M. Simon had a rather brilliant post about PTSD the other day, and rather than leave a comment I thought a new post was in order.

The topic is abused children:

Revolutionaries and outlaws have a thing in common.

They tend to be abused children.

They have in common a grievance against a civilization that failed to protect them. A source of infinite discontent. Because once traumatized the trauma lives on in persons with PTSD (to varying degrees) for life.

The above seems too true for comfort. It’s downright unsettling. While it would be beyond this post to comprehensively research every them all, if we consider just a few big names in the revolutionary dictator field, the similarities are almost creepy.

Starting with the most famous abused child in recent memory:

His father Alois, a custom official by profession, was tremendously violent to his wife and son, and used to beat them often. According to Hitler’s book, “he had a terrible childhood”. The regular whipping and violence committed by his father made him extremely sympathetic to his mother, while having an unfathomable bitterness towards his father. In spite of his father’s constant pressure to pursue a career like his, Hitler dropped out of high school without a diploma, as a revolt against his father. Even after his father’s death on 3 January 1903, he did not show any liking for studies and rather tried to be a painter.

Hitler used to brag about how the beatings built character, and helped him learn valuable skills in manipulation:

O ften he would speak affectionately of his mother, to whom he was very attached, and also of his father’s violence: “I never loved my father but feared him,” he told her.

“He was prone to rages and would resort to violence. My poor mother would then be afraid for me.

I had read that it was a sign of bravery to hide pain so I decided that when he beat me next time I would make no sound. When it happened – I knew my mother was standing anxiously at the door – I counted each stroke out loud.

“Mother thought I had gone mad when I reported with a beaming smile: ‘Father gave me 32 strokes.’ I never needed to repeat the experiment for my father never beat me again.”

Well, at least Hitler loved animals!

Next up is abused child Josef Dzhugashvili:

Born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, little “Sotelo” was alternately smothered by his doting mother and beaten by his alcoholic father, who soon abandoned the family. His mother saw to it her only child was given an education. Josef showed unusual intelligence, but was equally drawn to the violent street life of his native Gori and joined a gang of young toughs.

In 1894 at the age of 16, Josef entered the seminary in Tbilisi to prepare for the priesthood. The blind repression he encountered there extinguished any religious sentiment he might have felt, and he left five years later an atheist Marxist and revolutionary in the making.

By the time of his first arrest in 1900 for organizing illegal strikes, “Koba,” one of the dozens of aliases he used before adopting “Stalin” in 1912, had joined what would become the Bolshevik Party and committed himself to the revolution.

By all accounts, the beatings were severe, and often. According to one charming anecdote, Stalin and his mom recalled them fondly:

“What are you now?” she asked.

“Remember the Tsar?” he asked. She did. “Well, I’m something like that.”

“So, Mom,” Stalin asked, “why did you let Dad beat me so much when I was young?”

She shrugged. “We must have done the right thing — look how far you’ve come!”

Yes, he went a long way. The abused child grew — barely — into a tiny man with physical disabilities, the eyes of a tiger and absolutely no feelings of pity for anyone:

Stalin was physically fit but only 165 cm tall. He must have suffered from his small size because as dictator he used platform shoes and at parades he usually stood on a wooden block. He also had a physical deformation because the second and third toes of his left foot were joined. He got blood poisoning, perhaps after an accident which left his left arm permanently shortened and stiffened. Smallpox left his face pitted for life.

His eyes were described by several independent observers as the eyes of a “tiger”. His voice was harsh when he spoke but pleasant when he sang.

A friend later remembered: he “was incapable of feeling pity for man or beast. Even as child he greeted the joys and tribulations of his fellow schoolboys with a sarcastic smile. I never saw him cry.” He was also portrayed as “unbalanced, unrestrained and passionate”.

