Society's Betrayal
Of The Child

"Breaking Down The Wall Of Silence"

...Allice Miller

Book Review

The Wall

"The truth about childhood, as many of us have had to endure it, is inconceivable, scandalous, painful Not uncommonly, it is monstrous. Invariably it is repressed. To be confronted with this truth all at once and try to integrate it into our consciousness, however ardently we may wish it, is clearly impossible. We build high walls to screen ourselves from painful facts because we have never learned whether or how we can live with this knowledge. 'And why should we?' some people might say. 'What's done is done. Why should we go over all that?' The answer to that question is extremely complex. In this book I will endeavor to show, by way of various examples, why the truth about childhood is something we cannot and should not forget, either as individuals or as a society.
"Behind the wall we erect to protect ourselves from the history of our childhood still stands the neglected child we once were, the child that was once abandoned and betrayed. It waits for us to summon the courage to hear its voice. It wants to be protected and understood, and it wants us to free it from its isolation, loneliness, and speechlessness."

But this child also has a gift for us that we can't get elsewhere, a gift that we desperately need if we truly want to live. It is the gift of truth, which can free us from the prison of destructive opinions and conventional lies.

"The child only waits for us to be ready to approach it,
and then, together, we will tear down the walls."
........Alice Miller

Thy shall not be aware

Many young people who, driven by desperation and curiosity, have experimented with psychedelic drugs found themselves having experiences that were terrifying, discouraging, and totally misleading-experiences that would later bar the way to insightful and effective therapy. Often, they found themselves suddenly confronted by the full horrors of their childhood-without any kind of preparation-and were overwhelmed by symbolic images that rather obscured the reality. Not surprisingly, they would later do everything they could to avoid having to confront these experiences anew. What they didn't know is that what they had experienced and what was sometimes sold to them as therapy" was in fact just its opposite: a traumatization that served to cement the confusions of childhood with symbolic contents, leaving in its wake a rigid sense of their histories that would later prove hard to resolve.

The consequences of such experiences are regrettable in the extreme. From then on, those involved placed their trust not in the truth, but in a chimera of addictions, specious theories, or medication. The possibility of facing the truth by means of a slow therapeutic procedure seemed inconceivable to them.

We build high walls to screen ourselves from painful facts because we have never learned whether or how we can live with this knowledge. And why should we?" some people might say. What's done is done. Why should we go over all that again?" The answer to that question is extremely complex. In this book, I will endeavor to show, by way of various examples, why the truth about our childhood is something we cannot, and should not, forgo, either as individuals or as a society.

Society's Betrayal Of The Child

One of the reasons is that behind the wall we erect to protect ourselves from the history of our childhood still stands the neglected child we once were, the child that was once abandoned and betrayed. It waits for us to summon the courage to hear its voice. It wants to be protected and understood, and it wants us to free it from its isolation, loneliness, and speechlessness. But this child who has waited so long for our attention not only has needs to be fulfilled. It also has a gift for us, a gift that we desperately need if we truly want to live, a gift that cannot be purchased and that the child in us alone can bestow. It is the gift of the truth, which can free us from the prison of destructive opinions and conventional lies. Ultimately, it is the gift of security, which our rediscovered integrity will give us. The child only waits for us to be ready to approach it, and then, together, we will tear down the walls.

Many people do not know this. They suffer from anguishing symptoms. They go to doctors who fend off the necessary knowledge just as they themselves do. They follow the advice that these doctors offer, subjecting themselves, for example, to completely unnecessary operations or other damaging treatments. Or they down sleeping pills to erase the dreams that could remind them of the child waiting behind the wall. But as long as we condemn it to silence, the child's only recourse is to express itself in another language-that of sleeplessness, depression, or physical symptoms. And against these reactions, drugs and tablets are of no help. They simply confuse the adult even more.

Many people are unaware of this, though some have long since sensed this truth and can nonetheless not help themselves. Some sense that to repress feelings of their childhood is to poison the very well-springs of life; they know that though repression may have been necessary for the child's survival-otherwise it might literally have died from the pain-maintaining repression in adult life inevitably has destructive consequences. But in the absence of any other alternative, they regard such consequences as a necessary evil. They don't know that it is indeed possible to resolve childhood repression safely and without danger, and learn to live with the truth. Not all at once. Not by recourse to violent interventions. But slowly, step by step, and with respect for their own system's defense mechanisms, recovery is possible.

