Saturday, August 27, 2011

A great thinker

Those of who who have found this page because you received a forged email, attributed to me, comparing President Obama to Hitler, should know right away that it is a forgery that does not reflect my views. I ask you however to read this entire post.

Three weeks ago, in the middle of a research trip, I dropped into Barnes and Noble and checked out the psychology section. I found a relatively new book by one of my favorite thinkers, Alice Miller, The Body Never Lies, and sure enough, my physical reaction told me that I was in the mood for it. A few days later, googling, I made the shocking discovery that Dr. Miller had died last year, and that I had evidently skipped the Times obituaries that day. The book was a good one, although not one of her best, and it set me thinking not only about my own life, but about her crucial historical insights and their relevance to what we are going through today.

The obituary and other material that has been published since her death revealed some surprising facts about her life. She lived most of her adult life in Switzerland, but because she wrote in German and her work focused extensively on Germany, I had always assumed she was German herself. She was instead born in Lwow, in Poland, in 1923--earlier than I had imagined--and according to her Wikipedia entry, written by a woman who claims to have known her well, she was in fact Jewish. Although much of her work dealt with the holocaust and its origins, she never mentioned that in any of her books, although she had some scathing things to say about the influence of the Old Testament in one of my favorites, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware.

Miller's greatest insight, in my opinion, was that children simply have no choice but to love their parents, no matter what their parents do to them, physically, emotionally, or even sexually. Those of us fortunate to have parents who actually respect us and encourage us to have our own feelings do not have to learn denial to feel that love, but they, she argued, are surely a relatively small minority. For much of western history, and certainly as late as the 18th and 19th centuries, child-rearing consisted explicitly of compelling children to affirm certain feelings and deny certain others. And even today, millions of parents punish small children, if only by isolation, for expressing certain feelings. My own experience has taught me that this is not necessary. Fortunately, I had started reading her when my own children were small, and their mother and I allowed them to express absolutely anything inside our home. I found to my amazement that they could get the most furious anger out of their system if allowed to do so in just a few minutes, and I know now they will benefit from that all their lives.

Because of feelings about their parents they must deny, Miller argued, many, many people spend their entire lives denying their true feelings about almost everything. All of society, she thought, was terrified of peoples' feelings about their parents in particular, and that went for our own profession of psychoanalysts and psychotherapists as well. She was among several who realized that Freud, tragically, had turned away from his original findings of sexual abuse among his middle-class female patients because they were simply too threatening to the society around him. Instead he decided that his patients, driven by "infantile sexuality" and fantasies common to us all, had made up their stories, thus shifting the guilt from the abusive parent to the innocent child. Now, as she mentioned in her last book, the leaders of the psychiatric profession have gone in a completely different direction: they treat their patients with drugs rather than take much interest in what actually happened to them. That is not surprising. As I well know, the most powerful drug in our society, more powerful even than alcohol or cocaine, is success. Most of those who achieve it regard it as proof that nothing that could have happened to them as children was very significant in the long run--which is, actually, often the exact opposite of the truth. Had their parents given them a genuine sense of self-worth, they would not have had to spend the rest of their lives frantically proving it with achievement and money.

Miller's work had historical significance because she dared to apply her insights both to artists and writers and to political figures--most of all, to Adolf Hitler, whose childhood and life she treated at length in For Your Own Good. Many of Hitler's biographers mentioned that his father beat him frequently, but, as she noted, nearly all of them immediately added that such treatment was normal in those days and that of course it would be a mistake to blame his crimes upon it. And indeed, in Albert Speer's memoirs one can find Hitler not only mentioning the many beatings his father gave him, but affirming that they must have done him a great deal of good. (I myself ran into that kind of censorship in the 1990s when I reviewed one of Pat Buchanan's books for an obscure journal that no longer exists. Attempting to explain Buchanan, I pointed out, and documented, that Buchanan, like Hitler, was an abused child who bragged about the good his father's beatings had done him. The publisher of the journal refused to print that.) The opposite, as Miller showed, was true. They left Hitler both with an obsession with creating great and lasting monuments, and with an endless reservoir of hatred which he could only satisfy at the expense of the lives of Jews and Poles. Stalin was also repeatedly beaten by his father. So, Miller showed, were many of Hitler's collaborators, from top Nazis on down to concentration camp guards. The racism of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave them the excuse they needed to treat millions of people the way they had been treated themselves.

Typically, as soon as I had discovered Miller I found a way to work her into my teaching, in a course on historical fiction about the great crisis of the first haf of the twentieth century. For several years I made students write papers using her analysis on characters in the books we were reading, and then, finally, in 1989 I summoned the courage to offer them the choice of writing about themselves. The results were quite astonishing, and led to more than one long-term friendship. But sadly, I can see now that Miller's work was suited to the Awakening, when the world was relatively stable externally and we could all focus on our inner lives. It is probably more relevant today than it was then, but it is harder to retain her perspective in the midst of yet another great political crisis. Yet we must try.

To begin with, the whole Boomer-led revolt against the world we grew up in that began in the mid-1960s was an explosion of raw emotion, a reaction against the denial our parents had resorted to, inevitably, to endure the depression and the second world war. Rock 'n Roll in the 1950s was loud, occasionally angry, and full of feeling, and older generations immediately understood its menace to their world view. That however was only the beginning. Boomers actually did a remarkable job of suppressing their feelings as children, but they made up for it as adolescents. And from then until now, their own feelings have been more important than anything else. "If it feels good, do it," has remained their motto, and that has contributed to the decline of rationalism among Boomers of all political stripes.

But beyond that, denial obviously has a lot to do with right-wing political activism today. More than once we have discovered that right-wing Republican politicians or fundamentalist clerics railing about the danger of homosexuality were actually struggling with their own feelings. And where does the strength of the anti-tax movement come from? Could it be that richer Americans regard their wealth as proof of their superior moral worth, and that any government attempt to take more of it threatens to make them confront the issue of why they needed success so badly in the first place? Are their coping mechanisms threatened by the idea that their wealth does not stem entirely from their own efforts? The answer, I think, must be yes.

It was not long before I discovered Miller that I discovered Solzhenitsyn, and The First Circle was another key text in the course that I taught. It, too, had a powerful message: that prisoners, excluded from society's system of normal rewards and punishments, were the only citizens of the Soviet Union free to discover and express their essential humanity and their true feelings. Sadly, perhaps writers like Miller--and Orwell, if he is rightly understood--will always be primarily a source of comfort to outsiders. I am no exception. I have often thought that had my life gone more as I had imagined it, the drug of success might have spared me a long confrontation with various aspects of the truth about myself. Yet it would have also left me with much less insight about a great many things, and fortunately, I must have enjoyed what I do more for its own sake than for whatever success it might have brought me. I hope younger therapists, in particular, will have the courage to pick up where Alice Miller left off, even if work like hers is destined never to become orthodoxy.


ehj2 said...

William James expressed the malady as concisely as this, "The exclusive worship of the bitch goddess Success is our national disease."

I haven't thanked you enough for your writings here. Your voice, among others, helps to sustain me.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you might enjoy Alfred Andersch "Der Vater eines Mörders" (available in translation) and possibly some Thomas Bernhard. They also tackle the pernicious effects parents and institutions can have,

Franklin K. said...

Absolutely! This theory that childhood abuse is a major unspoken reason for our violent history is something I've been reading about for some time now.
For more on it, I highly recommend the study of Psychohistory by Lloyd DeMause at It has almost nothing to do with Isaac Asimov (which is what I was searching for when I discovered it), but instead asserts "The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused. It is our task here to see how much of this childhood history can be recaptured from the evidence that remains to us."

Gerald Meaders said...


Great post, out of left field. Will have to look up Miller.

Very old saying, at play perhaps, re money in America: 'by their fruits ye shall know them'. Old Protestant determinism, but going much farther back, too.

Here's a little antidote and a nyt reference if you see fit to post it:
'Money is the cheapest thing.'

All the best,

galacticsurfer said...

It's rare you write something more on the nonhistorical level on the psyche of the generations on your blog here.

Your last paragraph hit home to me. Xer success is more rare and like Lost generation we are more inward looking or totally destroyed if we do not deal with this failure. I attribute my inner happiness to a lack of success which I could not have handled anyway I suppose, not up to the stress of the modern world. But spiritual, family fulfillment, learning hobbies which bring happiness, etc. and acceptance of deeper meaning wherever you happen to be stuck is important.

Here a link to something I have read,_Political_Ponerology.html

The study of evil in politcal history particularly communism and nazism. He presumes several percent of population are evil or sociopaths due to brain damage at birth or abuse, etc. and can manipulate others and climb to the top in unstable times as Hitle, Stalin, BushII, Sadam Hussein,etc..
Scary reading written from inside communist system in secret under great danger.

Ed said...

This is very interesting, especially the points about success, which I have never considered before.

I have some minor quibbles. If it really was common for European parents to beat their children in the late nineteenth century, which anyone who has read Kafka will find credible, how Hitler turned out really can't be blamed on his parents beating him. There were tons of kids who were beaten who did not become mass murderers. There had to have been something else involved.

I think clearly large parts of society in Germany and in central Europe (generally, what used to be Austria-Hungary), essentially went crazy in the decades after 1920. However, I think the main culprit is the Allied (mostly British) blockade during World War I, both for the damage caused by the malnutrition itself, and then for the psychological effect of the blockade continuing past the Armistice.

There is evidence of crazy in German society before World War I of course, but this might be evidence of the craziness induced by success that you speak about. Germany went from a disunited group of underpowered minor states to arguably the most powerful and advanced country in the world (or at least in the top three, along with the UK and US) in just under two decades. I can see how that can throw a society off kilter. But something toxic was happening in Austria-Hungary during Freud's day as well.

For the US, and particularly the generation that came of age during that time, going the gap between 1930 and 1950 was doubtless damaging. In the 1930 the US was a semi-isolated federation of local oligarchies with a collapsed economy. In 1950 it was the most powerful and prosperous country in the world, with an unusually strong central government, though the forms of the earlier federation were retained. I don't think we are pre-WWII Germany crazy, however, just pre-WWI Germany crazy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks yet again for another fascinating entry. Not even close to the accustomed / expected approach, but all the more interesting for the change of perspective.

I think it would be too much to say that all unusually driven/successful people must have some psychological baggage, as it would to say that people with such baggage are statistically more apt to be successful as a consequence of compensating. That said, it does seem evident (with manifold examples) that there is frequently much psychological baggage that attends those who succeed spectacularly - and who subsequently stumble just as spectacularly.

All this leaves me wondering, what is a "normal" childhood? I know what I was/ is normal to me, but what is the true "norm" (mean or median or mode)? Does western society (or any other societies) need to shift thinking about how to raise children? How do we encourage children to want to be successful in every positive sense, and for every estimable reason, and diminish that part that is only about compensation for some earlier harm? Can dynamic, driven leaders emerge from the ranks of happy and well-adjusted children? And would they do so in the same or different proportion to those who emerge from less happy childhoods?

If there is, indeed, something that connects our current political, economic and societal situation with the childhoods of the major actors, THAT would be an important discovery (I expect, however, it would be every bit as uncomfortable a finding for us as it apparently some of Freud's findings were for him and his society).

J Josephs said...

Not the usual type of thought provoking writing but as a new father, I am intrigued; how did you allow your children to express their feelings as they were happening without the supposed negative consequences? I am concerned about being too indulgent.

David Kaiser said...

To J Josephs:

Let me try to explain.

What I am suggesting has nothing to do with indulging your child in the sense of letting him/her have whatever he wants. It's merely allowing him (I'll assume to save time) to have whatever feelings he's having. Frequently parents freak out when their kids are unhappy or angry, and the kid senses that and tries not to show those feelings. But if you just let the kid have those feelings, they will, in my experience, get over them surprisingly quickly.

