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Getting Through : Dealing

Barriers In The Mind - Alice Miller

from Jules - Saturday, April 10, 2004
accessed 1753 times

I received a link yesterday to a chapter in a book by Alice Miller from a anti-violence to children email list that I subscribe to. I have never read anything by her before and what I read resonated with me on a day when I needed some hope. Her analysis of the effects of abuse and why it is so difficult to even understand our impulses and behaviours made a lot of sense to me, and for me, if I can begin to understand something, it's not so frustrating or overwhelming. My own quest for self awareness didn't seem quite so futile.


For those who are interested, below are some portions of chapter 7 in Alice Millers book The Truth Shall Set You Free (2001) From what I understand, when she refers to "intelligence" this is not IQ or how smart someone is, but cognitive processes that guide how we think and react. Damaged intelligence doesn't mean stupidity, but that things that seem to be missing from thought processes. Someone can have a high IQ, but still have blocks, (barriers in the mind) as she terms them, preventing certain thought and emotional processes.
***********************

A number of researchers have established that neglect and traumatization of baby animals invariably leads to both functional and structural deficiencies in their brains. Gradually this effect is being found to be true for human babies as well. The profound implications of these findings are alarming.

Modern brain research has confirmed the structure of repression, denial, and splitting off which I proposed in my 1981 book Thou Shalt Not Be Aware to describe the processes our emotions are subjected to in early childhood. Many authors have indicated how important an early attachment to a key person is in order for a child's intelligence to develop normally. ... Katharina Zimmer and others have shown that the development of the intelligence as such is inextricably linked with the emotions experienced in early childhood.

This explains why the necessity of repressing pain in childhood leads not only to the denial of one's personal history but also to a denial of the suffering of children in general, and thus to major deficits in our cognitive capacity. I am deeply convinced that the absence of a good relationship with the mother or some mother substitute, coupled with physical abuse, including the kind of corporal punishment meted out in the name of good parenting, is among the sources that give rise to this lack of sensitivity and the barriers in the mind.

The work of leading brain specialists such as Joseph LeDoux, Debra Niehoff, Gandace Pert, Daniel Schacter, and Robert Sapolsky demonstrates that very early deficits in a child's communication with a primary caregiver can lead to defects in the brain. Small children who are beaten or otherwise abused also display such damage because a condition of extreme stress can bring about the destruction of newly formed neurons and their interconnections. The consensus is that early emotions leave indelible traces in the body and are encoded as information that will have a serious impact on the way we feel and think as adults, although those effects normally remain beyond the reach of the conscious mind and logical thought.

... I know that [bridging the emotional knowledge of the body (the unconscious) and its cognitive faculties] does take place in therapies systematically addressing the traumatic experiences and emotions of childhood and thus weakening those barriers in our minds. Once this has happened it is possible to activate areas of the brain not hitherto drawn upon, presumably for fear of the pain and distress that recalling early instances of abuse would arouse.

The approach adopted by Daniel Stern and the followers of John Bowlby still appears to gain only peripheral attention in psychoanalytic circles, perhaps because by his theory of initial attachment Bowlby exploded a taboo. By linking the causes of antisocial behavior with the absence of a resilient attachment to the mother, he was flying in the face of Freud's drive theory. ... But my conviction is that we have to go a step further than Bowlby went. We are dealing here not just with anti-social behavior and so-called narcissistic disorders but with the inescapable realization that denying and repressing our childhood traumas means reducing our capacity to think and conspiring to erect barriers in our minds. Brain research has succeeded in uncovering the biological foundations of the denial phenomenon. But the consequences, the impact on our mentality, have not yet been adequately contemplated. No one appears to be interested in examining how insensitivity to the suffering of children--a phenomenon found the world over--is bound up with a form of mental paralysis that has its roots in childhood .
...
Most people fear this kind of opening up. They merely rehearse their parents' opinions without realizing that they are floundering in logical contradictions because as children they learned not to feel their own pain. But the embers of that pain are not extinguished. If they were, we would not feel compelled to go on doing to others what was done to us when we were small. The memory traces we believe to have been blotted out forever persist and are still operative. This realization sinks in when we become aware of our own behavior.

