A little while ago, someone forwarded me an interesting email response to an article I had written about the collective madness which has befallen our species (The article, called "The Madness of George W. Bush: A Reflection of our Collective Psychosis," is the first chapter in my book of the same name). The response was from well-known author Alice Miller, author of the classic book The Drama of the Gifted Child. I was most happy that such an esteemed psychiatrist would take the time to read my work. I quickly became dismayed, however, when I read her reply to my article. Miller roundly criticized the article, which I thought had clearly "solved all the world's problems," dismissing it in one broad stroke by saying, and I quote, that I did not "explain ANYTHING about the CAUSES of this madness," which in her opinion is child abuse. I immediately thought how ridiculous, that no matter what anyone would say about anything, Alice Miller's perspective was that if they weren't talking about child abuse, then they weren't dealing with the source of the problem. I remember thinking that due to her own unhealed abuse issues, Miller had clearly gotten triggered by what I had written and was having a knee-jerk reaction, as she could only see the world, I imagined, through her own limited filter. In marginalizing her viewpoint, however, I was unconsciously reacting against something which she was touching within myself.
A mistake I was potentially making was to dismiss Alice Miller's reflection simply because I felt like she was reacting from her unconscious. Just because someone might be projecting her own unconscious process does not mean that there might not be some truth in what she is saying. In being triggered by her response and writing off her reflection, I might be missing a gift that Alice Miller is offering, as she is a voice in the field who might be bringing an important message. I began to wonder, what if she's right?
What if the source of the problems in the world is the age-old tradition of "child abuse" which has informed all of us? For the sake of clarity, I need to differentiate terms, as child abuse is a loaded and charged phrase. Many people associate child abuse with physical beating, sexual abuse, severe neglect and the like. But child abuse is something that we have all suffered from in more elusive, hard-to-see, forms, to the extent that our parents were not fully enlightened (and whose parents were?). When there is "conditional" love based on our performance or behavior, when we become "domesticated" and are supposed to be a "good boy or girl," when our parents vicariously live their unlived lives out through our accomplishments, or when our parents unconsciously abuse their power and enact their own unhealed abuse, all "for our own good" -- these are all various forms of subtle but very real child abuse. When we receive crazy-making, double-signals from our parents, in which they say one thing but their energy is expressing something else, when our urges towards emotional independence and autonomy are subtly rejected, when our perceptions are denied, or when our expressions of our own unique and creative self are marginalized or criticized -- these are all various forms of covert child abuse. All of these seemingly innocuous actions can potentially obstruct children in the natural process of growing into who they truly are. These unconscious re-actions by the parents can potentially be introjected and internalized into the child's psyche where they become inner, oppressive voices which, to the extent they aren't integrated, develop a seemingly autonomous life of their own.
When I first conceived of this article, I realized its contents were exclusive, in that it would only be relevant to parents and/or children, but then I realized this includes everyone. We are all metabolizing our ancestral legacy of subtle or overt abuse which has been passed down and propagated throughout the generations. The archetypal idea of the sins of the fathers (and mothers) being visited upon the sons (and daughters) is psychologically true, and has found expression in inspired sources as varied as ancient mythology, the Bible and Shakespeare. We all have a subjective knowing of the validity of this phenomenon based on our lived experience. Every one of us, whether we know it or not, has become who we are, at least in part, as a result of our parents' unconscious. It is not just our bodies that are the offspring of our parents; our psyches are the offspring of our parents' unconscious, too. Jung emphasizes this very point when he says, "Not only the child's body, but his soul, too, proceeds from his ancestry." Our parents, who Jung suggests viewing as "children of the grandparents," are formed, in turn, by their parents in a lineage that goes back throughout the generations. Jung explains, "We ought rather to say that it is not so much the parents as their ancestors -- the grandparents and great-grandparents -- who are the true progenitors, and that these explain the individuality of the children far more than the immediate, and so to speak, accidental parents." This perspective expands the time-frame through which we relate to our family, and ultimately, ourselves.
Jung felt that the "unlived lives" of the parents deeply impacted the lives of the children, as if "branding" the children with a particular destiny. The unlived lives of the parents is an ancestral inheritance which has great weight and gravitas, in that it literally shapes the lives of the children. Jung elaborates on the notion of the parents' unlived lives when he says it is "that part of their lives which might have been lived had not certain somewhat threadbare excuses prevented the parents from doing so. To put it bluntly, it is that part of life which they have always shirked, probably by means of a pious lie. That sows the most virulent germs."
The repressed, unlived lives of the parents acts like a contagious and malignant psychic virus which infects the surrounding field. Speaking about repression, Jung makes the point that, "whatever you repress, whatever you don't recognize in yourself, is nevertheless alive. It is constellated outside of you, it works in your surroundings and influences other people. Of course, you are blissfully unconscious of these effects, but the other people get the noseful." This psychic virus is like a nonlocalized bug in the system which creates a dis-ease and disturbance in the coherence of the family. This virulent psychic pathogen germinates in and replicates itself through the unconscious of the children, which is the medium it uses to reproduce itself through generations, i.e., over time.
