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What is an "Enlightened Witness?"

Based on the work of Alice Miller

S. Hein

Alice Miller is credited with coining the term "enlightened witness". In her article "The Essential Role of an Enlightened Witness in Society" Miller basically says that if someone who has been significantly abused or neglected has had either a) an "enlightened helper" while they were young or b) an "enlightened witness" when they were older, they can avoid serious mental and behavioral problems later in life.

To help you understand the concept of "enlightened helpers" and "enlightened witnesses," Miller begins her article by summarizing her principle belief about all people who are dangers to themselves or society. In all of her writing, she makes it very clear that she believes that any such person was necessarily, and without exception, abused or neglected as a child. Miller also emphasizes, though, that she does not believe every child who was abused grows up to be a criminal or a danger to society. She explains it this way,

I have wrongly been attributed the thesis according to which every victim inevitably becomes a persecutor, a thesis that I find totally false..It has been proved that many adults have had the good fortune to break the cycle of abuse through knowledge of their past. Yet I can certainly aver that I have never come across persecutors who weren't victims in their childhood, though most of them don't know it because their feelings are repressed. The less these criminals know about themselves, the more dangerous they are to society. So I think it is crucial for the therapist to grasp the difference between the statement, "every victim ultimately becomes a persecutor," which is false, and "every persecutor was a victim in his childhood," which I consider true.

The problem is that, feeling nothing, he remembers nothing, realizes nothing... Yet the presence of a warm, enlightened witness - therapist, social aid worker, lawyer, judge - can help the criminal unlock his repressed feelings and restore the unrestricted flow of consciousness. This can initiate the process of escape from the vicious circle of amnesia and violence.

Miller says that when she began to expose the social consequences of child abuse she encountered fierce resistance. She says many people told her, "I, too, was a battered child, but that didn't make me a criminal."

Miller says that when she asked the people who did not become criminals for more details about their childhoods, she always found that they would say there was at least one person, not necessarily one of their parents, who loved them or cared about them but was "unable to protect them" from their abusive or neglectful parent or parents. Miller says, "... through his or her presence, this person gave them a notion of trust, and of love. I call these persons helping witnesses."

Miller then gives the example of the famous Russian author, Dostoyevsky. She says that he had a "brutal father, but a loving mother." She says the mother wasn't "strong enough to protect him from his father, but she gave him a powerful conception of love..."

She then goes on to say...

"Many have also been lucky enough to find enlightened and courageous witnesses, people who helped them to recognize the injustices they suffered, to give vent to their feelings of rage, pain and indignation at what happened to them. These persons never became criminals."

I am not sure it is fair to say that they "never" became criminals, but in general what she says makes sense to me.

Miller says that parents who beat and abuse their own children have basically "forgotten" what happened to them as children. She believes that the painful feelings they experienced as children have never been clearly identified or perhaps even felt. In other words, she believes the feelings and memories are repressed.

In my own opinion, I would say that perhaps many abusive parents may, in fact, remember what happened to them, but for several reasons, they continue to abuse their own children. These reasons would include:

1. They have become hardened and desensitized to their own children's pain. Moreover, when their children cry out in pain, the parents feel guilty and defensive, knowing on some deep, if not surface level, that what they are doing is wrong and unnatural. I say unnatural because it seems clear that one of the primary roles of a parent is to protect a child from harm, not be the one responsible for it. It is likely, therefore, that the parents' subconscious instincts, however damaged, still whisper to them that they are the ones who nature has entrusted to protect, not hurt, the children they have given birth to. They then feel defensive about what they are doing. This defensiveness further shuts the neural pathways to feeling empathy for their child. As I have stated elsewhere, I believe feeling empathy and feeling defensive are mutually exclusive. If this is true, it is understandable that the abusive parent, even if good intentioned, is not able to feel much true empathy for the pain and suffering of their children.

2. A second reason a parent could remember what was done to them, yet still repeat the cycle with their own children is because the parent really believes that it is necessary and part of being a good/responsible parent to hit and punish their children. This belief is certainly reinforced and perpetuated by many in society, so again it is understandable why a parent would believe this. Of course it is also possible they don't really believe it, but they say they do as one of their defenses and justifications for how they treat their children.

In her article, "The Essential Role of an Enlightened Witness in Society," Miller also talks about some prison inmates.

The inmates worked in groups, talked a lot about their childhood, and some of them said, "I've been all over the place, and killed innocent people to avoid the feelings I have today. But I know that I can bear these feelings in the group, where I feel safe. I no longer need to run around and kill, I'm at home here, I recognize what happened. The past recedes, and my anger along with it."

For this process to succeed, the adult who has grown up without helping witnesses in his childhood needs the support of enlightened witnesses, people who have understood and recognized the consequences of child abuse. In an informed society, adolescents can learn to verbalize their truth and to discover themselves in their own story.

