the essential role of an enlightened
witness in society
by Alice Miller, Ph.D.
Since adolescence I have always wondered why people take pleasure in
humiliating others. Clearly the fact that some people are sensitive
to the suffering of others proves that the destructive urge is not a
universal aspect of human nature. So why do some tend to solve their
problems by violence while others don't?
Philosophy failed to answer my question, and the Freudian theory of
the death wish has never convinced me. It was only by closely examining
the childhood histories of murderers, especially mass murderers, that
I began to comprehend the roots of good and evil: not in the genes,
as commonly believed, but often in the earliest days of life. Today,
it is inconceivable to me that a child who comes into the world among
attentive, loving and protective parents could become a predatory monster.
And in the childhood of the murderers who later became dictators, I
have always found a nightmarish horror, a record of continual lies and
humiliation, which upon the attainment of adulthood, impelled them to
acts of merciless revenge on society. These vengeful acts were always
garbed in hypocritical ideologies, purporting that the dictator's exclusive
and overriding wish was the happiness of his people. In this way, he
unconsciously emulated his own parents who, in earlier days, had also
insisted that their blows were inflicted on the child for his own good.
This belief was extremely widespread a century ago, particularly in
I found it logical that a child beaten often would quickly pick up the
language of violence. For him, this language became the only effective
means of communication available. Yet what I found to be logical was
apparently not so to most people.
When I began to illustrate my thesis by drawing on the examples of Hitler
and Stalin, when I tried to expose the social consequences of child
abuse, I encountered fierce resistance. Repeatedly I was told, "I, too,
was a battered child, but that didn't make me a criminal." When I asked
for details about their childhood, I was always told of a person who
loved them, but was unable to protect them. Yet through his or her presence,
this person gave them a notion of trust, and of love.
I call these persons helping witnesses. Dostoyevsky, for instance, had
a brutal father, but a loving mother. She wasn't strong enough to protect
him from his father, but she gave him a powerful conception of love,
without which his novels would have been unimaginable. Many have also
been lucky enough to find enlightened and courageous witnesses, people
who helped them to recognize the injustices they suffered, to give vent
to their feelings of rage, pain and indignation at what happened to
them. These persons never became criminals.
Anyone addressing the problem of child abuse is likely to be faced with
a very strange finding: it has frequently been observed that parents
who abuse their children tend to mistreat and neglect them in ways resembling
their own treatment as children, without any conscious memory of their
own experiences. It is well known that fathers who bully their children
through sexual abuse are usually unaware that they had themselves suffered
the same abuse. It is only in therapy, even if ordered by the courts,
that they discover, stupefied, their own history, and realize thereby
that for years they have attempted to act out their own scenario, just
to get rid of it.
How can this be explained? After studying the matter for years, it seems
clear to me that information about abuse inflicted during childhood
is recorded in our body cells as a sort of memory, linked to repressed
anxiety. If, lacking the aid of an enlightened witness, these memories
fail to break through to consciousness, they often compel the person
to violent acts that reproduce the abuse suffered in childhood, which
was repressed in order to survive. The aim is to avoid the fear of powerlessness
before a cruel adult. This fear can be eluded momentarily by creating
situations in which one plays the active role, the role of the powerful,
towards a powerless person.
But this is not an easy path to rid oneself of unconscious fears. And
this is why the offense is ceaselessly repeated. A steady stream of
new victims must be found, as recently demonstrated by the pedophile
scandals in Belgium. To his dying day, Hitler was convinced that only
the death of every single Jew could shield him from the fearful and
daily memory of his brutal father. Since his father was half Jewish,
the whole Jewish people had to be exterminated.
I know how easy it is to dismiss this interpretation of the Holocaust,
but I honestly haven't yet found a better one. Besides, the case of
Hitler shows that hatred and fear cannot be resolved through power,
even absolute power, as long as the hatred is transferred to scapegoats.
On the contrary, if the true cause of the hatred is identified, is
experienced with the feelings that accompany this recognition, blind
hatred of innocent victims can be dispelled. Sex criminals stop their
depredations if they manage to overcome their amnesia and mourn their
tragic fate, thanks to the empathy of an enlightened witness. Old wounds
can be healed if exposed to the light of day. But they cannot be repudiated
A Japanese crew shot a film of therapeutic work in a prison in Arizona,
where the method was based, inter alia, on my books. I was sent the
video cassette and found the results very revealing. The inmates worked
in groups, talked a lot about their childhood, and some of them said,
"I've been all over the place, and killed innocent people to avoid the
feelings I have today. But I know that I can bear these feelings in
the group, where I feel safe. I no longer need to run around and kill,
I'm at home here, I recognize what happened. The past recedes, and my
anger along with it."
For this process to succeed, the adult who has grown up without helping
witnesses in his childhood needs the support of enlightened witnesses,
people who have understood and recognized the consequences of child
abuse. In an informed society, adolescents can learn to verbalize their
truth and to discover themselves in their own story. They will not need
to avenge themselves violently for their wounds, or to poison their
systems with drugs, if they have the luck to talk to others about their
early experiences, and succeed in grasping the naked truth of their
own tragedy. To do this, they need assistance from persons aware of
the dynamics of child abuse, who can help them address their feelings
seriously, understand them and integrate them, as part of their own
story, instead of avenging themselves on the innocent.
I have wrongly been attributed the thesis according to which every victim
inevitably becomes a persecutor, a thesis that I find totally false,
indeed absurd. It has been proved that many adults have had the good
fortune to break the cycle of abuse through knowledge of their past.
Yet I can certainly aver that I have never come across persecutors who
weren't victims in their childhood, though most of them don't know it
because their feelings are repressed.
The less these criminals know about themselves. the more
dangerous they are to society. So I think it is crucial for the therapist
to grasp the difference between the statement, "every victim ultimately
becomes a persecutor," which is false, and "every persecutor was a victim
in his childhood," which I consider true. The problem is that, feeling
nothing, he remembers nothing, realizes nothing, and this is why surveys
don't always reveal the truth. Yet the presence of a warm, enlightened
witness - therapist, social aid worker, lawyer, judge - can help the
criminal unlock his repressed feelings and restore the unrestricted
flow of consciousness. This can initiate the process of escape from
the vicious circle of amnesia and violence.
© 1997 Alice Miller