The Truth Will Set You Free By alice Miller

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3 Corporal Punishment and Political Missions

Under certain circumstances, children who have been told repeatedly that the humiliations and beatings they have been subjected to are for their own good may end up believing it all their lives. Consequently, they will raise their own children in the same way, laboring under the delusion that they are doing the right thing. But what happens to all the rage, the pain, the anger those children were forced to suppress when they were not only treated cruelly by their own parents but expected to be grateful for it?

Tackling this question has helped me get nearer to answering the first of the questions I asked about childhood: How does evil come into the world? Gradually, the conviction took shape in my mind that evil is reproduced with each new generation. Newborn infants are innocent. Whatever predispositions they may have, they feel no urge or need to destroy life. They want to be looked after and protected, to love and be loved. If those needs are not satisfied, if children are abused instead of cherished, then that will determine the entire course of their lives. Human beings feel the urge to be destructive only if they were subjected to cruelty at the beginning of their own lives. A child who has been loved and respected will have no motivation to wage war on others. Evil is not an inevitable or integral part of human nature.

Although these insights seemed logical and consistent to me, I still had my doubts because hardly anyone seemed to agree with me. To prove to myself that my convictions were true, I turned my attention to the life of Adolf Hitler. I thought that if I could show that this monstrous mass murderer was made into what he was by his parents, it would be the end of the traditional idea that some people are just "born bad." I described Hitler's childhood in my book For Your Own Good, and many of my readers were aghast. One woman wrote: "If Hitler had had five sons he could have vented his revenge on for the tortures he was subjected to in his childhood, then he would probably never have victimized the Jewish people. You can take everything you've suffered out on your own children and never get punished because murdering the soul of your own child can always be passed off as parenting, child-raising, upbringing." In Paths of Life (pp. 158-161), I elaborated on the childhood roots of Hitler's hatreds:

We know that as a boy Hitler was tormented, humiliated, and mocked by his father, without his mother being able to protect him. We also know that he denied his true feelings toward his father. . . . This hatred remained repressed because hating one's father was strictly prohibited, and because it was in the interests of the child's self-preservation to maintain the illusion of having a good father. Only in the form of a deflection onto others was hatred permitted, and then it could flow freely.

Hitler's specific problems with the Jews can in fact be traced back to the period before his birth. In her youth, his paternal grandmother had been employed in a Jewish merchant's household in Graz. After her return home to the Austrian village of Braunau, she gave birth to a son, Alois, later to become Hitler's father, and received child-support payments from the family in Graz for fourteen years. This story, which is recounted in many biographies of Hitler, represented a dilemma for the Hitler family. They had an interest in denying that the young woman had been left with child either by the Jewish merchant or his son. On the other hand, it was impossible to assert that a Jew would pay alimony for so long without good reason. Such generosity on the part of a Jew would have been inconceivable for the inhabitants of an Austrian village...

For Alois Hitler, the suspicion that he might be of Jewish descent was insufferable in the context of the anti-Jewish environment he grew up in. . . . The only thing he could do with impunity was to take out this rage on his son Adolf. According to the reports of his daughter Angela, he beat his son mercilessly every day. In an attempt to exorcise his childhood fears, his son nurtured the maniac delusion that it was up to him to free not only himself of Jewish blood but also all Germany and later the whole world. Right up to his death in the bunker, Hitler remained a victim of this delusion because all his life his fear of his half-Jewish father had remained locked in his unconscious mind.

Jews were not the only target of Hitler's rage and fear. He was also frightened by the chaotic behavior of his schizophrenic aunt, Johanna, who lived with the family:

As an adult, Hitler ordered every handicapped and psychotic person to be killed, to free the German society from this burden. Germany seemed for him to symbolize the innocent child who had to be saved.

Besides his fears in connection with his father and aunt, there was his early relationship with his very intimidated mother, who lived in constant fear of her husband's violent outbursts and beatings.

These irrational fears -- which an outsider watching his speeches on video can easily recognize -- remained unrecognized and unconscious to Hitler until the end of his life. Stored up in his body, they drove him constantly to new destructive actions in his endless attempt to find resolution.

