Understanding violence: Alice Miller and James Gilligan

While writing this section, I looked Alice Miller up in relation to the complexity of her relationship with her own son (who published a book about their relationship in which he describes her as an extremely difficult and abusive mother even while respecting her work and claiming it saved his life). That was the first time I learned that she was a Jew, which adds even more significance to her explorations about Hitler in For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child Rearing and the Roots of Violence. Experiencing compassion for seven-year-old Adolf was a formative moment in my life. It’s as if encountering her prepared me for embracing NVC as a deep practice rooted in certain assumptions about what’s possible for humans rather than simply a method of communication. It’s an article of faith for her that no one, including Hitler, has ever done anything harmful or violent to another unless something was first done to them, especially early on. Only now, writing this, do I also see the connection with the depth of the Jewish belief that human souls are pure. (This phrase is part of the morning prayer: “God, the soul you have given in me is pure.” The awkward preposition is so in the original, too.) 

This conviction about the full humanity of each perpetrator, regardless of what they have done, was also reinforced by reading James Gilligan’s Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, a loving and courageous book about people who commited horrific acts of violence whom he encountered as a director of mental health for the Massachusetts prison system.

This perspective has helped me immensely in being able to develop empathic imagination without ever writing off anyone as less than human. It also seems necessary, to some extent, in order to be able to accept the possibility that how we are with each other and in our systems now isn’t inevitable. I wrote an article that ties their work together with other sources into understanding atrocities. It’s called “The Freedom to Disobey.”

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