by Lloyd deMause
The Journal of Psychohistory 25 (3) Winter 1998
The following speech was given at the National Parenting Conference in Boulder, Colorado, on September 25, 1997.
During the past three decades, I have spent much of my scholarly life examining primary sources such as diaries, autobiographies, doctor’s reports, ethnographic reports and other documents that document what it must have felt like to have been a child–yesterday and today, in the East and the West, in literate and preliterate cultures.
In several hundred studies published by myself and my associates in The Journal of Psychohistory, we have provided extensive evidence that the history of childhood has been a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes–and the further away from the West one gets–the more massive the neglect and cruelty one finds and the more likely children are to have been killed, rejected, beaten, terrorized and sexually abused by their caretakers.
Indeed, my conclusion from a lifetime of psychohistorical study of childhood and society is that the history of humanity is founded upon the abuse of children. Just as family therapists today find that child abuse often functions to hold families together as a way of solving their emotional problems, so, too, the routine assault of children has been society’s most effective way of maintaining its collective emotional homeostasis. Most historical families once practiced infanticide, erotic beating and incest. Most states sacrificed and mutilated their children to relieve the guilt of adults. Even today, we continue to arrange the daily killing, maiming, molestation and starvation of children through our social, military and economic activities. I would like to summarize here some of the evidence I have found as to why child abuse has been humanity’s most powerful and most successful ritual, why it has been the cause of war and social violence, and why the eradication of child abuse and neglect is the most important social task we face today.
THE CHILD AS POISON CONTAINER
The main psychological mechanism that operates in all child abuse involves using children as what I have termed poison containers–receptacles into which adults project disowned parts of their psyches, so they can control these feelings in another body without danger to themselves. In good parenting, the child uses the caretaker as a poison container, much as it earlier used the mother’s placenta as a poison container for cleansing its polluted blood. A good mother reacts with calming actions to the cries of a baby and helps it “detoxify² its dangerous emotions. But when an immature mother’s baby cries, she cannot stand the screaming, and strikes out at the child. As one battering mother put it, “I have never felt loved all my life. When the baby was born, I thought he would love me. When he cried, it meant he didn’t love me. So I hit him.² Rather than the child being able to use the parent to detoxify its fears and anger, the parent instead injects his or her bad feelings into the child and uses it to cleanse his or herself of depression and anger.
Consider a typical infanticidal, incestuous culture, the Bimin-Kuskusmin of New Guinea. As is so often true in pre-literate cultures, the mothers have long post-partum taboos against sex with their husbands, sleep naked against their children until they are about four years old, have orgasms while nursing them and regularly masturbate them. One three-year-old boy describes how whenever his mother was sad or angry she masturbated him so roughly that it hurt him, and he struggled to get away, complaining of a pain in his penis. “It hurts inside,² he told the ethnologist. “It goes Œkoong, koong, koong’ inside. I think it bleeds in there I don’t like to touch it anymore. It hurts when I pee…² Sometimes, after his mother hurt him while masturbating him, he wounds himself in the thigh and abdomen with a sharp stick and draws blood, looking at his penis and saying, “Now it hurts here, outside, not in penis. Look, blood. Feels good…² Although he is only three years old, he understands quite well that he is being used as a poison container by his mother to relieve her depression. He says, “Mother twist penis, tight…Hurt inside…Mother angry, hurt Buuktiin’s penis. Mother sad, hurt Buuktiin’s penis…Mother not like Buuktiin’s penis, want to cut off…”
Maternal incest and pederasty by men are quite common in pre-literate groups and were common in earlier historical times. Boys in many New Guinea groups today, for instance, are so traumatized by the early erotic experiences, neglect and assaults on their bodies that they need to prove their masculinity when they grow up and become fierce warriors and cannibals, with a third of them dying in raids and wars. In fact, I have found that rather than the incest taboo being universal–as anthropologists claim–it is incest itself that has been universal for most children in most cultures in most times. A childhood more or less free from adult sexual use is in fact a very late historical achievement, limited to a few fortunate children in a few modern nations. To give you some idea of the extensive evidence I have gathered for such an unlikely conclusion, I would like to begin by summarizing the evidence which exists for the sexual abuse of children around the world today.
THE SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN TODAY
In America, the most accurate scientific studies, based on lengthy interviews, report that 30 percent of men and 40 percent of women remember having been sexually molested during childhood—defining “molestation” as actual genital contact, not just exposure. About half of these are directly incestuous, with the family members, the other half usually being with others, but with the complicity of caretakers in at least 80 percent of the cases. These experiences of seduction are not just pieced together from fragmentary memories, but are remembered in detail, are usually for an extended period of time and have been confirmed by follow-up reliability studies in 83 percent of the cases, so they are unlikely to have been fantasies. The seductions occurred at much earlier ages than had been previously assumed, with 81 percent occurring before puberty and an astonishing 42 percent under age 7. As high as these molestation rates seem, however, they represent only a portion of the true rates, not only because those interviewed do not include populations that have been shown to have extremely high rates—such as criminals, prostitutes, juveniles in shelters, psychotics, etc.–but also because only conscious memories were counted, and the earliest seductions of children are almost never remembered except during psychotherapy. Adjusting statistically for what is known about these additional factors, I have concluded that the real sexual abuse rate for America is 60 percent for girls and 45 percent for boys, about half of these directly incestuous.
