Child abuse does not have to be physical or sexual. The most widespread forms of child abuse are psychological, and therefore harder to see, acknowledge, and eradicate. As abused children, we unconsciously pass on patterns of abuse visited on us to children, and to others we have power over including students, employees, and even friends and lovers.
The recent visit of a friend who is suffering greatly in a “battle” with her own “demons” reminded me of the important work of Alice Miller. My friend’s “demons” take the form of a persistent self-criticism laced with the feeling that “if only” she did or didn’t do certain things, her world would fall into place. My “demons” generally take a different form, telling me that I am helpless and that there is nothing I can do to ease my suffering.
Such “demons” were not implanted in my friend and me by the devil. They took root in interactions with our own parents, who were not themselves any different from most of the parents of their time and place. Recognizing that our parents were not “bad” people should not blind us to the great harm they did to us. However, when abused children speak of their abuse, the statement that their parents did not intend to harm them usually functions to deflect attention away from child abuse that really did occur. What happened to my friend and me was something like this. In many small and perhaps also a few traumatic interactions, we learned that our feelings do not count. “Don’t talk now, your father is tired.” “Stop making so much noise, your father has a headache.” “Don’t ask your mother for attention, can’t you see that she has more than enough to do with your younger brother.” Harmless in themselves, such messages, when repeated over and over, lead the child to believe that there must be something wrong with the feelings she has.
If no one expresses interest in her questions, she learns to suppress them. If she is told be quiet when she is playing happily, she learns that she has no right to be happy. If she is told that she cannot have her mother’s attention even when she needs it desperately, she learns that her own legitimate needs will not be met. If she insists on her own needs and then is told that she is a “bad” child for “wanting,” she learns to cut off the natural connection to her own body wisdom which tells her “this makes me happy” and “this hurts me.” She tries to become the “good” child who does not ask anybody for anything, but only caters to the needs of her parents. Or she acts out her rage, and is punished. Either way she learns that her feelings don’t count.
Such children become adults who often do not know what they really need and cannot ask for it when they do. Without connection to a body wisdom intended to guide relationships with others and the natural world, they construct a world based primarily on rational (or mental) calculations of what they feel others expect. They become confused and upset when “playing by the rules” does not bring satisfaction and happiness.
Is it any wonder that people raised with this form of child abuse—which is rampant in our culture—flock to all kinds of therapies and workshops hoping to reconnect to their emotions and their bodies. Many therapies are helpful. But few of them get to the root of the problem which is the abused child within (almost) all of us.
Until and unless we confront the abuse that really did happen to most of us, all of the therapies in the world will not help us. We will “keep on trying harder.” Trying to improve ourselves, trying to please others, and feeling frustrated.
The route to true healing is as simple as it is difficult to achieve. True healing begins when we can look the abused child in the eye and tell her, “This should not have happened to anyone, it should not have happened to you.” True healing begins when we can feel the feelings of the abused child within us: these are very, very sad feelings. The words that go with them are also very simple, “This hurts” and “Please listen to me.”
Alice Miller believed that when we stop listening to the hurt and frightened child who is our self, we begin to damage our capacity for empathy with the suffering of others. This, she says, is the root of evil. No devil required.
Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the fields of women and religion and feminist theology. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute.