by Alice Miller
Deception Kills Love
Wednesday September 01, 2004
In one of his books (published in German under the title “Ich werde es sagen” by Klett Verlag in 2003, not yet available in English [?]), a young Danish writer, Kristian Ditlev Jensen, describes his experiences at the hands of a pedophile when he was aged 9-12. His horrifying narrative indicates very clearly the traces left on him by this interference. He could not bring himself to inform the police until he reached adulthood. Although Kristian’s account left the police in no doubt about the true circumstances and although others had been interfered with in the same way, the verdict passed on the offender was a suspended sentence of two years’ imprisonment on probation. Understandably, this injustice left the young man in a highly agitated state. Despite years of therapy he was unable to sleep, had difficulty in concentrating, suffered terrifying nightmares and was subject to frequent bouts of panic that he was unable to control.
What prevents an only child of above-average intelligence from telling his parents how dreadfully he has suffered over a period of three whole years? Kristian’s parents lived in the Danish provinces and sent him to the capital once a week to enjoy himself. We are told they never suspected that the boy was sexually exploited every week-end by the man they asked to look after him in the capital. How can we explain the fact that the boy tolerated this interference although he was undoubtedly repelled by it? Why was he unable to extricate himself from the grip of his tormentor by talking to his parents about what he was going through? The only alternative to this secrecy was the crippling boredom of life in the provinces with his parents, the total absence of empathy, understanding, interest, communication. He believed he had found all these things in the shape of Gustav, his “friend”. He reveled in the stimulating life of the capital where, thanks to Gustav, he was able to go to concerts, restaurants, the theater, the cinema. The fully panoply of cultural life in Copenhagen was his for the asking. Accordingly, he did his best to accept the slavery he was subjected to in Gustav’s bed, to forget it in the course of the day, to enjoy the world of culture he now had access to, and to ignore the bad side of the deal.
But things did not work out like that. Kristian’s body rebelled in a variety of ways because of the infinite rage within him, a rage that could never be expressed, either to Gustav himself or to Kristian’s parents. While the book reveals that the parents’ indifference was in fact the ground in which sexual abuse was able to take root and flourish, the author insists in his preface that today he loves his parents dearly and has forgiven them for absolutely everything.
It was this sentence that prompted me to react to this book. The point is that it illustrates the covert, but nonetheless virulently destructive power of the Fourth Commandment that has been a constant concern of mine. As a child Kristian was unable to free himself of Gustav’s pernicious influence because he believed that he could not live without him, without the intellectual joys he had introduced him to in the capital. If he were forced to return to the soul-destroying boredom of his parents’ provincial home, then he would surely die. Accordingly he submitted to his “friend’s” brain-washing and chose to ignore the obvious abuse he was being subjected to. Today, as an adult, he can see things more realistically, he can see what harm was done to him, and for that reason he is no longer forced to love Gustav. But the ties that link him to his parents have lost none of their power. And this is what Kristian Jensen calls love.
Although Kristian’s account indicates very clearly how the first years of his life as a neglected child drilled into unquestioning obedience of his parents paved the way for the crimes perpetrated on him by this pedophile, he acquits his parents of any kind of responsibility for his dilemma. Emotionally, at least. The reader can sense the adults’ indignation at the behavior of his parents, who calmly entrusted him to the care of a criminal every week-end for a period of three years. But the child within cannot venture to express this indignation, the fear of his parents is still too overpowering. This may explain why Kristian still suffers from his symptoms. His rage at Gustav’s behavior is legitimate, the contempt for pedophiles is shared by society. But not the rage caused by his parents. This forbidden rage remains pent up in his body, it produces nightmares and other symptoms because it is not accessible to his adult consciousness. What remains is the longing for “good” parents, and this longing sustains all the illusions he entertains about them.
Kristian Jensen is no exception. I constantly receive books by authors relating inconceivable cruelties perpetrated on them in their early years. On the very first pages of these books they assure the reader that they have forgiven their parents for everything done to them. All these cases are a sure indication of compulsive repetition, the compulsion to prolong the deception they were once subjected to. This compulsion manifests itself above all in the religious assertion that forgiveness has a salutary effect. This assertion is clearly contradicted by the facts. The compulsion to preach is never the product of a free spirit.
Am I saying that forgiveness for crimes done to a child is not only ineffective but actively harmful? Yes, that is precisely what I am saying. The body does not understand moral precepts. It fights against the denial of genuine emotions and for the admission of the truth to our conscious minds. This is something the child cannot afford to do, it has to deceive itself and turn a blind eye to the parents’ crimes in order to survive. Adults no longer need to do this, but if they do, the price they pay is high. Either they ruin their own health or they make others pay the price – their children, their patients, the people who work for them, etc.
A therapist who has forgiven his parents for the cruelty they showed him will frequently feel the urge to suggest this same course of action to his patients as a remedy for their ills. In so doing, he is exploiting their dependence and their trust. If he is no longer in touch with his own feelings, he may indeed be unaware that in this way he is doing to others what was once done to him. He is abusing others, confusing them, while rejecting any kind of responsibility for his actions because he is convinced that he is acting for their own good. Are not all religions unanimous in their conviction that forgiveness is the path to Heaven? Was not Job ultimately rewarded for the fact that he forgave God? No good can be expected of a therapist who identifies with the parents who once abused him. But adult patients have the choice. They can leave a therapist when they have seen through his deception and self-deception. They need not identify with him and repeat his acts all over again.
As an adult, Kristian Jensen is free to see through Gustav’s manipulations. Accordingly he is hardly in danger of doing the same to others. But a child does not have this freedom. One cannot escape one’s own parents, so one cannot afford to see through them either. Blindness makes it possible to survive. This is the way that the abuse of children has functioned since time immemorial. Blindness and forgiveness are essential to survival. But at the same time they lead to repetition and do harm to innocent people.
To break through this vicious circle we need to understand that love cannot survive abuse, deception, and exploitation without seeking new victims. And when it requires new victims, it is no longer love but at best the longing for love. Only unflinching realization of one’s own past reality, of what really happened can break through the chain of abuse. If I know and can feel what my parents did to me when I was totally defenseless, I no longer need victims to befog my awareness. I no longer need to reenact what happened to me with the help of innocent people because now I KNOW what happened. And if I want to live my life consciously, without exploiting others, then I must actively accept that knowledge.