't spank their children and there are many wealthy parents who maltreat their children in the most cruel way and teach them to minimize the terror by calling it the right education. With a law prohibiting corporal punishment towards children, people of the next generation will not have recorded the highly misleading information in their brain, an almost irreversible damage. They will be able to have empathy with a child and understand what has been done to children over millennia. It is a realistic hope to think that then (and only then) the human mind and behavior will change. With a law that forbids spanking every citizen becomes an enlightened witness.

This article was presented as a lecture at the Lexington 92nd Street YWHA in New York City on October 22, 1998.
Copyright © Alice Miller, 1998

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