Alice Miller's For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence

 

Recently, I picked up one of my favorite books, Parenting for a Peaceful World by Robin Grille. This fascinating book explores how parenting practices have shaped societies and world events, including human rights abuses and ecological destruction. It’s a must read book for anyone interested in how child rearing creates the world in which we live.

As I was reading, I came across several passages detailing the work of Alice Miller. It made me realize just how often I see Miller referenced in contemporary books that deal with psychology, sociology, and the like.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, Alice Miller is a Swiss psychologist whose insights on the consequences of child maltreatment—or as we would say today “adverse childhood experiences”—became highly influential after the publication of her book Prisoners of Childhood in 1979.

 Miller claimed that most cases of addiction, neuroses, chronic depression, and a slew of other disorders were caused by buried feelings and unresolved trauma and grief related to some form of child abuse.  

She wrote extensively on why she believed that these problems impacted not just the individual, but society as a whole. According to Miller, “Child abuse like beating and humiliating not only produces unhappy children, not only destructive teenagers and abusive parents, but thus also a confused, irrationally functioning society.” She concluded that all social and global problems, including worldwide violence and even warfare, were a direct manifestation of the early childhood maltreatment that led to this “confused, irrationally functioning society.”

In her book For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, Miller hammers home her provocative stance that the root causes of ALL violence are a consequence of childhood trauma.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that all children who are mistreated will unleash violence on society. Far from it! Nevertheless, according to Miller, we should all be wary of this powerful dynamic that unfolds again and again across the globe.

To make her case, Miller uses the example of Hitler’s childhood to show the genesis of his insatiable hatred, which, of course, resulted in the horrifying fate of the Jews in the Third Reich.

Specifically, Miller describes how the parenting manuals that were in vogue when Hitler and his Nazi collaborators were children belied extreme hostility to children. Parents were exhorted to “show no mercy” when it came to breaking the child’s will. Rather, parents were advised to withhold affection and enforce rigid obedience by whatever means necessary. Physical demonstrations of love were deplored, and using “the rod” was an absolute necessity in child rearing.

Surely not all German parents adhered to these austere standards, but plenty did, according to Miller.  She writes that these disciplinary techniques, which she calls “poisonous pedagogy,” enforced a continuum of violence that reverberated throughout Nazi Germany.  

Of course, the idea that war and genocide is a symptom of childhood trauma is not new or unique to Alice Miller. But because she speaks with such ferocity and clarity on the far reaching impact of psychological injury, I highly recommend For Your Own Good, which is utterly illuminating in its entirety. Her insights were ahead of her time, and this oldie-but-goodie remains an important reminder of how ACEs affect, sometimes dramatically, the world in which we all live.

 

 

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Ok.  I'll just say this because I believe it's important:  to those who have experienced narcissism - particularly extreme, some call it malignant, some see it more as a psychopathy 'condition', you will need to read books such as this in order for some healing or breaking the 'spell'.  They simply cannot 'love' or care for you, they are not capable of it. First, comes the dawning or awakening, then the shock, then the need to read as much appropriate literature as possible.  Web sites can vary in support.  I would warn people to stay away from the very negative ones where there is no discussion about healing, etc.  But you need to understand what happened to you, therapists what happened to them.  Doctors, etc are very wary of putting a label on it. You may very well need to work it out for yourself. The narcissist very rarely (almost never) seeks treatment.  Society, in general, doesn't want to acknowledge it except in a sensationalised manner.

IMHO narcissism and understanding it fully, engaging with appropriate 'treatment' is still very much in its infancy.  The mind/body stores this abuse, abandonment, etc very deeply, as it's an insidious type of ACE, and not many fully understand it - yet.

And this time I'm leaving my comment (!)- as I said: it's important to know and learn about.

Mem: I have read all of Alice Miller’s books multiple times. DRAMA OF THE GIFTED CHILD was the first, which I read decades ago, and it changed my life and how I parented my own children. By “gifted,” she doesn’t mean a smart or talented child; rather, she refers to a child who has the ability to adapt to the parents' needs and therefore survive an abusive childhood. This comes at a great cost to the child's emotional well-being. From the dust jacket:

“The ‘drama’ of the gifted child consists of his recognition at a very early age of his parents’ needs and of his adaptation to these needs. In the process, he learns to repress rather than to acknowledge his own intense feelings because they are unacceptable to his parents. Although it will not always be possible to avoid these ‘ugly’ feelings (anger, indignation, despair, jealousy, fear) in the future, they will split off, and the most vital part of the ‘true self’ will not be integrated into the personality. This leads to emotional insecurity and loss of self, which are revealed in depression or concealed behind the façade of grandiosity.”