Children see more than the parents suspect or want them to see, as they are empathically tuned into the unconscious of the parents. The parents' unconscious, which seems to be in the background, is actually in the foreground of the child's psyche. The parent's unconscious flows into and in-forms the child's psyche. "Nothing influences children more," Jung reflects, "than the silent facts in the background. They have an extremely contagious effect on the children." The parents' relationship to their unconscious influences the children's unconscious through the avenue of the collective unconscious in which both are contained.
Children sense the underlying spirit of things. Describing the sensitivity of children, Jung knows from his own childhood, as do we all, that "Things that hang in the air and are vaguely felt by the child, the oppressive atmosphere of apprehension and foreboding, these slowly seep into the child's soul like a poisonous vapor." This toxic vapor is like an ancestral spirit which penetrates and insinuates itself into the core of the child's being. This living spirit is the family inheritance, as it patterns, shapes and in-forms the offspring, who become compelled, to the extent they are under the spell cast by the parents, to unconsciously act out and become an instrument for the incarnation of the ancestral unconscious. They become the unwitting purveyors and living revelation of the "hidden gospel" of the unconscious of the ancestors.
We don't exist in isolation from each other, but rather, in relation to all of the members of our human family who have existed over time. Jung re-contextualizes our family relations when he points out that, "...a human life is nothing in itself, it is part of a family tree. We are continuously living the ancestral life, reaching back for centuries, we are satisfying the appetites of unknown ancestors, nursing instincts which we think are our own, but which are quite incompatible with our character; we are not living our own lives, we are paying the debts of our forefathers." We are the heirs to the family "fortune," the current karmic fruition of our family tree.
"The child is so much a part of the psychological atmosphere of the parents," Jung contemplates, "that secret and unsolved problems between them can influence its health profoundly. The participation mystique, or primitive identity, causes the child to feel the conflicts of the parents and to suffer from them as if they were its own. It is hardly ever the open conflict or the manifest difficulty that has such a poisonous effect, but almost always parental problems that have been kept hidden or allowed to become unconscious. The author of these neurotic disturbances is, without exception, the unconscious." "Participation mystique" is a phrase that Jung uses often which he borrowed from the French anthropologist Levy-Bruhl. Developmentally speaking, it is a primitive and un-evolved state of consciousness in which we are magically fused and merged with our environment so as not to be able to differentiate between ourselves and others at a fundamental level. When participation mystique happens between a parent and a child it is a state of mutual unconscious identification in which they are co-dependently entangled with each other and aren't able to experience their psychic autonomy and independence from each other. When there is participation mystique, the parties are psychically bound and tied to each other in a way which reciprocally inhibits their intrinsic freedom. To the extent that the parents are still fused in a state of participation mystique with the unconscious of their parents and haven't fully psychologically separated and individuated, is the extent to which they themselves will not relate to their offspring as autonomous and independent beings, but rather, as unconscious extensions of their own psyche. Parents who still haven't worked out their parental baggage dream up the kids to be psychic appendages of their own unresolved process, which is a subtle but very real form of child abuse. The author of these real life dramas, as Jung points out, is the unconscious itself.
"The 'parental imago' [the image of the parents in the psyche of the child] is possessed of a quite extraordinary power; it influences the psychic life of the child so enormously," Jung writes, "that we must ask ourselves whether we may attribute such magical power to an ordinary human being at all." What gives the parents such power over their children is that our particular, earthly parents are merely re-presentations and animations of the underlying archetype of the "divine parents," which exists inside the collective unconscious itself. Our parents are instruments to play out, embody, and activate the pre-existent parental archetype which lives within the psyche of all of us. It is the underlying, numinous archetype which the actual parents are mediating that amplifies their effects upon the children. Just as a bird's migratory and nest-building instincts are not individually learned, but are inherited from its collective ancestry, the power of the parents is derived from the primordial, archetypal image which resonates deep within the psyche of our species.
Jung notes that "the power of the archetype is not controlled by us, we ourselves are at its mercy to an unsuspected degree. There are many who resist its influence and its compulsion, but equally many who identify with the archetype....and because everyone is in some degree ‘possessed' by his specifically human preformation, he is held fast and fascinated by it and exercises the same influence on others, without being conscious of what he is doing. The danger is just this unconscious identity with the archetype: not only does it exert a dominating influence on the child by suggestion, it also causes the same unconsciousness in the child, so that it succumbs to the influence from outside and at the same time cannot oppose it from within." The child's outer process with the parent becomes internalized and becomes an inescapably compelling inner process.