Other Western nations have made fewer careful studies. A recent Canadian study by Gallup of 2,000 adults has produced incidence rates almost exactly the same as those found in the United States. Latin American family sexual activity–particularly widespread pederasty as part of macho sexuality–is considered even more widespread. In England, a recent BBC “ChildWatch” program asked its female listeners–a large though admittedly biased sample–if they remembered sexual molestation, and, of the 2,530 replies analyzed, 83 percent remembered someone touching their genitals, 62 percent recalling actual intercourse. In Germany, the Institut für Kindheit has recently concluded a survey asking West Berlin schoolchildren about their sexual experiences, and 80 percent reported having been molested.
Outside the West, the sexual molestation of children is a routine practice in most families. Childhood in India begins, according to observers, with the child being regularly masturbated by the mother, the girl “to make her sleep well,” the boy “to make him manly.” The child sleeps in the family bed, witnesses and most likely takes part in sexual intercourse between the parents. The child is often “borrowed” to sleep with other members of the extended household, leading to the Indian proverb that “For a girl to be a virgin at ten years old, she must have neither brothers nor cousin nor father.” Childhood is so eroticized that, as one Western observer put it, “The little Hindu girls are deflowered by the little boys with whom they play, and repeat together the erotic lessons which their parents have unwittingly taught them on account of the general promiscuity of family life throughout India. In all the little girls of less than ten years of age the complete hymen is wanting…Incest is often the rule rather than the exception.”
Child marriage was, of course, a long-standing Indian practice. When laws were passed in 1929 trying to outlaw it, the government was overwhelmed by men insisting that early marriage was an absolute necessity, since little girls were naturally very sexual and must be married early if they are to be restrained from seducing adults. “Cupid overtakes the hearts of girls…at an early age,” they said. “A girl’s desire for sexual intercourse is eight times greater than that of males.” Indian mothers also often supported early marriage, frankly admitting it was necessary in order to protect their little girls against rape in the family, saying that “they were afraid to leave their daughters at home, even for one afternoon, without a mother’s eye and accessible to the men of the family.”
The Indian subcontinent, in fact, still has many groups, such as the Baiga, where actual incestuous marriage is practiced, between fathers and daughters, between mothers and sons, between siblings and even between grandparents and their grandchildren–thus disproving the oft-repeated anthropological truism that “no known tribe has ever permitted incest” because if it were allowed society would surely cease functioning. In many of these villages, the children move at the age of 5 or 6 from the incestuous activities of the family bed to spend the rest of their childhood in sex dormitories, where they are initiated by older youth and men into intercourse with a succession of other children, none for longer than three days at a time, under threat of gang rape.
Childhood in China has historically had the same institutionalized rape rituals as in India, including the pederasty of boys, child concubinage, the castration of boys to be used sexually as eunuchs, marriage of young girls to a number of brothers, widespread boy and girl prostitution and the regular sexual use of child servants and slaves. So prevalent was the rape of little girls that Western doctors found that, as in India, few girls entering puberty had intact hymens. Even the universal practice of foot binding was for sexual purposes, with a girl undergoing extremely painful crushing of the bones of her feet for years in order that men could make love to her big toe as a fetish, a penis-substitute.
Childhood in contemporary Japan, although somewhat more Western than that of other Eastern nations, still includes masturbation by mothers “to put them to sleep.” Parents often have intercourse with their children in bed with them, and “co-sleeping,” with parents physically embracing the child, often continues until the child is ten or fifteen. One recent Japanese study found daughters sleeping with their fathers over 20 percent of the time after age 16. Recent sex surveys report memories of sexual abuse even higher than comparable American studies, and “hot lines” of sexual abuse report mother-son incest in almost a third of the calls, the mother saying to her teenage son, “It’s not good to do it alone. Your IQ becomes lower. I will help you, ” or “You cannot study if you cannot have sex. You may use my body,” or “I don’t want you to get into trouble with a girl. Have sex with me instead.” Historically, Japan has been one of the most endogamous societies in the world, with incestuous marriages in court circles being approved even in historical times and preferred sibling, cousin, uncle-niece and aunt-nephew marriages having been so extensive that genetics experts have discovered that the incestuous inbreeding has affected the size and health of the Japanese. Even today, there are rural areas in Japan where fathers marry their daughters when the mother has died or is incapacitated, “in accordance with feudal family traditions.”
The sexual use of children in the Near East is as widespread as in the Far East. Historically, all the institutionalized forms of pedophilia which were customary in the Far East are documented extensively for the Near East, including child marriage, child concubinage, temple prostitution of both boys and girls, parent-child marriage (among the Zoroastrians), sibling marriage (quite common among Egyptians), sex slavery, ritualized pederasty and child prostitution. Masturbation in infancy is said to be necessary “to increase the size” of the penis, and older siblings are reported to play with the genitals of babies for hours at a time. Mutual masturbation, fellatio and anal intercourse are also said to be common among children, particularly with the older boys using younger children as sex objects. The nude public baths (hammam) are particularly eroticized in many areas, being especially notorious as a place of homosexual acts, both male and female.
Girls are used incestuously even more often than boys, since females are valued so little. One report found 80 percent of Near Eastern women surveyed recalled having been forced into fellatio between the ages of 3 and 6 by older brothers, cousins, uncles and teachers. The girls rarely complain, since “if there is any punishment to be meted out, it will always end up by being inflicted on her.” Arab women know that their spouses are pedophiles and prefer having sex with children to having sex with them. Their retribution comes as follows. When the girl is about 6 years old, the women of the house grab her, pull her thighs apart and cut off her clitoris and often also her labia with a razor, thus usually ending her ability to feel sexual pleasure forever. One Egyptian woman relates her memory of how it happened to her. After being used sexually by the men in her family during her early childhood, she says:
I was six years old that night when I lay in my bed, warm and peaceful…I felt something move under the blankets, something like a huge hand…another hand was clapped over my mouth to prevent me from screaming.
They carried me to the bathroom…I remember…a rasping metallic sound which reminded me of the butcher when he used to sharpen his knife…My blood was frozen in my veins…my thighs had been pulled wide apart…I felt that the rasping knife or blade was heading straight down towards my throat. Then suddenly the sharp metallic edge seemed to drop between my thighs and there cut off a piece of flesh from my body.
I screamed with pain despite the tight hand held over my mouth, for the pain was not just a pain, it was like a searing flame that went through my whole body. After a few moments, I saw a red pool of blood around my hips. I did not know what they had cut off from my body, and did not try to find out. I just wept, and called out to my mother for help. But the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side. Yes, it was her, I could not be mistaken, in flesh and blood, right in the midst of these strangers, talking to them and smiling at them.
A recent survey of Egyptian girls and women showed 97 percent of uneducated families and 66 percent of educated families still practiced clitoridectomy. Nor is the practice decreasing–UN reports estimate that more than 74 million females have been mutilated, with “more female children mutilated today than throughout history.”
Clitoridectomy, like all sexual mutilations, is, I believe, an act of incest. If it is incest when a father rapes a daughter, it is also incest when parents assault their children by cutting off, sewing up, burning, flaying or gashing their genitals. In all these cases, the child is being used for the sadistic sexual pleasure of the parent. In fact, circumcision ceremonies are often followed by drinking parties that end in intercourse, so sexually arousing is the circumcision—in some areas, the traveling circumcizer is actually accompanied by some prostitutes, who know how sexually excited villages become after the ceremony. Therefore, the practice of sexually mutilating children’s genitals—one of the most widespread rituals in the world–by itself makes incest a near-universal trait.
THE EVOLUTION OF CHILDHOOD
Historically, the routine use of children as poison containers to prevent adults from feeling overwhelmed by their anxieties has also been universal. Examples from the history of childhood regularly reveal children are expected to “absorb” the bad feelings of their caretakers. As one peasant community in rural Greece puts it, you must have children around to put your bad feelings into, especially when the “Bad Hour” comes around. An informant describes the process as follows:
One of the ways for the Bad Hour to occur is when you get angry. When you’re angry a demon gets inside of you. Only if a pure individual passes by, like a child for instance, will the “bad” leave you, for it will fall on the unpolluted.
Newborn infants, in particular, were perfect poison containers because they were so “unpolluted.” The newborn then became so full of the parent’s projections that even if he or she is allowed to live (up to half the children in early societies were murdered at birth), the infant had to be tied up–tightly swaddled in bandages for up to a year or more—to prevent it from “tearing its ears off, scratching its eyes out, breaking its legs, or touching its genitals,” i.e., to prevent it from acting out the violent and sexual projections of the parents.
Children were particularly useful as poison containers when adults felt anxious about recent or impending success. Success stirs up superego retaliation, and the sacrifice of children to appease the gods–that is, the punitive parents–was an extremely widespread guilt-reducing device. Most early states practiced child sacrifice. Typical was Carthage, where a large cemetery has been discovered called The Tophet filled with over 20,000 urns deposited there between 400 and 200 B.C. The urns contained bones of children sacrificed by their parents, who often would make a vow to kill their next child if the gods would grant them a favor–for instance, if their shipment of goods were to arrive safely in a foreign port. Some urns contain the bones of stillborn babies along with the bones of two-year-olds, indicating that if the promised child was not born alive, an older child had also to be killed to satisfy the promise. The sacrifice was accompanied by a music, wild dancing and riotous orgy, and was probably accompanied by the ritual rape of virgin girls, as it was with the Incans. Plutarch told how the priests would “cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan [while] the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums…” Sacrifice, rape and genital mutilation of young girls continues to take place today in the Andean mountains, particularly to ward off the guilt coming after successful cocaine deliveries. These ceremonies, from antiquity to today, resemble closely the satanic rituals made familiar recently in the newspapers, using the infliction of rape, sexual mutilation and other horrors in order to visit upon child victims elements of the traumas of the satanists’ own childhood.
