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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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: