One thing a classic liberal education is supposed to do for you is make you suspicious of ideas you find emotionally attractive. Like the brutal honesty demanded by science, it is just assumed to rub off on students who work their way through all those tough classic texts. Just about every freshman finds Plato attractive. Like the young men who followed Socrates around just to see him lightly eviscerate some pompous fool, we thrilled to the discovery that pompous fools could be eviscerated, and craved more. Then we run into Aristotle, and don’t like it much, because he, effectively, says: enough with the fun and games, time to stand your ground and say what you mean. Perhaps some of us get the idea that Socrates would have met his match, or more, in Aristotle (although I suspect they would have gotten along pretty well while having some doozies of arguments, because they had doozies of arguments. Socrates must have been bored out of his skull with the Ions and Menos of the world.)
Then, as you move on through the list, one precious idea after another gets beat up. You think that you’ve reached the pinnacle of sophistication as an 18 year old who has learned that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing, only to have that self-refuting notion beat up by Aristotle’s moderate realism. Then, perhaps, you see how Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemology lead to places you might not want to go, making Descartes very appealing. But Descartes leads to Hume, Berkeley, and, eventually, Kant, while Thomas leads to science. So now, maybe, Descartes is less appealing, and you take another look at Aristotle…
Thus, by a million paths, the serious student learns to take extra care about accepting too readily ideas that he finds attractive, because he finds them attractive.
When I read Alice Miller‘s books 30+ years ago, I found her ideas very attractive, even though her Freudian approach was seriously off putting. I like to say that Miler was a fallen-away Freudian, but had not fallen away nearly far enough. What made her assertions more acceptable to me was how well they fit with evolutionary theory. On the fly as I read her books, I would substitute arguments from natural selection for hers, the unholy offspring of Freud and Rousseau.
Brutal honesty moment: in other words, I back-filled psychological theories I found emotionally appealing with evolutionary just-so stories. I get it. I suppose my purpose in writing this out, apart from trying to make it as clear as possible to myself, is to invite criticism.
What are these theories? I’ve mentioned them before, but never in great detail. Here, I’m paraphrasing them based on 30 year old memories and replacing Freudian turns of phrase with Darwinian language. These start out as truisms (I should hope) but turn dark:
- For their very survival, children need to be part of a family/tribe (Extended family – I’m just going to use ‘tribe’ from here on out). In our evolutionary environment, no children lived to reproduce outside of a tribe. Therefore, intense selection pressure has been applied to children in favor of group membership and against running off or doing anything that might get them excluded. (1)
- As sophisticated social mammals, children by instinct incorporate whatever behaviors are required for tribal membership into their base understanding of the world as foundational assumptions. (This is nothing more than saying ‘tribalism’ is a base state for humans and is pre-rational). Kids don’t think about these requirements (much), they just are.
- We see it in the ‘attachment-promoting behaviors’ of babies and toddlers before they are even aware of what they’re doing. As they grow, their behaviors become more complex and more specific to their particular environment. In this, people are only the most sophisticated among animals – you cat and dog do this as well.
All well and good, and I hope not too controversial. It should be noted that the reciprocal activity on the part of the adults – nurturing the tribe so that the child might survive – must also be a part of any environment of evolutionary adaptation. So parents and relative – the tribe – can be expected to behave in such a way as to promote the survival and integration into the tribe of its children. That’s the model that seems to have been developed and to have worked over the last half a million years or so, at least. There’s nothing necessarily nice or pretty about it – it’s just what works.
But what happens when, as in the modern world for the last couple hundred years in many places, many people survive despite having no tribe in the evolutionary sense? What happens when the brutal culling mechanisms of Darwinian survival get put on hold? Whatever else may happen, it is now possible on a scale and to a degree never known before for children to be neglected, abused, and traumatized – and still live, and perhaps even still reproduce.
- Children who are neglected, abused and otherwise traumatized will, through the all but inexorable drive of instinct, incorporate their neglect, abuse and trauma into their pre-rational view of the world. Miller, in her decades of work as a psychoanalyst, noted a remarkable ability of her patients to excuse, ignore and explain away the objectively horrible things done to them – which is what one would expect, under the evolutionary explanation above. Aside: this, at least, seems to be obviously true from just routine interactions with people.
- So we have a world increasingly filled with damaged children of all ages who, for basic survival reasons, have accepted their mistreatment at the hands of those who were supposed to love them, rationalized it, and who are highly motivated to accept it as part of their tribal membership fees.
- It gets worse: as part of the emotional mechanisms that ‘worked’ insofar as they did in fact survive into adulthood, their experiences and coping mechanisms now become the template for how to raise any children they might have. Thus, Miller observed the pattern where someone who had been sexually abused as a child, even if they were not themselves an abuser, would routinely put their children into situations where they were likely to be abused. To do otherwise would be to confront the careful structure that allowed the parent to survive in the first place. Very painful and disorienting.
- This is expressed in the title of one of her books: Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. To acknowledge one’s own mistreatment enough to protect one’s own child requires reopening some deep and carefully scarred over wounds. Rather than do that, we readily subject our kids to what we experienced, no matter how horrible.
Miller says that a sympathetic witness, someone who understood the trauma and abuse on some level and could tell the child that it wasn’t right, was all but essential to having any hope for healing. That witness provided a counter to all the stories the kid would otherwise make up in order to keep his membership in the tribe: that daddy didn’t mean it, that momma does really care, that what uncle did wasn’t so bad, and so on – all the little myths one runs into whenever one is drawn into other people’s dramas. Lacking such a witness, it seemed to Miller all but impossible to get past all the barricades built up by the child.
So, there you have it: I see – I think, that’s the question – people reenacting in their child’s life whatever it was that traumatized them as children: people who were abandoned at 15 abandon their own kids as teens; children of divorce get divorced; Sexually abused kids become libertines and expose their own kids to that life; and so in a million ways.
There’s more, but that’s the general outline. I’m not just saying that miserable childhoods tend to make for miserable adults. I’m saying that miserable childhoods tend to all but compel people to make their own children miserable in the same way.
Anyway, make any sense? I readily acknowledge that Miller is a loon – I read most if not all of her books, and she gets into speculation that’s little better than palm reading in many places. And, as mentioned, even though she became one of Freud’s harshest critics, she still thought and spoke like a Freudian. Am I just experiencing confirmation bias when I seem to see this inflicting of one’s childhood trauma on one’s own children everywhere I look, or is it real?
- And, of course, tribes can’t survive without children, either, so, at least by nature, tribes care about their children as passionately as children yearn to belong. Note that this doesn’t imply any sort of lovie-dovie niceness: the ever-popular Yanomami tribesmen raise their sons to be good little homicidal sociopaths, because that approach has been proven to work. Similarly, their daughters are raised to seek the most murderous sociopaths as mates.
- And then expanded, by design, to school, with its artificial and arbitrary tribes of classrooms and grades. But Miller doesn’t go there, as far as my memory can recall.