Friday, April 11, 2014

Child Abuse and its Consequences

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.


Roger Bigod said...

It las long struck me that some of Freud’s famous patients suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I’m not surprised to see someone like Miller take a similar approach, although she doesn’t used the diagnostic term PTSD for it.

I’m not sure how helpful this insight is, since PTSD has many symptoms and presentations. But I’ve seen papers suggesting that PTSD resulting from abuse in childhood has some special features.

Unknown said...

It used to be quite popular to dissect oneself emotionally in another age as it now seems to me. Woody Allen was the most popular comic and psychoananlysis on the couch a great idea. In the 90s that dissolved into a sort of conspiracy antigovt. paranoia as in the X-Files TV series and all sorts of esoteric directions of speculation which were so hard to get hold of in any concrete way (pyramid power anyone?) that all this nonsense was discredtied as snake oil and pure materialistic brutality was the only respectable attitude(Khaki garb as trend after 9/11 or cynically conning people into NINJA loans for houses).

Of course once jobs get hard to get and showing weakness is a sign of weakness which lets you get trampled down and discarded then we are in a do-eat-dog society. Then only the surface ego counts. Basic survival skills and immediate reaction under very high stress are all we see. The reaction to 9/11 and the 2008 crash by W. just letting the worst of all people take control of things (Neocons on the one side and the bankers on the other).

On the other hand human sensitivity is so much more important when people are down and out as so many are today. Once you have lost everything and have fallen out of the rat race you can be kind to your fellow poor. Those still maintaining the facade of superiority (high consumption lifestyle) with debt or of empire with endless wars and threats (USA) just make life harder for others trying to get along.

It appears obvious that the West is overreacting heavily to something that is not currently happening in Ukraine for example, but rather to whatever it was happening in the 50s and 60s childhoods of the leaders of the Western countries, the traumas of cold war personal parental neglect in a bad materialistic age (just to psychoanalyze this whole thing). So we tread ominouly into another inevitable global collision because Woody Allen's couch was unfashionable and unaffordable for the masses and did not really get down to the depths of the peoples' souls anyway. Perhaps Buddha, or Jesus really got over childhood trauma if they really worked on it but somehow most people have to get on with their lives, develop standard attitudes and stop looking inwards (Hamlet never made it past post- adolescence as it seems, with tragic political consequences)

An attempt to elect leaders only on terms of psycholgical stability would certainly fail as ambition and drive most certainly come from a deep source of inadequacy, a desire to be loved which was never fulfilled. This does not neccessariily have to be negatively expressed of course. One can acheive positive things in life and not just happily navel gaze or whistle a tune while hoeing a row vegetables in your garden in quiet anonymity.

Do all actions or missions in life come from neuroses? Are we doomed to repeat our past forever as great-great-great-grandfathers' demons are lived out on our souls?.

CrocodileChuck said...

re: George W. Bush

What about Geo. H.W. Bush? He is on record stating that Prescott Bush was like Teddy Roosevelt: 'Walk softly & carry a big stick'. In contradistinction, he claimed his father used it - on him.


Franklin K. said...

I recommend researcher Lloyd Demause and his "psychohistory" theory for much more on Miller's reasoning.