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What is an "Enlightened Witness?"
Based on the work of Alice Miller
Alice Miller is credited with coining the term "enlightened witness". In her article "The Essential Role of an Enlightened Witness in Society" Miller basically says that if someone who has been significantly abused or neglected has had either a) an "enlightened helper" while they were young or b) an "enlightened witness" when they were older, they can avoid serious mental and behavioral problems later in life.
To help you understand the concept of "enlightened helpers" and "enlightened witnesses," Miller begins her article by summarizing her principle belief about all people who are dangers to themselves or society. In all of her writing, she makes it very clear that she believes that any such person was necessarily, and without exception, abused or neglected as a child. Miller also emphasizes, though, that she does not believe every child who was abused grows up to be a criminal or a danger to society. She explains it this way,
Miller says that when she began to expose the social consequences of child abuse she encountered fierce resistance. She says many people told her, "I, too, was a battered child, but that didn't make me a criminal."
Miller says that when she asked the people who did not become criminals for more details about their childhoods, she always found that they would say there was at least one person, not necessarily one of their parents, who loved them or cared about them but was "unable to protect them" from their abusive or neglectful parent or parents. Miller says, "... through his or her presence, this person gave them a notion of trust, and of love. I call these persons helping witnesses."
Miller then gives the example of the famous Russian author, Dostoyevsky. She says that he had a "brutal father, but a loving mother." She says the mother wasn't "strong enough to protect him from his father, but she gave him a powerful conception of love..."
She then goes on to say...
I am not sure it is fair to say that they "never" became criminals, but in general what she says makes sense to me.
Miller says that parents who beat and abuse their own children have basically "forgotten" what happened to them as children. She believes that the painful feelings they experienced as children have never been clearly identified or perhaps even felt. In other words, she believes the feelings and memories are repressed.
In my own opinion, I would say that perhaps many abusive parents may, in fact, remember what happened to them, but for several reasons, they continue to abuse their own children. These reasons would include:
In her article, "The Essential Role of an Enlightened Witness in Society," Miller also talks about some prison inmates.
Miller also says that if someone has "the luck to talk to others about their early experiences," and if they "succeed in grasping the naked truth of their own tragedy" then they will not need to "avenge themselves violently for their wounds, or to poison their systems with drugs..."
She also basically says that to avoid serious problems later in life, "they need assistance from persons aware of the dynamics of child abuse, who can help them address their feelings seriously, understand them and integrate them, as part of their own story...".
At EQI we believe that the same process can help those who are not "criminals," but who, for example, instead of hurting others, hurt themselves. More specifically, we believe that having an "enlightened witness" can help someone move from self-harm to self-healing.
I want to add that, in general, in my work over the past 15 years with self-harming teenagers, I have found that those who hurt themselves are less likely to hurt others. They are less likely to be the bullies, and more likely to be the bullied. They are less likely to be aggressive or even assertive, and more likely to be non-violent and non-aggressive. I believe these are the kind of people we need to have more of in society, not less through loss to suicide or to lasting damage so serious that their talents and potential become of little use to society and to bringing about needed social and cultural changes.
I need to say, however, that although it has generally been my experience that self-harming teens are less aggressive than the norm, this has not always been the case. I can think of several instances where someone who self-harmed as a teen later became quite aggressive, though I don't know if they became violent or "criminal" other than illegal drug use. In any case, I think what Miller says makes a lot of sense. In the case of these teens I knew of who later became aggressive, by the way, as far as I know they had no other "enlightened helper" or witness in their lives other than the brief time I was in contact with them via the Internet. Sadly, this understandably was not enough to change the course of their lives. Without someone in their "real" life, some limited online support was just not enough for them. On the other hand, I can also say that online support at a critical time can make the difference for some, not only saving their lives, but changing them forever for the better.
So in any case, I would say an enlightened witness, then, is someone who
- Has experienced abuse or neglect themselves
- Believes those who say they were abused and takes it seriously.
- Believes that it is wrong and unnatural to hit or punish children.
- Does not defend parents, other adults, or any institutions or cultural norms which in any way advocate hitting or punishing children.
- Does not encourage a person to "forgive" their parents or those who had abused or neglected them. (Alice Miller discusses this in an article where she presents some of her conclusions based on reading testimonies from readers. See below)
Other EQI.org Topics:
If you would like someone to be your "enlightened witness," please visit
Role of an Enlightened Witness in Society
Here is a back up copy of The Essential Role of an Enlightened Witness in Society
The original is found here on Alice's website.
|Some of Alice Miller's conclusions:
Quoting Alice Miller:
Having read numerous biographies and moreover fiery reports in the ourchildhood-forums I have arrived at conclusions I briefly shall outline.
Source: Body and Ethics, 2003, Alice-Miller.com