The Wellsprings of Horror in the Cradle | Alice Miller


From “Whoever they are and however dreadful their crimes, deep down inside every dictator, mass murderer, terrorist cowers the humiliated child they once were, a child that has only survived through the complete and utter denial of its feelings of helplessness. But this complete denial of suffering once borne creates an inner void. Very many of these people will never develop a capacity for normal human compassion. Thus they have few if any qualms about destroying human life, neither that of others nor the void they carry around inside themselves.

In my view, and on the basis of the research I have done into the childhood histories of the most ruthless dictators, like Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Ceaușescu, terrorism in general and the recent [2001] horrifying attacks on the United States are a macabre but precise demonstration of what happens to millions and millions of children the world over in the name of good parenting. And unfortunately, society turns a blind eye. The horrors of terrorist violence are something we can all watch on our television screens; the horrors in which children grow up are very rarely shown in the media. Thus, most people are not informed about the main source of hatred. They speculate about political, religious, economic or cultural reasons, but the speculations are turning in darkness because the true reason must remain obscured: the suppression and subsequent denial of early rage that often ends up in hatred with an endless number of ideologies.

Hatred is hatred and rage is rage, all over the world and at any time the same, in Serbia, Rwanda or Afghanistan. They are always the fruits of very strong emotions, reactions to injuries to their dignity endured in childhood, normal reactions of the body that were not allowed to express themselves in a safe way. Nobody comes to the world with the wish to destroy. Every newborn, independently from the culture, religion or ethnic origins needs to love, be loved, protected, and respected. This is his biological design. If he is maltreated by a cruel upbringing, he will develop the very strong wish to take revenge. He will be driven to destroy others or himself, but only by his history and never by inborn genes. The idea of destructive genes is a modern version of the fairy tale talking about the ‘devil’s children’ who need to be chastised to become obedient and nice.

In these dreadful weeks, all of us have experienced as adults what many children go through every single day. They stand helpless, speechless, and trembling before the unpredictable, incomprehensible, brutal, indescribable violence of their parents, who thus avenge themselves unconsciously for the sufferings of their own childhood, sufferings they have never come to terms with because they too have denied their very existence. We only need to recall our feelings on September 11 to have some idea of the intensity of those sufferings. All of us were gripped by horror, dread, and fear. But the connections between terrorism and childhood are still hardly recognized. It is time to take the facts seriously.”

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  1. The “mental health system” is the systemic re-enactment of parental abuse (or any kind of relational abuse) as evidenced by its dismissive codification of emotional distress and self-serving power imbalance. Anyone who believes in it drinks from a poisoned well.

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  2. Well said. I felt from a young age that our distressing, abusive, humiliating response to distress must beget more distress without tending any of the original hurt, which we tend in turn to respond to in the same abusive way, causing an endless recursive cycle of stress and trauma, freaking out and lashing out. Research from every corner seems in agreement with this: hitting hurt kids causes kids to freak out or lash out which abusive parents respond to with greater violence which causes kids to suppress their even greater distress which then comes out in more extreme ways when it can’t be contained ad Infinitum. The same goes for all the ‘humane’ alternatives we’ve ingeniously devised: screaming,
    Punishing, lying and blackmailing, imprisoning, depriving — all the tortured visited on the soul once the flesh has become an unacceptable place to bear them. Later I came to accept what my parents and culture seemed to preach: that it was my fault I was mistreated, that I ought to have ‘behaved.’ That it was my fault I was being stripped of all my rights and my autonomy and my
    Dignity, if only I would just ‘behave.’ Lucky for me I came into money. Now I can demand that, whether or not I make mistakes, I ought to be treated with compassion, that that was the healing element and what I was missing all along, and that it was not my responsibility to produce the calm and centered person that could only result from being loved and respected by their environment: the environment would now have to come to me. And guess what? Things are finally starting to get better. But I could never have done it in conventional mental health services or in the context of the relationships that doubled down on wounding and controlling me. I’m 30 and I’ve come back around to what I knew when I was quite young, what I forgot, and what I’m grateful for people like Alice Miller for reminding me.

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  3. I feel like I’m in a 3rd cycle now — abused as a child, then abused by the “mental health system”, now alone, aged, abused by society (both overprivileged, past my expiration date and “Karen looking” and also worthless and burdensome in the fact that I exist and am unproductive). I’m not old enough to be “a senior”, not allowed to say “I was made sick by decades of psychiatric drugging” (most people, particularly those in health care, still consider a statement like that to be delusional. I guess they aren’t aware of MIA or the dozens of books and studies supporting my statement. Maybe they can’t read.) and statistically because of all the psych drugging I won’t reach that age, there is no place for me, no end to the torment, ridicule and rejection. And I have to hide from the world that shrinks at the sight of me and wouldn’t hesitate to inflict even more “help”.

    I used to feel bad when someone suggested that I was selfish or “lacked empathy” (a common accusation once I was labeled borderline). I used to object. But now I think, maybe I do lack empathy. I don’t know where or when I would have learned it in this world.

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