Saturday, February 5, 2011
INMATES OF A CONCENTRATION CAMP
INMATES OF A CONCENTRATION CAMP
No one seriously doubts that inmates of a concentration camp underwent terrible suffering. But when we hear about the physical abuse of children, we react with astonishing equanimity. Depending on our ideology, we say, “That’s quite normal,” or “children have to be disciplined after all” or “That was the custom in those days,” or “Someone who won’t listen has to be made to feel it,” etc. An elderly gentleman I once met at a party told me with amusement that when he was a little boy his mother had swung him back and forth over a fire she had lighted especially for the purpose of drying his pants and breaking him of the habit of wetting them. “My mother was the most wonderful person you’d ever want to meet, but that’s the way things were done in our family in those days,” he said. Such lack of empathy for the suffering of one’s own childhood can result in an astonishing lack of sensitivity to other children’s suffering. When what was done to me was done for my own good, then I am expected to accept this treatment as an essential part of life and not question it.
This kind of insensitivity thus has its roots in the abuse a person suffered as a child. He or she may be able to remember what happened, but in most cases, the emotional content of the whole experience of being beaten and humiliated has been completely repressed.
This is where the difference lies between treating an adult and a child cruelty. The self has not yet sufficiently developed for a child to retain the memory of it or of the feelings it arouses. The knowledge that you were beaten and that this, as your parents tell you, was for your own good may well be retained (although not always), but the suffering caused by the way you were mistreated will remain unconscious and will later prevent you from empathizing with others. This is why battered children grow up to be mothers and fathers who beat their own offspring; from their ranks are recruited the most reliable executioners, concentration-camp supervisors, prison guards, and torturers. They beat, mistreat, and torture out of an inner compulsion to repeat their own history, and they are able to do this without the slightest feeling of sympathy for their victims because they have identified totally with the aggressive side of their psyche. These people were beaten and humiliated themselves at such an early age that it was never possible for them to experience consciously the helpless, battered child they once were, In order to do this, they would have needed the aid of an understanding, supportive adult, and no such person was available. Only under these circumstances would children be able to see themselves as they are at that moment---namely, as weak, helpless, downtrodden, and battered---and thus be able to integrate this part into the self.
Theoretically, a child beaten by his father could afterwards cry his heart out in the arms of a kind aunt and tell her what happened; she would not try to minimize the child’s pain or justify the father’s actions but would give the whole experience its due weight. But such good fortune is rare. The wife of a child-beating fathers shares his attitude toward childrearing or is herself his victim---in either case, she is rarely the child’s advocate. Such an “aunt” is, therefore, a great exception, because the battered child is very unlikely to have the inner freedom to seek her out and make use of her. A child is more likely to opt for a terrible inner isolation and splitting off of his feelings than he is to “tattle” to outsiders about his father or mother. Therapists know how long it sometimes takes before a child’s resentments, which has been repressed for thirty or forty or even fifty years, can be articulated and relived.
Thus, it may well be that the plight of a little child who is abused is even worse and has more serious consequences for society than the plight of an adult in a concentration camp. The former camp inmate may sometimes find himself in situation where he feels that he can never adequately communicate the horror of what he has gone through and that others approach him without understanding, with cold and callous indifference, even with disbelief,* but with few exceptions he himself will not doubt the tragic nature of his experiences. He will never attempt to convince himself that the cruelty he was subjected to was for his own good or interpret the absurdity of the camp as a necessary pedagogical measure; he will usually not attempt to empathize with the motives of his persecutors. He will find people who have had similar experiences and share with them his feelings of outrage, hatred, and despair over the cruelty he has suffered.
The abused child does not have any of these options. As I have tried to show in the example of Christiane F., she is alone with her suffering, not only within the family but also within her self. And because she cannot share her pain with anyone, she is also unable to create a place in her own soul where she could “cry her heart out.” No arms of a “kind aunt” exist there; “Keep a stiff upper lip and be brave” is the watchword. Defenselessness and helplessness find no haven in the self of the child, who later, identifying with the aggressor, persecutes these qualities wherever they appear.
A person who from the beginning was forced, whether subjected to corporal punishment or not, to stifle, i.e., to condemn, split off, and persecute, the vital child within himself will spend his whole life preventing this inner danger that he associates with spontaneous feelings from recurring. But psychological forces are so tenacious that they can rarely be thoroughly suppressed. They are constantly seeking outlets that will enable them to survive, often in very distorted forms that are not without danger to society. For example, one person suffering from grandiosity will project his own childish qualities onto the external world, whereas another will struggle against the “evil” within himself. “Poisonous pedagogy” shows how these two mechanisms are related to each other and how they are combined in a traditional religious upbringing.
In addition to the degree of maturity and those elements of loyalty and of isolation involved in the case of a child, there is another fundamental difference between abuse of children and of adults. The abused inmates of concentration camp cannot of course offer any resistance, cannot defend themselves against humiliation, but they are inwardly free to hate their persecutors. The opportunity to experience their feelings, even to share them with other inmates, prevents them from having to surrender their self. This opportunity does not exist for children. They must not hate their father---this, the message of the Fourth Commandment, has been drummed into them from childhood; they cannot hate him either if they must fear losing his love as a result; finally, they do not even want to hate him, because they love him. Thus, children, unlike concentration-camp inmates, are confronted by a tormentor they love, not one they hate, and this tragic complication will have a devastating influence on their entire subsequent life.
*William G. Niederland’s book Folgen der verfolgung (The results of Persecution) (1980) presents a penetrating analysis of the uncomprehending reception given former inmates as reflected in psychiatric diagnoses.”
From the book:
“For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence”