Part I: Introduction
Part II: Creating the Next Generation
Part III: Learning to Hate "The Other"
Reading the earlier parts of this series will be very helpful to what follows. In particular, a reader will need to be familiar with the true story I analyzed in detail in Parts II and III. With regard to that story, I must repeat again that I did not choose it because it is an example of unusual and especially horrifying cruelty to a young child. I chose it for precisely the opposite reason: because this kind of incident is so common, because incidents like it occur many millions of times a day, in families across the world. We learn these mechanisms of obedience and denial as very young children. As we grow up, we internalize them. Finally, and this is where the great future danger lies, most of us come to believe that these methods of child rearing are right
, and that our parents (or other primary caregivers) acted as they did "for our own good." Then we are ready to repeat the pattern with the next generation.
Keep in mind what I consider the critical essence of that story: by means of emotional intimidation and blackmail, the mother forces her young son to agree with her own judgments about matters the child cannot possibly understand. The mother hasn't presented any sort of argument, or encouraged the child to analyze her argument independently to determine whether he agrees. The story makes it clear that this kind of incident involving the same specifics has occurred before. Remember the end of the story:
Of course I realized that this could be an excellent "teachable moment" about impulse control, so I knelt down and spoke to him. I told him that I was very disappointed, that I really didn't like what he did. I asked him again why he did it, and he still didn't answer. Then I asked him "Do you know what we call people who know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway?"
He replied, "Democrats."
In the original story, the despised "Others" are labelled Republicans; I altered the designation to emphasize the fact that the label is of no significance at all. What is of crucial importance is the method
being taught to the child. The young boy knows his mother is furious with him, and he is terrified that her love and approval might be withheld or withdrawn. Although he cannot understand these issues as an adult would, the child is aware that he cannot survive without that love and approval. As a result, he will say whatever his mother demands: what he is learning, above all else, is the primary importance of obedience.
The boy joins in his mother's denunciation of "The Other" of the moment. In this manner, the child's basic tribal identity is forged. Our
tribe is good, their
tribe is bad. But the child will not be able to provide a reasoned explanation as to why this is true (and as I discuss in Part III, it is not true in that form). The child embraces these judgments because he is forced to -- and he is forced to by means of his mother's emotional manipulation.
I offered one example of the results this leads to in adult behavior in Part II, the emailer who praised a post of mine and wanted to write one like it, but didn't do so because of his fear that he would be "regarded as having lost [his] mind." The prospect of his tribe's disapproval meant more to him than what he himself considered to be the truth. In a general sense, you see this behavior many times a day in our political commentary; most writing by bloggers falls exclusively into this category. Rarely will you find a carefully presented argument as to why one particular policy is better than another. For the most part, our political writers start with the assumption that their political affiliation and its associated views are unquestionably correct. Their writing consists of emotional signifiers to other members of their political tribe. Persuasion is not the goal; instead, the purpose is the reinforcement and reaffirmation of tribal identity, and reinforcement of the view that one's own tribe is "good," while all opposing tribes are "bad" in various ways and degrees. Future essays will offer further examples of this phenomenon.
Two aspects of the psychological dynamics I am discussing are of critical importance; both of them have many effects on adult behavior. I've already discussed the first aspect to some extent: the manner in which those ideas that the child comes to embrace are not "ideas" in any genuine sense. The child is not encouraged to explore a subject at his own speed and on his own terms (with guidance from adults, to be sure, but without subjecting the child to fear and intimidation should he show interest in the "wrong" ideas); instead, the child is offered slogans and labels devoid of content, and pressured into accepting the views his primary caregivers consider to be the "correct" ones.
The other aspect is just as crucial, and it concerns the child's sense of personal identity. All of us need this sense of personal identity in at least two respects: we require a fundamental sense of self-worth, and we need a belief in our ability to function in the world. We need to believe that we are both worthy
of living successfully. To the extent our sense of personal identity is not founded in our functioning as autonomous, independent, genuine individuals, our personal identity will be replaced by another kind of identity. We must have some kind of identity; the only question is what kind it will be. We might think of the issue this way: to the extent we don't have a truly independent identity, we will have a tribal identity. This is what the mother is teaching her son in our story; this is the lesson taught by the vast majority of parents, with only the specific labels changing from one instance to another.
In The Truth Will Set You Free
, Alice Miller offers this description of the prevailing methods of child rearing:
Poisonous pedagogy is a phrase I use to refer to the kind of parenting and education aimed at breaking a child's will and making that child into an obedient subject by means of overt or covert coercion, manipulation, and emotional blackmail.
In my books For Your Own Good and Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, I have explained the concept using concrete examples. In my other books I have repeatedly stressed how the mendacious mentality behind this approach to dealing with children can leave long-lasting imprints on the way we think and relate to one another in our adult lives.
This series, and the story I analyzed, show some of the implications of "poisonous pedagogy" with regard to political questions. Alice Miller also speaks of the broader issues involved. In Thou Shalt Not Be Aware
, Miller writes:
There is a good deal else that would not exist without "poisonous pedagogy." It would be inconceivable, for example, for politicians mouthing empty cliches to attain the highest positions of power by democratic means. But since voters, who as children would normally have been capable of seeing through these cliches with the aid of their feelings, were specifically forbidden to do so in their early years, they lose this ability as adults. The capacity to experience the strong feelings of childhood and puberty (which are so often stifled by child-rearing methods, beatings, or even drugs) could provide the individual with an important means of orientation with which he or she could easily determine whether politicians are speaking from genuine experience or are merely parroting time-worn platitudes for the sake of manipulating voters. Our whole system of raising and educating children provides the power-hungry with a ready-made railway network they can use to reach the destination of their choice. They need only push the buttons that parents and educators have already installed.
I offered my own formulation of this dynamic in one of the first essays I wrote based on Miller's work, a consideration of a tragic and very public example of these obedience-denial mechanisms, the case of Mel Gibson
. In that article, I wrote:
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.
In the Gibson piece, I examined this pattern in detail, and I discussed Gibson's reverence for his own father, despite his father's horrifying beliefs (including a comprehensive denial of the historic reality of the Holocaust). On that point, I wrote:
Gibson ... 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.
What I urge readers to consider is that reverence for authority of this kind -- and this sense of tribal identity that was first forced on us when we were defenseless children -- is not restricted to the specifics involved in Gibson's case. We see the same kind of unquestioning obedience to the demands of tribal identity in almost all writers and bloggers who deal with political questions.
When I introduced the story of the mother and her young son in Part II, I encouraged readers to try to understand the story from the child's perspective.
As I noted, it is impossible for most adults to do this. I was only able to appreciate the child's point of view after many years of study and contemplation of this general subject. In Part II, I offered an excerpt from an essay I wrote several years ago. That essay is now republished below. It was originally dated December 1, 2004.
I recommend that you read this essay together with another article written at the same time, "The Indifference and Denial that Kill
." The latter piece deals with the deeply tragic suicide of Iris Chang. The essay about Chang primarily focuses on the relationship between an adult of unusual sensitivity and awareness and the culture of denial that surrounds her. On the basis of certain evidence concerning Chang's life and work, I offer my own theory of what may have contributed to her suicide, at least in part.
The essay that follows focuses on the very young child himself. If you take away only one point from the following, perhaps it should be this one from Miller:
It is only from a child who was never injured that we can learn entirely new, honest, and truly humane behavior. Such a child does not accept without question the pedagogic reasoning to which we were susceptible. He feels he is entitled to ask questions, to demand explanations, to stand up for himself, and to articulate his needs.
There is one other point that I also consider crucial. In the essay below, I write:
[B]y the time we learn to think conceptually, a functioning emotional mechanism is already in place. The nature of that emotional mechanism will determine in many respects precisely how we think, when we finally do.
I will be offering examples of this mechanism in future installments. But we've already seen how it operates in the story of the young boy and his mother. Given the lessons being taught to this young child, lessons taught by means of fear, intimidation and emotional manipulation, how do you imagine this boy will "think" about political issues when he is old enough to do so on his own? You can see the results in most of the adults you know, and in most of the writing about politics that you read. As I say, I will have much more on this subject.