Those who claim that Hitler and his helpers were born with sadistic genes -- and there are still many who think and even write this nonsense -- should be able to answer the question why so many millions of Germans were born with these defective genes exactly 30 years before the Third Reich, making them willing executors for a mad dictator, and why Germans of today show no such genetic heritage. To me, the only reason for the Holocaust at that time was the brutal upbringing to which German children were subjected during the first years of the 20th Century. It was an upbringing calculated to produce blind obedience. (I documented this thesis in the essay on the "Roots of Hatred" in my book, Paths of Life, Pantheon).

Not all my readers were able to accept this view of Hitler and concede that his terrifying example demonstrates how evil comes about, how tiny, innocent children can turn into ravening beasts threatening not only their own families but the whole world. I was reminded that many children get beaten and otherwise abused in childhood, but they do not all turn into mass murderers. I took these arguments seriously and investigated the question of how children can survive brutal treatment without becoming criminals later in life. From a close study of many biographies, I established that in those cases where the victim did not turn into a victimizer, there was invariably some figure that had shown the child affection, the person I call the helping witness. Children with helping witnesses to turn to were able to gain awareness of the evil that had been done to them while at the same time identifying with the person who had shown them kindness. The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky is one well-known example. Though he probably suffered at the hands of his brutal father, he was given solace by his loving mother.

Children with no helping witness are in the greatest danger of regarding the dreadful things they have been subjected to as for their own good and then dealing out to others the same kind of treatment without the slightest pangs of conscience. In short, they will ideologize this hypocrisy. Hitler the child learned at home that blows and humiliations were right and proper. Hitler the adult insisted -- and believed -- that it was his calling to save Germany by exterminating the Jews. Other dictators have ideologized their acts of vengeance in similar ways. Stalin had to purge Russia of the subversive "cosmopolitans"; Napoleon had to establish the Grande Nation, cost what it might; Milosevic had to make Serbia into a great nation.

Society's blindness to these mechanisms is what still makes wars possible, because the actual reasons behind them remain in the dark. Although probably all historians, at least in Germany, know very well that Frederick the Great was humiliated and tormented by his father, I have yet to come across a historical work that makes the connection between the cruelty meted out to this sensitive child and the monarch's later compulsive urge to overthrow as many countries as he could. Obviously this subject is still taboo.

For as long as we have recorded memory, the same woeful picture has been repeating itself. Men go off to war, women cheer them as they leave, and very few question what really sparked it off. Wars patently designed to invade and conquer foreign territory are passed off as acts of self-defense, or as the fulfillment of some holy mission. Most people are blind to the genuine reasons behind these "missions." Only when we have understood where evil comes from and how we keep it alive in our children will we cease to be helplessly exposed to its effects. We have a long way to go.

In nearly half of the fifty states in the United States, teachers are still allowed to spank children in school. This punishment is given for minor offenses, usually in the form of paddling on the buttocks performed by a person specially designated to do so. There is a graded scale of different forms of corporal punishment aimed at meting out "discipline." Pupils are made to stand in a corridor awaiting their turn to be chastised. These children appear to consider this institutionalized humiliation as something normal. Only later will their pent-up feelings of rage be vented in acts of criminal aggression. Most parents tolerate this system; some actively endorse it. Isolated mothers and fathers who oppose it are more or less doomed to ineffectuality. In Texas alone, according to the Project NoSpank Web site (, some 118,000 children are punished this way each year.

Many teachers cannot imagine a school system entirely free of such punishment. They themselves grew up in an atmosphere of violence, so they learned very early to believe in the effectiveness of punitive measures. Neither in their own childhood nor during their teacher training were they given the chance to develop a sensitivity to the sufferings of children. Thus, they have little awareness that in the long run, using physical force against children merely teaches them to behave aggressively later in life.

Children with a background of violence have learned to devote all their attention to averting danger. So they will hardly be able to concentrate on what they are being taught at school. They may well expend most of their energies on observing the teacher so as to be prepared for the physical "correction" that they feel to be inevitable. If it does come, it will reinforce their view. On the other hand, a teacher who understands these children's fears might move mountains -- provided, again, that the abused child's reality is never played down.

