THE ALICE MILLER FINDING 2018-07-19T13:59:44+00:00

The Swiss psychiatrist Alice Miller published three books in the 1970s (in German) and 1980s (in English) that developed the observation that child-rearing practices themselves regularly traumatize children. (Miller, 1981, 1984, 1985) She uncovered very specific evidence in the form of 19th century German child-rearing manuals. For example she comments that:

In the mid-nineteenth century a man named Schreber, the father of a paranoid patient described by Freud, wrote a series of books on child-rearing. They were so popular in Germany that some of them went through forty printings and were translated into several languages. In these works it is stressed again and again that children should start being trained as soon as possible, even as early as their fifth month of life, if the soil is to be “kept free of harmful weeds”.Miller calls this “poisonous pedagogy”. A central feature of it is “the conviction that parents are always right and that every act of cruelty, whether conscious or unconscious, is an expression of their love.” She says that this claim of parental figures to unchallenged authority comes from unresolved experiences of their own childhood.

The pedagogical conviction that one must bring a child into line from the outset has its origin in the need to split off the disquieting parts of the inner self and project them onto an available object. The child’s great plasticity, flexibility, defenselessness, and availability make it the ideal object for projection.The first thing to note about this situation is that these child-rearing practices traumatize. Traumatic child-rearing leads to the split-self: “Splitting the human being into two parts, one that is good, meek, conforming and obedient and the other that is diametrically opposite.”

How can it have come about that the split I have just described is attributed to human nature as a matter of course even though there is evidence that it can be overcome without any great effort of will and without legislating morality? The only explanation I can find is that these two sides are perpetuated in the way children are raised and treated at a very early age, and the accompanying split between them is therefore regarded as “human nature.” The “good” false self is regarded as the result of what is called socialization, of adapting to society’s norms, consciously and intentionally passed on by the parents; the “bad”, equally false self is rooted in the child’s earliest experiences of parental behavior, visible only to the child who is used as an outlet.It also gives rise to “the illusion of existential worthlessness”, which the British psychiatrist Michael Balint called the basic fault. Balint was trying to explain certain difficult cases he encountered in psychoanalysis. He came to the conclusion that “analytical work proceeds on at least two different levels, one familiar and less problematic, called the Oedipal level…”, and the other “…I propose to call the level of the basic fault.”

The term “basic fault” does not refer to a moral condition and implies no guilt. It is a metaphor drawn from the physical sciences. “In geology and in crystallography the word fault is used to describe a sudden irregularity in the overall structure, an irregularity which in normal circumstances might lie hidden but, if strains and stresses occur, may lead to a break, profoundly disrupting the overall structure.”

It shows up as an extremely painful “gap” in the deepest recess of the human psyche. It is a chasm, a crevice, an abyss, possibly of fearful darkness, into which the conscious ego is in danger of irretreivably falling. It projects out into the world as an array of binary oppositions, e.g., between self and other, we and they, sacred and profane, grace and nature, safe and dangerous, etc. Balint says of the patient’s emotions when aware of the basic fault:

The only thing that can be observed is a feeling of emptiness, being lost, deadness, futility and so on, coupled with an apparently lifeless acceptance of everything that has been offered. Everything is accepted…but nothing makes sense. ……Although highly dynamic, the force originating from the basic fault has the form neither of an instinct nor of a conflict. It is a fault, something wrong in the mind, a kind of deficiency which must be put right. It is not something damned up for which a better outlet must be found, but something missing either now, or perhaps for almost the whole of the patient’s life.Balint says that “…the origin of the basic fault may be traced back to a considerable discrepancy in the early formative stages of the individual between his bio-psychological needs and the material and psychological care, attention, and affection available during the relevant times.” This is of course a reference to child-rearing practices.

This basic fault or something very much like it is undoubtedly the experiential foundation for the “original sin” of Christian theology. The theological doctrine of original sin turns an experiential defect into an ontological defect, a clear case of projection.

A short time before Balint’s work, there appeared a more popular description of the basic fault that has produced a slightly different language. It is The Aristos, a philosophical essay by the novelist John Fowles, first published in 1964. The Aristos is a literary rather than a scientific work. He speaks of the existence of the nemo.

…I believe each human psyche has a fourth element, which, using a word indicated by the Freudian terminology, I call the nemo. By this I mean not only `nobody’, but also the state of being nobody — `nobodiness’. In short, just as physicists now postulate an anti-matter, so must we consider the possibility that there exists in the human psyche an anti-ego. This is the nemo.Fowles expands for many pages on the manifestations of the nemo in personal, social and political life. Some examples:

7 The nemo is a man’s sense of his own futility and ephemerality; of his relativity, his comparativeness; of his virtual nothingness.
8 All of us are failures; we all die.
9 Nobody wants to be a nobody. All our acts are partly devised to fill or to mask the emptiness we feel at the core.
16 I can counter my nemo by conflicting; by adopting my own special style of life. I build up an elaborate unique persona, I defy the mass. I am the bohemian, the dandy, the outsider, the hippie.
37 I vote because not to vote represents a denial of the principle of right of franchise; but not because voting in any way relieves my sense that I am a pawn, and a smaller and smaller pawn, as the electorate grows.
The basic fault shows up in many accounts of spiritual life, but not all of them. It is “the dark night of the soul” in St. John of the Cross, “the shadow” in C. G. Jung, “the gap between subject and object” in D. W. Winnicott, “the Nemo” in John Fowles, “the leap of faith” in Soren Kierkegaard, “the heart of darkness” in Joseph Conrad, “dread” in Jean Paul Sartre, and so on and so forth. In each case it is an experience of darkness, meaninglessness, isolation and self-worthlessness at the “center” of human experience.

But it does not show up in all spiritual literature. I do not find the basic fault in the works of Lao Tzu, classical Buddhism, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the biblical prophets or the four Gospels. It is however pervasive in popular culture, modern literature, the letters attributed to St. Paul, and the history of organized religion.

In recent years, especially since the First World War, there has arisen a body of scientific literature on the effects of trauma . We now know a lot about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. That knowledge is being applied to the diagnosis and treatment of military personnel, former prisoners of war, victims of torture, and victims of physical or sexual child abuse.

The level of trauma being treated in modern hospitals is obviously deeper than what is produced by child-rearing in the culture as a whole. That is why its symptoms stand out. However, the symptoms will be the same in both cases, except those due to cultural traumatization will be milder.

Dr. Judith Herman (Trauma and Recovery, 1997) gives this overview of those symptoms:

It is a kind of fragmentation, whereby trauma tears apart a complex system of self-protection that normally functions in an integrated fashion. Abram Kardiner described the essential pathology of the combat neurosis in similar terms. When a person is overwhelmed by terror and helplessness, “the whole apparatus for concerted, coordinated and purposeful activity is smashed.” (p. 34)The symptoms of PTSD fall into three main categories: hyperarousal, intrusion (the permanent imprint) and constriction (numbing). (p. 35) Pitman and van der Kolk suggest that trauma may produce long-lasting alterations in the regulation of endogenous opioids (endorphins), which are natural substances having the same effects as opiates within the central nervous system. (p. 44)

Traumatized people become adept practitioners of the arts of altered states of consciousness…dissociation, voluntary thought suppression, minimization , outright denial… Perhaps the best name for this complex array of mental maneuvers is doublethink (Orwell), “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” (p. 87)

The ability to hold contradictory beliefs is one characteristic of trance states. The ability to alter perception is another. Prisoners frequently instruct one another in the induction of these states through chanting, prayer and simple hypnotic techniques. (p. 87) These include the ability to form positive and negative hallucinations and to dissociate parts of the personality. (p. 88)

But not just one linguistic culture is at issue here. The Germanic tribes were after all only one of the numerous groups that entered Europe from the steppe of Central Asia and are the forebears of all Caucasians. In The Chalice and the Blade (1987), Riane Eisler notes that the Kurgans replaced the Old Europeans in the second millenium before the Christian Era. The last surviving example of Old European culture was on Crete. Old European culture in the Neolithic Age — starting around 8000 BCE — had a highly developed agricultural organization, female goddess figures, social planning and non-warlike economies. It was much more peaceful and comfortable than its successor cultures. Old European culture was matrilineal, but not matriarchal. It was a “partnership culture”.

Two salient characteristics of the Kurgan cultures were the centrality of violence in their economies and their pre-occupation with death. They were also of course patriarchal, highly stratified, practiced slavery, and subjugated women. The Old Europeans did not appear to make a very big deal about death, but the extremely elaborate funerary practices of the Kurgans — especially for their chiefs — expended great energy in trying to “overcome” death.

If the second millenium before the Christian era seems like a long time back to go to find the source of contemporary child-rearing practices, recall that the traumatic impact of World War I is generally conceded to be the result of the mechanization of tribal hostilities that went back over a thousand years. So, 2000 BCE is not too far back to go, because child-rearing practices are the product of an evolutionary learning process, and cultural evolution, as we know, is quite slow compared to some other human processes.

Judith Herman notes that when Freud talked about childhood trauma in “The Etiology of Hysteria” in 1896, the effect on his colleagues and his culture was so dire that it prompted him to suppress the whole topic forthwith and never return to it in his lifetime. The whole idea of the presence of trauma in western culture had to be subsequently re-discovered three times (twice by Abram Kardiner, that is, after World War I and after World War II, and for the third time by Vietnam veterans and women working on issues of rape and domestic violence in the nineteen-sixties and seventies) before its existence was publicly acknowledged.

This history powerfully suggests that childhood traumatization is indeed a regular feature of all cultures. Indeed, if we look at the symptomatology carefully, there is no reason to suspect that any cultures on the whole planet are free of this phenomenon.

Peter Levine (Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, 1997) is one of the leaders in contemporary trauma research. He cites a study of aboriginal societies that finds that “societies that practiced close physical bonding and the use of stimulating rhythmic movement had a low incidence of violence. Societies with diminished or punitive physical contact with their children showed clear tendencies toward violence in the forms of rape, war, and torture.” He then adds:

The work of Dr. Prescott and others points to something we all know intuitively: that the time around birth and infancy is a critical period. Children assimilate the ways that their parents relate to each other and the world at a very young age. When parents have been traumatized, they have difficulty teaching their young a sense of basic trust. Without this sense of trust as a resource, children are more vulnerable to trauma.So, I take the Alice Miller finding to be that we are all traumatized, and all prone to being dissociated. Miller herself says that in her clinical work, she came to the conclusion that “every perpetrator was once a victim.” This leads to the corollaries that terrorists are terrified and torturers are tortured. This is not to excuse. This is only to correctly diagnose, strategize and respond.