Miller also says that if someone has "the luck to talk to others about their early experiences," and if they "succeed in grasping the naked truth of their own tragedy" then they will not need to "avenge themselves violently for their wounds, or to poison their systems with drugs..."

She also basically says that to avoid serious problems later in life, "they need assistance from persons aware of the dynamics of child abuse, who can help them address their feelings seriously, understand them and integrate them, as part of their own story...".

At EQI we believe that the same process can help those who are not "criminals," but who, for example, instead of hurting others, hurt themselves. More specifically, we believe that having an "enlightened witness" can help someone move from self-harm to self-healing.

I want to add that, in general, in my work over the past 15 years with self-harming teenagers, I have found that those who hurt themselves are less likely to hurt others. They are less likely to be the bullies, and more likely to be the bullied. They are less likely to be aggressive or even assertive, and more likely to be non-violent and non-aggressive. I believe these are the kind of people we need to have more of in society, not less through loss to suicide or to lasting damage so serious that their talents and potential become of little use to society and to bringing about needed social and cultural changes.

I need to say, however, that although it has generally been my experience that self-harming teens are less aggressive than the norm, this has not always been the case. I can think of several instances where someone who self-harmed as a teen later became quite aggressive, though I don't know if they became violent or "criminal" other than illegal drug use. In any case, I think what Miller says makes a lot of sense. In the case of these teens I knew of who later became aggressive, by the way, as far as I know they had no other "enlightened helper" or witness in their lives other than the brief time I was in contact with them via the Internet. Sadly, this understandably was not enough to change the course of their lives. Without someone in their "real" life, some limited online support was just not enough for them. On the other hand, I can also say that online support at a critical time can make the difference for some, not only saving their lives, but changing them forever for the better.

So in any case, I would say an enlightened witness, then, is someone who

- Has experienced abuse or neglect themselves

- Believes those who say they were abused and takes it seriously.

- Believes that it is wrong and unnatural to hit or punish children.

- Does not defend parents, other adults, or any institutions or cultural norms which in any way advocate hitting or punishing children.

- Does not encourage a person to "forgive" their parents or those who had abused or neglected them. (Alice Miller discusses this in an article where she presents some of her conclusions based on reading testimonies from readers. See below)

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Emotional Intelligence | Empathy
Emotional Abuse | Understanding
Emotional Literacy | Feeling Words
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Depression |Education
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If you would like someone to be your "enlightened witness," please visit

Enlightened Witness Help at WhatDepresses.Me

The Essential Role of an Enlightened Witness in Society

Here is a back up copy of The Essential Role of an Enlightened Witness in Society

The original is found here on Alice's website.


Some of Alice Miller's conclusions:

Quoting Alice Miller:

Having read numerous biographies and moreover fiery reports in the ourchildhood-forums I have arrived at conclusions I briefly shall outline.

  1. The once abused child's feelings for his parents we generally call "love" actually are not authentic love. Instead it is a matter of an emotional attachment burdened with expectations, illusions and denial demanding a high price from everyone being involved.
  2. Primarily our own children pay the price for this attachment. They have to grow up in a spirit of hypocrisy, because we are automatically tempted to inflict the very same "educational method" upon our children. But we are also commonly paying for our denial, with damages caused to our health, because our "gratitude" is contradictory to our body's knowledge.
  3. The failure of many therapies is explainable by the fact that the majority of therapists are looped in traditional morality and are trying to manipulate their clients in this way, because they have never learned anything else. As soon as the client starts to experience her feelings and for instance becomes capable of condemning her incestuous father's misdeeds unambiguously, the therapist will presumably become scared of her own parents' punishments, if she dared to realise and articulate her own truth. How else could we explain that forgiveness is offered as cure? In almost the same manner as once the parents therapists often suggest forgiveness only to calm down themselves. And because this sounds so familiar the client needs a lot of time to be able to see through the pedagogy. By the time she at last discovers the therapist's educational methods, she will hardly be able to leave her, because, in the meantime, a new poisonous attachment has been developed. Now the therapist is like a mother for her, who has enabled her emotional birth, because she has begun here to feel her emotions. Thus she continues to expect salvation from her therapist, instead of acknowledging her body's signals which offer help.
  4. If a client however, accompanied by an empathic witness, could undergo and understand his fear of his parents or other caregivers, he gradually will be able to dissolve the destructive attachment. He will not have to wait long for a positive reaction of his body and its messages will be more and more comprehensible for him, because the body will stop speaking by means of mysterious symptoms. The client may realise now that his therapists (mostly unintentionally) deceived themselves and him, for forgiveness almost inhibits the closing of psychic wounds. The obsession to repeat the damage done to you doesn't stop with forgiveness.

Source: Body and Ethics, 2003, Alice-Miller.com