We come across the same phenomenon in politics. As long as we are unaware of the degree to which the right to human dignity was denied us in childhood, it will not be easy to concede that right to our own children, however sincerely we may want to do so. Frequently we believe we are acting in the interests of the children and fail to realize we may be doing the very opposite, simply because we have learned to be callous in this respect at such an early stage. The effects of that learning are stronger than all the things we may learn later.

We can see an illustration of this in present-day legislation. As of September 2000, the German parliament has expressly denied natural parents the right to physical correction. As recently as 1997, they were still entitled to that questionable privilege; it was denied only to non-blood relatives and other caregivers. The overwhelming majority (80 percent) of German parliamentarians were convinced at the time that in certain cases corporal punishment at the hands of the natural parents could have a salutary effect. This opinion is still shared by most legislators, as recent decisions in Britain show. The persistent argument was that physical force should not be prohibited because it prepares children for life's dangers and thus helps them learn to protect themselves.

But beaten children are not learning how to defend themselves against criminals. They are learning to fear their parents, to play down their own pain, and to feel guilty. Being subjected to physical attacks that they are unable to fend off merely instills in children a gut feeling that they do not deserve protection or respect. This perniciously false message is stored in their bodies and will influence their view of the world and their attitude toward their own children. They will be unable to defend their claim to human dignity, unable to recognize physical pain as a danger signal and act accordingly. Their immune systems may even be affected. In the absence of other persons on whom to model their behavior, these children will see the language of violence and hypocrisy as the only effective means of communication. Naturally, they will avail themselves of that language when they grow up because adults normally suppress feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. This is the real reason why so many defend the old system of parenting and schooling. Until now only 17 of 192 members of the United Nations Organization had made spanking children illegal. This shows how little this problem is recognized world-wide.

In Cameroon, an organization named EMIDA (Elimination de la maltraitance infantile domestique africaine) reports that it has statistical evidence suggesting that 218 million children in Africa are regularly subjected to physical "correction." When I inquired about the reasons for such a high incidence of maltreatment, I was told it is a common myth that the brain functions better when children are beaten until they bleed. It is understandable that when they reach adulthood, children brought up in such a tradition will adhere to this system so as to avoid confronting their repressed early suffering. But the consequences of such repression are all too apparent in the bloody clashes between the peoples of Africa. All kinds of reasons are advanced to explain these conflicts, but the most plausible one is the pent-up rage of the beaten child thirsting for release and vengeance.

I have frequently asked myself so terrible as the massacres in Rwanda could come about. Rwandan children a customarily carried on their mothers’ backs and breast fed until quite a late age, a fact that we are inclined to interpret as indicating the idyllic conditions of loving care rather than a breeding ground for maltreatment. Only recently did I receive information that brought home to me how high a price these children had to pay for the love of their mothers. They are conditioned to obey at a very early age. They are smacked for fouling their mothers’ backs with excrement. Fear of these spankings causes them to cry as soon as they feel the urge to excrete, thus warning their mother in time to take the child off her back and impress on it the need for cleanliness.

As a result of this conditioning the babies are “clean” at a very early age, and much the same methods are used to ensure that they stay quiet. I feel that the massacres in Rwanda may well be traceable to this abuse of babies. Though children in all African schools are cruelly beaten (in a survey conducted by EMIDA in 2000, only twenty out of more than two thousand children responding said that they were never beaten at home or at school), the methods used on infants are the ones that are of decisive importance. The earlier the use of violence starts, the more profoundly the lesson is internalized and the less accessible it is to later control by the conscious mind. Thus, the first opportunity, in the form of some kind of political ideology, will suffice to spark off bestial cruelty in quiet, servile people who were living with explosive suppressed aggression.

For those acts of vengeance, society provides a whole range of ideological guises. Racism, anti-Semitism, fundamentalist fanaticism, and "ethnic cleansing" are only some of them. Many young people engaged in such activities strongly believe that they are serving idealistic aims.

5 The silence of the church

Religious schools of various denominations justify all forms of sadism by declaring them to be sanctioned by God or the prophets. Feminists have established that there is not one sura of the Koran that could qualify as support for the brutal custom of mutilating the genitals of young girls, though religious motives are trotted out in justification. Genital mutilation owes its existence solely to a male desire to exert total power over woman and to the insistence of circumcised mothers and grandmothers on inflicting the same suffering on their daughters and granddaughters as they themselves have experienced, while denying that there is any suffering involved. The result is that today there are over 100 million woman whose clitorises were removed at the age of ten, and most of them actively endorse this practice. The government of the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros has announced its intention to introduce a ban on corporal punishment in order to defend- as its letter to the UN Commission of the rights of the Child puts it- the right of children to a childhood free of torture. In contrast to the soft-pedaling encountered in most other bulletins on such questions, the letter makes surprisingly frank reference to the practices of Koranic schools, indicating in no uncertain terms the extent to which religion serves as a cover-up for the sadism of the teachers. For the pettiest offenses children are brutally flogged and otherwise humiliated beyond our worst imaginings. After the flogging they are tossed into a bathtub full of nettles or dragged half naked into the baking sunlight, where liquid sugar is poured over their bodies to attract insects that will torment them. Finally they are taken through the streets and forced to cry out their misdemeanors and to do public penance for them.

Unlike some adult survivors of torture, children subjected to organized humiliation do not recount what has been done to them. They are too ashamed. Their conscious memories may in fact contrive to forget the torments or at least repress them. But their bodies have preserved every single detail, as their later behavior only too amply demonstrates. These cruel punitive practices have been successfully represented to the children as righteous and proper, and this is what will enable them to avenge themselves without any qualms when they are old enough to do so. Twenty years hence, some of these victims will themselves become teachers at Koranic schools and inflict on their charges and their own children the same treatment they endured in childhood. And society will revere them for it and commend them as God-fearing men going about their sacred duties. Thus sadism is free to originate and flourish under the cover of piety and religion. Those teachers were not born sadistic; they learned to take pleasure in sadistic practices at school and perhaps even earlier, at home. And always with the injunction: this is for your own good!

As long as private Christian schools consider corporal punishment for the children entrusted to their care to be one of their religious duties, Christians condoning such treatment have effectively fortified any moral right to rail against the practices at these Islamic schools. In the summer of 2000 the South African government, in the face of vehement protest and resistance, introduced a ban on physical correction. On August 17, 2000, the government posted a letter on the Internet from nearly two hundred Christian groups demanding an exemption from this ban for their fourteen thousand young people in their care so that their instructors could “exercise their religious duties.” Equally blatant was their claim that teachers and parents have the right to punish children. The pseudo-religious arguments not withstanding their sole concern- consciously or unconsciously- is to get even for the humiliations to which they themselves have were once exposed by inflicting them on their own students. We can only hope the time will come when children will be taught that being beaten is a destructive act. If they can be taught why this is so, eventually they will acquire an immunity to false information.

I receive letters from people all over the world telling me how much they suffered from the physical (and other) punishments dealt out to them at Catholic boarding schools they attended. Conversely, some correspondents suggest that the situation has improved and that the Catholic Church has long since abandoned its support of physical correction. Encouraged by this news I addressed a letter to Pope John Paul II asking him to issue an appeal to parents-to-be that would open their eyes to the tragic consequences of beating their children. My conviction was that with this knowledge it would be easier for them to love their children and learn from them, rather than being misled by their own ignorance into turning their children into potential patients for physicians and psychotherapists who fail to understand the true meaning of the symptoms they display. I felt that an unequivocal plea from the pope, whose pronouncements are heeded by millions of Catholics worldwide, to refrain from beating children could have an immense impact.

As the latest psychological and neurological discoveries concerning child abuse are not yet widely known, and trusting that Pope John Paul would be moved by them, I did the best I could to outline those insights as briefly and cogently as possible. I had the letters translated into a number of languages and made various attempts to ensure that it would be forwarded to the Holy Father personally. The reply I received makes me doubt this was the case.