I myself did not know this for many years, either. My training in and subsequent practice of psychoanalysis had made me blind to the possibility. But the success of my own experience of the slow integration of individual aspects of my childhood has made me want to pass on that information to all those who suffer because they are cut off from the roots of their own being. I have had to wait this long to do so because the therapy that I myself underwent had not yet been described. This has now been accomplished with the publication of J. Konrad Stettbacher's "Making Sense of Suffering" (New York, 1991).

I know from my own experience and the study of a number of individual cases that J. K. Stettbacher's description of his primal therapy is of considerable help. It can help us to correct our blindness, to resolve the consequences of old injuries, to access the truth and restore the crucial contact with the child in us so that we can regain those parts of our consciousness that were alienated from us for so long.

What is valid for the individual is also valid for the development of a wider social consciousness. Here, too, the monstrous truth regarding the causes and consequences of child abuse and the way that violence can be bred into human beings cannot be admitted to consciousness all at once, but must proceed slowly, step by step. To make this clear I would like to cite an example from my own work

After the appearance of my first three books in the early 1980s, I was asked by a number of newspapers and magazines to contribute articles. But when I made it known that I intended to write about violence in the family, interest in working with me quickly evaporated. The only exception to this was the editor of the German magazine Brigitte, which, in 1982, went ahead with the publication of an article by me on the sexual abuse of children, despite the resistance of a number of the staff. The article bore the title "Daughters Are Breaking Their Silence" and was later incorporated into a revised edition of my book "Thou Shalt Not Be Aware."

It describes the courage of a group of American women in publicizing accounts of severe childhood injury so that they no longer had to be left alone with this terrible and destructive secret. They also wished to help other women to break down the wall of silence behind which society has sought to protect itself from the truth about cruelty and abuse in childhood. These women realized that the protection this wall appeared to offer in fact had destructive consequences for the survivors of child abuse. They also discovered that the number of people affected represented many more than they had imagined.

At that time, the subject of child sexual abuse wa absolutely taboo in Germany; the effect of the article was like a dam burst. Hundreds of women, from all walks of life, wrote to the editorial staff and to me. They told of brutal childhood abuse. And they described the conspiracy of silence that barred them from these experiences and, thus, from acquaintance with a large part of their own personalities. Running through all these letters, like a refrain, was this sentence: This is the firs time I have ever spoken of this to anyone." Many of then added: You may publish my story so that other women who have experienced the same thing, may know that they are not alone. Until the appearance of your article I had thought that I was the only one to whom this had happened. But I must ask you, on no account to publish my name.

Most of these women were married and had children. Many of them had already been through therapy." But neither with their husbands nor with their therapists had they dared mention their childhood traumas. In their entire environment, they found not a single enlightened witness, a person who could have at least partially freed them from their imprisoning secret, if by no other means than by simply heeding their suffering. As a result, the experience that had marked their entire lives and that returned to haunt and poison them in their fantasies had to be completely repressed for years. The image I had of each of these women at the time was of a little girl standing behind an immense wall, a wall in which not the smallest opening that could have held out a glimpse of hope to her in her loneliness could be found. Since then, much has changed. First, a self-help group called "Wild Water" (Wudwasser), which became the model for similar groups set up all over the country, was founded in Berlin. Not surprisingly, when it came to dealing with local authorities regarding funding, they still ran up against resistance, prejudice, and indifference. But in the last seven years the wall of silence has been breached-at least as far as the sexual abuse of girls is concerned.

Without the help of the women's movement, this rapid progress would have been almost unimaginable. Thanks, primarily, to the women's movement, both the scandalous practice of the courts and the isolation of the victims of abuse have been made public. That has resulted in the exposure of horrific facts that had previously been accepted as normal." But even the women's movement could not entirely give up its blinkers-and it would have been naive to think it might have been otherwise.

To recognize and integrate something monstrous from our collective past as a society requires considerable time, just as it does on the individual level, in therapy. To rush the process may mean that the mechanisms of denial are further strengthened. We still need our illusions, our crutches," as we confront a new and painful aspect of the truth on our journey toward a complete perception of the child's situation.

As a result, the women's movement clung to a number of illusions as it broached the subject of the sexual abuse of girls. Above all, its members needed to believe that mothers could not be party to this crime. Because I refused to lay responsibility for female child abuse solely at the doorstep of the men and insisted instead that both parents owed a debt of love and protection to the abused child-and that a caring mother would have prevented such abuses from occurring-it became clear to me that feminists found my books problematic (see Alice Miller, 1990a and 1990b).