A guy who always reminded me of Stalin was one of his admirers, and he while probably won’t rank as high in the annals of human tyranny, he’s of recent interest because we went to war against him. To call Saddam Hussein (who never met his dad and whose mom wanted to abort him) an abused child would be an understatement:

Subha could not bring herself to see her newborn boy, signifying a heavy post-partum depression.  She gave Saddam to her brother Khairallah to raise instead.  Only a few weeks old, Saddam was likely consumed by a dire struggle for absent love.  During the mid-20th century, John Bowlby pioneered the study of severed attachments between infants and mothers.  He found that from the first day of life, the more responsive a mother was to her baby’s needs, the more securely he felt not only with her at the time, but also within himself later on in life (Bretherton, 1992).  Bowlby observed three stages of grieving in neglected infants:  protest, despair, and finally detachment (Robertson & Bowlby, 1952).  Even in their first weeks, infants showed signs of repressing loneliness too much for their budding nervous systems to bear.  More recent neurobiology has linked neglect to lesions in brain areas regulating emotion, which have appeared tied in later life to symptoms of emotional illness ranging from posttraumatic stress symptoms to a tendency toward bullying-oriented relationships (Schore, 2001, p. 216; Miller, 2001, p. 15).

Saddam’s cries were thus entrusted to uncle Khairallah, an army officer whom Saddam’s personal doctor Ala Bashir remembered later as “a huge man…[who] bawled at everyone who got in his way” (Bashir, 2005, p. 156).  Curious and needy like any child, Saddam probably tested his uncle’s patience.  Arabist Raphael Patai has observed that “the incidence and severity of corporal punishment administered to Arab children is much greater than…in the Western world,” that severe fathers are more esteemed, and that when compared to American parents, Arabs respond to children’s frustrated outbursts more ruthlessly (Patai, 2007, p. 27, 126, 129).  It thus seems likely that Saddam’s first years entailed concentrated pain not only from his mother’s absence, but from living under the hand, stare, and temper of Khairallah, or as some were actually said to refer to him behind his back, Sharallah, “the violence of Allah” (Aburish, 2000, p. 23).

At age four, fate once more tore Saddam from his only parent.  Khairallah was imprisoned for participating in a revolt against British rule, and Saddam returned to Subha and her new husband Hassan, who took a particular disliking to the boy (Post & Baram, p. 3).  Saddam remembered Hassan waking him at dawn, shouting, “Get up, you son of a whore.  Go tend the sheep” (Bashir, p. 8).  Neighbors said Hassan beat Saddam with an asphalt-covered stick, screaming:  “I don’t want him, the son of a dog” (Bashir, p. 8).  When they came to visit Subha, they noticed Hassan’s neglect:  he wouldn’t “talk to Saddam or welcome him” (Aburish, p.3).

Sadness and resentment call out from a rare photograph of Saddam during these years (Figure 1).  Aburish notes that Arab children can be cruel to peers who lack fathers, and many accounts claim Saddam protected himself by carrying an iron bar and becoming a shaqi, or tough (p. 16, 17).  Saddam recalled his boyhood as “melancholy, lonely, and never young” (Aburish, p. 17), and in a partly autobiographical novel, reflected:  “I could trust no one with regard to my own safety” (Bashir, p. 284).

While none of this really ought to surprise most thoughtful people, the surprising thing is that so few thoughtful people have taken the time to think about these things. What shocked me was to see the same pattern — again and again. Were I a busybody of the sort who wants laws passed to correct every wrong, I would demand legislation forbidding abused children from being allowed to hold office. Or from starting revolutionary movements! (Right. That’ll stop ’em dead in their tracks.)

Anyway, as I’m sure there are skeptics, mind-numbing as it is, I thought I would look at a few more examples.

Benito Mussolini’s dad was a brutal alcoholic blacksmith who hated the world and raised a child who enlarged and improved upon his dad’s philosophy:

His father Alessandro, a blacksmith often without work, a man of strong character but without formal education, a womanizer and drunkard, a man who believed in corporal punishment, a man who never went to church in the arch-Catholic Romagna was a socialist and chose the three first names of his son accordingly.

“Alessandro brought him up to be very conscious of the injustices of society, and to hate the bourgeoisie, the oppressors of the proletariat, and the priests who lied to the proletariat in order to make them contented with their lot. Alessandro taught him to resist authority and to rebel.” (Jasper Ridley, Mussolini, p. 11)

His mother Rosa was the local schoolteacher and a devout Catholic who attended mass every Sunday. Given the carelessness of her husband about money, she was the breadwinner of the family.

Benito was a difficult child but bright. He learned late to speak and was often uncontrollable in his temperament. The many stories of Mussolini’s childhood reveal the two sides of his character:

The pensive intellectual and philosopher

The brutal gang leader

His parents sent him to a religious boarding school at Faenza in 1892 where his flawed character became incorrigible as a consequence of the harsh regime. The school contributed little to assuage his resentment against society. “He was a boy who did not shed tears and rarely laughed, who spoke little and liked his own company, who preferred reading to playing with others.”

Hard to blame him for not liking people. And what would have been the point of laughing or crying? It obviously never worked, and the abused kids who get ahead in life seem to learn early on what works.

Interestingly, the pattern holds across cultures. If we turn to Asia, one of the most notable abused children in recent history is Mao. He bragged about being a rebel, and he certainly was taught early on that not only is there much to rebel about, but rebellion works:

“I began studying in a local primary school when I was eight and remained there until I was thirteen years old. In the early morning and at night I worked on the farm. During the day I read the Confucian Analects and the Four Classics. My Chinese teacher belonged to the stern-treatment school. He was harsh and severe, frequently beating his students. Because of that I ran away from the school when I was ten. I was afraid to return home for fear of receiving a beating there, and set out in the general direction of the city, which I believed to be in a valley somewhere. I wandered for three days before I was finally found by my family. Then I learned that I had circled round and round in my travels, and in all my walking had got only about eight li** from my home.

“After my return to the family, however, to my surprise conditions somewhat improved. My father was slightly more considerate and the teacher was more inclined to moderation. The result of my act of protest impressed me very much. It was a successful ‘strike.’

His dad was another brutal child abuser. However, according to Mao’s account, the abuse taught him the art of coalition building:

… He was a severe taskmaster. He hated to see me idle, and if there were no books to be kept he put me to work at farm tasks. He was a hot-tempered man and frequently beat both me and my brothers. He gave us no money whatever, and the most meager food. On the fifteenth of every month he made a concession to his laborers and gave them eggs with their rice, but never meat. To me he gave neither eggs nor meat.

“My mother was a kind woman, generous and sympathetic, and ever ready to share what she had. She pitied the poor and often gave them rice when they came to ask for it during famines. But she could not do so when my father was present. He disapproved of charity. We had many quarrels in my home over this question.

“There were two ‘parties’ in the family. One was my father, the Ruling Power. The Opposition was made up of myself, my mother, my brother, and sometimes even the laborer.

Over time, I’d say Mao turned the tables on ruling powers, until he became one himself, only to continue his war on those he now saw as the opposition.

I’m getting a little tired of this brutal litany, but I didn’t want to leave out the intriguing example of Pol Pot. Not much is known about the man whose real name was Saloth Sar, but it’s tempting to fill in the blanks. He grew up in a well-to-do middle class household which had connections with the Cambodian royal family because his cousin was one of the king’s wives, while his sister became a palace concubine. When he was six, he was sent to the palace to live under the tutelage of his older brother, who had a career in “palace protocol” (whatever the hell that was). Next he was sent off to a severe Catholic primary school, and for whatever reason he ended up failing in his secondary education.

But years later, he turned the tables on his former school:

Under the Pol Pot regime, the high school was closed and used as an army warehouse. The teachers, staff, and students were forced to leave the city and live in undeveloped areas, where they greatly suffered from the killings perpetrated.

There are a lot of missing pieces in the Pol Pot puzzle. Whether little Saloth Sar was abused by his parents, his brother, by palace insiders, or by monks, who knows? Maybe his sister the concubine could have shed some light, but in the only interview I could find with her (in 1997), she has nothing good to say about her little brother.

Mrs. Saloth Roeung also angrily denied rumors in the village that Pol Pot had sent her money.

”Who said that?” she snapped. ”He never contacted us. He does not respect his own family.” She said the money to build the solid house where she lives with her son and his family had come from in-laws who now live in Chicago.

All three siblings seemed to be at a loss when asked what they would say to their brother if he appeared on their doorstep today.

”I would ask him, ‘What are you doing here? You were happy in the jungle,’ ” Mrs. Saloth Roeung said. ”I cannot imagine asking questions of him. I would say to him: ‘Why have you come back? Why are you attaching yourself to me again?’ ”

Hmmm…. She was 81 in 1997, so she is probably not available for interviews today. But if she was 81 in 1997, that means that when her little brother was six years old and came to the palace (in 1931), she would have been only 15. It might be argued that Cambodian children from nice middle class homes were a fairly cheap commodity in those days, but what do I know? I can only speculate about what might have happened to him. Clearly there was something Saloth Sar did not like about his homeland.

I think it’s fair to say that abused children eventually grow out of it.