Alice Miller, child abuse and mistreatment

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not easy
Tuesday December 02, 2008




Dear Dr. Miller,
I first read your book "For You Own Good" many years ago. My psychotherapist suggested that it might be helpful in understanding and healing from the violence in my birth home. I was in my late twenties, and had begun therapy in a last-ditch attempt to avoid suicide. Reading your book was a revelation; it reinforced something that I had first sensed years before in a film literature class. We watched a documentary about Auschwitz one day. I was shocked and embarrassed to find myself crying both at the horror of the footage and at a deep sense of guilt. My family is German; my great-grandfathers on both sides emigrated to America, leaving the remainders of their family in Germany. I had family members in the camps. Some were prisoners. Some were guards. I sat there in the dark and the truth sat with me: We all bear the seeds of such atrocities within us. None of us can say, "I would NEVER do that." People who share my blood could and did.
When I read your description of how German child-rearing practices created a nation of good, church-going people who could go to work every day and commit atrocities I found myself recognizing many of the child-rearing techniques not only because my family is predominantly German, but because many of those techniques had been incorporated into the writings of Seventh-day Adventist founder Ellen G. White. White is considered to be a prophet by the Adventist church; questioning her writings is akin to questioning God. Questioning them in writing will get you "disfellowshipped," or stripped of church membership. Since Adventist theory holds that those who have "seen the truth" of Adventism and "backslidden" are damned for eternity, this is not something to be done lightly. I read your book, with its description of the abusive cycle, and I thought, "She's been to our house." It was the first time I really realized that what I had experienced as a child--and continued to experience as an adult--was part of something that could be explained, understood, and analyzed. I found your warning that healing often had to take place on a personal, rather than a familial, level most helpful.
My mother is erratic and violent; my father was violent, and a pedophile. Together, they used religion, isolation, and work to keep us contained, guilty, and too worn out to object to the abuse. Of the two of them, the family wisdom was that Mom was crazy, but Dad, for all his flaws, could at least be reasoned with. When I read your book I did not know the full scope of the abuse in my home. I knew about the acts, yes, but what I hadn't realized was that the abuse was not a secret. Finding out that my extended family, including people I had loved and trusted, had known what was happening and had acted only to protect Mom and Dad from prosecution nearly broke me. I had always comforted myself that no one knew, that if they did they would of course take steps to save us. But they knew, and they acted only to perpetuate the pattern. Coming to grips with that single fact was the one thing that allowed me to understand how very powerful family patterns can be in perpetuating the environment child abuse requires. Understanding that also convinced me that if I was going to break the patterns in my own life, I couldn't do it in the midst of a group of people who were busily telling me that "it wasn't so bad," that child molesting "isn't contagious," that "you have to teach your kids who's boss," that "it hadn't killed us, had it?"
When I was first coming to grips with my family history my parents agreed to join my sister and me for a family counseling session. In the session I tasked Dad--who had acknowledged that he had molested numerous family members--about memories I had that seemed to be of him molesting me. They had not been "lost" or "recovered"; I had always had them--and had never spoken of them because of the heavy freight of guilt, shame, and humiliation they carried. He told me I "had a weak grip on reality," that he had never molested any of his own children.
For eight years he continued to say that. He talked about how painful it was to be "wrongly accused," about how "suicide was an option." Meanwhile, he was telling his friends at church that we no longer came for visits because "the girls think we made them work too hard," (which they did--fourteen-hour days are too much for children under fifteen--but that wasn't why we weren't coming home, and he knew it). Ten years ago Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and my eldest sister and I (the only ones of the family still actively seeking to come to grips with our past and change our patterns) decided that Dad's death made pursuing our own healing inappropriate. We agreed to set aside our questions an do whatever we could to help Dad die well.
We did that--and Dad never missed an opportunity to remind us--particularly my eldest sister, who had never accused him of anything--how much our "false accusations" had hurt him. He even went so far as to say, "If this is what it takes to bring you kids back to the Lord, It's worth it." It was puzzling and infuriating at the same time--first, the presumption of presenting himself as a willing sacrifice for his children's sins (sort of a Christ figure) was irritating. Mom and Dad had forced religion upon us from babyhood, and had used Adventist doctrine to not only condone but absolutely deify abuse. Second, though, and more frightening, was Dad's constant refrain about being "falsely accused." It is a measure of his power in our family that many people believed he had been--even though no one had accused him of anything he hadn't admitted himself. The only thing my sister and I had done was say, "Your actions have consequences. Because you chose to act in certain ways, we have been shaped in in certain ways." And we weren't even doing that as he was dying.
You probably know where this is heading: Dad's last words were a confession--he called my oldest sister and, in the presence of witnesses, he told her that "they had done things sexually when she was a baby, and he had to know it was forgiven." And then he died. The irony was that his death, which should theoretically removed the source of division in our family, actually cemented it. The paradox of who he was proved too much for about half of us--they refused to acknowledge the full truth of him, preferring to remember him only as his public self--a staunch Adventist, a hard worker, and father who sacrificed to see to it that his children were educated and had more than he had had. They chose to deny that in addition to those things he was also a pedophile, an abuser, and controlling to the point of strangulation.
I did not grieve for him when he died; I couldn't cry. For the first time in my life I felt safe. It took me a year to understand the paradox he represented--the same paradox that the guards in the concentration camps embodied. They were loving fathers. And they were monsters. Both things were true. Neither truth invalidates the other. To understand that, I have had to grow to encompass the deep truth that coming to terms with my father forced me to understand--it was the same truth I caught a glimpse of in that long-ago film lit class. We all hold in us the seeds of life--and of destruction. We all hold the power to either perpetuate the harm that was done to us, or to change the pattern, to choose another path. I have chosen another path. My son is growing up without a close extended family. But he is also growing up without the monsters in the night.
And for that, I thank you. Your book set out the patterns of abuse, its causes, and its effects. It taught me to look for those patterns in myself--to choose whether I would raise my son as I was raised, or change the patterns. I chose change. I left organized religion (I am a very spiritual person, but consider it an intensely personal thing). I ended the damaging relationships in my life that urged me to continue the old patterns of abuse and victimization. I learned to look for ideas and models in places other than my family. Above all, I learned to simplify. Rather than enforcing a long list of rules and shibboleths, I have chosen to take the Wiccan rede and the Rule of three as the guides by which I raise my child--"If it harms none, do as you will," and "What you send out you get back--three times over." I have found them easy to teach, and simpler and at the same time more demanding than traditional christianity. I teach my son that we speak politely because in being rude we are both harming others and setting up a dynamic where that rudeness will be returned to us--with interest. We don't litter and we recycle because to to otherwise is harming the earth. We do the things we love if they don't harm others or ourselves. The possibilities in our lives are endless. I teach him that he can be whatever he wants to be, as long as it's good, positive work--that we do what we love, rather than what brings in the most cash.
In short, we are happy. It has been a long road; it is exactly nine years ago today that my Dad died. Sometimes it's a lonely road. But most important is that we are happy. And that's the key, and the message for others who feel trapped in abusive, painful lives. Happiness is possible. It is not easy, but it's there. There is hope, for those with courage, honesty, and persistence enough to find it.
You may publish this or not, at your own discretion. If you do, please use my pen name (it's below). I have chosen to tell my story, but I try to be respectful of the remainder of my family--who have not.

AM: As you say, it is not easy but it is possible to break the chaine if violence, hypocrisy and lies - if you dare to look at your truth. You succeded in doing this, and I warmly congratulate you.

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