I never cease to be amazed by the precision with which people often reproduce their parents' behavior, although they have no memory of their own early childhoods. A father will beat his son and humiliate him with sarcastic remarks but not have any memory whatsoever of having been similarly humiliated by his own father. Only in a searching therapeutic context will he (ideally) recall what happened to him at the same age. Merely forgetting early traumas and early neglect is no solution. The past always catches up with us, in our relationships with other people and especially with our children.

What can we do about this? We can try to become aware of what we ourselves suffered, of the beliefs we adopted in childhood as gospel truth, and then confront these beliefs with what we know today. This will help us to see and feel things to which we have closed our minds, for in the absence of a witness who can empathize with us and genuinely listen to us, we have no other way of protecting ourselves from the searing force of the pain. With the help of an enlightened witness, our early emotions will stand revealed, take on meaning for us, and hence be available for us to work on. But without such empathy, without any understanding of the context of a traumatic childhood, our emotions will remain in a chaotic state and will continue to cause us profound, instinctive alarm. By recourse to ideologies of all kinds, we manage to muffle this alarm so effectively that its true origins remain completely obscured.
...
Emotional blindness can be well studied by examining the careers of sect members. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, are in favor of corporal punishment and constantly warn that the end of the world is near. They are not aware that they bear within themselves the abused children they once were, and that they already experienced the end of the world when their loving parents beat them. What could be worse than that? But the Jehovah's Witnesses learned very early not to recall their pain and to tell their children that hitting doesn't hurt. The reality of the end of the world is constantly on their minds, but they do not know why.

The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu knew nothing of the way he had suffered as a child from having been pent up in one room with ten brothers and sisters in a state of extreme neglect. As an adult living in the monomaniacal opulence of luxurious palaces he repressed all explicit memory of it. But implicit (body) memories of his childhood sufferings remained, and they incited him to take vengeance on a whole nation. Like his own mother, the women in his dictatorship were not allowed to have abortions. Like his own parents, most couples in Romania were forced to have more children than they wanted or were able to care for. As a result Romanian orphanages were full to bursting with youngsters displaying severe behavioral disorders and disabilities caused by extreme neglect. Who needed all those children? No one. Only the dictator himself, whose unconscious memories spurred him to commit atrocities and whose mental barriers prevented him from recognizing them as atrocities.

The much-needed change in our mentality will take place in stages. Children today who are never beaten will think and feel differently in twenty years from the way we think and feel today. This is my firm conviction. They will have eyes and ears for the suffering of their own children, and this will do more to effect change than statistical surveys ever could. My optimism is based on the principle of prevention, of forestalling violence in childhood by means of legislation and parent education.

I am often asked what we can do to help those people already seriously harmed by the processes I have been describing. Do they all have to undergo lengthy courses of therapy? The quality of therapy has nothing to do with the time it takes. I know people who have spent decades going to psychoanalysts and are still ignorant of what went on in their childhood because the analysts themselves are reluctant to venture onto that terrain in search of their own childhood realities. For some years now, new directions in therapy targeted at traumas of this kind have frequently achieved success in a short space of time. One of them is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), developed by Francine Shapiro. I have too little experience of these therapies to understand why they are effective, but I can imagine that in many cases the therapist's interest in the traumatic experiences is enough to initiate a process whereby the language of the body is accorded the significance it merits.

I am frequently asked what I consider to be the decisive factor in psychotherapy today. Is it, as I have attempted to show in this book, the emotional and cognitive recognition of the truth, liberation from the enforced vow of silence and from idealization of one's parents? Or is it the presence of an enlightened witness? My view is that it is not a question of either-or but of both-and. Without an enlightened witness it is impossible to bear the truth of what happened to us in early infancy. But by the term enlightened witness I do not mean anyone who has studied psychology or has been through primal experiences with a guru and remained in his thrall. For me, enlightened witnesses are therapists with the courage to face up to their own histories and thereby to gain their autonomy rather than seeking to offset their own repressed feelings of ineffectuality by exercising power over their patients.

