In the 1980s I was introduced to the work of the Swiss psychoanalyst (as she was then called) Alice Miller. It turned out after Miller's death that she was actually a Polish Jew who had survived the Holocaust by posing as a gentile in Warsaw, but she never referred to any of this specifically in her work--even to her Jewish origins. Like Hannah Arendt, apparently, she was a real child of the Enlightenment who was writing for everyone and for all time. She became a critic of Sigmund Freud, who she argued had betrayed his patients and himself when he decided that their stories of sexual abuse at the hands of their parents were fantasies, not real events, and thereby shifted the guilt for these acts from the innocent children. She focused increasingly on the impact of all kinds of child abuse, and in one of her best books, For Your Own Good
, she explored its impact in the twentieth century via the Nazis in general and Adolf Hitler in particular.
In a remarkable chapter of that book, Miller explored the evidence of Hitler's abuse at the hands of his father, who beat him frequently, and the ways in which various biographers had treated it. While the evidence was too clear to ignore--Hitler had himself spoken of his beatings by his father in his official circle--most German biographers had denied that the abuse could have contributed to Hitler's crimes. They invariably argued either that it was not really that severe, or that the physical discipline of children was so common in Austria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that it should not be taken too seriously. Miller argued the opposite, suggesting that the frequency of child abuse in Germany and Austria not only provided many Nazi recruits, but also made large numbers of Germans identify with Hitler's boundless hatred, which could not be directed against its real targets, his abusive father and his mother, who had failed to protect him. She noted how, in Mein Kampf
, Hitler first "discovered' his hatred for the Jews when he finally got out of his father's house, moved to Vienna, and found a target for all his pent-up rage. But, she argued persuasively, even killing millions of Jews, Poles, and other Europeans, and sending millions of Germans to their death, could not provide him with any relief, since he still hadn't acknowledged its real target. Indeed (and I confirmed this from Albert Speer's memoirs) he was one of many abused children who insisted that the beatings did him good.
Once Miller had opened this door for me it was not difficult to find other historical and literary figures who were evidently acting out the consequences of abuse. It is harder, however, in the heat of the moment, to identify contemporary
political figures who are taking the sins of their parents out on the rest of us. From time to time, however, I have been able to do so, and I was reminded of this once again reading a book review a few weeks ago
in the New York Review of Books.
The subject was Gabriel Sherman's biography of Roger Ailes, and the author was Steve Coll. "Roger Ailes was born in 1940," it read," and grew up in a small Ohio town. When he
was a boy, his father beat him viciously with a belt to discipline him,
even though Ailes suffered from hemophilia and could conceivably have
died from any bleeding wound. Sherman quotes Ailes’s brother Robert
about their father: 'He did like to beat the shit out of you with that
belt. He continued to beat you, and he continued to beat you…. It was a
pretty routine fixture of childhood.' As an adult, perhaps
unsurprisingly, Ailes has exuded a portentous, Dreiserian air. By
Sherman’s account, he displays a fierce temper around the office, holds
grudges, and regularly vows vengeance against his enemies." Curiously enough, Jacob Weisberg in The New York Times
showed the same kind of denial Miller found in so many Hitler biographies. " Ailes himself," he wrote "grew up cared and provided for in an intact family in
the middle-class town of Warren, Ohio. A diagnosis of hemophilia made
his parents think he was living on borrowed time. But he was encouraged
not to let the disability stand in his way, and for the most part it
didn’t. His father had a cruel streak, which led to a divorce from his
less-than-affectionate mother, but not until after Roger and his older
brother — who did speak to Sherman — had gone away to college." End of story--or was it?
Was it simply a coincidence that Ailes in 1968 discovered another father figure, Richard Nixon, who also grew up with a stern father in an emotionally starved household, and carried an unquenchable hatred of various enemies into adulthood? Ailes's media strategy may well have lifted Nixon into the White House in a very close election. Is it simply a coincidence that Ailes and his employees at Fox News, which he has run for many years, serve up a steady stream of hatred of liberals, Democrats and President Obama 24/7, year after year after year? And might not this be the explanation of why Ailes--and many other Republican pundits--are pushing their hatred far beyond the point of diminishing returns, and making it harder for Republicans to win state and national elections? We certainly have ample evidence that many homophobic conservatives are expressing their own fear of the homosexual impulses they have not been able to defeat. This is another way in which repressed personal feelings decline our politics.
Ailes is not the only Nixon acolyte to have acknowledged child abuse. Another who did so was Pat Buchanan, who spoke approvingly of his stern father's use of a strap in his autobiographical work, Right from the Beginning.
He, too, has been driven by hatreds of liberals, and, at times, by hostility to Jews--hostility which even his mentor William Buckley would not defend. I am convinced from other examples I have encountered that early childhood trauma lies between many ambitious peoples' drive for achievement. Both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan grew up in very dysfunctional families, and Barack Obama was raised by a single parent in very difficult circumstances for the first decade or so of his life. And what about George W. Bush? He has lived his whole life trying to emulate his powerful, high-achieving father. As a small child, he suffered the traumatic loss of a younger sister without any preparation or real emotional support from his parents, who appeared to believe, as parents did in those days, that children had no real feelings.
These issues, I am afraid, never really go away. In the 1980s, when I was teaching Alice Miller together with various historical novels from the first half of the twentieth century, I eventually allowed my Gen X students to express themselves about their own childhoods. The results were quite astonishing, and I do think there was more openness then than there had been for my generation about these issues. Now, however, it seems many, many parents--particular the better-off ones--are too obsessed with their children's lives to realize that they might be doing them any harm. And the opportunity in the 1970s and 1980s to explore our interior lives was to some extent a luxury, a benefit of growing up and living in a relatively stable economic world. We will be more preoccupied for some time with real-world problems--even if we seem to have lost the knack of solving them.