Are Most of Us Abused Children? And is Child Abuse the Root of Evil? by Carol P. Christ


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.



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17 replies

  1. This makes a lot of sense to me Carol – that in not listening to our own pain and hurt, we also diminish our capacity to empathize with the suffering of others. In a way, who we are with ourselves and how we treat ourselves will be what we then are able to extend to others. The implications of this in terms of our relationship with animals and other non-human life is also interesting to think about. Now whether this is the root of evil – that’s a touch one because it implies the root of evil if very individualized, no?

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  2. This is very good and makes enormous sense. I’m not sure “evil” is the right word, but psychological abuse sure is wrong. Hurtful. Pitiable. Shameful.

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  3. This is a very acute assessment, Carol. I don’t know . . . I think it implies the root of evil is very communal and relational. It is a legacy. I see this dynamic in my own family and in my own life. There is a brokenness that gets passed down along with the family silver . . . and blessings as well. I think this is the root of all evil. Broken people, broken psyches just keep on breaking and breaking. Obviously there are varying degrees of abuse and violence. But I think it is certainly appropriate to call attention to this sort of insidious, low grade but consistent kind of destructiveness. It is very damaging. I think that my family was/is very psychologically and emotionally abusive and I would describe it as evil for sure. There is nothing more tragic for me than watching the minds of the women in my family slowly unravel. I realized when I was 18 that I was headed for the same fate and at that time I blamed my mother and grandmother especially. But eventually I realized their neurotic and abusive behavior toward me as a child and an adolescent stemmed from their own psychological and emotional abuse from the men in our family and from the patriarchal world in general. So it is not only communal and relational but systematic as well. To get back to Carol’s specific examples, how many times in films and media are children depicted as frustrating burdens rather than as messy blessings? I believe this too is a part of the patriarchal attitude that values control and power-over. Children are a mess. But they can be a delightful mess that we celebrate or a mess we try very hard to fix, clean up and contain. I fear most often parents attempt the later. If our primary care givers, parents usually, have this general disposition toward us as children–that we are problems, especially, as you mentioned Carol, our emotions or bodily desires/needs, then from an early age we learn to think of ourselves, our emotions, our bodies as “problems” that need to be fixed and contained and we learn to view other bodyselves in the same light. While I do believe these dynamics are full of spiritual power/energy, to cast blame or focus onto the devil certainly detracts from the fact that these are very practical, social and relational dynamics within which we certainly DO have agency. This kind of abuse is not absolute, it is simply ubiquitous.

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  4. Carol, I am forever grateful to you for bringing us from one Goddess conversation to another. Although I speak from what is commonly known as “Hindu” tradition, which is a Western construct because in India there are many different ways to practice Hinduism. India’s spirituality is highly subjective and personalized, I hope to add something to our conversation, as painfully aware as I am of the epistemic chasms brought about by language and assumptions of those who are not aware of the beauty and depth of this panentheist oral tradition rooted in ad infinitum cycles of story within a story: or interrelatedness without beginning or end.

    I agree with Carol that child abuse may be the root of all evil. Where else did we begin if not as children? The “power” of parenting comes with greater responsibility than most of us have been prepared to imagine. A more critical study on parenting, mothering and fathering, would perhaps require greater spiritual maturity than the normative concepts applauded in 20th century Western societies. Let me try to explain this sweeping categorical remark. A parent whose identity is that of an abused and downtrodden individual is not prepared to pass on or inspire the noble legacy of Goddess and God beings to her/his children. Are most of us in-between this spectrum? Or do most of us identify more with one or the other, with rare glimpses of the victim identity or the Goddess God identities in our lives?

    In India there was a queen called Madalasa. Unfortunately or fortunately, she had four sons (I personally wished she had some daughters) and from birth she assigned the identities of enlightened saints to each one of her sons by singing the following lullaby, “O sweet, sweet baby, you are ever pure, unaffected by the changes of the world inside and outside, ever compassionate, Enlightened and Free. My arms are your cradle of Love, you are Pure, Enlightened, Untouched (by extreme forces or polarities), ever Free!”*

    Mothers above all (and fathers second) hold the key to the construct of identity in the human child. Unfortunately, we have not been acculturated to construct a psychology or social identity based on the noblest human ideals. Our most prevalent psychology is rather based on moving from a downward slope from relative “normal” to psychopathology. Under such sociopathological conditions, how can we hope to find kinship in human identity as Divine? Sometimes a terrible weakness shakes in my knees as I feel paralyzed by the scope of the work ahead of us. Then I come visit this site and gather renewed hope.

    I believe that by uplifting the education, solidarity and living conditions among all women, women can redefine humanity and civil-ization. I pray that more women uncover the Goddess/God identity needed to rage and love for carrying out the noble mission of raising Goddesses and Gods on this earth. I have faith and hope, because I have met both in human flesh. With loving gratitude, yours in Goddess, Vrinda

    The Cradle Song of Love
    (excerpt based on the story of Queen Madalasa’s lullaby to her four sons)

    Oh sweet, sweet baby,
    See how the stars
    are sparkling above.
    They shine for you alone.
    Why do you cry?
    Why do you cry?
    When I hold you
    Warmly in my arms?

    Churus:
    My arms are your cladle of love.
    You are pure, enlightened,
    Untouched, ever free.
    Shuddhosi Buddhosi Niranja Nosi… (Sanskrit)

    * Swami Lalitananda, Yoga Mystic Songs for Meditation. Published by Swami Jyotirmayananda, Miami, FL. 1975.

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  5. Forgot, the story of Queen Madalasa comes from the Markandeya Puranas, the same source as the Devi Mahatmya–the exploits of Goddess Kali-Durga, Goddess Lakshmi and Goddess Saraswati.

    Oh, the ancient feminists! :)

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  6. Hi Carol, Your succinct and insightful overview of the legacy of abuse/trauma is spot on. Having worked for over 25 years with women and their families struggling with trauma and addiction recovery, I am all too familiar with these issues. As a sister traveler on this healing journey I have given much to the process.

    In my view, the abuse of children is rooted in patriarchal religious dogma that requires dominator social systems that imagine the least powerful as commodities to control – children, women, “dark others,” nature.

    The abusive family system is a microcosm of the dominator, patriarchal society.

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  7. Dear Carol —

    Thank you so much for this post! It’s hard to look at the degradation and harm that is rampant in our culture, but it’s essential to do so for our healing. Whether we call it evil or not has more to do with the variety of our thealogies than with what you’re describing, something we ALL know as women under patriarchy (I think ALL men know it, too, although it has other ramifications for them).

    My mother has just moved into my house, so many of the demons that I had repressed as a child have surfaced and are making my life difficult (and so is my mother — she can’t sleep well, and, therefore, grumpy and she’s super anxious, none of which helps me in maintaining some semblance of my own sanity). I am trying very hard to be present with that sad little girl who is saying over and over, “This hurts” and “Please listen to me,” even in the face of the mother who couldn’t hear me when I was young (and can’t hear me now). This is challenging and sometimes it feels like another G…d…ed growth experience, even though I know that it is the next step on my path to healing.

    And thank you, Vrindajamunashakti, for the wonderful story of Queen Madalasa and even more for the cradle song she sings. I will sing it to myself when overwhelmed by what more and more feels like the Kali Yuga to me. And I will give it to my nephew and his fiance, who just gave birth to the next generation of our family. Remembering that our challenge is not to get in the way of that next generation, so they can regain more of their humanity (and therefore their divinity) is what this story so aptly demonstrates.

    Love and light,
    Nancy

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  8. Carol, I just spoke with my therapist about this very thing today. I feel as if the spirited and souled child I am was too much for my parents. My demons are that I want too much, I ask too much of others. The things that I find life-giving were not valued by my parents, in fact, they were dismissed as impractical and illogical. I learned to stop wishing for, feeling, desiring anything beyond what can be known materially of physically. I hid all the other energies I felt deep within myself, afraid to say anything to anyone because I would be told to get my head out of the clouds, or that I was lazy, a dreamer, etc… It was too much for my parents to allow me to be who I am. I think this is indeed abuse. I am working on retrieving my soul through play – art, dance, music, psychic-spiritual reading, conversation and also dreamwork. Thank you for this blog post. You have no idea how much it means to me tonight. Synchronicity. Goddess.