But in the years since, the women's movement has also arrived at the point where it can begin to live without the illusion that only men commit acts of violence against children. One feminist sociologist sent me the results of her study of youths serving prison terms for attacking and raping women on the street. As it transpired, the rape and debasement of anonymous women had nothing to do with sexuality, although these men are referred to as sex offenders." Rather, they were motivated by revenge for the helplessness and defenselessness that they themselves had once suffered-a reality they had subsequently completely repressed, and continued to repress, to the detriment of others. What became clear was that all these men had been sexually abused by their mothers in early childhood, by way of either direct sexual practices, the misuse of enemas, or both. Various perverse practices were used to keep the child in check without its having the slightest chance of defending itself.

Thirty years ago the use of enemas was still regarded as accepted medical practice. In truth, it was never anything but an act of violence against the child, intended to keep its bowel functions under adult control. To see this clearly and to be able to expose this form of destructive behavior required considerable open mindedness on the part of the sociologist concerned. That she did not have to protect the mothers in this case meant that she did not have to mask the truth in any way.

The last thing I wish to do, of course, is relativize these rapists' crimes by drawing attention to this aspect of their past. The criminal acting-out of repressed injuries can never be thought of as a compulsive necessity. Had these men been prepared to give up their repression, such acts would never have occurred. Sadly, they are not prepared to do so; and as soon as they themselves become fathers they are in a position to take revenge on their mothers with impunity-under their own roofs, on their wives and children, beyond the reach of the law.

Their deeds must be shown in their true light, just as those of their parents and grandparents and the millions of other child abusers in previous generations, who have produced the rapists of today. Their perverted mothers were also the products of this disastrous chain of events.

The crime of child mistreatment is probably as old as the world. So that it can no longer continue to be committed under the guise of misleading terms such as tradition," normality," or acting for the child's own good;" we have to, at least at the cognitive level, make available the whole truth. In the course of this book, I shall try to do that. By constantly circling around a particular theme and viewing it from different angles, I hope to create openings in the wall of silence, through which we can see unimpeded the realities behind it. Glimpses? What use is that? one might be tempted to ask. And, indeed, a glimpse cannot be a substitute for one's own therapeutic work. But it can perhaps communicate a sense of the possibilities beyond the wall and, more importantly, arouse a healthy curiosity for life.

My own personal breakthrough began with the free associative painting I started to do in 1973. Without this experience I would hardly have had the courage to put myself through another therapy (see Alice Miller 1986, 1990b).

People whose only experience has been the wall of silence cling to the wall, seeing in it the solution to all their fears. But if they have once glimpsed an opening in it, they will not endure its illusory protection. The idea of ever again living as they once did, bereft of their new-won consciousness, becomes unimaginable as they realize that what they once held to be life was, in truth, no life at all. Part of their tragic fate was to have had to live for so long without that realization. Now they wish to save others from the same fate, as far as is possible. They wish to share their knowledge of the causes of their suffering and how it can be resolved. They want to let others know that life, every life, is far too precious to be ruined, squandered, or thrown away. And they want to say that it is worth feeling the old pain, never felt before, in order to be free of it-free for life.

It is in no way exaggerated to say that every tyrant, without exception, prefers to see thousands and even millions of people killed and tortured rather than undo the repression of his childhood mistreatment and humiliation, to feel his rage and helplessness in the face of his parents, to call them to account and condemn their actions. Not without reason, that is what he fears the most and what he is constantly seeking to avoid by all available means. Once we have understood the mechanisms by which repressed feelings are acted out, we will find a way to protect ourselves from their consequences-not by producing more weapons, but by fighting for more truthfulness and awareness.

The price of repression is high.

Very high. The drug-and alcohol-addicted pay with their lives. Those addicted to power-the tyrants of the world-pay with the lives of others. Much could be changed were the media prepared to shed more light on this darkness.

Is there any point in trying to enlighten a society that likes to believe that the causes of terrorism, criminality, psychic illness, and addiction lie in the genetic make-up of people "born to be bad" or in their permissive upbringing"? Is it worth presenting proof of the opposite? I am convinced that it is.

The numerous letters I receive show me that there are many people in this same society who absolutely do want to know the truth. These people surely have the right to hear about the facts, causes, and connections that the media refuse to pass on to them. They have the right to scrutinize the available information for themselves, in order to protect themselves and their children from the calamities of ignorance. It is for this growing group of people that this book has been written.

And Always Keep In Mind The Most Important Factor

  "What we live with we learn,
and what we learn
we practice, and what we
practice, we become...
and what we become
has consequences"...
AND almost always, I have
found, who we become
has little to do with who
we were meant to be.

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(Est. 4.15.96)

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