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Beth Coulter

Philosophy Final

December, 1999







Poisonous Pedagogy-

Oppression of Abuse Victims

In America

"Love often has the face of violence"





Who and or what is responsible for the continuing oppression of abuse victims? First, let me define what is meant by "oppression". Within our society there is a code of silence about what occurs behind the closed doors of "home". It is called "airing dirty laundry" and all are encouraged by society to "keep what goes on in the home in the home". It is this very silence that allows the abuse to continue, the abuse being oppression in and of itself.

Alice Miller, a Swiss psychoanalyst for the past 25 years has made abuse her specialty, due to her own abusive childhood at the hands of her mother. In her book For Your Own Good, she writes, "The general public is still far from realizing that our earliest experiences unfailing affect [us] as a whole." (pg. xiv)

Within the first two years, a great deal is done to a child to mold it and shape it in any way the parent sees fit with no real repercussion for any mistreatment (ibid:7) unless reported. Why do parents mistreat their children? For the same reasons as in previous generations, in abusing their children they are attempting to regain the power they once lost to their parents. (ibid: 16)

In order to understand the magnitude of this problem, it needs to be revealed in statistics. An Internet search of New York Times Online under the topic "Child Abuse" returned 589 articles since January 1998. That works out to approximately two articles a day, about 90% having to do with actual child abuse cases.

Alice Miller reports in Banished Knowledge that the estimated number of unreported cases of sexual child abuse is much greater than other forms of maltreatment, 20 cases for every 1 that is reported (pg.65). Of all forms of sexual child abuse, incest is most frequent. The reasons for it as well as other "domestic" situations not being reported are varied - a commandment to remain silent to the victim, denial by both the victim and the abuser, as well as silence on the part of the rest of the family (ibid: 70).

This denial mutates until it becomes repression. While statistics in New York prisons show that 36% of women inmates and 44% of male inmates report abuse in their childhood (NYTimes: 4/12/99), Miller feels that 100% of inmates are abuse victims. The reason the statistics don't reveal this she claims, is because of not only "repression of feelings, but also denying the facts" to themselves (Banished, pg.28).

According to L.T. Sanford in Come Tell Me Right Away, 1 in 4 girls are victims of rape, incest and/or child molestation by the age of 18; boys are increasingly becoming as victimized. Fathers who were abused as children are more likely to abuse their own children. Potential child abusers can be characterized as coming from multi-problemic families, suffering trauma from childhood abuse (Nat'l C: CD-04753). In all studies it is apparent that intergenerational abuse is the prevalent problem in child abuse.

Alice Miller uses the term "poisonous pedagogy" to describe reasons for the cycle of abuse. She has done in-depth studies of abusive backgrounds in the leaders of the Third Reich, most notably Adolf Hitler. Among the leading figures she writes, "I have yet to find a single one that did not have a strict and rigid upbringing." (For Your Own Good, pg. 65)

She addresses Hitler's rise to power with the following reasoning, "When a man comes along and talks like ones own father and acts like him, even adults will forget their democratic rights or will not make use of them… One is not normally aware that something is a continuation of their childhood."(Ibid: 75).

How does this relate to abuse victims in America? Within our country there is still a strict view of masculinity that forces boys to suppress any expression of emotions or need (Nat'l C: CD-02897). This standard of upbringing is also visible in the upbringing of Hitler and his Sub-Commanders. Good German men were trained from childhood to be blindly obedient to their patriarchs and to be completely unemotional (For Your Own Good pg. 65).

Many people believe the effects of child abuse are limited to the individual, but the example of Hitler's childhood allows us to see how the results of this upbringing was responsible for the suffering of millions.

Miller asks in the Preface to the American Edition of For Your Own Good, "What could motivate a person to misuse power in such a way as to cause…the destruction of humanity?" (Pg. 28) In reply, she gives several conditions of Hitler's life that uncomfortably mirror current conditions in America today.

As a child, Hitler had never had a single person in which to confide his true feelings. He was not only mistreated, but prevented by the masculine standard from experiencing and expression his pain. He had no children who could have served his need to abreact his paternal hatred. Finally, his lack of education prevented him from being able to intellectualize his hatred. "Had a single one of these factors been different, perhaps he never would have become the arch-criminal he did… He would not have had millions of followers if they had not experienced the same sort of upbringing." (Ibid, viii).

