Tag Archives: Alice Miller

When People Help: Battered Women, Staged Scenes, and Interventions

Our technical problems are fixed, thanks to Paul at Juniper Webcraft, our dauntless webmaster. And we’re off to WisCon 34. We may blog from there; otherwise, we’ll be back in very early June.

Laurie and Debbie say:

Jezebel and Sociological Images crossposted this piece reporting on a segment on ABC’s tv show “What Would You Do?”, a 20/20 spin-off which contrives uncomfortable situations to observe and analyze what observers and bystanders do, and then reports on their findings.

In this case, the situation involves a conventionally pretty, heavily bruised woman in a busy restaurant with an angry “boyfriend.” The man and woman are both actors, but if you don’t know that, it seems very clear that he’s beaten her before, and he’s ready to do it again.

The clips are both at the Jezebel link. Be warned that they contain significant, upsetting instances of verbal and physical violence against women. They cannot be stopped, fast-forwarded, or paused.

In the first clip, first two white actors and then two African-American actors play out the scene. A man and a woman eating together intervene immediately with the white woman.  Two sisters intervene immediately with the African-American woman, and they are rapidly joined by more women.

In the second clip, the same four actors play out similar scenes, except that the women are dressed for an evening out. As Lindsay said on Jezebel, “we’re talking clothing that’s pretty average for a Saturday night, not Julia Roberts’ blue-and-white monokini-thing in Pretty Woman.”

No one, not one diner, helps either woman, though the scenes went on for 25 and 16 minutes respectively, an extremely long time.

Both Lindsay and Samhita at Feministing are, as we are, very aware that these encounters are what Samhita calls “subject to multiple variables and staged.” One variable that no one else seems to mention is extremely important: in the second set of clips, both men are criticizing the women for how they are dressed, thus making the clothing choices even more of an issue than they might be otherwise.

In the clip where the women look hot, two white women find it easy to assume that the African-American woman is a prostitute, whereas no one says that about the white woman. And, as the African-American actress points out, if she was a prostitute and he was a pimp, that would in no way justify how he is treating her.

In the “hotter” sequence, as well as an earlier sequence they cut to from a different episode (in which the woman is not dressed up), there’s a clear message from the male bystanders that beating your woman isn’t wrong–what’s wrong is doing it in public. One of the ways that these scenes are contrived is that the women’s bruises are very obvious (made with makeup) while in the real world they would be covered by makeup. Far far far too many people still believe that “taking it private” is the important part, and protecting the woman is irrelevant or at best very secondary.

The clips, and the show, are about when and how people intervene. Sometimes a person can be too scared to intervene, or paralyzed by not knowing how to intervene. These skills can be learned, and practiced; one of the many sad moments on these clips is watching a woman berate herself and feel guilty because she felt she didn’t do enough. In an abuse culture, whatever we do to stop abuse is definitionally incomplete. People who want to intervene more actively are better off cutting themselves some slack and examining where they got stuck than beating themselves up.

It’s encouraging to see people intervening, and doing it well. Intervening is complicated, and one way people convince themselves not to intervene (as comes up in these clips) is because they know, correctly, that when an intervention is not a rescue, it often results in the perpetrator doing more damage to the victim at the first opportunity. Nonetheless, as Alice Miller and many others have demonstrated, intervening is incredibly important. It gives the victim the confirmation of a “good witness,” someone who knows that the victim doesn’t deserve what is happening to her, and is willing to stand up for her. Not intervening never saves the victim from harm.

Alice Miller: In Memoriam

Laurie and Richard say:

The psychologist Alice Miller died at her home in Provence on April 14. She was 87. Her publisher announced her death last week.


Her ground breaking works on child abuse in the 80’s gave a historical/societal context to the abuse of children and its place in the development of Western history.

This is for us, the most important thing about her work. She discusses the abuse of children not simply in the context individual and family history but as part of the historical fundamental building blocks of our society. That traditional social order, the engine of power and authority, is based in part upon the abuse of children and women.

Her work includes historical case histories and child rearing manuals going back several hundred years that recommend physical punishment of very young children in order to properly control their minds as they get older. These manuals are in English and German. When she quotes some 17th-century manual from England, the archaic language allows us to distance ourselves from its message. However, contemporary 17th-century German works, translated into current English, do not sound dated. You can find similar sentiments in many circles in the US now. (Fortunately, another hero, Dr. Spock, has at least pushed most of these ideas out the mainstream for children – but not for teenagers and criminals.)

This systemic abuse structure, in all its robed glory, is being displayed most recently in the history of the Catholic Church and child abuse. The strongest defense strategy is relentless denial, as the Church is demonstrating. But what the Church is doing is ordinary. All institutions and families use the same patterns. It never happened; it was an exception; what happened wasn’t abuse; the accusers aren’t innocent (they’re liars, or seductive/complicit, or just hate us).

Child abuse, in Alice Miller’s approach is the (ab)use of children for a society’s and adult’s own ends and gratifications. Poverty, war, hierarchy, status, bullying, sexual abuse, beatings – all these and more are potential ingredients of a ‘hard’ childhood. Miller herself was born in Poland before WWII, attended a clandestine “underground” university in Warsaw during the German occupation, and lived through the war’s aftermath in Germany. She knew.

The damage done affects us all. You may have had an idyllic childhood, but if you love an abuse survivor, or work for one, or vote for one, you will be dealing with the consequences.

One damage done is the ‘normalization’ of abusive attitudes. People who would never dream of beating their own children support policies that send 13-year-old boys to prisons whose rape is a topic for jokes. Policy wonks worry that children who have it ‘too easy’ won’t have the ‘strength’ to do what is necessary in a ‘dangerous’ world. And ‘hard’ childhoods can affect how one sees the world. There’s a strong temptation, especially now in the US, to label these attitudes “conservative,” but they’re not. They run through all our factions – ideological, economic, cultural and religious.

Alice Miller’s counter-strategy is relentless exposure and awareness. It did happen, it was abuse, and the victim’s innocence, guilt or complicity is not the issue. She did not invent that strategy. She did provide intellectual tools to treat it as a general social problem, not an exceptional and individual one. As a therapist, an author, and an advisor, she helped thousands of people come to grips with their childhood demons.

Further useful discussion of her work is on her website here and here.

Her 13 books include The Drama of the Gifted Child, For Your Own Good, and most recently From Rage to Courage. If you are not familiar with her work, we highly recommend it. Her book For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (1983 – ISBN 0-374-52269-3) in full text is available on line at no cost.