I have made some very minor editorial changes to this essay, primarily to add links or correct them (if they've changed). I had thought of omitting the concluding paragraphs about my own perspective and how it had changed. But I finally decided to leave them as they were. In the event, my specific plans have been overtaken by events, in particular by health problems that became far too real shortly after I wrote this earlier essay. But you might want to ask a general question: Isn't it true, Arthur, that you are in your current situation, that you are very sick and unable to get any medical assistance, in part because of the damage you suffered as a child? To which my answer is: Yes, of course. That's exactly the point. That is why I will continue writing about these issues as long as I can. This is not
at all to say that the damages inflicted on me are the only cause or the only explanation for the course of my life, a general issue I mentioned in Part I. Obviously, many complex factors are involved, including certain significant choices I have made as a fully independent adult (see here
). But certainly that much earlier damage is one of the major explanations for why my life generally developed as it did.
With the passage of time, I want to clarify my view about the nature of my experience of how I felt as a child, as described below. I am very suspicious of the "recovered memory" phenomenon in general, because of the lack of evidence for the accuracy and reality of such memories and also because of the abuse with which such memories have often been utilized (among other reasons). Therefore, I would not describe what I experienced as a "recovered memory." Instead, I regard it as what I learned to do as an actor: how would I feel if
I were in a particular situation? To do this in a way that is especially powerful requires that one be very specific about the imagined situation. I had thought about these issues, and about my own childhood, for a long time. Thus, it is not at all surprising to me that I would finally be able to recapture in a significant way what I had felt as a very young child. And I note that this ability is not restricted to actors or other performers: this is what empathy
means, the ability to experience the feelings and perspective of others as if they were our own.
It is a goal toward which we all should strive.
And even though certain of my hopes for the future had to be set aside after I wrote this, the feeling of freedom that I describe as the result of what I re-experienced (or re-imagined) has stayed with me. In other essays, I've described the depressions and even thoughts of suicide that have haunted me throughout my life
. Since the time of the experience described below and the further thinking I've done about it, those feelings have never returned in the same way. For the most part, they have never returned at all. Certainly, I often feel profound frustration that the issues I write about seem to concern very few other people. With the exception of a few treasured friends and readers, I frequently feel immensely lonely. But the sense of ultimate despair, despair without a spark of hope anywhere, generalized despair so profound that there seems to be no reason at all to go on -- no, those feelings don't come to me any longer.
Here is the earlier essay.
December 1, 2004 PLEASE JUST UNDERSTAND THIS
I sometimes bury my major point too far down in my essays, so let me immediately state the overriding message that I hope this article will convey: the immense cruelty that is inflicted on children by adults who are supposedly devoted to caring for and nurturing them has enormous consequences. In most cases, the results of that cruelty remain unrecognized by the child when he grows up and becomes an adult, even as the damage continues to distort and cripple his life in countless ways. In addition to what most people would now consider obvious cruelty (vicious beatings, sexual molestation and the like), much of the torture that children must endure comes in forms that far too many people continue to find perfectly acceptable. As just two examples: many adults and parents still believe that spanking and "milder" forms of corporal punishment are beneficial to the child (see this post
and this one
, for a discussion of why they are wrong); and "hot saucing" is now viewed as a "good" form of discipline by many adults, including many deeply religious ones (see this post
about that and related issues).
But beyond these examples, which still involve physical abuse of one degree or another, much of the cruelty that adults inflict comes in a non-physical form: it is delivered by means of words and psychological manipulation. By these means, the child is subjected to emotional abuse. And often that abuse comes in forms that almost everyone considers completely "normal." Moreover, most adults consider such abuse "necessary": it is, they believe, required to "socialize" the child and teach him to conform to social convention.
In her books, Alice Miller often comments on the fact that it is close to impossible for most adults to recapture the full reality of what any form of abuse felt like to the child. The important part of that sentence is the end: what the experience of the cruelty was like for the child.
If we do not understand that -- which means that we must fully experience as adults what it was like (or come as close to that experience as we can) -- we cannot fully heal the wounds from which we suffer. Beyond that, it is the inability of adults to remember fully what the experience of abuse was like for them when they were children that permits them to continue to inflict the same kind of abuse on their own children. Most families continue the cycle of cruelty from one generation to the next, and it is never broken.
Another significant part of the explanation for why most adults do not understand the full impact and the immense destructiveness of what children endure is mentioned by Miller in the opening paragraphs of her article, "Concerning Forgiveness: The Liberating Experience of Painful Truth
." Here is the beginning:
The mistreated and neglected child is completely alone in the darkness of confusion and fear. Surrounded by arrogance and hatred, robbed of its rights and its speech, deceived in its love and its trust, disregarded, humiliated, mocked in its pain, such a child is blind, lost, and pitilessly exposed to the power of ignorant adults. It is without orientation and completely defenseless.