I often wonder how many people who did not suffer overt abuse are victims of this more subtle mechanism—whereby prohibited emotions remain split off and result, often decades later, in depression and feelings of emptiness.

All of Miller’s books are worthwhile. I love THOU SHALT NOT BE AWARE: SOCIETY’S BETRAYAL OF THE CHILD and, as Raymond mentioned FROM RAGE TO COURAGE, which is, indeed, a gem. I recently re-read Bradshaw’s HEALING THE SHAME THAT BINDS. Thanks to Jondi for reminding me of his “Calderesque” mobile. Such a powerful metaphor.

Thanks, Raymond. I will!  And Kathy, I'm glad to be reminded that Alice is the one who began bringing attention to the body awareness, so long ago.  In that same vein, I hear little about Babette Rothschild these days, except from the exceptional Dr. Robert Scaer.  And thank you Mem, for reminding all of us that each one is a pioneer of seminal thinking on childhood experience and trauma; we in turn keep that 'flame' of awareness, then pass it on, as we're doing right now.  Last but not least, ever since seeing Bradshaw describe family dynamics as a Calderesque mobile, I've explained it to others in just the same way; it was very powerful, accessible, memorable.

All of Alice Miller's books are worth reading, some are the 'classics' (the first three) but they all bring something new. Her very very last - From Rage to Courage - is a little gem I believe. It is a selection of Answers she gave to her Readers, carefully chosen to cover all angles. You can actually go to her website and find the original questions. It's a small book that you can have near at hand, and open anywhere, for a Quote-of-the-Day for example.  Take a peak at it on Amazon.

Kathy Brous : " As you probably know, but just for everyone: Dr. Felitti quotes Alice Miller on how the body remembers childhood trauma and it must come out somehow in later life, in almost every speech he makes "   SO glad to hear that !

Thank you for the link, Raymond.  And Jondi, John Bradshaw was the one who first to introduce me to another world of understanding family dynamics.  I came across him accidentally on a community tv program and rushed out and bought all his books!  His was a special voice at the time: he had lived experience and it came across so authentically. Yet when I mentioned him to a psychologist I knew, she turned her nose up distainfully!! That's when I also started to realise: establishment doesn't (necessarily) get it.  Just as establishment doesn't see a need for ACE screening. So similar!

I thought I should read at least one of Alice Miller's books, and while searching for which particular one, I came across a few articles by her son.  He had a totally different view of his mother.  It's in no way to discredit her work, but it does make you think: life is indeed complex!

And yes, Kathy, I also read she was an earlier advocate and was attuned to the fact about the body holding the trauma.

Have you read others of hers Jill? Or anyone else?

 

Thank you, Jill. As you probably know, but just for everyone: Dr. Felitti quotes Alice Miller on how the body remembers childhood trauma and it must come out somehow in later life, in almost every speech he makes.

I highly recommend PARENTING FOR A PEACEFUL WORLD Gail! The author is based in Australia, which is perhaps why this gem of a book is not more widely known. Lots of meaty nuggets in this book, especially if you "read it through the lens of ACEs." Thanks Gail!

Thanks for your comment, Robert. It prompted me to go back and take a look at the Children's Rights Convention and I came across this great quote from Kofi Annan when he headed up the UN:

"Much of the next millennium can be seen in how we care for our children today. Today's world may be influenced by science and technology, but more than anything, it is already taking shape in  the bodies and minds of our children."

Our failure to ratify this treaty is baffling to say the least...

Thank you for sharing, Jill.  The books that you mention of Alice Miller I read and re-read over the years and would strongly agree with what you say about her brilliant writing. I am going to pull out my dog-eared copy of For Your Own Good  and look through it with an ACEs lens.  And  I want to take a look at the book you recommend Parenting for a Peaceful World - thanks for the recommendation!

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