One of my sons, when he was about 5, was incredibly angry, and he had an awfully advanced vocabulary for his age. He would say literally anything to me or his mother. But we didn't punish him for anything he said, and to my amazement, he would forget the whole thing within 10 minutes. That was quite a lesson to me. And he never acted out that way in public or in school. He had a very intense sense of his feelings, and whenever I did gently try to calm him down, he would scream, "Dad! Don't try to make me feel better!!!!" So I would stop, and again, within half an hour, he was fine.

I strongly recommend you read The Drama of the Gifted Child which isn't very long. Skip the intro to the later editions at first.

David Kaiser

Anonymous said...

In Barbara Tuchman's book "A Distant Mirror" she wonders if the 80% infant mortatily rate caused parents to neglect any emotional investment in their children and if this neglect could have had an influence on the history she was reporting.

David Kaiser said...

Mr. Griffith, there is only one large class of people being supported by the federal government today: the elderly. They are supported by social security taxes, very regressive taxes which amount to either 6% or 12% of a low- or middle income person, depending on how you do the accounting (many economists think that in practice the worker pays the employer's share), and then a shrinking portion as income goes over $105,000. Do you want to starve America's elderly? I really hope you take the time to reply to this.

Ted '79 said...

Alice Miller's books -- /For Your Own Good/ especially -- really helped me as a kid.

@Ed: Miller's argument was that Hitler's abuse was unusually all-encompassing. Most kids who were beaten knew someone -- an older sibling, an aunt, a neighbor -- who, while almost never actually intervening to stop the beatings, did make it clear to the child that they weren't necessarily always right. In Hitler's case, Miller argued, there doesn't seem to have been anyone who communicated that to the child. That, she argued, is why he grew up believing the beatings *were* right.

Her argument, then, was that Hitler is an example of what happens when the child completely accepts the beatings and believes they were good for him. IOW, when the goal of such beatings is actually achieved. Her point was that parents may believe "beating a child into submission" is good for him -- that was the argument back then, after all -- but that when it truly succeeds, when the child truly submits completely, actually it creates monsters like Hitler. But luckily, usually the child does have an outside supporter and so retains at least some of their humanity.

So, did I say Miller's books helped me as a kid? They did -- they were my outside supporter.


@David: "One of my sons, when he was about 5, was incredibly angry, and he had an awfully advanced vocabulary for his age. He would say literally anything to me or his mother. But we didn't punish him for anything he said, and to my amazement, he would forget the whole thing within 10 minutes."

Hmm. I'm glad your son never acted that way in public. I wonder, though, if this type of parenting may have led to the situation we now have, with gangs of Millennials frequently choosing a single person to target and viciously harangue online. It's one thing for a single 5-year-old to harangue an adult; you know it's a kid, you understand. But for a large group of (albeit young) adults to viciously harangue a single peer...who cares if they each forget about it ten minutes later? The damage is done.

I know someone who's experienced both this type of Millennial dogpile...*and* being libeled in a national press at the instigation of that nation's government. My acquaintance said the former was worse.

I can agree. A Millennial dogpile I experienced a few months ago is looking to have permanent effects. The dogpile was putatively on behalf of antiracism, so the trauma-induced emotional sequelae could easily have been a hatred of antiracists, Democrats or other liberals in general (even though I am one; cf. James50's negative experience with environmental regulators!), or perhaps the racial group I was attacked on behalf of and/or the racial group (a different one!) of which the instigator was a member...

Thank goodness I knew about generational theory and was able to redirect it at Millennials instead. But though I try to treat individual Millennials decently...

It's really starting to look like I'll be left with a permanent, or at least long-term, hatred of Millennials --

The vicious little assholes.

Sooo I suspect my parental approach would be along the lines of, "You have a right to your feelings, but some things are too hurtful to say." "I hate you" is fine; "You deserve to be tortured to death" is OK to feel but not to say.

Oh, and my partner's approach? Her response to, "You deserve to be tortured to death," would be, "Yeah -- that's why I had kids." That meanie! :D