Its whole being would like to shout out its anger, give voice to its feeling of outrage, call for help. But that is exactly what it may not do. All its normal reactions, the reactions with which nature has endowed it to help it survive, remain blocked. If no witness comes to its aid, these natural reactions would enlarge and prolong the child's sufferings. Ultimately, the child could die of them.
Thus, the healthy impulse to protest against inhumanity has to be suppressed. The child attempts to extinguish and erase from memory everything that has happened to it, in order to banish from consciousness the burning outrage, fury, fear, and the unbearable pain - as it hopes, forever. What remains is a feeling of its own guilt, rather than outrage that it is forced to kiss the hand that beats it and beg for forgiveness - something that unfortunately happens more than one imagines.
The abused child goes on living within those who have survived such torture, a torture that ended with total repression. They live with the darkness of fear, oppression, and threats. When all its attempts to move the adult to heed its story have failed, it resorts to the language of symptoms to make itself heard. Enter addiction, psychosis, criminality.
If, as adults, we nevertheless begin to have an inkling of why we are suffering and ask a specialist whether these sufferings could have a connection with our childhood, we will usually be told that this is very unlikely to be the case. And if it were, that we should learn forgiveness. It is the resentment at the past, we are told, that is making us ill.
For Miller's lengthy discussion of the enormously destructive effects of our society's demand for forgiveness above all, I strongly recommend that you read the entire article. As Miller points out, the demand for forgiveness undercuts our ability to face the truth and to heal our wounds at the most fundamental level, and it helps in no way at all. It is yet another mechanism by which adults seek to deny the reality of what happened to them in childhood, and the truth of what they may continue to inflict upon their own children.
In her book, Banished Knowledge
, Miller relates a story sent to her by a reader that is very instructive about our inability to recognize cruelty to children for what it is. I will tell you in advance that I'm certain most of you will react to this story exactly the way I did at first, and my reaction only changed over a period of several years. When I first read the following, I thought: "Well, honestly, what's the big deal? Things like that happen all the time. It's not that
destructive. Many children have to deal with things that are infinitely worse, and they still manage to become functioning adults."
My own reaction reveals yet another means by which the truth of childhood is buried and denied: as we grow up, we identify with the authority figures in our lives. We dare not question them, or their "goodness," or their "good intentions." We dare not, because we depend on them for life itself. Since the child cannot question them, he must question himself, and he must believe that the fault lies within. And that leads him to believe that if he alters his own behavior (and even his very being) in some unidentified manner, then he will win his parents' complete love. The child cannot grasp that his parents' behavior has nothing to do with him at all; it arises out of their childhoods, and the abuses they themselves suffered. In this way, the child is left feeling that he himself is wrong, in some fundamental way.
Because most of us identify to varying extents with authority (and most adults identify with authority almost completely), it is impossible for us to understand the child's experience. Miller's title for the chapter containing this story is significant: "The Child Sets Limits." Most adults are unaware of what a fully healthy child's reactions are like, because most children are "disciplined" -- that is, their authentic, spontaneous reactions are silenced -- in their very first years of life. So when we see a healthy child's reactions, we are most likely to be enormously puzzled, and we completely fail to grasp what the child's reactions convey. Hence, my own failure to see the meaning of this story for many years.
At the opening of this chapter, Miller says: "It is only from a child who was never injured that we can learn entirely new, honest, and truly humane behavior. Such a child does not accept without question the pedagogic reasoning to which we were susceptible. He feels he is entitled to ask questions, to demand explanations, to stand up for himself, and to articulate his needs."
A woman told Miller about the time she took her three-year-old Daniel to stay with her mother. The woman had "some misgivings for [she] knew that [her] mother had been a great one for discipline and attached great importance to good manners." I note that this of course remains true of the great majority of parents today. When the mother picked Daniel up after the two-day visit, Daniel announced: "I don't want to stay with Grandma anymore." When asked why, he said: "She hurt me."