The Vatican correspondent did not explicitly say that the pope had read the letter. He did reiterate that the church acknowledged the importance of the child rearing and education and believed that children and young people must be treated “with patience and sensitivity if they are to achieve physical, mental, moral and spiritual maturity.” My respondent also pointed out that the church had recently canonized an “outstanding and stalwart champion of young people,” Father Marcellin Champagnat, the founder of the Marist brothers, for his “great to the cause of the young.” The letter ended by extending a papal blessing to me and those “dear to me.” Nowhere did this response from the Vatican refer to the important information and insights I had written about in my letter. Obviously the person I had asked to forward my letter and whose job it is to screen the mail was unable to relate to its contents. It is also conceivable that the information it contained aroused in them memories of their own upbringing, prompting them to dismiss my request out of hand. Not only the Vatican itself but all the intermediary offices I sent the letters to- in France, Switzerland, Poland, and the United States- reacted in the same way. The only response I receive was the letter mentioned above, a formulaic reply without any bearing on the concerns I expressed. A later attempt to interest Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, in the matter also failed. My inquiry as to how I might best disseminate the latest knowledge about the dangerous consequences of corporal punishment received an evasive reply from the cardinal’s secretary. I was given to understand that the supreme church authorities could not be expected to issue a statement on “every problem” and that it was up to us laypersons to communicate our standpoint to others. One of the questions I asked in my rejoinder to this was, “Is one to conclude from your response that the principle of human charity both preached and practiced by the church does not extend to the sufferings of helpless children exposed to physical violence?” (see my Web site,, for details of this correspondence in French and German.)

I was of course not so naïve as to suppose that a statement by the pope would suffice to change parents’ behavior from one day to the next. But an acknowledgement of the implications of this new information by an institution that had long tolerated and sometimes even advocated physical correction for generations might in the long term have had a major impact on the mentality of many believers. It usually takes a long time for scientific discoveries to filter down to the level of ordinary human reality and even longer to reach those who have had little schooling and who merely react to the cruel treatment they received at the hands of their own parents. This attitude, tolerated as normal the world over, might have been radically altered by one single utterance from the pope. But it was not to be. For the present, at least, the church prefers to keep its silence at this point.

I do not know if my arguments will ever be able to reach the holy father. His biography tells us that his mother lavished loving care on him and that after her early death his father spent a great deal of time with him. But it is improbable that in his childhood he should have been completely spared the conventional view that it takes a strict upbringing to make boys into real men. Inextricably and tragically bound up with the love children feel for their parents, this conviction frequently asserts itself throughout a man’s life. Challenging it may revive childhood anxieties. I can only hope that the pope will prove equal to this challenge once he appreciates that a few words from him would be sufficient to guard millions of children from the kind of abuse regularly administered to them.

Canonizing a nineteenth century figure like Marcellin Champagnat for his alleged commitment to young people is not an adequate response to the enormous challenge of preventing violence and cruelty in this day and age. But this indication was all the Vatican saw fit to give me in reply to my appeal for intervention for the sake of children entrusted to its care.

Much the same response was accorded to Olivier Maurel when he attempted to expound the problem of corporal punishment for children to the bishops of France. I reproduce here his letter to the bishops conference:

Your Excellency,
I take the liberty of approaching you because I am working on a book about corporal punishment of children. A host of recent research results show that physical correction, even in the apparently harmless form of smacks and slaps, can have severe consequences for the children. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has taken account of this fact and for ten years now has been regularly questioning the governments that have signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. At five-year intervals, these countries are required to submit a report on the status of children’s rights in their territories, with special reference to the use of physical force in families, schools, and the penal system. The reports and protocols of the Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva and the comments addressed to the respective states by that committee are accessible on the web site In a frequently alarming way these text all reveal that-albeit to various degrees- children all over the world are victims of what the report calls a veritable form of “xenophobia.”

I would like to ask you what the Catholic Church is undertaking in this respect. The injunctions of the Gospels about the respect and protection to which children have a right could hardly be more unequivocal. How is this to be reconciled with an educational attitude where the humiliation of children is the rule rather that the exception? By their own admission, 80 percent of parents in France have recourse to physical violence as part of the child-rearing process. But my impression is that the church has done nothing to speak out against such practices. Of course it has pilloried especially severe cases of child abuse, but the cases society elects to classify as such are exceptional instances where the perpetrators are conspicuous for their unusual cruelty and face legal prosecution for that reason. But the fact of the matter is that the distinctions between “child abuse,” “parenting,” and “disciplining,” are entirely artificial. If the truth be told, children all over the world are exposed to physical blows administered in the name of the parents’ right to bring up their children as they see fit.