Parents play a key and fateful role in their children's karmic destiny. When the parents are repressing their unconscious and not responsibly doing their own "inner work," Jung comments,
"It radiates out into the environment and, if there are children, infects them too. In this way neurotic states are often passed on from generation to generation, like the 'curse of Atreus' [in Greek mythology the 'curse of Atreus' is symbolic of an ancestral, family curse which is passed down through the generations]. The children are infected indirectly through the attitude they instinctively adopt towards their parent's state of mind: either they fight against it with unspoken protest (though occasionally the protest is vociferous) or else they succumb to a paralyzing and compulsive imitation. In both cases they are obliged to do, to feel, and to live not as they want, but as their parents want. The more 'impressive' the parents are, and the less they accept their own problems (mostly on the excuse of 'sparing the children'), the longer the children will have to suffer from the unlived life of their parents and the more they will be forced into fulfilling all the things the parents have repressed and kept unconscious."
When the parents succumb to the compulsion to turn away from their own darkness, resist the illumination of consciousness and hence, avoid relationship with parts of themselves, Jung states that "they do not know that by succumbing to the compulsion they pass it on to their children and make them slaves of their parents and of the unconscious as well. Such children will long continue to live out the curse laid on them by their parents, even when the parents are long since dead."
If the parents get in the habit of compulsively avoiding their responsibility to self-reflect, a toxic atmosphere is conjured up in the family system which is very disturbing to the family's emotional body. "The repressed problems and the suffering thus fraudulently avoided secrete an insidious poison," Jung tells us, "which seeps into the soul of the child through the thickest walls of silence and through the whitest sepulchers of deceit, complacency, and evasion. The child is helplessly exposed to the psychic influence of the parents and is bound to copy their self-deception, their insincerity, hypocrisy, cowardice, self-righteousness, and selfish regard for their own comfort, just as wax takes up the imprint of the seal. The only thing that can save the child from un-natural injury is the efforts of the parents not to shirk the psychic difficulties of life by deceitful maneuvers or by remaining artificially unconscious, but rather to accept them as tasks, to be as honest with themselves as possible, and to shed a beam of light into the darkest corners of their souls."
Parents are not asked to be perfect, which is both impossible and would be a catastrophe for the kids. Parents cannot be expected to have no faults or unresolved complexes, which would be superhuman, but rather, they should make sincere efforts to not deny and repress their weak points and unconscious areas but recognize them for what they are. With regards to their unconscious issues, parents, according to Jung, "should at least come to terms with them consciously; they should make it a duty to work out their inner difficulties for the sake of the children." It is an ethical responsibility for the parents to deal with their own unhealed complexes. "Parental influence only becomes a moral problem," Jung continues, "in face of conditions which might have been changed by the parents, but were not." In other words, it becomes a "moral sin" when the parents are potentially able to shed light on and deal with some unconscious area in themselves, and choose not to, "remaining," in Jung's words, "artificially unconscious."
When the unconscious is dealt with responsibly by the parents, however, this relieves the kids of a burden which ultimately was not theirs to begin with. Parents can genuinely bless their children to the utmost by stepping into their own authenticity, vulnerability and transparency. When a parent deals responsibly with their own unconscious, they are modeling and activating the very same process in the child, as parents and children are nonlocally interconnected and intimately co-related through the collective unconscious. Self-reflection by the parents is instantaneously and reflex-ively received and reflected by and through the child. Occurring in the depth of the psyche, this process of self-reflection mirrors back to both parent and children who they are, and it empowers, instead of obstructs, the children to naturally flower and blossom into who they are here to be.
The parent's self-reflection not only helps to heal both parent and children, but it nonlocally sends ripples back through time, initiating a process of healing the entire ancestral lineage. It is as if we are the culmination, crystallization and carriers of a higher-dimensional and multi-generational process of working something out. Potentially, in this very moment, we have the precious opportunity to liberate these ancestral, rhizomic strands of trauma which extend far back in time and equally far into the future, but which also converge and are spread throughout the present in the form of the society and culture in which we live. We can be the ones to break the link in the chain and dissolve these insidious, mycelium-like threads, which are literally the warp and woof upon which the tapestry of the past, present, and future history of our species is woven. As the current lineage holders of an ancient, ancestral tradition, our task, whether we are in the role of parent and/or child, is to alchemically transmute this potentially destructive spirit which animates the "family" abuse (both in our nuclear family and the greater, human family) so as to liberate our own creative brilliance which it seemingly holds captive.
To the extent that we see how the transmission of child abuse works -- in our own lives, with our own parents and children -- we are able to consciously re-engineer the vehicle of human relationship, both within and between ourselves, thereby catalyzing the evolutionary up-leveling of human consciousness itself. Maybe, as Alice Miller implies, we can genuinely begin to heal the world in the process.
Image by Southworth Sailor, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet