How do we create bullies? And how do we create children who can be bullied? For surely we are each born innocent and identically needful of love, comfort and care. We are also each born different - each a unique mix of capacities, limits and potentials. And the contexts into which we are born are myriad. Still, i have been with groups of toddlers through five year-olds and all i see in children at these ages is desire to connect, play, learn. When does malice appear and from where does it come? I know that there is great power - for good and ill - in the choices that parents make: punish, reward, ration or shower love, support or coddle, and so on. As Alice Miler writes in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child (NY: Meridian, 1984):
Children who are respected learn respect. Children who are cared for learn to care for those weaker than themselves. Children who are loved for what they are cannot learn intolerance. In an environment such as this they will develop their own ideals, which can be nothing other than humane, since they grow out of the experience of love. (p.97)
My mind and heart is filled with concern for how we treat children and how those of us, having once been children and still bearing that experience in our bodies, were once treated. Twenty-five years ago i came across the work of Alice Miller and, as for many people, i was able to free myself from soul-destroying pain and sadness. But it was hardly a total freeing. It was a step and i have continued that journey haltingly over the years. Now, as a father of a four-year-old and stepfather to two others, the urgency of that journey begun over two decades ago quickens my step. I am absorbed once again in understanding the roots of violence in our world. And i am once again discovering the astounding power of Alice Miller's insights into human behaviour and, of course, parenting in particular. And i am anxious about this for while i often embrace the notions of radical scholars and activists, i find myself hesitant in this case. Part of this hesitation has to do with my reluctance to accept the scale and enormity of the implications of Alice Miller's findings - the sheer numbers of humans bound up in violent childrearing. And another part of my reluctance is fear of being judged, if not ostracized, by many people (including my family, of course) who will have one more reason to think me an idealistic lunatic. So i am reminding myself of what i learned twenty-five years ago and what has been one of the most powerful influences on my life.
My continuation (including retracing) of my journey brought me back, once again, to the story of Abraham and Isaac. For this story is compelling evidence of the antiquity of the advocacy for and cultural value placed on parental violence against children.
Is the story of Abraham's binding and (near) sacrifice of his second son a parable about faith and obedience or could it be about something quite different? There is, of course, a long tradition of interpretation of this tale amongst all three of the abrahamic religions (mind you, in some muslim traditions the sacrificed is Ishmael). But whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, it is a story about faith, obedience, surrender, submission to a divine being. This story disturbed me deeply as a child and eventually exposed for me the deep contradictions of the religion for which i was an altar boy for at least seven years. The story, as i'm sure many of you know, has it that Abraham, commanded by his god to bind and slay (or, according to some translations, slaughter) his son Isaac. At the last second Abraham is stopped and is "given" a goat to slay instead.
Alec Gelcer, a friend and fellow-storyteller, shared with me a different interpretation he came across. There is a detail in the story that i suspect escapes most people (as it certainly did me until Alec pointed it out). Abraham is given the command to slay his son by God; but he is stopped by an angel. Why the difference? Some scholars would say that an angel can speak only the word of god so, essentially, there is no difference. But storytellers know, as do talmudic scholars, that details matter and are clues to other paths of meaning. In this case, as Alec explained to me, the interpretation was that, while God had indeed commanded Abraham to slay his son, this was not a test of faith but rather of the degree to which Abraham had internalized ethics (which i define following Albert Schweitzer as that which contributes positively to life). And, in this interpretation, Abraham fails the test. His God, being disappointed, sent a clue about his disappointment by delegating to an angel the mission to halt the infanticide (though in some interpretations Isaac is a young adult). Not a test of faith, but a test of ethics. Not a lesson on blind obedience but of compassionate witnessing. And Abraham failed miserably (though his authoritarian parent of a god did, perhaps, take pity on him by sending the angel which also, pedagogically-speaking, created a new phase of the test - one that we've only taken several thousand years to decode). But this story of child sacrifice sits at the origin of the three religions that now span the globe and include over half the human population of the planet. (Alec passed away suddenly several years ago but his sharing with me of this perspective on the Abraham and Isaac story was a most powerful and lasting gift.)
Now, while this story did create within me, as a child, a tension and a discontent, it would not be until adulthood that I would realize just how profoundly disturbing it was. Lucky for me that we had a visit, when i was about 12 from an aunt who was the fiercest catholic i'd ever met: my father's eldest sister May - a journalist for a Catholic newspaper, she had also been a missionary in West Africa. She came through Montreal on a pilgrimage to the grave of Teilhard de Chardin in New York. Chardin's Phenomenology of Man was lying around our house (i'm not sure if May brought it but she certainly brought it to my attention) and i began reading it, understanding little, i am sure. But one thing i understood very clearly was that faith in a christian and catholic god was a choice. One that i could make differently than the one that had been made for me up to that point. Later i came to appreciate Chardin's controversial (and Holy See-condemned) positions of questioning the doctrine of original sin, of support for evolution and theorizing of the Omega Point (which, no doubt, made me think of him as a science-fiction writer thus predisposing me to like him). I remember May's intense interest in what my faith might be and i only really remember a couple of things from that visit: May told me to read Jane Austin while i was still a teen because "only the very young and the very old get her." (An intriguing position. And i did take her recommendation and read a couple of Austin books.) But my more vivid recall of May was of a fearsome person who scared me with her intensity just this side of sane. At any rate, i know that May hoped that by introducing me to Chardin's work i would be drawn more deeply into catholicism. However, my movement was precisely the other way and Chardin acted as the bridge i needed in order to escape - not as a reactionary maneuver but as a positive step towards a more just and truthful disposition with the world. Nor have i ever really looked back except to examine, critique and appreciate the countless stories of the abrahamic religions.
Though I distanced myself from the Catholic church at that young age, it would still be almost fifteen years before i could dare to look at the patterns of stories on which i had been raised and how these stories corresponded to my own experience of being parented. Much of this recently came back into my thoughts on account of two things: my mother's dying and death last Fall (which provoked revisiting many memories and understandings of her life) and reading Jack Zipes' Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre (Routledge, NY, 2006) and especially chapter 7: To Be or Not To Be Eaten: The Survival of Traditional Storytelling. Zipes begins this chapter with a quote by Alice Miller which i crib in full:
The tradition of sacrificing children is deeply oriented in most cultures and religions. For this reason it is also tolerated, and indeed commended, in our western civilization. Naturally, we no longer sacrifice our sons and daughters on the altar of God, as in the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. But at birth and throughout their later upbringing, we instill in them the necessity to love, honor, and respect us, to do their best for us, to satisfy our ambitions — in short to give us everything our parents denied us. We call this decency and morality. Children rarely have any choice in the matter. All their lives, they will force themselves to offer parents something that they neither possess nor have any knowledge of, quite simply because they have never been given it: genuine, unconditional love that does not merely serve to gratify the needs of the recipient. (The Body Never Lies, The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting, trans. Andrew Jenkins (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005).)
In this chapter Zipes makes connections between the canon of traditional fairy tales (particularly those of children-eating-monsters) and patterns of childrearing. " How, I asked myself," Zipes writes, "did a man [Abraham], who subscribed to infanticide and may never have even existed, become an exemplary if not the exemplary figure in three world religions?" Zipes recounts listening to a radio interview (pp. 232-235) between a host, Krista Tipett and guest Bruce Feiler author of Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. Feiler, it seems, is something of a fan of Abraham and the gist of this book is how this progenitor links Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Zipes rightly points out that there is no evidence that the story recounts something that actually happened but that the dominant story that has come down to us is one of many hundreds of versions that emerged out of an oral tradition that no doubt contested and negotiated meaning until finally someone locked it into textual form. That said, the message(s) of the story remain entirely relevant and powerful regardless of the literal truth of an actually existing drama having taken place. Thus Zipes writes," I was puzzled by Feiler’s almost indifferent attitude toward the element of child abuse. How could he praise and treat Abraham with so much reverence and offer him as a symbol of unity and, even worse, of humanity?" (p. 233) This echoed my own teenaged puzzlement. I quite naturally identified with Isaac and wondered how he felt as his father trussed him up and lifted the knife. And, regardless of Abraham being stopped by an angel, could i ever look upon a father with trust and love who was obviously so willing to commit murder on the request of his God? If i was as dumb as a goat, perhaps. But then animals aren't anywhere near as unintelligent as we tend to assume. The goat would have probably tried to escape.
Of this program Zipes shares some powerfully cautionary musings:
It demonstrated vividly how tradition represses (or inadvertently reveals) how we bake and eat our children, or if we keep them alive, how we beat stories into them that will make them willing subjects of forces to whom they grant control over their destinies. No matter how one interprets the story, there are some fundamental threads that hold it together, and they are all tied to patriarchal notions: that there is a male God, that believers in this God are bound to obey his every word, and that they must be ready to kill their own sons and daughters in his name. Over the centuries, these notions have been used in myriad ways, somewhat like memes, to rationalize thousands of wars, and all the murders and deaths that have resulted from these conflicts stem from people’s belief in these traditional stories that have no verifiable foundation. Such is the power of storytelling, or rather such is the power of traditional storytelling. (p. 233-234)
Finally, Zipes refers to another interview with Feiler during which a caller, "Mimi from Van Nuys, California," challenged him about Abraham's actions and cites Alice Miller's work to do so, saying:
I do think that Abraham unifies all three religions and in a very timely way in that he thought God demanded the sacrifice of his son in order for him to prove his love and loyalty to God above all else. And he did not have to sacrifice his son, and I think that we should remember all three religions need to outgrow this idea that they need to shed blood and sacrifice their sons and daughters in order to prove their loyalty to their god, the god that they imagine is asking this. (p.234)
Feiler and his host clearly do all they can to avoid engaging Mimi's point thus reproducing a characteristic non-response response - an example of Marcuse's "repressive tolerance" perhaps, or of the resilience of Gramsci's notion of hegemonic common sense (or Bourdieu's doxa).
Now, for sure, much of my thinking is inspired by being the father of a four-year old (soon five) and step-father to two more (12 and 19) and anticipating all the many decisions about schooling and life that lie before us. And i wonder how it is that the old can send the young to die in war as we do. Less dramatically, but no less importantly, we send our young into mass education and typically large schools where they are subject to the vagaries of bullying peers, class differences played out through dress and personal grooming, racialization of various populations, overstressed and underpaid teachers and more hazards that lead too many to depression, despair and varying degrees of self-inflicted harm. My schooling was one of relentless humiliations from students and teachers alike. Picked on, beat, targeted with applecores - i survived primary and secondary school by creating a geek-nerd bubble within which i read the canon of 19th and 20th Century science-fiction and fantasy (not to mention the many comics that i cherish still). For surely my parents, perhaps with the best intentions, set me in the world to be eaten. Each day i would descend into a "mythic" hell, i would wander about trying to be unnoticed by the ogres and goblins and trolls that slunk along corridors and lazed in classes. The benign keepers, themselves afflicted, bore postures of weary resignation. The drugs, the alcohol ran freely. But the drugged and the drunk were, generally, harmless and not to be feared. It was the sober and the angry that were to be avoided. Not to mention the dealers. If i kept company it was with the fools who giggled their days away. And i returned home to a different kind of imprisonment where, i'm guessing, i was considered well-adjusted, if a bit of a recluse, but where i was more alone than when at school with my 4,500 peers (nor is this number an exaggeration). It is little wonder that of the five boys i counted as friends three of them enlisted. And, though i was disappointed in their choice, it seemed normal enough then. Though now i find myself deeply saddened to think of those children opting for a life of military service for i know they did not do it for some great altruistic desire to defend their nation but from need (for being poor), from despair (what else was there to do), or from fear (and therefore a choice for the known comforts of an authoritarian hierarchy).
I look back on all this, including my upbringing, with the knowledge and ethics that i have gained from Alice Miller, Janusz Korczak, Albert Schweitzer and all the many people with whom i worked and with whom i risked my life in Nicaragua in the 80s. I understand from Alice Miller how the Fourth Commandment acts as a diabolical silencing device preventing so many people from being able to name the "benign" violence of common sense childrearing. From Korczak and Schweitzer i have accepted challenges to live ethically and lovingly - though i continue to fall so terribly short of my goals.
And i can see now, looking back at the story of Abraham that it is merely the first of many stories of child sacrifice: from Pharaoh's command to slay the first-born males to Moses' god's symmetrical punishment; to Herod's slaying of the "Innocents"; to, of course, the most famous sacrifice of all: the carpenter's son. Not to mention the countless nameless children sent to war, killed in war then and now. I remain haunted by the heartbreaking images in James Orbinski's account of his time with MSF in Rwanda during the genocide (An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century, Doubleday, 2008; pp. 200-201). How can loving parents let this happen? When does our fear, our obedience, our conformity to the dominant norms overwhelm our love for the incredibly vulnerable beings we bring into the world? Alice Miller's answer is that people practicing dominant childbearing raise children not for their sakes (to become loving, compassionate, connected, autonomous and self-possessed beings) but for their own sakes (to redress forgotten hurts, to act out dramas that might fulfill unrealized longings, to revenge ourselves on people beyond our reach). Miller's findings are stark and they should horrify us. But they are also powerfully explanatory apropos of Occam's Razor 'the simplest explanation usually being the correct one.' This is searing truth. But, as Miller concludes in her second book For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984; p.279):
Children who become too aware of things are punished for it and internalise the coercion to such an extent that as adults they give up the search for awareness. But because some people cannot renounce this search in spite of coercion, there is justifiable hope that regardless of the ever-increasing application of technology to the field of psychological knowledge, Kafka's vision of the penal colony with its efficient, scientifically minded persecutors and their passive victims is valid only for certain areas of our life and perhaps not forever. For the human soul is virtually indestructible, and its ability to rise from the ashes remains as long as the body draws breath.
I believe in unconditional love. Though i am unsure if i have ever experienced it; and thus must always be suspect about what i think my own capacity to practice it might be. But i have met people, children and parents alike, who i have felt were truly loved unconditionally and were able to love unconditionally. So i know it is possible.
It is hard for me not to hear the words of Kahlil Gibran's poem On Children from The Prophet (NY: Knopf, 1973, pp.17-18). The first ten lines were set to music - performed a cappella - by Sweet Honey in the Rock; and i sang this at Taliesen's naming ceremony ((the last four lines about a divine archer don't do much for me though i love the metaphor of the archer). This piece stands in stark contrast to the story of Abraham's Binding of Isaac
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
And so my thoughts lead me back to story. Jack Zipes refers to numerous traditional fairy tales of child-eating-monsters. But in virtually all the stories i know, the child - girl or boy (and sometimes both simultaneously) - defeat the monster and win their freedom or are rescued by a culture hero - often an incarnated god. As in my wife's Nuu-chah-nulth culture with the story of Pitch Woman (described in E. Richard Atleo's Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview, UBC Press, 2004, pp. 23-27) who steals children and blinds them by putting pitch on their eyes but who is defeated by the Son of Mucus (similar to the Kwakiutl Dzunuḵ̓wa, a monster woman who possesses the water of life but also kidnaps unwary children to eat, though the children usually outwit her and escape; in one story Dzunuḵ̓wa is defeated, burned and transformed into mosquitos). These stories encode ethics of care, love and struggle against binding, blinding and silencing. But stories are hardly innocent things and we likewise have stories such as those typified by Abraham and the Binding of Isaac which are about precisely the opposite: voicelessness, blindness and submission.
It saddens me but does not surprise me that the result of dominant "poisonous pedagogical" childrearing is a world of countless troubled people. The evidence of my own experience (reflecting critically on my life, witnessing the lives of children around me, journeying through the world's literature and more) bears out Alice Miller's findings. I am still constructing my own understanding of all this including what those of us committed to social and environmental justice must do. The tremendous potential for positive social change that remains locked in the patterns of generational violence makes me quail. But i believe deeply that the most sensible way to confront the seemingly overwhelming challenges we face is with truth and love.