In my attempt to collect reliable information on this point I have approached the editors of the journal Missions africaines because physical abuse is especially cruel and widespread on the African continent and the Catholic Church is very strongly represented there. The reply from Father Claude Remond was as follows: “Unfortunately I have no reliable sources on the degree to which the Church in Africa has been active in heightening parents’ awareness of the problem of physical violence in chi8ld rearing.” He kindly gave me the address of a nun in Togo who looks after street urchins. In her reply she confirmed the fact that child rearing in that area “cannot do without beating,” adding that she did not have the impression that the Church was doing anything to counteract this attitude because sometimes she saw adults in church keeping order among the youth groups with sticks in their hands. So where does the Catholic Church actually stand? Have there been any declarations by the Church on this problem? The pope has his bishops frequently referring to violence in general. But to my knowledge they never make any mention of the fact that children have their first encounter with violence-slaps in the face, blows to the head, back, or buttocks- at the hands of those they love the most, their parents. And this despite the fact that we now know that children learn not from what they are told but from the way they are treated. When adults are cruel it is because they, too, were once subjected to violence by those to whom they looked up. From the earliest infancy they have had it drilled into them that conflicts can only be settled by brute force. So what is the use in pillorying violence without making any reference to the sources it stems from?

I would be grateful if you could tell me whether there have been any official statements on this problem by the Church, the Pope, or the bishops. If you are unable to give me an answer, perhaps you would be so inclined to indicate to whom else I might address my inquiry.
Yours sincerely,
Olivier Muarel

Maurel appended to the copy of this letter he sent me the following note: In reply, the secretariat of the French bishops’ conference merely sent me a list of seven religious organizations allegedly concerned with these issues. I wrote to them all, but after two months the only reply I received informed me that the organization in question restricted ins activities to torture perpetrated by governmental agencies.”

Such persistent silence is alarming in the extreme. If this were not the first time the recipients had been informed of these findings, they would no doubt have indicated as much in their replies. But if it was the first time, then it is very hard to understand why they displayed such a lack of concern. Are we to believe that the welfare of future generations is a matter of supreme indifference to them? They themselves make frequent reference to the problem of violence and how it might be resolved. Surely we may assume that they are opposed to hatred and violence. Why, then, do they have no wish to know where that hatred comes from and how it evolves? Why do they choose to ignore the sources that have been pointed out to them?

What chance do we have of combating one of the most pernicious evils in society if we avert our gaze from it? The infantile fear of dealing with a painful topic makes us incapable of seeing the resources that we as adults can draw upon. We do have ways of preventing the constant reenactment of these evils. But in order to make use of them, we have to open our eyes.

If the Catholic Church were to open its eyes, train its gaze on the cruelty being done to children, and speak out against it, would that have a detrimental effect on the power of the church? Probably, for at present time that power rests squarely on the subjection of the faithful to its authoritarian decrees. If self-possessed believers were to begin questioning the power structures of the church, those structures would come tumbling down. Willful ignorance of the laws of psychology will, however, hardly suffice to preserve those structures.

But why does the church need this power in the first place? Is it not built around a principle of love and charity that should rule out concern for worldly power? And if so, why does it have so little faith in the power of love that it elects instead to cling to worldly power and demand unconditional obedience? Millions of people never ask themselves this question because they look to religion for protection and solace and believe that this is incompatible with any kind of independent thinking. After the upbringing they have been through, they cannot imagine that God could love people who had minds of their own and spoke up for themselves. Like Adam and Eve, the price they have to pay for the love given them by their parents is unconditional obedience, blind faith, the voluntary renunciation of knowledge and personal convictions- in short, the abandonment of their own true selves. They accept the authoritarian attitude of the church because it is something they are only too familiar with from their own childhood: “We know what you need better than you do. If you want to be loved you must obey. You must never question our decisions. We are in no way accountable to the likes of you.”

The spirit informing the story of creation is obviously the attitude by which such believers are guided. They worship in church, they meekly submit to the decrees issued from above, and they never ask questions. Any inclinations in that direction were radically drummed out of them as children. But there is always the real danger that many of them will be only too ready to place their obedience and their followers’ mentality at the services of other, much more destructive taskmasters.

The diaries of Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz, point to the dangers of this kind of upbringing. As a boy, Hoss was remarkably well behaved and biddable, browbeaten into following the wishes and injunctions of adults until the principles behind them became second nature to him. Today, people brought up like Hoss display an astounding willingness to espouse the most abstruse ideologies of religious sects, neo-Nazi groups, or fundamentalist communities, and at command of others (commands from others are indispensible!) will think nothing of destroying human lives and trampling on human dignity. They do not know that they are imitating the violation of their own dignity, which they were subjected to in childhood. The reason for their ignorance is that they were never allowed to become aware of that early humiliation for what it was. The principle of obedience was hammered home to them as a virtue, and they learned the lesson well. People who go through their entire childhood and youth with their fists clenched in their pockets will almost automatically use those fists as soon as someone tells them it is all right to do so.

How often does this spectacle have to repeat itself before churches and governments realize the drawbacks involved in unconditional obedience, before they are able to welcome a form of upbringing where children are encouraged to be critical and independent minded, an upbringing where free-thinking children can feel loved and protected at home? Such children will feel no urge later in life to plant bombs, set fire to houses, and throw stones, and so will not have to go to prison for their deeds. Like Olivier Maurel, I have addressed countless letters to high-ranking politicians, heads of state, prime ministers, and presidents, especially those of them who make frequent mention in their speeches of the alarming increase in juvenile violence. My aim has been to tell them precisely where that violence stems from, and that it is entirely within our power to do something to combat this escalation in the use of brute force once we have understood the sources it feeds on. But the response (or lack of it) was similar to the reaction that I got from the Vatican and that Maurel got from the bishops. The single answer I received came from the Ministry for the Family Affairs of a major state thanking me for my interest in “childrearing” and completely ignoring the fact that I had written to them about violence in child rearing.

The vast majority of power holders in church and state are afraid of taking up the topic of violence in upbringing, either because they fear antagonizing voters and congregations or because they still feel the dread of retribution from their parents for unequivocally espousing the cause of the young child they once were. But if they believe that this would deprive them of their strength, then they are mistaken. On the contrary; their own history would support them if they could only resolve to face up to it and act in a consciously constructive way.

Evasive silence, abstention, willful ignorance, disregard for available information- all these attitudes may appear innocently passive. But they are tacit decisions that are bound to favor the destructive actions of young people because they immure them in the tradition of blind obedience, with all the dangerous consequences that tradition involves.

My personal experience with church authorities does not mean that there are not individual priests who appreciate the latest psychological findings. There are, and although they are certainly the exception at the moment, their activities may help lead to change for the better. One shining example is Donald Capps, professor of pastoral theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, who has never been afraid to draw on the sources of new insights about childhood and come up with his own exciting discoveries.

Capp’s reflections on St. Augustine’s destructive attitude toward his son show that one can remain a person of the church and still overcome emotional blindness. Millions of people regard Augustine as a man of love because he wrote about the love of God. But Capps reveals him both as a severely beaten small child, who later glorified the practice of child beating (and wrote about children’s innate badness), and as a father who rejected his only child (“born out of sin”). He regarded Augustine as a man who suppressed his own feelings and the strong authentic feelings of his son, and who probably caused his son’s early death.

Capp’s courageous discoveries may alarm some believers at first, but in the long run his insights may open their eyes to the circle of violence in their own hearts and help them free themselves from the tragic fate of their history. This fate was unavoidable for Augustine, but thanks to authors like Capps, today we can confront the truth and thus change our perspectives.

6 Biographical Blind Spots

In the Prologue I talked about the history of Creation, my difficulties in accepting the image of a God who is both loving and vengeful and in believing arguments that seemed illogical.

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There is a good deal else that would not exist without "poisonous pedagogy." It would be inconceivable, for example, for politicians mouthing empty clches 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 clichés 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. Alice Miller “Thou Shat Not Be Aware” p.20 also cited in “Concerning Forgiveness: The Liberating Experience of Painful Truth”