The body knows everything that has happened to it, but it has no language to express that knowledge. It is like the children we once were, the children who see all but, without the aid of the adults, remain helpless and alone. Accordingly, whenever the emotions from the past rise to the surface they are invariably accompanied by the fears of the helpless child dependent on the understanding, or at least the reassurances, of the parents. Even parents at a loss to understand their children because they are unaware of their own histories can provide such reassurance. They can assuage the children's fears (and their own) by giving them protection, safety, and continuity. And our cognitive system, in dialogue with the body, can do the same.

Unlike the body, our cognitive system knows little of the events in the distant past, for conscious memories are fragmentary, brittle, unreliable. But it has a huge fund of knowledge at its disposal, the faculties of a fully developed mind, and the life experiences a child cannot yet have. As adults are no longer powerless, they can offer the child within them (the body) protection and an attentive ear so that it can express itself in its own way and tell its story. In the light of these stories, the looming, incomprehensible fears and emotions of the adult take on meaning. Finally they stand in a recognizable context, no longer obscurely menacing.

The full text of this chapter can be found here: http://nospank.net/miller18.htm

Reader's comments on this article

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from elisha717
Wednesday, May 07, 2008 - 14:33

(Agree/Disagree?)

She is one of my favorite authors on that subject. Miller has a new book out called "The Body Never Lies" (though you probably already said it somewhere). My favorite book though is "The Drama of The Gifted Child".

She has helped me pull through this time in my life when I am having to cut my biological family completely out of my life.

Off the topic of Miller, I am very refreshed to read your honesty about dancing. I danced for 4yrs as well (DFW metroplex), I have been out for 3 1/2 yrs. I am not ashamed of what I did (it took a lot of guts, [more guts than my ma had] ), I put food on my son's table and now I have a very happy ending!!! I don't tell my peers at school, (only because I don't want the girls to start treating me bad and I don't want the guys thinking they can hit on me) but if I get a close friend I'll mention it. Plus stripping doesn't define who I am.
(reply to this comment)

from Big Sister
Tuesday, April 13, 2004 - 21:51

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)

I have also been a long time fan of Alice Miller's ideas. I am struck by her last two words in the piece you quote: "....obscurely menacing." That phrase brings to mind the people who come here to say STOP talking about your pain, rehashing old wounds or even exaggerating or lying about abuse suffered in TF. I think many of those people don't actually remember abuse. Perhaps they have become skilled at avoiding the faint memories. For them, all this angry talk is obscurely menacing. And because they have not yet been able to "face their histories and thereby gain autonomy..." the pain, abuse and anger expressed here looms larger and scarier for them than for those who are able to remember the pain and get angry about it.

I do agree with Jules' footnote about MovingOn being a kind of enlightened witness group process. I think something like that is exactly what is going on here and it is a good thing. What a skilled, trusted therapist does is speed up the process!

This article also makes me wonder more about the childhoods of the FGAs. I am sure we would find a greater than average incidence of abuse, neglect and powerlessness in their original families. And most of it unremembered except for a poignant feeling of not belonging or not being truly loved.
(reply to this comment)

From anovagrrl
Wednesday, April 14, 2004, 08:34

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)

When I hear adults say things like, "I was spanked as a child, but I always deserved what I got and I'm a better person for it"--I have to repress the urge to get in that person's face and yell, "Oh yeah? Maybe you just don't remember that much about your feelings of humiliation and rage, because I sure do. I absolutely HATED it when my parents slapped me across the face or hit me switches, hairbrushes, paddles, and belts. And it didn't make me a better person, either. It just made me a better liar and a bigger sneak."

I think the prevalence of childhood abuse among the FGAs is probably enormous. My own abuse issues certainly contributed to my attraction to TF, which played out in my need for a structured 'family" environment during late adolescence (18-24). When I look back on that time, it's pretty clear I needed a place to do some remedial developmental work on industry/inferiority while putting age-appropriate developmental tasks around isolation/intimacy temporarily on hold.

