We all know—or, today, we should all know—that physical punishment only produces obedient children but cannot prevent them from becoming violent or sick adults precisely because of this treatment. This knowledge is now scientifically proven and was finally officially accepted by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1998. Contrary to common opinion prevalent as recently as fifteen years ago, the human brain at birth is far from being fully developed. It is use-dependent, needing loving stimulation for the child from her first day on. The abilities a person’s brain can develop depend on experiences in the first three years of life.
Studies on abandoned and severely maltreated Romanian children, as an example, revealed striking lesions in certain areas of the brain. The repeated traumatization has led to an increased release of stress hormones which have attacked the sensitive tissue of the brain and destroyed the new, already built-up neurons. The areas of their brains responsible for the “management” of their emotions are twenty to thirty percent smaller than in other children of the same age. Obviously, all children (not only Romanian) who suffer such abandonment and maltreatment will be damaged in this way.
The neurobiological research makes it easier for us to understand the way Nazis like Eichmann, Himmler, Hoss and others functioned. The rigorous obedience training they underwent in earliest infancy stunted the development of such human capacities as compassion and pity for the sufferings of others. Their total emotional atrophy enabled the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes imaginable to function “normally” and to continue without the slightest remorse to impress their environment with their efficiency in the years after the war. Dr. Mengele could make the most cruel experiments with Jewish children in Auschwitz and then live for thirty years like a “normal,” well adjusted man.
Those turn-of-the-century children who were “subjugated by looks” and systematically subjected to obedience drilling were not only exposed to corporal correction but also to severe emotional deprivation. The upbringing manuals of the day described physical demonstrations of affection such as stroking, cuddling and kissing as indications of a doting, mollycoddling attitude. Parents were warned of the disastrous effects of spoiling their children, a form of indulgence entirely incompatible with the prevalent ideal of rigor and severity. As a result, infants suffered from the absence of direct loving contact with the parents, which also caused certain areas of the brain to remain underdeveloped.
I found it logical that a child beaten often and deprived of loving physical contact would quickly pick up the language of violence. For him this language became the only effective means of communication available. However, when I began to illustrate my thesis by drawing on the examples of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Ceaucescu, when I tried to expose the social consequences of child maltreatment, I first encountered strong resistance. Repeatedly I was told, “I, too, was a battered child, but that didn’t make me a criminal.” When I asked these people for details about their childhood, I was always told of a person who made the difference, a sibling, a teacher, a neighbor, just somebody who liked or even loved them but, at least in most cases, was unable to protect them. Yet through his presence this person gave the child a notion of trust and love.
I call these persons “helping witnesses.” Dostoyevsky, for instance, had a brutal father, but a loving mother. She wasn’t strong enough to protect him from his father, but she gave him a powerful conception of love, without which his novels would have been unthinkable. Many have also been lucky enough to find “enlightened” and courageous witnesses, people who helped them to recognize the injustices they suffered, the significance the hurtful treatment had for them, and its influences on their whole life. They may even suffer much in their life, may become drug addicted, and have relationship problems, but thanks to the few good experiences in their childhood usually do not become criminals. The criminal outcome seems to be connected with a childhood that didn’t provide any helping witness, that was a place of constant threat and fear….