Naturally, this disapproval hurt my mother’s feelings and she would often ask my grandmother why she was so mean. Her stock response, spoken in her thick Yiddish accent, was, “I had a bad childhood.”
No one knew anything about my grandmother’s childhood in Hungary in the 1800’s. All we did know was that she made the great journey to America in the steerage of a ship that carried hundreds of poor immigrants to a new life where she could freely practice her religion.
At eight years old when I heard my grandmother talk about her bad childhood, it struck me as very comical. To me she looked as if her childhood had occurred hundreds of years before and yet she was still using it as an excuse for destructive behavior.
Now I understand that her thinking was way ahead of its time. She certainly never studied psychology or unraveled the traumas of her childhood with a therapist.
The “abuse excuse,” which has proliferated in the 20th century is revealed by famous cases such as the murder of Harvey Milk. Dan White, his murderer, used as his excuse that he was high on junk food, specifically Hostess Twinkies. This was presented as a logical defense in a court of law.
Last night I watched a documentary about Diane Warmus, America’s most notorious female serial killer. Honestly, after hearing about her childhood, I believe if I were her, I would have murdered all those men myself. When I read a biography of Hitler in Alice Miller’s book, ”For your own Good,” which outlined the suffering he endured as a child, I could not help but feel empathy and compassion for him totally against my will!
Eighty-four percent of all prison inmates were victims of child abuse. Over 60% of drug addicts in rehabilitation report severe sexual, emotional and/or physical abuse in their early years.
Yesterday I was asked by a friend who is a recovered addict, “How long can a person use the past to excuse their behavior in the present? To my surprise, in spite of my previous statements, I said, “No time at all, not a second.” Nevertheless, “recognizing what was done to us in childhood” (to use Miller’s words), is the only way Miller believed “that we can be freed from the past and live a healthy present.” The danger is it can be easy to get stuck in the inquiry which can become a religion of sorts.
Have we taken the Socratic injunction “to live an examined life” too far in modern times? Can we get stuck in a vortex of despair that comes with laying bare the wounds of childhood over and over on one couch after another until we believe that we will never recover?
I have asked this question to a few people. Their first response was uniformly, “What a good question”!” Here are a few answers:
“Unconsciousness is excusable, but once you become aware of what happened to you and how the past still rules your daily life, all excuses are over because growth has occurred and now you know, so no excuse!”
“It’s probable that by age 30 a person should have moved past the ‘pity pot’ and be able to convert the miseries of the past into an understanding of what to do in the future. My brother at 76 is still angry with my father for never going to his little league games. He hasn’t had a very happy life, carrying that baggage with him to the present.”
“It’s a mystery. Why does one abused child become an Oprah Winfrey and another a serial killer. I suppose God-given talents, good genetics and maybe one teacher, mentor or friend who really loved you as a child could make the difference”
“I think people can move past it and not use the past to excuse bad behavior, but I believe that the inquiry into what happened should never be abandoned. Wisdom comes from ‘knowing thyself,’ but at the same time if a person expects the pain and sadness that comes with early abuse to go away, they may become bitter. Some wounds never heal.”
“I have noticed that I get very upset about something one day and the next day the exact same thing doesn’t bother me at all. When I overreact to something and give it way more energy than it deserves, that’s my signal that what I am feeling has nothing whatever to do with the present and everything to do with bad memories from way back. I try to identify where that comes from and then if I can figure it out, I usually am okay.”
“We have an inclination to “solidify” our experience by reducing it to repeated phrases, summaries.
Perhaps this is a way to hold the painful events at a distance.
Saying “I had a bad childhood -- my mother was an alcoholic, my father abused me, my brother raped...whatever” -- we might think we can be absolved from present responsibility.
Unless we are firmly in the here and now, this moment, this exact present, the past wounds can be a lens coloring present experience, a veil of separation from what is occurring right now and our responsibility to it.”
I wish I knew something about my grandma’s bad childhood. It would help me to understand my mother and, in turn, myself. A wise person once told me that it takes a special person with an enormous amount of insight, energy and will to stop the intergenerational dysfunction that permeates so many of our lives.
My favorite response was this one.
“The gift of a ‘bad childhood’ is the ability as an adult to recognize others who have suffered similarly and then you can do something useful. The wounds of childhood cause your heart to permanently break; that’s the gift. When a heart breaks, it opens. It is only then that we can live the injunction asked of us by the great sages “to heal the world.”