Interview with Alice Miller, November 1992 [interview]

Interview with Alice Miller, November 1992 [interview]

Interview with Alice Miller, November 1992
Translated by Simon Worrall These answers were given to a journalist who
sent the questions for an American magazine but eventually the interview could not be
published because Alice Miller refused to accept the suggested editing.
Can you describe your childhood? I was the first born child, into a typical
middle-class family. My parents were much like their fellow citizens. They were not
alcoholics. They were not criminals. They even had the reputation of being good, concerned
parents. But because they had not experienced love as children, rather neglect cloaked in
hypocrisy, they had no idea what their duties towards their children were. As their first
child was born, all they knew was their own unsatisfied needs. With the help of that child,
they preceded to try and fulfil those needs that they had had to repress in their own
childhood: the needs for attention, consideration, tolerance, respect, love, protection, care
and so on. What that meant for the child was that, from day one, she had to learn to repress
her own needs. In my early books I wrote actually a great
deal about my childhood, without realising precisely that it was my own experience I
was describing. Since 1985, however, I have been doing so consciously, and thus readers
find in my books much autobiographical detail. Numerous reactions over the past 12 years,
from people of diverse cultural backgrounds, have shown me that my childhood was in no
way exceptional. Similar destinies can be traced, as it appears in the letters I have
received, not only throughout Europe and America, but also in Australia, the Philippines, Japan,
India, Vietnam and many other countries. For this reason too, I decided not to make public
further details about the places in which I grew up. I did not wish my revelations about
the repressed suffering of childhood in general to be bound to my life, thus making it easy
to dismiss them as ” my problems “. The tendency to do so is understandably great as relieving
one own repression is painful. Experience has shown me that my decision was
right. When people read my books they come face to face with their own childhood. Often,
it is the first time in their lives that their own story becomes important to them. And this
is crucial. Because before we have taken this emotional step we know, in principle, nothing
about our own life, even if we are aware of the facts. As I know from countless letters,
my books enabled some readers to begin the journey towards their own stories, without
being distracted by mine. And I do not wish to destroy that effect.
Was there any particular moment or set of circumstances that led you into what has proven
to be your life’s work? As a ten year old child I experienced Hitler’s
rise to power in Berlin. I watched dumbfounded as millions of supposedly ” civilised ” people
were transformed into a blind, hate-filled mass who enthusiastically allowed a primitive,
arrogant monster to lead them to murder their fellow human beings. This experience stayed
with me irreducibly, and forever; and I believe today that I have spent my live trying to
understand the riddle of such dangerous blindness. I have tried to understand how it is that
people can be so easily manipulated and where are the invisible sources of their latent
hatred. Even as a child I asked myself: Where does human bestiality come from? Are people
born as monsters? Can it be that new-born babies come into the world with genes that
” make ” them criminals? Although our entire system of jurisprudence
seems to be based on such a view oh human nature, giving impetus to today’s clarion
call for the reintroduction of the death penalty, the notion of ” inherent evil ” has always
seemed to me like the medieval belief in the devil and his children. Experience teaches
us just the opposite. Studies have already incontrovertibly proved that all serious criminals
were once mistreated and neglected children, children who early in their lives had to learn
to repress their feelings: that is, to feel absolutely no compassion for themselves and,
as a result, have no emotional access to their own stories. By becoming cynical, irresponsible
and brutal criminals, they were able to hold their denial in place – but only at the expense
of other people’s lives. Today, I know -and have, in my books, tried to prove with ever
greater clarity – that the destructiveness, and self-destructiveness, that dominate the
world, are not our fate. We produce them in our children, and the production of this destructive
potential begins already in pregnancy and at birth. An unwanted child’s desperate struggle
for the right to live begins in the womb, leading later to the atrophy of the capacity
to love and trust others, and an inevitable movement towards (self) destruction.
We can put an end to the production of evil as soon as we stop denying the proven facts
and the knowledge we now have about childhood. At the beginning of your career, were there
any significant influences, mentors, models? When I look back over my live, I can find
no single person who might have supported, let alone accompanied, me on my journey towards
the truth. My former teachers and colleagues clung obstinately to theories whose defensive
character became so ever clearer to me. When I confronted them with the facts, they reacted
with fear and incomprehension. Because my discoveries called their theories into question,
and because they were determined, at all costs, to protect the name of Freud, they simply
chose not to understand what I was talking about.
Do you believe there is such a thing as ” human nature “? If so, what do you think the quality
of this nature is? As I have already said, I regard all talk
of a death-wish, of destructive drives, or genetically programmed evil, as nothing but
flight from the facts – facts that have already been proven – and, thus, self-chosen ignorance.
People, who love to delegate their responsibilities to the outside world, avoid the testimony
of facts. They don’t care about the truth. They want to be left in peace. Goodness they
attribute to God, evil to the devil or their children’s innate wickedness. They also believe
that what is destined can be transformed by discipline and violence. How can it? Has anyone
ever seen a single human being whose inborn destructiveness has been transformed by beatings
