Elevate Difference

Breaking Down the Wall of Silence: The Liberating Experience of Facing Painful Truth

In an episode of the television series Homicide: Life On The Street, detective John Munch muses on how to crack the case of a brutal murder. In his typically caustic, world-weary way he quips darkly about motive, “If it’s not one thing, it’s a mother.”

Alice Miller would add “or the father” to that line. And she would cite the collective truth-repressing forces of traditional patriarchal society—family, academia, clergy, politicians and the psychiatric community—all influential agents that encourage a child to dismiss or dance around its trauma story as if it were an electrifying third rail. Forgive and move on is the catchphrase of the day.

Not so fast, says Miller. First, air the bloody wound before forgiveness. Bad parenting must be addressed at the root. Denying and repressing guarantee that more innocent victims will be scapegoated to satisfy long festering rage. Miller contends that trauma from abuse is responsible for all of mankind’s neuroses and psychoses, and could lead to our extinction in this fragile technological world. Society must get better at protecting children against what she calls the “poisonous pedagogy”: humiliation, neglect, hitting, shaming with verbal and emotional abuse, and of course, rape, delicately called molestation by polite society.

Breaking Down the Wall of Silence is Alice Miller’s thirteenth book focusing on childhood trauma. Miller is an articulate and empathetic supporter of abused children and grownups who struggle with the betrayal and trauma that result from abuse. An impassioned evangelist for children’s rights (she is a psychologist, an abuse survivor and author of the highly acclaimed The Drama of the Gifted Child), Miller continues to make her case with great force that if the majority of people and lawmakers remain psychologically illiterate, we might as well resign ourselves to nuclear war in the near future.

As in most of Miller’s books, she uses high profile case studies to illustrate her points. She has previously written of the humiliations and beatings that were standard fare in the childhoods of Hitler and Stalin, and how those angry boys grew up to be murderous dictators who projected onto the world stage their revenge in the form of mass murder and torture. In this book, she delves into the childhood of yet another tyrannical basket case: former Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu. This havoc-wreaking man, emotionally and physically battered and shamed as a child by his own father, rose to power and blow-torched his rage all over his country. He is dead, executed for his crimes, but the hideous abuse lives on to this day in Romania.

I was particularly intrigued by Alice Miller’s study of Ceausescu because a couple of years ago I wrote a magazine article on volunteer vacations. While interviewing people who combined a love of travel with charity work, I talked to several everyday heroes who rolled up their sleeves to work in Romanian Failure-To-Thrive baby clinics. They reported that children were still being abandoned due to the lingering poverty and ignorance from the Ceausescu regime, and so many babies needed holding and feeding that many of these volunteers declined the sightseeing part of their trips in favor of working full-time with the children.

Astonishingly (and inspiring to me about the higher nature of some humans among us), every single person I interviewed returned for a second and third tour of duty to reach out and help. They all were very emotional when I spoke with them. The horror they experienced was overwhelming and their voices quivered in the retelling. One woman brought her daughter with her and the daughter has decided to go into international law to help protect children. Another man was a banker who devotes a month each year to go to Romania and help out.

The most important and urgent case Alice Miller makes in this book is that we must legislate firmly against child abuse and be selective about the political leaders we elect to represent us.Breaking Down the Wall of Silence should be read by all who have children, or are considering having children. That said, if one is caring enough to even know about Alice Miller, then one is probably preaching to the choir.

I just watched a documentary called Deliver Us From Evil about the Catholic Church’s systematic repression and cover-up of child abuse by priests. Back in 2005, Pope Benedict was facing a ground-breaking lawsuit accusing him of conspiring to cover up the rapes of boys by a seminarian. He asked President George W. Bush, Jr. for immunity from lawsuits in the United States. It was granted.

I’ve been reading Alice Miller’s books for a long time and believe she is still a voice in the wilderness calling upon us to evolve as human beings. How do we do this? Respect children and implement laws that enforce greater protection against violence perpetuated on children. Punish people and institutions that inflict and hide abuse. The psychiatric field must also offer a model of treatment that encourages practitioners to be courageous, enlightened witnesses and guides for their patients. Gatekeepers in this field must be constantly on the alert for traumatized therapists seeking to exploit, consciously or unconsciously, victims of abuse. These wolves in sheep’s clothing must be weeded out of the field.

Alice Miller praises feminists for being pioneering whistle blowers on abuse and offers hope when she writes toward the end: “Fortunately the number of therapists who are trained in the new methods is now growing.”

This is a beautiful, fierce, necessary book written by an emotionally intelligent lioness who continues her efforts to break through the wall—one brick, one book— at a time. I highly recommend it.

Written by: Cheryl Reeves, March 5th 2009

Thank you, Ms. Reeves, for your insightful, clearly written and complete review. Having written recently also about Catholic Church-related sexual violence and shenanigans, I doubly appreciate your mention of the 2005 case. I'll definitely be checking out this book. Lawrence Hammar