The Truth Will Set You Free
Chapter 7 - Condensed
Barriers in the Mind

Alice Miller 2001


Below is a condensed version of Chapter 7 from Alice Miller's 2001 book, The Truth Will Set You Free. Alice Died in
Condensed by S. Hein.

Thank you to Jordan Riak at for making this avalable

Readers frequently tell me of the hostility they encounter when they declare their allegiance to the cause of protecting children. Their attitude challenges a system that for most people represents a familiar, reassuring frame of reference. New information can be a source of uncertainty, and in the face of uncertainty the temptation is to resort to threatening behavior-similar to the intimidation parents use to bring their children up to be "good" and always do as they are told. This confronts enlightened witnesses with the same kind of painful rejection that children experience at the hands of their parents.

In some cases the reaction is so extreme that it amounts to moral condemnation, if not downright ostracism.

The champions of children do not need the assistance of a powerful institution ... in order to resist the hostile pressure against them. Their strength lies in their knowledge of the laws governing childhood and indeed life itself, laws that can be objectively verified. Some of the most important testimonies we have in this respect are the reports of people who suffered abuse in childhood, which reveal the dire consequences such cruelty has on the way they treat their own children. This truth cannot be destroyed. Each day it receives more and more confirmation.

Recently brain research has been furnishing additional proof. The brain of a child is not yet fully formed at birth but develops its final structure over the first three years of life. Under certain circumstances the messages the brain receives in those formative years may imprint themselves more indelibly than any other information it will ever be required to process. The sensations and instructions coming from the mother or other important figures can live on for decades. And although we never hear anyone suggest that children should be humiliated, derided, or deceived, we do hear that spanking is good for them.

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. Many parents who never received love and care when they were small, who were trained to be obedient above all else, may, with the best of intentions, have done the same to their children. They are likely to find this new information highly unsettling, if not unbearable. I can therefore understand why scientists are reluctant to spell out their findings in unequivocal terms. Instead of saying, "We have found that what applies to animals also applies to humans," they tend to say, "Maltreatment may lead to lesions and deficiencies in the structure of the brain." This strategy not only helps their findings get accepted but also protects them from the charge of being unscientific. Their equivocation, however, encourages denial and self-deception. Much as inveterate smokers say things like, "My grandfather smoked all his life but never got cancer, and he was over eighty when he died," many people hearing of the new brain research may say, "I was beaten as a child and I turned out perfectly fine. If scientists say spanking may lead to brain damage, they're also saying that it may not." These people have no inkling of how they might have turned out if they had not been spanked. Any impairments resulting from the abuse are outside the range of their awareness, just as a person without empathy does not know what empathy means.

When I read of the recent progress in brain research and the results of the work being done on early infancy, it helped me to realize why the effects of those first lessons and messages are so persistent. Armed with this new information, I would say to mothers today: "Don't be distressed if you find yourselves involuntarily giving your children a smack. It's something your hand learned very early on; it happens almost automatically, and you can usually limit the damage by recognizing that you made a mistake and admitting your error. But whatever you do, don't ever tell your children you hit them for their own good. (Note below)

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. Daniel Goleman makes continued reference to "emotional intelligence," but Katharina Zimmer and others have shown that the development of the intelligence as such is inextricably linked with the emotions experienced in early childhood.

...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... This desensitization finds expression in the use of corporal punishment in educational settings...

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, as we saw earlier, 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.

Joseph the close of his book The Emotional Brain, postulates a form of collaboration between the cognitive and the emotional systems.

But he is not a therapist, and he limits himself to the statements he can responsibly make as a brain researcher, conceding openly that he does not know how a bridge might be built between the emotional knowledge of the body (the unconscious) and its cognitive faculties. From my own self-experience and from my experience with others, I know that this does take place in therapies systematically addressing the traumatic experiences and emotions of childhood...

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. This emotional learning process can take considerable time, and an enlightened witness is indispensable if it is to succeed.

For decades I was convinced I had never been beaten as a child because 1 had no conscious memory of it. But reading through the advice given by poisonous pedagogy I learned that in the period of my birth children were beaten very early, sometimes in the first few months of their lives, in order to train them to obey and to use the toilet, and it was then that I realized why I had no recall. I had been so effectively taught to obey when I was still a baby that the only memories I have of this chastisement are implicit body memories as opposed to explicit conscious memories. Later, my mother proudly told me that I was fully toilet-trained by the age of six months and never caused any trouble-except when I insisted on having my own way. Then all that was needed was a stern look from her and I soon came to my senses. Today I know the high price I paid. The fear of that stern look stopped me from saying, or even so much as thinking, what I wanted. But I finally did achieve that ability.

It is a never-ending source of acute distress for me when I think of the devastating power of denial... One of the ways this obstructive power manifests itself is in the persistence of theologians and philosophers in discussing ethical issues without taking any account of the findings produced by brain research and the laws governing infant development.

For psychoanalysts, it is also high time to rethink the concepts of destructive drives and evil, "perverted" children...

But in order to do so they would have to take modern research on infancy seriously.

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.

As children, we learn to suppress and deny natural feelings and to believe sincerely that the cuffs and blows we receive are for our own good and do us no lasting injury. Our brains, furnished with this false information, then instruct us to raise our own children by the same methods, telling them that it is good for them just as it was good for us.

This way of thinking causes billions of people to believe that children can become good and decent citizens only if we do violence to them.

During one of my workshops a psychology professor said, "In general I'm in agreement with you, but I cannot endorse your efforts to get corporal punishment legally banned because it deprives parents of a way of instilling certain values in their children, and I find that important. My children are three and five, and they've got to learn what they're allowed to do and what they aren't. If a law like that really got passed, it might stop many young people from having children at all."

1 asked the man whether he had been beaten in childhood. He said yes, but only when it was necessary, when he had really driven his father to it, and then he had regarded the punishment as fair. I asked him how old he was when he was beaten for the last time and he said he was seventeen; his father had been beside himself with rage over some bit of teenage mischief. When I asked him for details, after a brief silence the man said, "I can't remember. It's all such a long time ago, but it must have been something serious because I can remember how my father's face was twisted into a grimace. My father was very fair, so I must have deserved the punishment."

I was stunned. This man, who taught developmental psychology, who had committed himself to the cause of abolishing cruelty to children, still refused to see anything wrong with corporal punishment as part of parenting. The barrier in his mind revealed itself bluntly. There must have been reasons for it, I thought, probably buried in early anxiety. I hesitated for a moment, then decided that those reasons needed to be dragged to the surface.

I confronted him. "You say you were seventeen at the time and you can't remember what you'd done-all you can remember is your father's face twisted into a grimace. From that you conclude that your punishment must have been deserved. But you expect your three- and five-year old children to internalize the well-meaning principles you try to impress on them when you spank them. What makes you think that a small child is better able to understand these lessons and get some good out of them than you were as an adolescent? All a beaten child remembers is fear and the faces of the angry parents, not why the beating was taking place. Like you, the child will assume he had been naughty and merited the punishment. What kind of beneficial pedagogical effect do you see in that?"

I received no answer to my questions, but the next day the man said that he had had a sleepless night and needed to think things over. I was pleased by this response because it meant that there was something going on in his mind. 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.




Note: Alice then says "If you do, you will be contributing to the perpetuation of willful stupidity and covert sadism." Priscilla and I are afraid this kind of language reduces Alice's credibility.