What gives birth to hatred?
By Alice Miller

Excerpt from Paths of Life: Seven Scenarios, (1998) pp. 150-56

Although centuries of novels and autobiographies have dealt with the subject of child abuse in all its forms, society has been slow in recognizing the frequency with which this assault is committed. Only in the last twenty years has there been any real progress in this respect, and most of it is due to the efforts of a small number of researchers and above all to the media. Still underestimated and sometimes contested are the consequences very early abuse will have for the victims in their adult lives. The issues involved have been largely ignored by the scientific and academic community... Even in certain therapeutic circles there is still controversy about the real significance of childhood experiences in the lives of adults...

Why has research into the subject of "childhood" been so rigorously avoided? Many possible reasons suggest themselves. One of them is surely that...we somehow fear that the things it brings to light might cost us the love we have for our parents and cast a shadow on cherished memories.

But the risk of that is slight. That first, unquestioning love of our parents is so deeply rooted that hardly anything can destroy it, and certainly not insight into the truth. It is grounded in the natural need to love and be loved. Understandably we treasure these positive, life-giving feelings. And yet the fear of losing them can prevent us from facing up to the truth. That fear can sustain the delusion that we owe it to our parents to practice denial.

And it really is a delusion. Of course, in childhood there are frequently irreconcilable conflicts between loyalty to our parents and being true to our own selves. Many people would not have survived an unswerving allegiance to the truth when they were small; they had no choice but to seek refuge in denial. But as adults we can learn to identify and get closer to what is true for us and thus free ourselves of the symptoms and consequences of self-deception. This will not involve giving up the good feelings we have for our parents: as adults we understand the position they were in and can find out for ourselves why they did us harm without realizing it or admitting it to themselves.

If adults can find someone to assist them in this process of learning...they will ultimately be able to do both: to be loving and understanding on the one hand, and true to themselves on the other...

Children cannot understand why they should have injuries inflicted on them by the people they love and admire. They therefore reinterpret that behavior and believe it to be right. Cruelty is thus given a positive valuation in the child's cognitive system, and that valuation will be retained for life. Unless, that is, the child submits the whole process to a re-evaluation when he or she grows up.

Many people succeed in doing precisely that, either relatively early on in life or later. ...they realize that forsaking their childhood status and all its limitations and restrictions does not mean giving up the love they have for their parents. With this understanding, they will be able to leave the valuations of infancy behind and as adults acknowledge what was wrong, harmful, maybe even actively dangerous about the way their parents treated them. To do that, they first have to grow out of the state of childlike ignorance and helplessness. This will enable them in retrospect to understand both themselves and the pressures to which their parents were exposed.

They no longer need to pretend that the beatings they were given did them good although precisely the opposite is the case. Nor do they need to hurl accusations at their parents like a toddler unable to understand why he has been wronged. Today they are able to put a name to the things they went through and to empathize with the situation their parents were in, in cases where their parents are communicative enough to describe it to them. The result is understanding--something fundamentally different from the religious act of forgiveness, which avoids or indeed actively shuns precise insights.

But what happens if adults continue to steadfastly deny the harm they suffered, maintaining the infant position and glorifying the mistakes made by their parents? They may then end up condoning that violence as such, because they were given no opportunity of experiencing any alternatives and because the reasons for their parents' actions remain hidden from them. The destructive consequences may manifest themselves in adolescence in tyrannical treatment of younger siblings, in acts of violence, and possibly even murder.

Unfortunately, adults have some more methods at their disposal for denying the violence done to them in youth and taking that violence out on others. With sophisticated ideological justifications they can even contrive to pass it off as a good thing. The less inclination they show to recognize and revise this ingenious self-delusion, the more likely it is that others will be made to suffer the consequences. And it is this that ultimately confronts us with the apparent paradox of a nice, well-behaved child consummately skilled in living up to the adults' expectations and never voicing any criticism of their ending up thirty years later as a commandant in Auschwitz or as an Adolf Eichmann.

In all my books I have been concerned to demonstrate how the violence done to children devolves back on society as a whole. I was led to this conclusion by my inquiries into the way hatred develops, where it comes from. I wanted to find out why some people incline to extreme violence while others do not. Only when I started examining the childhood biographies of dictators and mass murderers did I begin to understand. As children, all of them without exception were exposed to the horrors born of hypocrisy, and all of them ignored or denied the fact in later life. The atmosphere of hypocrisy they grew up in taught them to see cruelty as something good and useful. It was this denial that incited them to the retaliation campaigns they subsequently embarked on. A child battered and humiliated in the name of parental "care" will quickly internalize the language of violence and canting insincerity and come to see it as the only effective medium of communication.

In my work I have often referred to Hitler and Stalin as graphic examples of the effects cruelty to children can have on society at large. In response, many people countered by saying that they had often been beaten themselves and that had not made war criminals out of them. Asked in more detail about their early years, they invariably disclosed that there had been at least one person who had shown them honesty, affection, or love, even though that person had not been able to protect them from physical mistreatment. This type of figure (I use the term "helping witness") can also be found in the biography of Dostoyevsky, who by all accounts had an extremely violent father but a loving mother. She passed on to her son the knowledge that such a thing as love actually exists, a knowledge without which his novels would have been unthinkable.

Among the victims of early cruelty, there are some who encounter not only helping witnesses of the more unconscious variety but also "knowing witnesses"--people who actively help them to recognize the wrong done to them for what it is and to articulate their sorrow at what has happened. Naturally enough, these children usually do not turn into violent criminals at a later stage. They are reasonably well aware of what they feel and what they do.

Studying child abuse confronts us with the astonishing fact that parents will inflict the same punishment or neglect on their children as they experienced themselves in their early lives. But as adults they have no recollection of what they went through. In the case of sexual assault on children, it is quite usual for the perpetrators to have no conscious knowledge of their own early life history or at the least to be cut off from the attendant feelings aroused by those experiences. It is not until they are in therapy--always supposing they are given any--that it transpires that they have been reenacting what they went through as children.

The sole explanation I can advance for this fact is that information on the cruelty suffered in 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 drive them to reproduce those repressed scenes over and over again in the vain attempt to liberate themselves from the fears that cruelty and abuse have left with them. Some victims create situations in which they can assume the active role in order to master the feeling of helplessness and escape the unconscious anxieties.

But this liberation is a specious one because the effects of the past don't change as long as they remain unnoticed. Repeatedly the perpetrator will go in search of new victims. As long as one projects hatred and fear onto scapegoats, there is no way of coming to terms with these feelings. Not until the cause has been recognized and the natural reaction to wrongdoing understood can the blind hatred wreaked on innocent victims be dissipated. The function it performs, that of masking the truth, is no longer necessary...

But what is hatred? As 1 see it, it is a possible consequence of the rage and despair that cannot be consciously felt by a child who has been neglected and maltreated even before he or she has learned to speak. As long as the anger directed at a parent or other first caregiver remains unconscious or is disavowed, it cannot be dissipated. It can be taken out only on oneself or stand-ins, on scapegoats such as one's own children or alleged enemies...

An animal will respond to attack with "fight or flight." Neither course is open to an infant exposed to aggression from immediate family members. Thus the natural reaction remains pent up, sometimes for decades, until it can be taken out on a weaker object...

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