Miller's research led her to state that Hitler's family structure could be considered the prototype for the concentration camps, a totalitarian regime where the sole, undisputed and often-brutal ruler was the father. Obedience was the primary rule of conduct. This hierarchy is probably still maintained in many families today, legitimized by poisonous pedagogy through the generations. (Ibid: 147)

Miller theorizes that it was Hitler's repressed hatred of his father that he directed at the Jews. Such hatred can not spring full-blown in an adult from an intellectual anti-Semitic attitude; it is deeply rooted in childhood experiences that lie in obscurity. (Ibid: 155)

In Banished Knowledge Miller explains why she goes into detail about Hitler. It is for the same reasons a doctor will describe a virus; to prevent spread of disease due to ignorance. She felt it was necessary because many people have no idea of the destructive forces that they unleash on the world when they mistreat their children (pg. 4).

When a child is born into a cold, indifferent or brutal environment, it has no way of knowing that the situation could be any different. "Everything a person later comes to believe, advocate and deem right is founded on his first formative experiences."(Ibid: 3). In philosophy, this type of belief system is called the "Method of Tenacity". It is probably the most used method of fixing beliefs by the general public. The second most used is that of "Authority", which I believe to be but a conditioned response to the patriarchal environments from which the tenets of tenacity spring.

Friedrich Nietzsche lost his mind at the age of 45 and killed himself at 56, robbing the world of his brilliant intellect. In Breaking Down the Walls of Silence, Miller writes that in school and other public records, Nietzsche exhibits classic signs of an abused child. She believes he used his great mind to hide the truth of his early experiences from himself, but eventually lost his battle. In Turin, it wasn't the truth that killed Nietzsche: "Condemned to boundless loneliness, supported by no one, he capitulated to fear the truth." Miller concludes that if but one person had the courage to face the "truth of childhood", Nietzsche might have been saved (pg. 54). The master and slave morality Nietzsche touts in Beyond Good and Evil seems to speak volumes about the environment in which he was raised. His philosophy stressed the importance of controlling one's emotions, something surely learned in childhood.

Two extreme consequences of child abuse can be seen in Hitler and Nietzsche, one of great destruction to humanity, the other of great value. Both practiced the Principal of Utility in their philosophy, yet Hitler's view of "Value" for the masses included the destruction of humanity. The difference that prevented Nietzsche from becoming a criminal also was his ability to attain a higher education that allowed him to intellectualize his anger.

But what is the commonality between these two disparate men? Nietzsche wrote: "We all fear the truth." Hitler perfected the art of political lying and double-speak, fearing the truth. Both men were using the same code of silence that had existed from childhood.

The crime of child mistreatment is probably as old as the world Miller claims (ibid: 8). The wall of silence is oft times the only thing an abuse victim can hold on to, the silence working to help keep the illusion of denial which then becomes complete repression. This leads to the victim being able to convince him/herself that there is no reason to feel bad, because nothing bad ever happened.

Children become victims through the actions of People (usually caregivers), not by some kind of "Automaton"(ibid: 51). How can a small child understand that the anger directed towards him arises from the unconscious depths of the adult's psyche and has nothing to do with the child itself, Miller asks in Breaking Down the Walls of Silence (pg. 39). On top of not understanding the why of abuse, the victim is taught that discipline is a form of love.

This is heard today in the average man who will boast about how his father knocked him around to straighten him out. These same men turn around in a corruption of the Golden Rule and do unto their children as was done to them. Thus it goes down the generations. But beatings, whether physical or emotional are always degrading, because the child is not only unable to defend itself, but must also show gratitude and respect to it's parents in return (For Your Own Good: 17).

This degradation does not dissipate after time. But, not surprisingly, gender makes a difference in the consequences in adulthood. Males, in general, act out when emotionally disturbed, whereas females will act out inwardly.

Males abuse victims tend to have more arrests for juvenile delinquency and criminal activities (Nat'l C: CD-21810). Males who suffered sexual abuse were found to be sex offenders in greater numbers than those who were not sexually abused (Nat'l C: CD-21688).

Females on the other hand are less violent than males. Women are generally more likely to become suicidal, their anger turning inwards against themselves. Abused girls are far more likely to have eating disorders and other maladaptive behaviors such as self-mutilation (Nat'l C: CD-22720). This is not to say women are never violent. Women express the greatest violence against themselves. When a woman goes against her nature, she will be just as violent toward others.

Most female abuse victims are not arrested for criminal behavior, those who are arrested are usually charged with victimless crimes like prostitution. However, those who are charged with criminal behavior commit more serious and violent offences than women who were not abused (Nat'l C: CD-22618).

Both males and females are very capable of committing incestual abuse as well as physical and emotional against their offspring. Female perpetrators are more common than usually believed and there is a definite negative effect upon the victim (Nat'l C: CD-21688).

Miller postulates that every child must totally repress whatever abuses it suffered, for not to do so would cause insanity or death. The child simply could not withstand the dimensions of this pain (Breaking Down the Walls of Silence: 82). When a child represses the instance of abuse, the negative emotions remain. This creates the vicious cycle of abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence.

Adults who are not mistreated in childhood do not feel the need to mistreat their own, defenseless children. They cannot even imagine doing so, no matter what the stress level is. They find productive, creative and respectful ways of dealing with their children (ibid: 95).

"The mistreated and neglected child is completely alone in the darkness of confusion and fear." Miller writes (ibid: 129). This child must rely on it's own inner resources to survive. Blocking all knowledge of the circumstances that led to the pain is the prime method of coping.

But the abused don't only abuse their own to cope with the internal pain. Men especially act out against society. Rape is such a commonality in our culture that Susan Brownmiller was led to write in her book Against Our Will that, "the ultimate effect of rape upon the woman's mental and emotional health has been accomplished even without the act. For to accept a special burden of self-protection is to reinforce the concept that women must live and move about in fear and can never expect to achieve the personal freedom, independence, and self-assurance of men."

Since it has been seen that most men arrested for sexual assault are abuse victims, we can conclude that a whole gender's way of life is being altered due to indirect child abuse.

What can be done to stop this cycle of intergenerational abuse? Miller claims in the preface of For Your Own Good, "We will continue to infect the next generation with the virus of poisonous pedagogy as long as we claim that this sort of upbringing is harmless." (Pg. x)

It is the lack of being able to express repressed trauma that most often causes severe psychological problems. Neuroses and psychoses do not arise from actual adult frustrations but are an expression of repressed trauma Miller concludes (ibid: 14).

If Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold had lived after Columbine, chances are good that they would have been discovered to be reacting to childhood rage, the very quality they felt outcast for. Popular culture is teaching us that violence is more and more acceptable. I firmly believe this to be directly related to abuse behind the closed doors of America.

In every study done on child abuse, the standard method of treating the effects is by using talk therapy. The sooner an abused child begins therapy, the better are the chances s/he will not become an abusive adult (NY Times Online 4/12/99). Yet the ingrained code of silence thwarts most therapy attempts (Breaking Down the Walls of Silence: 25).

"To prevent absurd, self-destructive behavior from developing in adulthood… parents only need to refrain from manipulating their child for their own needs…" (For Your Own Good: 133). In order for the parent to stop this negative behavior, they need to face the truth of their own past.

To conclude, poisonous pedagogy is result of repression, repression comes from the societal code of silence, that being the oppression itself that is referred to in the beginning inquiry.

But the inquiry remains. It is my devout belief that abuse victims are they themselves the oppressors and the whole cause behind the continuation of the cycle of abuse.

When every abuse victim has been allowed to "Unlock the Silence" (RAINN) then and only then will abuse slowly leave our society and we will then never again have to fear the rise of another Hitler.


















Miller, Alice For Your Own Good Orig. German Pub 1980, English Translation 1983

Miller, Alice Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries Orig. German Pub 1988, English Translation 1989

Miller, Alice Breaking Down the Walls of Silence Orig. German Pub 1989, English Translation 1993.

Brownmiller, Susan Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape

RAINN (The Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network)

National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information (Nat'l C:CD-reference #)

New York Times On Line