That child sacrifice was carried out mainly by the rich in each of these early societies confirms my theory that it is a guilt-reducing technique. Whenever new ventures were begun, children would be sacrificed. Whenever a new building or bridge was built, a child would be buried within it as a “foundation sacrifice.” Children still play at capturing a child and making it part of the bridge in “London Bridge’s Falling Down.” Children’s bodies were particularly useful in curing disease. Whatever one’s physical ills, a child could be used to “absorb” the poison that was responsible. When, for instance, one wanted to be cured of leprosy, one was supposed to kill a child and wash one’s body in its blood. When one wanted to find out if a house whose previous occupants had died of plague was still infected or not, one rented some children to live in it for several weeks to see if they died–rather like the use of canaries in mines to detect poisonous gas. When one was impotent, depressed or had venereal disease, doctors prescribed having intercourse with a child. As late as the end of the nineteenth century, men who were brought into Old Bailey for having raped young girls were let go because “they believed that they were curing themselves of venereal disease.” Raping virgins was particularly effective for impotence and depression; as one medical book put it, “Breaking a maiden’s seal is one of the best antidotes for one’s ills. Cudgeling her unceasingly, until she swoons away, is a might remedy for man’s depression. It cures all impotence.” And, of course, whenever a parent had a disease, they always had their children handy to absorb the poison. Thus British doctors in the nineteenth century regularly found when visiting men who had venereal disease that their children also had the same disease–on their mouths, anuses or genitals.
No matter what anxieties one had, one had children always at hand to use to relieve them. The evolution of childhood from incest to love and from abuse to empathy has been a slow, uneven path, but one whose progressive direction is, I think, unmistakable. This evolution of parent-child relations is, I contend, an independent source of historical change, lying in the ability of successive generations of parents to live through their own childhood traumas a second time and work through their anxieties in a slightly better manner this second time around. It is in this sense that I say that history is like psychotherapy, which also heals through revisiting one’s childhood traumas and reworking earlier anxieties. If the parent–the mother, for most of history–is given even the most minimal support by society, the evolution of childhood progresses, new variations in historical personality are formed, and history begins to move in new, innovative directions.
The crucial relationship in this evolution is the mother-daughter relationship. If little girls are treated particularly badly, they grow up to be mothers who cannot rework their traumas, and history is frozen. For instance, although China was ahead of the West in most ways during the pre-Christian era, it became “frozen” and fell far behind the West in evolutionary social and technological change after it adopted the practice of footbinding girls. Similarly, the cliterodectomy of girls in Moslem societies has inhibited their social development for centuries, since it likewise puts a brake on the ability of the next generation of mothers to make progress in caring for their children. Clearly, different groups have moved different distances up the ladder of psychological evolution, since some contemporary groups still practice brain-eating as our Paleolithic ancestors did, and different subgroups of our more advanced nations still terrorize and abuse their children in ways identical to those that were commonplace centuries ago, producing the “historical fossils” (early “psychoclasses”) we now call borderline personalities and other severe character disorders. Your neighbor is as likely to be a result of medieval parenting as of modern parenting, so modern societies contain a full range of childrearing modes and psychoclasses. The “generational pressure” for psychological change is not only an independent historical force–originating in inborn adult-child striving for relationship–it occurs independent of social and technological change, and can be found even in periods of economic stagnation. My “psychogenic theory of history” posits that a society’s childrearing practices are not just one item in a list of cultural traits, but–because all other traits must be passed down from generation to generation through the narrow funnel of childhood–instead makes childrearing the very basis for the transmission and development of all other cultural traits, placing definite limits on what can be achieved in the material spheres of history. The main source of childhood evolution is, I believe, the process I call psychogenesis, by which parents–mainly the mother for most of history–revisit a second time around the stages of childhood and undo to some extent the traumas they themselves endured. It is in this sense that history is like a psychotherapy of the generations, undoing trauma and giving historical personality a chance at a new start with every baby born. Only humans have brain networks that allow this miracle to take place. All cultural changes in the past 100,000 years of Homo sapiens sapiens are epigenetic, not genetic. Regardless of changes in the environment, it is only when changes in childhood occur that epigenetic changes in the brain can occur and societies can begin to progress and move in unpredictable new directions that are more adaptive. That more individuated and loving individuals are ultimately more adaptive is understandable–because they are less under the pressures of infantile traumas and are therefore more rational in reaching their goals. But that this childhood evolution–and therefore all social evolution–is terribly uneven is also understandable, given the varying conditions under which parents all over the world have to conduct their childrearing tasks.
THE SIX CHILDREARING MODES
The basic patterns of evolution of childhood have begun to be traced by myself and other psychohistorians. I would like to summarize the six childrearing modes that I have suggested are common to all groups that have traversed the full path of childhood and cultural evolution so far. These modes are, in fact, quite independent of technological development. But the overall evolutionary direction of parent-child relations is, I think, evident in the historical record, regardless of what labels one chooses to put on its stages. The earliest childrearing mode I have called infanticidal to highlight the constant presence of infanticidal wishes in the parent. Real infanticide is, of course, ubiquitous in most preliterate cultures, ranging about a third or more of all children born, and evidence remains of widespread infanticide among all historical records. By historical times, census figures from antiquity show boy/girl ratios as high as 400 boys to 100 girls–a believable figure since, as Poseidippos said, “even a rich man always exposes a daughter.” I have estimated that perhaps half of all children born in antiquity were killed by their caretakers, declining to about a third in medieval times and dropping to under one percent only by the eighteenth century. Since these skewed sex ratios do not vary by economic class–the rich do away with their children at about the same rates as the poor–the evidence suggests that the parents were coping with the emotional anxieties of childrearing more than economic conditions.
That incest is also traditional in the infanticidal mode is harder to prove conclusively, since what really happened in the family bed does not often leave historical traces. Yet all the records we have suggest that this was so. Man began, after all, as an incestuous primate–along with other primates, who remain incestuous today. In most simple societies today in such areas as New Guinea, boys and girls are used sexually by both their mothers and by the men, who gang rape girls and often are also pederasts who use the boys sexually, have boy-wives, or force all the boys to fellate them daily from age seven to fourteen “in order to ingest semen to counteract maternal pollution.”
By the time historical records begin, the widespread sexual use of children is well documented. The Greek and Roman child lived his or her earliest years in an atmosphere of sexual abuse. Girls were commonly raped, as reflected in the many comedies that have scenes that were considered funny of little girls being raped. Both Greek and Roman doctors report that female children rarely have hymens–just like the Indian and Chinese girls I described above. In order to find out if your young wife was really a virgin (girls usually married before puberty to older men), one had to use mystical tests for virginity, since intact hymens were so rare.
Boys, too, were regularly handed over by their parents to neighboring men to be raped. Plutarch has a long essay on what was the best kind of person a father should give his son to for buggering. The common notion that this occurred only at “adolescence” is quite mistaken. It began around age seven, continued for several years and ended by puberty, when the boy’s facial and pubic hairs began to appear. Child brothels, rent-a-boy services and sex slavery flourished in every city in antiquity. Children were so subject to sexual use by the men around them that schools were by law prohibited from staying open past sundown, so their pedagogues–slaves who were assigned to protect them against random sexual attack–could try to see that their teachers didn’t assault them. Petronius especially loved depicting adults feeling the “immature little tool” of boys, and Tiberius was said by Seutonius to have “taught children of the most tender years, whom he called his little fishes, to play between his legs while he was in his bath. Those which had not yet been weaned, but were strong and hearty, he set at fellatio…”
Since boys in antiquity shared the experience of being buggered, Christianity constructed its central myth of the Father sending his son down to be penetrated by a soldier’s lance in order to restage the common experience of fathers giving their boys to a neighbor to be sexually penetrated. Those who accepted the myth, accepted the penetration, and were promised the Father’s love and Mary’s tears in return. Although Christianity attempted to reduce the outright killing of newborns, thus moving beyond the infanticidal mode, it continued the abandonment of children–whether by child sale or by sending to wet nurse or monastery or nunnery or foster family or to other homes as servants–which is why I labeled this second stage the abandoning mode. The refusal of parents to raise their own legitimate children was so powerful that through the nineteenth century over half of the children born in Florence, for instance, were dumped into foundling homes at birth, to be picked up by their families–if they lived that long (the majority died)–when they were around five years old, thus avoiding having homes where crying babies disturbed the peace. The same abandonment was common in France, where, in 1900, over 90 percent of the babies born in Paris were carted out to the countryside to wetnurses at birth. As one author put it, “mother love” was a late historical achievement, not an instinctual trait.
Despite the advance that just abandoning rather than outright killing your children represents, most of the other childrearing practices of antiquity continued in the middle ages, with the buggering of boys–even in monasteries–continuing to be widespread and even accepted by society. By the time boys were in their teens, they were so addicted to violent sex that they sometimes formed adolescent raping gangs that grabbed and raped any girls or young women they could find unprotected, to such an extent that the majority of women in some cities would have been raped by these gangs at some time in their lives.
The erotic beating of children continued in Christian times, because of the anxieties of living with a child who is so full of your projections. Children were experienced as always about to turn into “changelings,” those who, as St. Augustine puts it, “suffer from a demon”–which usually meant just that they cry too much, since the Malleus Maleficarum says that one can recognize changelings because they “always howl most piteously,” and since Luther says they “are more obnoxious than ten children with their crapping, eating, and screaming.”
That children with devils in them had to be beaten goes without saying. A panoply of beating instruments existed for that purpose, from cat-o’-nine tails and whips to shovels, canes, iron rods, bundles of sticks, the discipline (a whip made of small chains), the goad (shaped like a cobbler’s knife, used to prick the child on the head or hands) and special school instruments like the flapper, which had a pear-shaped end and a round hole to raise blisters. The beatings described in the sources were almost always severe, involved bruising and bloodying of the body, began in infancy, were usually erotically tinged by being inflicted on bare parts of the body near the genitals and were a regular part of the child’s daily life. Century after century of battered children grew up to batter their own children in turn. Public protest was rare. Even humanists and teachers who had a reputation for gentleness approved of the severe beating of children. Those who attempted reform did so only to prevent death. As a thirteenth-century law said, “If one beats a child until it bleeds, then it will remember, but if one beats it to death, the law applies.” As Batholomew Batty put it, parents must “keep the golden mean,” which is to say they should not “strike and buffet their children about the face and head, and to lace upon them like malt sacks with cudgels, staves, fork or fire shovel,” for then they might die of the blows. The correct way, he said, was to “Hit him upon the sides…with the rod, he shall not die thereof.”
By the thirteenth century in the West, abandonment via oblation, or the giving of young children to monasteries for sexual and other uses, was ended, the first disapproval of pedophilia appeared, the first childrearing tracts were published and some advanced parents began to practice what I have termed the ambivalent mode of childrearing, where the child was not born completely evil, but was seen as being still full of enough dangerous projections so that the parent, whose task it was to mold it, must beat it into shape like clay. Church moralists for the first time began to warn against sexual molestation of children by parents, nurses and neighbors (the mothers had previously been instructed to masturbate their boys “so their yards will grow long”). The length of time of swaddling was eventually reduced from a year or more to only a few months. Pediatrics and educational philosophy were born. Parents of means began suggesting that perhaps rather than sending their infants out to be wetnursed in some peasant village–and thereby condemning over half of them to early death–the mother might herself nurse her infant. The baby, said some mothers who began to try nursing their own babies, even responds to this care by giving love back to the nursing mother, stroking her breast and face and cooing. And if the father, as often happened, complained that his wife’s breast belonged to him not the baby, these bold new mothers suggested that the father should be allowed to hold the baby too.
These childhood reforms immediately preceded and thereby produced the humanistic, religious and political revolutions we associate with early modern times. For the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Western Europe represent the great watershed of psychogenic change, wherein vastly improved childrearing allowed at least some of the schizoid and borderline personalities of antiquity and medieval times–who regularly heard voices and hallucinated visions–to move on to the more integrated, less splitting modern neurotic personality more familiar to recent times, thus achieving Melanie Klein’s “depressive position.” The sixteenth-century watershed in childrearing allowed people to reduce splitting and feel real depression for the first time, as can be seen in the popularity of Renaissance melancholy (Hamlet’s admirable depressive guilt), the ability of Protestants to end the good mother/bad mother splitting of Mary/Eve, and the ability to internalize the projective panoply of split Catholic saints/devils into Protestant depressive guilt. With this vast improvement in childrearing–in some families at least–the modern world could begin, with the development of science, technology and democratization now being possible in parts of the West.
By the seventeenth century, the intrusive mode of childrearing began, particularly in England, America and France, whereby the child was seen as less full of dangerous projections, so it could actually be unswaddled soon after birth, not given regular enemas (which had until then been given daily from birth to remove the bad contents felt to be inside the infant), toilet trained early rather than late, hit but not regularly whipped, and punished for masturbation rather than being masturbated by adults. It eventually became unacceptable for men to go about with a mistress on one arm and a catamite on the other, though underground seduction of minors continued. Intrusive parenting, in essence, began to substitute psychological pressure for physical abuse, so that rather than whipping the child to prevent it from sin, it was, for instance, shut up in the dark closets for hours or left without food, sometimes for days. One mother shut her three-year-old boy up in a drawer. Another had a house she described as “a sort of little Bastille, in every closet of which was to be found a culprit–some were sobbing and repeating verbs, others eating their bread and water…” Another five-year-old French boy, in looking at a new apartment with his mother, told her, “Oh no, mama…it’s impossible; there’s no dark closet! Where could you put me when I’m naughty.”
Although erotic whipping of children decreased gradually, the intrusive mode required nevertheless a steady pressure on the child to “break its will” and discipline it properly. This breaking of the will began early. John Wesley’s mother said of her babies, “When turned a year old (and some before), they were taught to fear the rod, and to cry softly.” One would never know, she claimed, that children were present in her house. Rousseau confirmed that in France babies in their earliest days were often beaten to keep them quiet. Another mother wrote of her first battle with her four-month-old infant, “I whipped him til he was actually black and blue, and until I could not whip him any more, and he never gave up one single inch.” One can sense in this description of baby battering the struggle with the mother’s own powerful parent, with the baby seen as so obstinate that it “won the battle” even after being beaten. In fact, this “double image” of the child as both a powerful adult and a wicked child accounts for the merging of beater and beaten in our myriad historical accounts of child abuse. Here, for instance, is an early American father describing the beating of his four-year-old boy for not being able to read something. The child is first tied up naked in the cellar. Then, the father writes,
With him in this condition, and myself, the wife of my bosom, and the lady of my family, all of us in distress, and with hearts sinking within us, I commenced using the rod…During this most unpleasant, self denying and disagreeable work, I…felt all the force of divine authority and express command that I ever felt in any case in all my life…But under the all controlling influence of such a degree of angry passion and obstinacy, as my son had manifested, no wonder he thought he “should beat me out,” feeble and tremulous as I was; and knowing as he did that it made me almost sick to whip him. At that he could neither pity me nor himself.
This picture of the merging of parent and child, with the father complaining that he is the one “beaten out” and in need of pity, is common for the intrusive mode. Similar confusion between parent and child can be seen in the severe punishments for masturbation championed by the child-training literature since Tissot. Prior to this, children were masturbated by adults and even licked on their bodies as though they were substitute breasts. For instance, Little Louis XIII, in 1603, was described by his pediatrician as having his penis and breasts kissed by everyone in the court, and his parents would regularly make him part of sexual intercourse in the royal bed. But childrearing reformers beginning in the eighteenth century began to try to bring this open sexual abuse under control, only it was the child who was now punished for touching his or her genitals, under threat of circumcision, clitoridectomy, infibulation and various cages and other genital restraint devices. These terrorizing warnings and surgical interventions only began to die out at the end of the nineteenth century, after two hundred years of brutal and totally unnecessary assault on children’s bodies and psyches for touching themselves. Despite the reformers’ efforts, progress was so uneven that one British journalist could write in 1924 that “cases of incest are terribly common in all classes. [Usually] the criminal…goes unpunished…Two men coming out from [an incest] trial were overheard saying to a woman who deplored there had been no conviction, ŒWhat nonsense! Men should not be punished for a thing like that. It doesn’t harm the child.'”
It goes without saying that the effects on the child of these physical and psychological punishments were immense. Adults remembered that as children they had had recurring nightmares and even outright hallucinations as they lay awake at night, terrorized by imaginary ghosts, demons, “a witch on the pillow,” “a large black dog under the bed,” or “a crooked finger crawling across the room.” History is filled with reports of children’s convulsive fits, dancing manias, loss of hearing and speech, loss of memory, hallucinations of devils and confessions of intercourse with devils. Nor did the parents help their children’s mental anguish by giving them comfort. It was thought that the way for children to get over their fears was to make them face fear even more concretely, so adults used to take children on visits to the gibbet to inspect rotting corpses hanging there, while being told moral stories. Classes used to be taken out of school to witness hangings, and parents would also sometimes take their children to hangings and then beat them when they returned home to make them remember what they had seen. Even humanists, like Mafio Vegio, who protested the severe beating of children, would admit that “to let them witness a public execution is sometimes not at all a bad thing.”
The effect on the children of this corpse-viewing was of course massive. One little girl, after her mother showed her the fresh corpse of her nine-year-old friend as an example, went around saying, “They will put daughter in the deep hole, and what will mother do?” Another woke at night screaming after seeing hangings, and “practiced hanging his own cat.” Religion was a further source of terrorizing. God was said to “hold you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire” and children’s books depicted Hell as follows: “The little child is in this red-hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out…It stamps its little feet on the floor…” Various terrorizing figures were used to control the child. If you were bad, the werewolf would gulp you down, Blue Beard would chop you up, Boney (Bonaparte) would eat your flesh, the black man or the chimney sweep would steal you away at night. This need to personify punitive figures was in fact so powerful that adults actually dressed up dummies to use in frightening children. As one English writer, in 1748, explained the practice:
The nurse takes a fancy to quiet the peevish child, and with this intent, dresses up an uncouth figure, makes it come in, and roar and scream at the child in ugly disagreeable notes, which grate upon the tender organs of the ear, and at the same time, by its gesture and near approach, makes as if it would swallow the infant up.
Another writer, in 1882, described how the nurse of a friend’s child wanted to leave for the evening while the parents were out, and so told the little girl that a
horrible Black Man…was hidden in the room to catch her the moment she left her bed…[Then] she made a huge figure of a black man with frightful staring eyes and an enormous mouth, and placed it at the foot of the bed where the little innocent child was fast asleep. As soon as the evening was over…[she] went back to her charge. Opening the door quietly, she beheld the little girl sitting up in her bed, staring in an agony of terror at the fearful monster before her, both hands convulsively grasping her fair hair. She was stone dead!
By the nineteenth century’s socializing mode, some parents no longer needed to terrorize, beat and sexually seduce their children, and more gentle psychological means began to be used to “socialize” the child. The socializing mode is still the main model of upbringing in Western nations, featuring the mother as trainer and the father as provider and protector, and the child is seen as slowly being made to conform to the parents’ model of goodness. Many of the abusive practices are reduced in the home but remain elsewhere in society. While Elizabeth I was sexually seduced as a girl by her caretakers and Louis XV had Madame du Barry procure little girls for the King to rape in his royal bedroom, by the nineteenth century parents would less often commit incest themselves but still sent their children to schools where they were erotically whipped on the bare buttocks and usually buggered by the older boys and masters. As John Addington Symonds reported his experience as a boy at public school:
Every boy of good looks had a female name, and was recognized either as a public prostitute or as some bigger fellow’s Œbitch.’ Bitch was the word in common usage to indicate a boy who yielded his person to a lover. The talk in the dormitories and the studies was incredibly obscene. Here and there one could not avoid seeing acts of onanism, mutual masturbation, or the sports of naked boys in bed together.
Reformers during the nineteenth century tried to bring the rest of society into the socializing mode by legislation designed to prevent outright battering and sexual abuse of children, which of course still went on in the majority of families around them. But those who tried to oppose buggering and beating boys in schools were opposed by parents who said “It didn’t hurt me.” Those who tried to pass child labor legislation to reduce horrendous working conditions and hours were labeled Communists. And those who thought one could bring up children kindly were considered impractical visionaries.
Even so, the decrease in parental seduction and beating during the intrusive mode produced an explosion of social innovation, allowing nations to produce the democratic and industrial revolutions of the modern period. As Hanns Sachs pointed out long ago in his paper “The Delay of the Machine Age,” when people in antiquity first invented the steam engine, they dared to use it only for children’s toys. It was only after fifteen centuries of childrearing evolution that steam could finally begin to be used by less fearful and more individuated adults to provide power for the benefit of mankind. As hellfire and physical discipline were replaced by other childrearing methods, it was the socializing psychoclass that built the modern world, with its democratic, innovative and class-dominated society.
What kind of society might be envisioned by children brought up under the latest childrearing mode–what I have termed the helping mode –whereby a minority of parents are now trying to help their children reach their own goals at each stage of life, rather than socializing them into adult goals–is yet to be seen. I suspect it will be far less class-centered and more empathic of others than is the socializing modern world with which we are familiar. That helping mode children grow up to be incapable of creating wars is also becoming evident from watching the anti-war activities of my children and those of their friends who have been brought up by other helping mode parents. For war is only understandable as a sacrificial ritual in which young men are sent by their parents to be hurt and killed as representatives of the independence-seeking parts of themselves. Psychohistorians have regularly found that images on the magazine covers and in political cartoons in the months prior to wars reveal fears of the nation becoming “too soft” and vulnerable, with images of dangerous women threatening to engulf and hurt people. These regressed group-fantasies eventually produce so much anxiety that a sacrifice of innocent victims is deemed necessary, and another nation who also needs a sacrifice is located. So regular are these group-fantasies in the media that I was able to forecast, for instance, the recent Persian Gulf War months before Iraq invaded Kuwait by locating in the American media an upsurge in imagery of devouring mommies and guilty children needing punishment.
hat periodic sacrifices are in fact lawful is suggested by the regularity with which they occur, nearly every state producing a major war on the average of about every 25 years throughout the past two millennia. In between wars, periodic economic sacrifices serve to relieve our guilt for too much prosperity and to cleanse us of our dangerous economic and social progress. Depth psychology has shown that in individuals progress toward individuation and success often produces regression, including both fears of leaving mommy and wishes for maternal re-engulfment, along with fears of losing one’s self. In nations, the same thing occurs after periods of rapid change and prosperity, and is defended against by the sacrificial ritual called war.
THE TASK OF THE FUTURE
That all social violence–whether by war, revolution or economic exploitation–is ultimately a consequence of child abuse should not surprise us. The propensity to reinflict childhood traumas upon others in socially-approved violence is actually far more able to explain and predict the actual outbreak of wars than the usual economic motivations, and we are likely to continue to undergo our periodic sacrificial rituals of war if the infliction of childhood trauma continues. Clear evidence has been published in The Journal of Psychohistory that the more traumatic one’s childhood, the more one is likely to be in favor of military solutions to social problems. Technologically, the human race is now quite able to satisfy its needs–if we can live together without violence. But unless we now employ our social resources toward consciously assisting the evolution of childrearing, we will be doomed to the periodic destruction of our resources, both material and human. To Selma Freiberg’s dicta that “Trauma demands repetition” I would only add “repetition in social behavior.” We cannot be content to only continue to do endless repair work on damaged adults, with more jails and police and therapists and political movements. Our task now must be to create an entirely new profession of “child helpers” who can reach out to every new child born on earth and help its parents give it love and independence.
Such a parent outreach movement is already under way in a few cities, and special issues of The Journal of Psychohistory have been published to document its operation. A special issue on “Changing Childhood” is the most recent to be published, showing the success of parent outreach projects in several states. The success of parenting centers such as the one pioneered in Boulder, Colorado, for instance, has been astonishing. Through parenting classes and home visiting by paraprofessionals, they have measurably reduced child abuse, as shown by careful followup studies and by reduced police reports and hospital entrance rates. All this has been accomplished with very small monetary outlays, since these parent outreach centers operate mainly with volunteer labor, while it has the potential to save trillions of dollars annually in the costs of social violence, police enforcement, jails and other consequences of the widespread child abuse of today.
Such a parent support movement would resemble the universal education movement of over a century ago. People then objected to providing universal education, by saying, “Well, yes, perhaps free education is useful for all children–but that would require hiring millions of teachers. How can we afford it?” We, too, admit that we will eventually need millions of parent helpers to teach parents how to bring up children and produce non-violent adults. But the teaching of parenting is just the unfinished half–the most important half–of the free education movement of the past, with its goal the empowerment of children to realize their innate capacities for love and work.
Changing childhood is a communal task. And it works. In 1979, Sweden passed a law saying that hitting children was as unlawful as hitting adults! Imagine the audacity! Children were people, just like adults! Parents who hit their children weren’t put into jail–that would just deprive the children of their caretakers. But the parents were taught how to bring up children without hitting them. And at the same time, high school students were taught how to bring up children without violence. By now, 20 years later, these high school students have their own children, and…surprise! They don’t hit them! To those who object to the cost of communities helping all parents, we can only reply: Can we afford not to teach parenting? What more important task can we devote our resources to? Do we really want to have massive armies and jails and emotionally crippled adults forever? Must each generation continue to torture and neglect its children so they repeat the violence and economic exploitation of previous generations? Why not achieve meaningful political and social revolution by first achieving a parenting revolution? If war, social violence, class domination and economic destruction of wealth are really revenge rituals for childhood trauma, how else can we remove the source of these rituals? How else end child abuse and neglect? How else increase the real wealth of nations, our next generation? How else achieve a world of love and laughter of which we are truly capable?
It appears we have our work cut out for us.
Information about the annual National Parenting Conference can be obtained by writing Robert McFarland, M.D., 2300 Kalmia, Boulder, CO 80304.
Lloyd deMause is Director of The Institute for Psychohistory, Editor of The Journal of Psychohistory and President of The International Psychohistorical Association and can be reached at 140 Riverside Drive, New York, New York 10024. He is author of The History of Childhood, Foundations of Psychohistory,and Reagan’s America.
This article is based upon extensive primary source material fully referenced in the over 600 footnotes contained in the following sources:
1. Lloyd deMause, “The Evolution of Childhood.” in his Foundations of Psychohistory. New York: Creative Roots, 1982.
2. _____________ “On Writing Childhood History.” The Journal of Psychohistory 16 (1988): 135-171.
3. _____________”The History of Child Assault.” The Journal of Psychohistory 18(1990): 1-29.
4. _____________”The Universality of Incest.” The Journal of Psychohistory 19 (1991):123-164.