The woman's mother, when questioned, said that she had only been trying to explain to Daniel that a well-mannered boy must not just help himself at meals, but he must say "please" and "thank you." Daniel had become upset and begun to cry. The woman writes to Miller about her mother: "She didn't realize that she was threatening the child with a withdrawal of love if he didn't obey. And above all she didn't realize, as she hadn't in my own case, that she was sacrificing the child's soul to empty conventions just as had been done to her sixty years earlier."
The mother goes on -- and this is the crucial part of the story:
But Daniel realized it. He couldn't have put it into words, not in the way I do now, but he expressed it in the way that was possible to him, as I found out from the exact description of the facts that gradually evolved from my mother's account. The story was perfectly simple: The dessert was Daniel's favorite, cottage-cheese souffle. When he had finished the helping he had been given, he picked up the serving spoon and reached out to help himself to some more. He always does this at home, taking great pride in his independence. But now my mother held him back, gently placing her hand, as she told me, on his and saying: "You must first ask whether you may have some and whether there is enough for others."
"Where are the others?" asked Daniel, and began to cry. He threw down the spoon and refused to eat any more, although my mother urged him to: he said he wasn't hungry anymore and wanted to go home. My mother tried to calm him, but he threw a real tantrum. After a few minutes his rage was spent, and he said: "You hurt me. I don't like you. I want to go to Mommy." After a while he asked: "Why did you do that? I know how to help myself." "Yes," said my mother, "but you must first ask whether you may."
"Why?" asked Daniel. "Because you must learn good manners." "What for?" asked Daniel. "Because one needs them," replied my mother. Daniel then said quite calmly: " I don't need them. With Mommy I can eat when I'm hungry."
I want to mention one critical aspect of this story immediately, because of the frequency with which this phenomenon occurs. One of the major justifications given by many adults for various forms of discipline is the contention that a child is badly behaved and that, for example, he has "temper tantrums." The frustrated parent will say: "Well, sometimes I just have to spank him. There's no other way to get him to stop." But as this story shows very clearly, when a child has a temper tantrum or "acts out" in some other manner, there is almost always a preceding cause (I am tempted to say always,
which is probably the truth) -- and that earlier cause is usually the arbitrary demand of the adult. The child's tantrum is his only way of expressing his frustration when faced with a demand which makes no sense to him at all -- and in fact, it doesn't make sense, period.
Here is Miller commenting on this story:
That is the reaction of a healthy three-year-old if he had learned at home that it is all right to stand up for himself, that he is entitled to be given food by his parents because they obviously owe it to him, since they decided to have a child. This child is allowed to defend himself, to show his anger, when his natural gesture is impeded and he is given a reason that he doesn't understand, can't understand, and shouldn't understand, because it is senseless and really only comprehensible in terms of his grandmother's history. When a small child observes that the grown-ups at table say Please and Thank you, he will automatically do the same without having to be taught. That such an attempt to train him made Daniel furious is easy enough to understand. He had a chance to voice his anger because he could compare his grandmother's attempt at training him with the happy experience he had with his parents.
And these comments are also of immense importance:
Had [Daniel] not known positive experiences with his parents, the lightest touch of his grandmother's hand to prevent him from serving himself would presumably have made him feel ashamed. He would have been ashamed of having done something wrong, of not having good manners; he might even have been ashamed of his pride in his independence. For apparently this was the very thing that was not acceptable--at least not at the moment when he wanted to help himself to some food, in other words, to do something of immense importance to himself.
Because Daniel was enormously fortunate to have the mother he did rather than someone like his grandmother, this incident "presumably will leave no mark" on him, as Miller says. Daniel "was able to stand up for himself."
Now consider another story, where the child was not able to stand up for himself. Imagine a child who is told, from the time he is perhaps two or three, that if he doesn't "keep quiet," or "stop making noise," or do exactly as he is told -- even though what he is told constantly changes and is never clear to him, or clear at all -- that his mother "will murder"
him. He is told this repeatedly, in an endless number of situations. His mother's anger and rage are felt completely by the child -- and he believes her. He believes that if he displeases her sufficiently, she will kill him. He lives in constant terror, but he learns very early to repress most of those feelings. The terror is so great that if he experienced it fully, it would probably kill him. So he numbs himself to it; it's the only way he can survive.
