For Your Own Good
is also a book
by German psychologist
Alice Miller, subtitled "Tracking the Hidden Roots of Violence". The book is mainly about child abuse
. Miller explores the hidden results
of child abuse in individual
s who were repeat
edly and systematic
d either psychologically
by parents who thought that what they were doing was "for the child's own good". Miller claims that the only good in question is the immediate needs of the parents.
She introduces what she calls the "Poisonous Pedegogy" ("Schwartze Pedagogic" in German), essentially stemming from enlightenment-era child rearing books that assume that children must have "the devil" tamed out of them before they grow up. Otherwise they will go on to commit crimes or fail to contribute meaningfully to society and it will be the parents' fault. The poison enters into the picture because the books' advice are destructive to psychological health. The most memorable quote from this section of the book for me was a rhyme that went "You must whip him so/ untill he cries 'oh no, Papa no!'" in refrence to a child who is disobedient. In addition to physical abuse, these books advocated 'mind games' that alter the child's own perception of the world around them. A section on how to combat masturbation suggested telling the child a story of a child with the same name as them who died from masturbating, getting the child to confess and promise never to do it again. This kind of story is not only untrue (masturbation doesn't kill) but it warps the child's perception of reality and their boundaries.
Miller claims that these ideas about childhood and children are still with us, despite centuries of research and new information about the life of the child. Evidence of the poisonous pedegogy come out in parents who abuse their children thinking that this is what children need in order to be raised properly. A parent may strike a crying child when they are tired and can't deal with the child's crying and tell themselves that the child needs to learn to 'keep a stiff upper lip'.
According to Miller, the child is totally dependent on the parent, and will go to extreme lengths in early childhood to justify their parents' irrational behavior. It seems that we are all born needing love. When that love is mixed with violence, abuse or denial of the child's perception of the world, the child tries to reconcile it into a system in which the parent is doing these things out of love. In Anne Lamott's memoir essay "Lillipads" she describes her parents' bouts of drinking and fighting that tore her family appart while she was growing up. In the essay she comments about the unpredictability and the fear she felt, saying, "I've since learned that this is how you induce psychosis in rats..." In Miller's model, if a parent strikes a child to make him be quiet, then the parent's needs have come before those of the child. The child must find a way in his own mind to explain unfair abuse and make himself believe that he has been hit out of love.
The statement "My father was tough but fair" is an ambiguous one for Miller. It could describe a relationship in which the father was loving and supportive of the child but had very strict expectations. This could be productive and healthy. But what if 'tough but fair' is used to describe a parent who beats his child black and blue and bloody, who locks him in the closet, who humiliates him in front of others? If a child is severely beaten by his father for misbehaving, he must reconcile this violence with the idea that his father loves him and wants what's best for him. The child may tell himself his father is being 'tough' in leaving bruises all over his body, but 'fair', because the child deserved to be beaten for misbehavior.
Suppose an adult who had been severely and repeatedly beaten by his father growing up and justified it this way found himself with some authority. Perhaps they are a parent themselves, or a school teacher, or a drill sargeant. Acording to Miller, a person who has justified intollerable abuse from their parents has denied the pain they felt as children have repressd a part of themselves. If they are confronted with someone who is weak and under their control, they will not be able to experience any sympathy for that person. Instead of empathizing with a crying child, and adult who was not allowed to cry as a child will be threatened by it, and loose his temper.
Miller illustrates the results of the poisonous pedegogy with three case histories. First a memoir of a German girl in West Berlin who becomes a heroin junkie. Repeated physical and emotional abuse from her father detailed in the first part of her memoir influenced her later self-destructive behavior; she continued her father's attempts to destroy her. Miller then gives a fascinating detailed historical analysis of Adolf Hitler. Miller uses primarily facts that are well known about Hitler's past and family connections from prominent biographies. She anaylizes them in a new light, drawing repeated connections to Hitler's values, expectations and racial policies, and his hatred and mistrust for his father. I was interested in Miller's portrayal of Hitler the dictator, a larger that life model of his own father. Hitler's mother was said to kneel down and worship his father, (who was nearly 30 years older than her) and Miller points out the common greeting in Germany during Hitler's reign, "Heil Hitler". Under Hitler's '1/4 Jewish' racial policy, his father, not Hitler would have been put to death, had he been alive at the time. Miller's last example is of an East German serial killer who wrote a memoir in prison about his life and his crimes. He describes repeated abuse at the hands of his mother, who used to attack him with butcher's knives, lock him in the closet, bathed him as if he was a baby for the entire time he lived with her, and so on.
While I am inclined to believe Miller's analysis of connections between child rearing and the roots of violence because of my own life experiences, I am a little uncomfortable with her rationalization. Miller claims that people who deny that child abuse is the cause of most violent crime and social evils are taking this position because they are in denial about abuse they have suffered themselves and not acknowleged. In all honesty I think this may be true. My own experience shows that I am the least charitable to other people when there is something in the situation that relates to me which is painful to admit. On the other hand, Miller's logic is circular: if you don't believe me, it's because you don't believe me. There has to be other evidence to combat skepticism. The book is intended as self help and perhaps this is why she doesn't take pains to convince the reader that her thesis is correct. She probably assumes that her readers are looking for abuse in their pasts, and will find examples from their own lives if it's relevant.
I found the book extremely useful and thought-provoking. It has subtly changed the way I look at the world, and that's the sort of thing I'm always interested in.