Resilience: How to Survive A Childhood of Violence and Untruth
An essay by Michael Pastore
Fear and love cannot live together … Blows are used to correct brute beasts.
— Seneca (Roman philosopher, author, politician, 4 B.C.E. to C.E. 65)
Two thousand years ago, the people of ancient Rome cheered enthusiastically as they watched gladiators fight each other to the death, and saw innocent persons torn to pieces by wild beasts. In that same era, Roman teachers practiced corporal punishment on a daily basis. The Roman schools were stocked with a variety of instruments used to beat children, including the ferula (a bundle of switches made from birch branches), the scutia (a whip made of leather straps), and the flagellum (a whip made of straps from ox-hide, the hardest available leather).
Although feeding slaves to lions and beating children in schools were acceptable practices to the mass of Roman citizens, occasionally a voice of protest cried out. The rhetorician Quintilian (C.E. 35 to C.E. 95) wrote: “I am entirely against the practice of corporal punishment in education, although it is widespread … In the first place it is disgusting and slavish treatment, which would certainly be regarded as an insult if it were not inflicted on boys. Further, the pupil whose mind is too coarse to be improved by censure will become as indifferent to blows as the worst of slaves. Finally, these chastisements would be entirely unnecessary if the teachers were patient and helpful.”
After blaming teachers for failing to induce students to do what is right, and then asking how corporal punishers could possibly handle boys who cannot be influenced by fear, Quintilian adds: “And consider how shameful, how dangerous to modesty are the effects produced by the pain or fear of the victims. This feeling of shame cripples and unmans the spirit, making it flee from and detest the light of day.”
Most Americans would condemn the Roman practices as backward, barbaric, and cruel. To me, it is remarkable that a similar savagery – the child abuse in our own homes and schools – is discussed so rarely, coldly, and superficially in American newspapers, television programs, and books. Our culture is poisoned by violence against children. In the year 2000, the US Department of Health and Human Services received 3 million reports of child maltreatment involving 5 million American children. Approximately 879,000 children (of the 5 million reported) were confirmed victims of child maltreatment, comprising neglect and medical neglect (63%) , physical abuse (19%), sexual abuse (10%), and psychological maltreatment (8%). These numbers do not include the 400,000 children who were paddled that year – legally paddled – in American schools.
How can we explain the lack of private awareness and public action regarding the way we bruise and bully our beloved boys and girls? Where is the outrage from our authors and university professors who specialize in these fields? … It appears to me that these thinkers have failed to understand the one most important thing: the essence of human nature. Like the church, too many writers have bellowed that children are inherently evil, and therefore – outside of heaven – there is little chance for individual fulfillment or social progress. This most dangerous myth – that babies are born with evil genes and children are by nature violent creatures – yielded a Nobel Prize for Literature to the author of that puerile fable, Lord of The Flies.
Fortunately, we can still find authors who believe that children are born good: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, A.S. Neill, Erich Fromm, Ashley Montagu, Abraham Maslow, Colin Wilson. One more writer must be added to this prestigious list. Throughout the past twenty years, the psychiatrist Alice Miller has been the most passionate and articulate advocate for every child’s natural goodness, and for each child’s right to live free from violence. Miller’s previous books include For Your Own Good (1983); Thou Shalt Not Be Aware (1985); The Drama of the Gifted Child (revised edtiton,1996); Banished Knowledge (1997); and Paths of Life (1998). Miller’s latest work – The Truth Will Set You Free – draws on the wisdom of the earlier volumes, but also introduces many new ideas.
Miller’s argument, in The Truth Will Set You Free might be summarized as something like this:
1. Many adults manage their children with parenting and teaching methods which employ physical or emotional violence against the child.
2. Because of this violent treatment, the children grow up blind to the dangers of violent parenting, and out of touch with their true feelings and needs.
3. When these children grow to become teachers and parents, they will practice these same violent methods against their own children.
4. This cycle of “violence breeds more violence” can be broken, and abused adults can heal themselves and become nonviolent parents.
Miller begins by explaining, with many examples, how and why childhood reality is avoided “in six fields where we should expect precisely the opposite: medicine, psychotherapy, politics, the penal system, religion, and biography.” … Miller’s next section, ‘How We Are Struck Emotionally Blind’, offers an explanation for the remarkable and often-repeated story: “A father will beat his son and humiliate him with sarcastic remarks but not have any memory whatever of having been similarly humiliated by his own father.’ … In the third part of the book, Miller offers examples of courageous adults who have healed themselves despite long histories of parental abuse.
Miller offers a stunning explanation about the mystery: “Why do people refuse to see and change their actions which are harmful to themselves and others?” … In a previous book, Paths Of Life (1998), Miller says:
“People subjected to mistreatment in childhood may go on insisting all their lives that beatings are harmless and corporal punishment is salutary, although there is overwhelming, indeed conclusive, evidence to the contrary.”
Written from the heart, this book explains the causes of our problems, and provides jargon-free solutions that work. Miller writes: “As a therapist I know that we can free ourselves from inherited patterns if we can find someone to believe us and stand by us, someone who instead of moralizing wants to help us live with the truth.”
Along our road to individual freedom it is necessary for us to find what Miller calls an enlightened witness: a therapist, teacher, lawyer, or writer who is well-informed, open-minded, and willing to listen to the painful personal truths we need to tell.
In focusing on self-revelation as the key to freedom, Miller reminds me of the brilliant but neglected psychologist Sidney M. Jourard. In The Transparent Self, Jourard writes:
“We camouflage our true being before others to protect ourselves against criticism or rejection. This protection comes at a steep price. When we are not truly known by the other people in our lives, we are misunderstood. When we are misunderstood, especially by family and friends, we join the “lonely crowd.” Worse, when we succeed in hiding our being from others, we tend to lose touch with our real selves. This loss of self contributes to illness in its myriad forms.”
Jourard died in an accident at age 48 – only three years after the 1971 revised edition of The Transparent Self – too young to nurture his theory with the kind of real-life examples that make it more potent and therapeutic. Alice Miller has done this: filled her works with numerous examples of individuals who struggle and succeed in expressing their true selves in words and deeds. Miller’s book is so honest about the lives of specific individuals, it reveals the inner life of us all.
The Truth Will Set You Free is a Alice Miller’s masterpiece, which shows us how we can face the darkest secrets of our painful childhoods, and emerge with hope, courage, and insights for living our lives more genuinely – more tenderly – with ourselves, and with the family and friends we care about. In my copy of the book I have marked scores of passages, passages that corroborate my intuitions and personal experiences working with children and adults of all ages and backgrounds. The book, with its stream of brilliant observations and profound ideas, moved me in ways that are too deep to express in words.
“Trust men,” writes R.W. Emerson, “and they will be true to you.” … Inspired by Miller’s book, I now understand much more clearly how to listen, and how to help other persons to free themselves by sharing the depths of their hearts and souls. And there is one more essential lesson that this book may teach. Happy children with healthy childhoods are an endangered species. All of us involved in the helping professions must actively work to create a culture where violence against children, in all forms, is replaced with the three most beautiful human gifts: reason, sincerity, and love.