and other forms of mistreatment into good, positive character traits? There isn’t one
in the whole wide world. Nonetheless, ” scientists ” still cling to their belief in the myth
of ” inherent evil ” and millions of parents still go on mistreating their children in
the belief that they can beat goodness into them. What they create instead is a submissive
child, a child that may not show his well-justified fury today, but will later remorselessly act
out his rage on others, in war or on his own children. The only ones who will not be forced
to pass on this legacy of destruction are those who encounter, either in childhood or
later, an enlightened witness – someone who can help them feel the cruelty they suffered,
recognise it for what it was and categorically condemn it.
And human nature? Ultimately, it is a philosophical question, though the answer is not to be found
with philosophers, psychologists or church reformers. Most of them were severely mistreated
as children, but repressed their pain, blindly defending, as mistreated children have done
since the beginning of time, the very system that made them suffer. Martin Luther for instance,
urged all parents to mistreat their children, because he idealised the pitiless beatings
his mother had given him and wanted to see them as something positive. Calvin, the reformer
and spiritual father of the city of Geneva, wishing to glorify the brutality he had experienced,
wrote: ” The only salvation is to know nothing, and to want nothing… man should not only
be convinced of his absolute worthlessness. He should do everything he can to humiliate
himself “. The philosopher Emmanuel Kant put it this way: ” Man has an inborn tendency
toward evil. In order to prevent him from becoming a beast, this evil must be kept in
check “. Although these thinkers crassly contradict the truth, their opinions were long taught
at Universities. For any feeling person, it would probably be enough to walk round a birth-clinic
and see what happens to new-born babies, to realise what unnecessary suffering ignorance
and pigheadedness can cause. A child will, for instance, be held up by the feet – so
it can breathe, we are told – without anyone recognising this as sadistic mistreatment.
As none of the people involved knows what once happened to them, the new-born’s feelings
will be totally ignored. And this, despite the fact that with the help of electronic
readings we can today see that a child already reacts to tenderness and cruelty in the womb.
Not just reacts. It learns them. Society makes its first contribution to a person’s potential
for love or destruction here; in the manner it receives a new human being into the world.
Education can worsen or greatly improve that fact. Everything depends on the capacity for
love and understanding shown by the child’s parents and other important people in his/her
life. A child comes into the world a bungle of needs.
To fulfil these, to give him respect, protection care, love and honesty, he is absolutely dependent
on his parents; if these needs are not fulfilled and instead, children are used, mistreated
and neglected, it is readily understandable, that they develop into confused, evil or sick
persons. Evil is real. Hitler was real, so were his deeds. Who can deny that?
You seem to suggest that for many parents, raising a child becomes a kind of psychodrama,
in which their own mistreatment is re-enacted in the brutalization of their child. That
this happens with brutal child-abusers is well-known, but what I would like to hear
more about is how this re-enactment phenomenon affects the life of those millions of families
whose inner working does not go completely out of control but who’s dynamic could nevertheless
be called ” abusive “. In fact, I have described exactly this dynamic
in all my books, especially in the Drama. Like you, I thought that something as obvious
as brutal mistreatment and its calamitous effects could not be disputed by anyone. With
time, however, I came to see that even the most murderous attacks on a child can be made
to seem harmless, often by the victims themselves. As children, they could not face the truth,
and they continue to deny it as grown-ups, not knowing that they do not have to die of
their pain. Only the child would have been killed by the truth and was therefore to repress
it. Adults can relieve their repression. By experiencing the painful truth, they also
have the chance of becoming well. Since coming to know the dynamics of repression
better, I have begun to speak of open abuse more than subtle forms of parental misuse
of power. I believe that everyone can gain this insight. Today, however, it seems to
me urgent and imperative to disseminate the knowledge that wars and the crimes of dictators
are a direct consequence of crimes repressed in childhood ; and it is to this, as you can
see from my ???
That I now devote most of my attention. Previously, I thought that if one spoke of the subtle
forms of child abuse then the more glaring ones would become obvious. But perhaps we
have not advanced that far. The fact that large sections of the media refuse to treat
this subject at all shows just how many people have first-hand knowledge of abuse, and consequently
fear to approach the subject. Usually, they come from families in which criticism could
have been life-threatening for the child and they still fear this danger.
What do you think the role of religion is in the raising of children? Also, how does
religion affect the behavior of parents…? I’m thinking particularly of how religion
might affect the ideology of child-rearing? People frequently draw my attention to quotations
from the New Testament which emphasise the worth of children. But for many people, as
we know, holding children in high esteem and sacrificing them, is no contradiction. Indeed,
the good faith and openness of children frequently tempt their emotionally starved parents to
abuse and exploit them. Was Jesus himself not a particularly cherished, and sacrificed,
son? In fact, I know of no religion that forbids and condemns the mistreatment of children
as a matter of practice. Respect, understanding and love are universally preached for parents,
no matter how they behave. Children, on the other hand, according to Luther, for instance,
should only be loved in so far as they are obedient and god-fearing : that is, as long
as they deny themselves. Parents have a right to the unconditional love and respect of their