As he grows older, he continues to hear the same message, over and over. If he doesn't "shut up," if he "doesn't behave," his mother will murder him. He believes it, because his mother keeps saying it many, many times. Because he still must continue to function, but because he has no idea which actions might result in his destruction, he becomes increasingly paralyzed. He doesn't know what to do -- and he doesn't know what he can
do without incurring his mother's deadly rage. Finally, at about the age of ten, he becomes ill, with mysterious ailments that are never diagnosed. Sometimes his sickness keeps him home from school for up to two weeks at a time. The family doctor comes to see him and does various tests, but no one ever inquires into what might be going on in that household, or what messages the mother might be conveying to her son.
And that household is considered a very good one. It is upper middle class, and all the children appear to have all of their needs met, and more. And the parents are fully "respectable" people. How could they possibly be doing anything wrong? To entertain such an idea would have been inconceivable to everyone.
When the boy gets older, he begins to have sexual feelings for other boys. But he knows -- just by osmosis, by absorbing all the ideas in the world around him -- that such feelings make him "different" in some awful, unnameable way. Those feelings make him a "pervert," and a "fairy" (a name which he is often called at school, and even by "friends"). So he never tells anyone about his feelings, until he finally goes to a psychiatrist when he drops out of high school.
The psychiatrist wants to "cure" him by means of electroshock therapy. The now teenage boy declines, even though he continues to see the psychiatrist for a couple of years. The boy finally takes the high school equivalency exam and goes to college. Later on, in an entirely predictable development, he becomes a follower of a philosophy which conveys the same message that his mother had [Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism]: if he follows the rules precisely, if he has the "right" thoughts -- which even include the "right" emotional reactions to movies, books and music -- then he will be permitted to continue as a member of the circle of the philosophy's adherents. But if he doesn't...well, then he will be "excommunicated," just as any number of people were when they failed to follow the rules.
As regular readers here will have recognized by now, I don't need to imagine any of this. This is my
story, and those are the messages my mother conveyed to me, the message given to me by our culture about being gay, and the message relayed to me by Objectivism. I want to emphasize that it was the same
message all the time: if you do exactly
as we say -- even if our demands are arbitrary, or make no sense, or are contradictory -- then you will be permitted to live (or remain in our circle). If you don't, you will die (or become dead to that circle, at least).
I have been aware of a number of aspects of my history for many years, and I also understood the underlying meaning in certain ways. But here is what I had not grasped: what it felt
like for me, as a very young child, when I heard my mother tell me over and over that, if I didn't do exactly as she demanded, she would murder me. Finally, in mid-October, I relived what that was like.
I felt as if the experience would kill me. Obviously it didn't, but I was not at all prepared for just how terrifying it was. I felt as if I were literally three or four years old again. I sat on my bed with my mouth open, barely able to breathe I was so scared, with tears streaming down my face. I sat like that for close to an hour. All that time, the adult part of my mind was simply disbelieving. I kept thinking: "My God. This
is what it felt like, and this is what I must have begun to repress almost immediately. No child could survive this, not if he experienced it fully and for more than a few minutes." Remember: the child depends on his mother (or the primary caretaker) for life itself. The thought that the person on whom you depend for life itself might kill you is unendurable. When you add that your mother might kill you for a reason you cannot possibly predict or understand, the result is incommunicable terror. (I know a number of additional details which confirm all of this, and more. I will not discuss them here, however, out of respect for the privacy of other family members.)
There is much, much more I could say about this, and perhaps I will go into further aspects of it at some point. For now, I want to mention just a few additional things. It's now becoming clear to me, in a way it never was before, why my life has taken the course it has. I see now why I have not learned how to take much better care of myself, emotionally, financially and in other ways. Because the child identifies with the authority figures in his life, and because he internalizes the messages they send him, I internalized on a very deep level what my mother taught me. And what I came to believe, on that deepest level, was that I was only entitled to life provisionally.
No matter what my conscious convictions might have been, I did not think I had an unconditional right to exist. A significant part of the reason why I never planned or made provision for the future was simply that I didn't believe I would have
a future. I thought my life could and would end at any moment. That is what my mother told me repeatedly -- beginning at the time I was two or three.
