Alice Miller: War, Child Abuse and the Black Pedagogy

By Jaime Seltzer

Alicija Englard was born in 1923 to a Hasidic orthodox family in the area of Lodz, Poland. She was an intelligent and well-read girl who felt stifled by her conservative upbringing. When she and her family stayed with an aunt in Berlin during her late childhood, the change of scene allowed Alicija more freedom and independence. However, the rise of Hitler to power forced her family to flee back to Poland, which seemed even harder to bear after such a brief period of liberty.

When Hitler invaded Poland, Alicija became Alice, and Englard became Rostovska. Alice used forged papers of identity to smuggle her family out of the ghetto; but her father, who could only speak Yiddish, remained in the ghetto where he died a few years later.

Raised in a time when revealing her true identity would quite literally mean her death, Alice placed all these events into a mental lockbox and never spoke about them again, even to her family. As explained once to her son, “I had to extinguish my whole biography.

She was also able to demonstrate that Hitler himself had been beaten many times, and that he believed that it was these beatings that allowed him to ‘turn off’ his emotions – put another way, that his abuse had quite literally trained him to be a psychopath.

There are records that state that Alice earned a degree from the University of Warsaw in Poland, perhaps under an assumed name; but by the mid-1940s, she had moved to Switzerland, where she had earned a scholarship to the University of Basel to study psychology, sociology, and philosophy. She earned her doctorate there in 1953.

Perhaps because discussing her own, personal experiences with Nazism would require dropping the facade she had been trained to maintain from childhood, Alice began to wonder on a broader scale how Nazism had gained such a strong foothold in Germany. She also thought frequently of her own upbringing and of the impact it continued to have on her as an adult.

Eventually, Miller began to publish her ideas about child-rearing and its relationship to violence. She developed and popularized the theory that abuse begets abuse – that is, that children who are beaten and emotionally abused by their parents are more likely to justify doing the same to their own children. She spoke of how physical abuse teaches children that order and goodness can only come from violence, an idea that lingers even in their adult minds. But she didn’t stop there. Miller went on to extrapolate that it was this, initial abuse as children that was at the heart of all war and violent acts committed by adults.

Alice Miller

Alice Miller and her card in Women in Science.

Miller’s assertion may seem simplistic, but she made a very persuasive argument. She compared Hitler and other totalitarian dictators like him to the authoritarian Father, whose orders must be unquestionably obeyed, or violence against the disobedient child will result. She was able to provide evidence that Hitler’s talents at oratory and acting allowed him to imitate the father-figure that many Germans had been conditioned to fear/love from childhood. She was also able to demonstrate that Hitler himself had been beaten many times, and that he believed that it was these beatings that allowed him to ‘turn off’ his emotions – put another way, that his abuse had quite literally trained him to be a psychopath.

This was an incredibly harrowing insight to parents who had been violent with their children because it was all they knew of child-rearing – because such actions were, in some ways, seen to be for the child’s ‘own good’. Miller related this to the ‘black pedagogy’ first discussed by Katharina Rutschky – a belief by some societies and cultures that children possess the ‘seeds of evil’ that can only be weeded out by emotional manipulation, humiliation, or brute force. Miller directly went against Freud, the eminent psychoanalyst of the day, by stating that children were born innocent as opposed to with dark urges that only society could stamp out through the use of violence and punishment.

Alice Miller’s view of child-rearing and its connections to violence and war lingered in the public understanding long after her death in 2010. Many of her ideas, such as the conviction that the abused are more likely to become abusers are now viewed as common sense.

Perhaps most tragic aspect of Miller’s findings is that her own experience proved her point more eloquently than her theories ever could. Her oldest son, Martin, was handed off to an acquaintance because he would not breastfeed, and then to an aunt for a few months before he was sent off to a children’s asylum, where he did not see either of his parents for years. At age eight, he was brought back into the home, but beaten by his father with his mother’s silent complicity, and washed ‘compulsively’. When, as a young man in his twenties, Martin finally agreed to therapy at his mother’s suggestion, the therapist shared his notes with Alice: a betrayal that was as illegal as it was horrifying.

Alice acknowledged the disservice she had done to her own children late in her life, stating that despite her empathy for children as a whole, she could never manage to empathize with her own son. On her death, the New York Times noted, “…the most motivated advocates of children carry extreme traumas around with themselves – experiences which empower their work, but which they “unload” as excess baggage, especially onto those with whom they identify the most as their own: their own children, students, [and] proteges.

References:
Connors, D. (1997). Alice Miller: the most significant thinker in psychiatry today – interviewed by Diane Connors. In This Is A War. Retrieved from http://www.thisisawar.com/AuthorsAlice.htm
Fetscher, C. (2013, September 17). The Mask of the Children’s Rights Activist. Der Tagesspiegel. Retrieved from http://screamsfromchildhood.com/martin_miller.html
Grimes, W. (2010, April 26). Alice Miller, Psychoanalyst, Dies at 87; Laid Human Problems to Parental Acts. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/us/27miller.html?_r=0
Miller, A. (1983). The Nature of Abuse – Adolf Hitler: how could a monster succeed in blinding a nation? In This Is A War. Retrieved from http://www.thisisawar.com/AbuseNature.htm

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