Once upon a time, I read way too much psychology (general conclusion: 98% claptrap), but one writer who impressed me (1) was fallen away Freudian Alice Miller. Her basic argument was that the instinct to belong and to learn the ropes are so strong – it’s a life or death issue for children – that abused kids 1) believe whatever they need to believe in order to have a place in the ‘family’ and 2) will incorporate the behaviors they observe and suffer under into their view of themselves and the world. Result: excuses get perpetuated, and abuse gets passed on from generation to generation.
What I like about this argument is that it’s fundamentally Darwinian: we’re not asked to believe based on ‘insights’ available only to the enlightened, we are asked to consider a child’s environment from an evolutionary/survival perspective. What have human children had to do to survive to reproduce? They need to stay joined to the family/tribe that assures their survival. They’re dead if they don’t. They need to find mates and raise children themselves or they’re out of the gene pool. The tribe (broadly considered) is where they’ll do those things, if they do them.
Now we reach the modern age, where simple survival is so easy that almost any amount of crazy behavior doesn’t get one killed. Parents used to need to take great care that their children would not only survive to adulthood, but had a place in the tribe once they did – otherwise, they lose the survival game one step removed, when their offspring fail to produce offspring. We all come from a long line of successful reproducers.
Raised, as one woman I know was, by a single mom with 4 siblings each by different fathers? She has a baby, who is very likely to survive. Raised by the crazy grandmother who raised your even crazier mom? Still on the market. Cast aside like garbage when mom decides she’s tired of dad, and then given an ultimatum: actively approve of mom’s actions if you want to have any relationship with her? Done! And these are comparatively minor issues, almost beneath the notice of the properly conditioned modern mind. The bar keeps getting lower. The more serious abusers – Marion Zimmer Bradley, for example – are having their behavior normalized. Miller would have predicted this.
The scary part, according to Miller: these kids are very likely to repeat exactly what was done to them, because that’s what they absorbed as children! To do otherwise is to break the treaty, to reopen the wounds. Besides, what else would they do? What other behavior do they know? Thus, children left with relatives who molested them are very likely to leave their own children with relatives who will molest them; children molested by parents are likely to molest their children. Sadly, I have personally seen this type of behavior.
This is not rational – not something people understand and decide to do – but is rather the result of seeing no other option – if, in fact, the behavior even rises to a conscious level. Miller says that, in her experience, the presence of some sympathetic witness is key. If somebody at some point is able to let the kid know that this is not normal nor acceptable, that the kid is not crazy or evil, then the likelihood of resistance and recovery is greatly increased.(2) Other than that, we hope and pray for a miracle of healing.
All of these horror stories have introduced a line of reasoning which, when applied in general and to less traumatic situations, leads to and converges with a lot of what’s going on in the world. Here’s a brief list of topics where I think Miller’s logic is enlightening:
- The tribalism of American politics. The level of vehemence is pre-rational. Rare is the person, it seems, whose political positions are based on anything other than tribal allegiance, which is instilled in the cradle.
- Stockholm Syndrome. You believe what you need to believe to survive and belong.
- Public Schooling. Defended on purely theoretical grounds, even when real-world criticism is acknowledged. It’s one thing to admit mommy and daddy have flaws, another entirely to suggest we get rid of them. Thus, public schooling is routinely admitted to be a disaster AND something we must enthusiastically support. To admit it is merely an abusive system of control would be to question our own place in the tribe.
- Attacks on marriage. What could be more hurtful (and a greater cause of painful cognitive dissonance) than to insist that marriage is between a man and a woman for the sake of children and culture, when we all know it’s just an arrangement of convenience for any number of more or less serial mommies and daddies?
When I write about school, politics, and culture, Alice Miller’s analysis is always there, more or less in the background.
- My main problem with Miller is that she had not fallen away enough from Freud. She realized that his theorizing was wild overreach, but often failed to stop herself from doing the same sort of stuff. She did an entire book where she applied her modified form of psychoanalysis on a bunch of dead people – you know, based on their writings or art and other people’s biographies. Iffy, to put it mildly.
- I wonder if a particularly resilient and intelligent child couldn’t find his sympathetic witness through reading? Seems possible.