March 15, 2005

The Roots of the Monsters They Became: How People Murder Their Own Souls

In my series on "The Roots of Horror," I have discussed in detail the childhood roots of adult cruelty and abuse, including the waging of unnecessary war. Those essays have been based in large part on the work of Alice Miller (and more in that series will be forthcoming in the near future). All of my articles based on Miller's work are listed here, together with a brief description of each installment; "The Roots of Horror" series is listed separately at the beginning.

At the opening of one of the earlier essays (concerning the publicly displayed psychology of Mel Gibson), I offered a brief summary of Alice Miller's major thesis:
In Part II of this essay, I excerpted several passages from Alice Miller's work. To focus this discussion on the issue I now wish to address, let me summarize my understanding of Miller's central argument. By demanding obedience above all from a child (whether by physical punishment, by psychological means, or through some combination of both), parents forbid the child from fostering an authentic sense of self. Because children are completely dependent on their parents, they dare not question their parents' goodness, or their "good intentions." As a result, when children are punished, even if they are punished for no reason or for a reason that makes no sense, they blame themselves and believe that the fault lies within them. In this way, the idealization of the authority figure is allowed to continue. In addition, the child cannot allow himself to experience fully his own pain, because that, too, might lead to questioning of his parents.

In this manner, the child is prevented from developing a genuine, authentic sense of self. As he grows older, this deadening of his soul desensitizes the child to the pain of others. Eventually, the maturing adult will seek to express his repressed anger on external targets, since he has never been allowed to experience and express it in ways that would not be destructive. By such means, the cycle of violence is continued into another generation (using "violence" in the broadest sense). One of the additional consequences is that the adult, who has never developed an authentic self, can easily transfer his idealization of his parents to a new authority figure. As Miller says:

"This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called 'healthy normality'--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselves are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology."

I want to stress that my discussion in this essay gives only the briefest sense of Miller's work, and of her extraordinarily important and valuable contribution to an area that has been largely neglected by our society at large. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you read Miller's books themselves. Here is a site with many links to Miller's work.

With regard to Miller's point that the idealization of authority figures is easily transferrable for those who have not been allowed to develop a true sense of self, events of the last few years have provided numerous examples.
If you had any remaining doubts about the veracity of Miller's analysis, consider the following excerpt from Jerry Falwell's book, Strength for the Journey: An Autobiography:
There were times that Dad's pranks bordered on cruelty. One of his oil-company workers, a one-legged man he nicknamed "Crip" Smith, complained about everything. Dad and Crip's co-workers got tired of the old man's bellyaching and decided to take revenge. One morning Crip called in sick and Dad volunteered to send by lunch to his grateful but suspicious employee. Dad and his chums caught Crip's old black tomcat, killed it, skinned it, and cooked it in the kitchen of one of Dad's little restaurants. They called it squirrel meat and delivered it to Crip on a linen-covered tray. When Crip returned to work the next morning, Dad and his co-conspirators asked him how he liked his meal. They knew he would complain even about a free home-cooked lunch, and when Crip called it "the toughest squirrel meat" he had ever eaten, they were glad to tell him why.
Consider once again that first sentence: "There were times that Dad's pranks bordered on cruelty." "Bordered on cruelty." That is the strongest condemnation that Falwell can offer -- Falwell, supposedly a "man of God," devoted to spreading a gospel of love, compassion and kindness -- with regard to an act of indescribably horrifying cruelty. Try to make real to yourself the psychology of a man who would kill a man's pet, cook it, and then serve it to him for lunch -- and no doubt get a good laugh out of it. And he did all this because he was tired of the other man's complaints. To call it monstrous does not begin to capture the deeply evil nature of such a psychology. Furthermore, Falwell still feels compelled to refer to it as a "prank" -- thus minimizing its authentic, almost ungraspable horror.

But in this passage from Falwell's autobiography, provided you appreciate the underlying psychological dynamics (which you can also see in many people you know, although hopefully not with regard to this extreme an example), you see the first denial, the denial that makes all the others possible and necessary -- the denial of the monstrous cruelty and inhumanity of our parents (when that is true, as it is in this case), so that we will not have to question their goodness or the "kindness" of their intentions, or the fact that whatever they might have done to us as children, they were doing it "for our own good." And all of this is done to avoid the further necessity of questioning authority, and to maintain the mechanism of obedience.

Later on, if you continue the denial and the lies, you will exhibit the psychology of a Mel Gibson, or a James Dobson -- or a Jerry Falwell.

And last but hardly least, you will have helped to make possible the horrors of our world, and you will have murdered your own soul.