Obviously, I'm pretty big on the explanatory power of Erikson's psychosocial model of development with regard to understanding how childhood trauma impacts the adult lifecourse. An hypothesis I have about FGAs with abuse histories who stayed on in TF is that they didn't successfully resolve their autonomy/shame, initiative/guilt and industry/inferiority conflicts. Perhaps the FGAs who eventually do some remediation on their childhood psychosocial development are also the ones who eventually leave TF and move on to a more normative adult lifecourse.

When I read things written by FGAs still in TF, I often sense a lack of authenticity--like I'm listening to someone who is good at imitating what idealized adults are expected to say and do--it's a "parroting" behavior typically seen in pre-schoolers. I feel that "imitation of an adult" thing going on in Zerby's self-presentation BIG TIME. Or the folks in TF who make such a BFD about living by faith and not working in the System for money--it's like a defensive rationalization for a lack of confidence in their industrial abilities. What I sense are traumatized kids stuck in an unsuccessful resolution of a psychosocial developmental task.

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from anovagrrl
Monday, April 12, 2004 - 14:43

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)

Yaaaay! You've discovered Alice Miller. Some time ago I submitted a link to her stuff called "All Children Behave as They are Treated." In my view, Alice Miller is one of the world's major conceptual thinkers re: child abuse, child advocacy. Some people think she's too radical. I think she's just totally right on.
(reply to this comment)

From Jules
Monday, April 12, 2004, 15:21

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)
I wish I had checked out that link before. Thanks for submitting it. I definitely plan to read her books now. The concepts she presents are well thought out, well documented and make a great deal of sense. Sometimes I get very frustrated with myself for my own lack of empathy and the unkind things I do, with no concept of why I do them, only that I hate myself for being such a bitch at times. I also get very depressed about some of the cruel and hurtful things that are said on this web site to people who are hurting as much as those who are protecting their denial or venting their rage. The idea that we often don't consciously know how much of our childhood has affected our viewpoint makes a great deal of sense to me. Alice Miller says, and I agree, that those who discount her are often in denial themselves about their own history. It takes so much to even go there and look at the things that have hurt us. I totally agree with you, she is incredibly insightful and completely right on. Give society another decade (I guess I still have faith) and what she espouses will be the norm.(reply to this comment
from dina
Sunday, April 11, 2004 - 03:14

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)
Thanks for taking the time to posting that Jules, a very interesting article, containing useful information.
(reply to this comment)
from Jules
Saturday, April 10, 2004 - 15:49

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)

As a footnote, I like the term "enlightened witness" a great deal. I disagree with Miller that it must be a licenced therapist who is willing to face their own trauma. I think any person who is has the courage to open the door to their own experiences and to see them for what they were and how those experiences have effected them and their outlook on the world can be an enlightened witness to another's pain. Beyond all the jokes and political or intellectual debates, the cultural or religious differences, this is my hope for what we are to each other.

"With the help of an enlightened witness, our early emotions will stand revealed, take on meaning for us, and hence be available for us to work on. But without such empathy, without any understanding of the context of a traumatic childhood, our emotions will remain in a chaotic state and will continue to cause us profound, instinctive alarm ... Without an enlightened witness it is impossible to bear the truth of what happened to us..."
(reply to this comment)

From GoldenMic
Tuesday, April 27, 2004, 12:08

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)
Jules, Alice Miller's work is new to me too, and I am impressed. I will be obtaining more of her work. I also think you are right that the "enlightened witness" concept defines a large part of what makes this website so important. I believe that those who have been oppressed desperately need a forum where others can bear witness to thier pain, and I recall many hundreds of hours sitting around with ex-cultites, sharing our stories and the growing feeling that I was NOT all alone during those times, that these people listening were actually there with me, hurting right along with me. It made me feel less crazy. Also, as I have slowly begun to "lift the veil" on my own cult experience, I find myself more able to be the witness for others, and it does my heart good to be there for others, as I am able. Now, I can't wait to read some more from Miller. Thanks. Michael.(reply to this comment

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