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  9. When I say that child abuse may be the origin of evil, I am working with a care-based ethical system in which empathy is the motivator of caring for others, or ethical action and living. So if empathy is compromised so is ethical action and so are ethical societies.

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  10. Thank you so much for this post, Carol, and for sharing your personal story. As I read this I could not help but read from a parent’s perspective. As a mother I have days where I make mistakes, lose my patience, as I’m sure all parents due. But I am always worried that those mistakes will be damaging or will be what my daughter remembers, rather than the many good things we share.

    Parenting is SO hard. It is VERY rewarding – I love my daughter with all my being, but as a parent I make mistakes. This being said, because I adopted I had to go through nearly a year of training and investigation to become a parent. I’m also a new mother later in life. So, that leaves me to wonder, what kind of mistakes are parents making who have had NO training? What about teen parents or very young adult parents?

    Our society requires nothing of those who can conceive on their own and it romanticizes motherhood. I think very often women and girls are having children and are totally surprised by the amount of work that is required. It is not the fairytale they imagined and they’ve had no parenting training.

    So, I think you are not alone in what you experienced…and as you say, it is not because your parents are bad people, it is because our society does not properly prepare women and men for parenthood. I often wonder how we can change this?

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  11. Dear Gina, Thanks for your honest response. Alice Miller says the most important thing is to tell the child that her feelings count. If a teacher or a grandparent or the other parent or a neighbor says: what your parents said/did was wrong, you have a right to your feelings, this can make all the difference. But if they collude and say, you shouldn’t have made your parents so upset, i.e. you are in the wrong, then the child “gets” the message that her feelings are not OK. So for parents like you who understand this, all you have to do is your best, and when you lose it, to apologize and tell the child she was not wrong to feel something, and you are sorry that you were too tired/stressed to hear her then, but you want to hear her now. This will break the cycle of abuse, I am sure of it. Love, Carol

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    • PS If you or others are reading this only from a parents’ persepctive, it is important for you and all parents to look back the child within you. When you do this, you will be looking at your own actions from the child’s perspective–your own self and your child. If you stay in the parents’ perspective only, then you could be avoiding looking at your own story and the influence it has on your present actions.

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  12. Thank you for writing this Carol! In my own life I have found it helpful to look within, remember the pain, forgive those who harmed me both physically and mentally and then try to let it go. This is some of the hardest inner work in the world, but so necessary for happiness and healthiness. If I do have feelings of sadness come up I think it’s important to acknowledge them and try to understand what triggered the feelings. I feel most of us are somewhat damaged, and knowing this helps me have empathy.

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    • Thank you too for acknowledging the truth of our lives. Alice Miller says that if brought up too soon the idea of forgiving the abuser can function to deflect attention from the pain that occurred. I am quite happy to forgive someone who actually acknowledges what happened and repents of their actions. In regards to those who have no interest in acknowledging the pain they caused, I personally do not “forgive.” Rather I move to a dispassionate place where I do not wish them harm and even wish them well, while neither forgiving nor forgetting what happened.

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  13. The issue of child abuse is like water – it runs everywhere, permeating all membranes. I have had my own experience of neglect and abandonment that I have seen affect my whole life. And it seems to be the source of most, if not all, the personal and social issues that we have. This makes me think that Child Abuse Prevention is be the number one issue we can commonly take on; it would stop so many problems. As women we have the potential of great power because we are so often in relationships and can be influential there in raising healthy children and requiring respectful partners. We love relationships and can reach far and wide through them. It behooves us to learn to have really good relationships and to teach others. It is an alternative way to change the world, person by person. It comes back to supporting women as mothers.

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  14. Thank you for writing this.

    Like

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