I also want to note a related issue that I will discuss in more detail in the future. Many people believe that if, as adults, we have the "right" ideas, we can in essence go back and "fix" whatever might be troubling us, simply by "thinking" our way to health. (Ayn Rand and many Objectivists excel in this regard.) This is wrong in any number of ways, and here I will mention just one of them. It is crucial to remember that a child develops generally in just the manner that our ability to think conceptually develops: that is, we first are "pure sensation" -- what we are aware of by means of our senses; then we have feelings and emotions; and finally, but only after several years, we begin to think and to use concepts ("table," "book," etc.). I don't have the time or space here to go into the full argument on these complex issues, but what concerns me at the moment is a simple but critical point: by the time we learn to think conceptually, a functioning emotional mechanism is already in place. The nature of that emotional mechanism will determine in many respects precisely how
we think, when we finally do.
None of this is to deny volition or free will. It is simply to acknowledge that "thinking" alone cannot cure many wounds that may have been inflicted on us in early childhood. To do that, we often must re-experience what the child did, from the child's perspective, in order to understand fully our own history. That is the process I finally went through in October.
And it is that process that has finally begun to free me, once and for all, of certain forms of the paralysis that I first learned in response to my mother's unbearably cruel messages. I cannot begin to convey fully the extent to which I feel that an immense weight has been lifted off me. But I must mention one more thing this experience has taught me. Miller sometimes mentions that people may sometimes choose not to go through this process. Jean Jenson, a therapist whose book Reclaiming Your Life
has a foreword by Miller (and I recommend Jenson's book very highly), makes the same point. Sometimes, for some people, this experience is simply too painful, and they don't think there is a compelling reason to go through it.
In the past, I had little patience with that attitude. As a result of what I've been through myself recently, I now understand it. As I noted above, I literally felt that experiencing again what I had felt as a very young child would kill me. The pain was truly that unendurable. Because I was not fully prepared for it, it left me profoundly unnerved for several weeks afterward. In one of my earlier entries alluding to this longer explanation, I said that I have been in the midst of a paralyzing depression. Depression was certainly part of what I felt, but it's not exact, or complete. What I felt was another part of what Miller and Jenson both discuss as being necessary for the healing process: I was grieving -- for my lost childhood, for the love I never received, for the immense pain and terror that innocent child suffered all those years ago. But part of the healing process is realizing and accepting that if we were not genuinely loved as children, that opportunity is forever lost to us. We can never be children again -- and we can never receive the love we should have received, and the love to which we were entitled, as children. (I should note that if a person decides that he does not consider it worth it to go through this process given the totality of his life, that decision has certain costs. But in certain circumstances, I can now well understand why someone would make that choice.)
For me, reliving those feelings was indispensable, and absolutely necessary. I can go on now, and begin to rebuild my life. As I also said earlier, I still have a very large struggle ahead of me, and many huge practical problems to face. But I am now confident, in a way I never was before, that I know why I am the person I am today, what brought me here, and how to heal the wounds that remain. And in one sense, and even though they are very daunting, the practical problems I have to deal with aren't all that bad. When you believed that your mother wanted to kill you -- when you believed it all the way down and thought she might actually do it -- finding work or a new place to live doesn't seem like all that much by comparison.
I want to end this essay where I began. I will simply repeat what I said at the opening, since I know of no better way to say it: the immense cruelty that is inflicted on children by adults who are supposedly devoted to caring for and nurturing them has enormous consequences. In most cases, the results of that cruelty remain unrecognized by the child when he grows up and becomes an adult, even as the damage continues to distort and cripple his life in countless ways.
If you doubt the truth of those statements, consider what I've said above -- and think about the trajectory of my own life. I hope it will be helpful to some of you, and that even just a few people might learn something of value from it. No child should have to experience what I did, but far too many children continue to suffer in much the same way. And many children suffer even worse fates.
I've had occasion to remark in many posts recently that, at some point, enough people will want to end the perpetual cycle of abuse and denial that causes such profound damage in the world. The amount of pain and suffering, and of death, that results from the everyday cruelties of our world is incalculable. As I said at the conclusion of my discussion of Iris Chang's suicide: Someday, it has to stop.
Someday soon, I hope. Very, very soon. And I fully intend to be around to see at least the first signs of the end of it throughout our culture. You can count on that. In the meantime, I will continue writing about these issues wherever I can, until the day finally arrives when it isn't necessary any longer.
And what a glorious day that will be. I can hardly wait.