The History of Child Abuse
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...
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