children. Dostoyevsky may have written in ” The Brothers Karamazov ” that a father should
only be loved if he merits it; but he himself suffered from epilepsy, because he was not
allowed to know that he was also a severely abused child and the victim of indescribable
brutality on the part of his father. Only thanks to his mother’s love and help could
he escape from becoming a murder himself; but he could not escape to his illness.
In my last book I have shown how intelligent, religiously minded educators still advise
people, as Luther did 400 years ago, to use the rod today so that tomorrow the child ” will
be loved by God “. In his important book, ” Spare the Child “, Philip Greven has shown
how widespread sadistic and destructive methods of child-rearing still are, particularly those
concealed under the mantle of religiosity. This is not only true of Christian child-rearing.
100 million Islamic women living today have had their genitals mutilated as children.
Millions of Jewish or Arab children are, for the sake of dogma, subjected to circumcision,
as infants or at an advanced age. Such cruelty is only possible with the total denial of
the child’s sensibility. But who can seriously say today that a child does not feel? In India,
millions of girls have been raped as “brides” and this in the name of the religiously sanctioned
doctrine of marriage. Countless initiation rites, condoned by religion, are nothing more
than the sadistic mistreatment of children. The history of art abounds with such scenes,
yet no one bats an eyelid. We have been brought up not to feel. As soon as individual human
beings begin to feel, however, many things will inevitably change.
Some critics of the so-called ” inner-child movement ” have suggested that the concentration
on childhood is a form of sell-pity and even narcissism. How would you respond to this
common criticism? I do not represent any movement and therefore
cannot know to whom exactly you are referring. I can also take no responsibility for all
that is, unfortunately, propounded in my name. I can only say in response to your question:
Allowing the child inside us, whose integrity has been seriously damaged, to at last feel
and speak, allowing it to discover her rights and needs, means no less than to enable her
to grow, and grow up. Making feelings available to consciousness means setting in motion a
process of growth, assuming responsibility, and beginning a movement towards consciousness.
This process can only take place once we call into question our parents and our society,
and once the person, who was up till then blind to cruelty, begins to see. I have never
come across someone in whom this process was not accompanied by genuine sympathy for, and
interest in, others; nor someone in whom there was not the wish to help others by communicating
the knowledge they had gained. Of course, one can only help someone who wishes to help
themselves. To my knowledge, all this is precisely the
opposite of narcissism. The narcissist is trapped in his or her self admiration, and
does not dare to venture on such a journey of self-discovery. The awakening of our own
sensibility to that which was done to us as children enables us, for the first time, to
notice what was, and is, done to others. This sensitivity to one’s own fate is a condition
– an absolutely essential condition – of our ability to love. People who make light of
the mistreatment they received, who are proud of their imperviousness to feeling, will inevitably
pass on their experience to their children or to others; and this, regardless of what
they say, write, or believe. People who can feel what happened to them, on the other hand,
do not run the risk of mistreating others. Perhaps what you mean is a person who constantly
feels sorry for themselves, yet are not really determined to confront, and feel, their reality.
Instead, they probably expect someone else to do it for them – expect someone else to
finally take seriously the child that they themselves, ultimately, reject. But no one
can do that for us. And the price for that rejection, for denying one’s own story, for
the lack of sympathy for ourselves, is life itself. In the criticism that you mention
I naturally hear the voice of the submissive child, the child who was not allowed to see,
feel or be sad about its parents unjust behavior and, instead, had to learn early on to regard
all this as ” self-pity “, and despise it. But why should we not suffer from the suffering
inflicted on us? What purpose would that serve? Is this not a shocking and extremely dangerous
perversion of natural human tendencies? We are born into the world as feeling beings.
Feelings and compassion for ourselves are essential to us to orientate ourselves in
the world. Isn’t it bad enough to have been robbed of our capacity to feel, our compass
for life, by blows and humiliation? When so-called specialists champion this perversion as a
solution, however, they should be unmasked for what they are: the blind leading the blind.
Hitler was also proud that he could count the 32 strokes his father once gave him, without
feeling a thing. Rudolf Hoss and Adolf Eichmann made similar proud assertions. What came next
is well enough know, though the connections have never been properly understood.
Some people would say that you tend to see the family in isolation, relatively unaffected
by economics, culture, and history. How would you respond to this criticism?
That is just what preoccupies me the most: In very different cultures, at very different
times, under the influence of very different religions, I find the same thing: the abuse
of children on a mass scale, accompanied by repression and denial. This phenomenon can
be traced neither to a particular class nor to a particular economic system. Rich people
can be child abusers, or they can be loving parents. And the same goes for the poor. Only
one thing is certain: people, who were respected as children, will later respect their own
children. It is, after all, the most natural thing in the world. The reason that children
are mistreated lies only, and only, in the repression and denial of one’s own experience,
something which the careers of dictators more than amply illustrate. I was told that there
are cultures in which children are not mistreated and in which, significantly, no wars are fought.
But I don’t know them well. If you hear of such a society, I would be indebted to you
for more detailed information about it.

21 thoughts on “Interview with Alice Miller, November 1992 [interview]

  • Just read book by Alice Miller were she writes about that which iv been trying to articulate for many years about my own life. So grateful for this book – finally I feel understood!Thank You Alice Miller,Thank You Alice MillerThank You Alice Miller wherever YOU are RIP!

  • Its amazing how she links religion and violence….. finally someone with balls to dare question Judeo/Christian belief systems and its extreme dominance over women and children!

  • I'm thrilled by every word I hear. Alice is such a jewel. I can't wait to read her books! ''the first time their stories become important to them'' 🙂

  • Christianity is a sick religion with cruel child abuse, fuck Luther the evil child abuser. Shame on this distorted belief system and the people that act on it.

  • Seems most religions have cruel abusive child treatments in store. So best to abandon these wrong practises, the sooner the better. We need to protect future generation from these sickening and soul destroying child treatments. Let the conscience rise to a higher level by spreading the crucial insight into this topic, so that parents can treat their newborns in much better ways than in the past.

  • Wonderful ideas, that may be at the very core of the spiraling ills of modernity. How much of what we've been led to believe is "human nature" is in fact the effects of accepted traumatic conditioning?

  • Thank you for your efforts to release this on line. It was very important because, well, how sadly ironic that the woman whose life work was in unveiling the truth in testimony to speaking it out, was censored! Good job in defeating this brutal force of denial once again.

  • Is this Alice Miller’s adult son narrating this podcast? He has recently written a book about his mother. He said he could not put this book out until she died.

  • It is tragic that these profound writings are never discussed. Children truly have no voice and simply used as perfect victims. No one but a small minority will even discuss the family system which is a cult and that is it’s religion.

  • It's a great tragedy that Alice Miller didn't live her words with her own son. I have read and revered her and her books but I am also reading her biography as written by her son who is also a psychotherapist.

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