Almost 30 years ago, a film was released that told an unusual and powerful story about the consequences of child abuse. The protagonist was a man whose father was already in his mid-fifties when his only son was born. The father had desperately wanted to play baseball professionally, but he failed dismally in that effort. For the rest of his life, baseball remained his one great passion, and he tried to mold his son into becoming the player he never could be himself. He talked endlessly about baseball, and he made his son practice all the time. The father never tried to help his son identify what the son's own special passion might be; his son never existed for him as a separate, unique person, whose individuality should be cherished and nurtured. The son grew increasingly resentful and angry about his father's efforts at controlling and manipulating him, and he finally left home.
Later, the son married and had a daughter. He and his family bought a farm in Iowa and struggled to make the farm a successful business. They never did have much success, and were barely able to get by. The son still carried with him his resentment and anger toward his father; he felt a void within himself, and he still sought to find the father's love that he had been denied. In his misguided efforts to find that love, he engaged in one crazy scheme after another. He finally lost all the family's money; as a result, the family lost the farm.
The film doesn't show us what happened to the family after they lost their home, but it's made clear that their future was most likely a bleak one. The marriage probably didn't last; the wife had shown remarkable patience with her husband and his schemes, but even her patience had limits. And we saw how the son reenacted his tragedy with his father with his own daughter. He talked endlessly to his daughter about baseball, just as his father had talked to him. We never have the sense that the son sees his daughter as an independent, unique person entitled to find her own path in life. His daughter will probably end up resenting her father just as her father resented his.
It's a dismal, depressing movie. But it very accurately shows a tragically common pattern of child abuse, and how that pattern is carried from one generation into the next.
Because it is so truthful, and because it brightly illuminates a subject that is usually left in shadows, when it is not ignored entirely, the film I just described never got made. Instead, we were treated to a grossly sentimentalized, fundamentally dishonest movie, one which many of you have probably seen. "Field of Dreams
" was very successful and received many glowing reviews. It also received three Academy Award nominations
, including Best Picture and Writing (adaptation).
Many people find it a sweet and emotionally involving film; many viewers describe how they were moved to tears. Magical thinking has a great attraction for us; this is never more true than with regard to our parents. That is where the first injury occurs; most of us never fully recover from it, and we carry the injury with us for the rest of our lives. I confess that I myself thought of "Field of Dreams" with considerable fondness for a long time. It was not until I watched it again recently that I grasped the huge lie at the center of the film. Even then, I had to watch it again to be certain that my new analysis was correct. I felt I was being too tough in my judgment. As I said, magical thinking will get you every time, if you give it half a chance.
You may recall the central conceit of the film. Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella, the Iowa farmer. He hears a voice, which tells him: "If you build it, he will come." The voice later says more: "Ease his pain." And: "Go the distance." Ray is convinced that he should build a baseball field where he is growing corn, the crop which he sells to make a living. So he plows under much of his cornfield and builds the field. The threat of foreclosure and eviction from the farm increases as the film progresses. At the same time, more and more ballplayers -- all dead ones, mind you -- turn up to play on Ray's field. The first is Shoeless Joe Jackson (who had been Ray's father's special hero), followed by the rest of the Chicago Black Sox Eight
, eventually followed by still more dead players. And then, at the film's conclusion, Ray's father shows up.
At first, Ray had thought the "he" in "he will come" referred to Shoeless Joe, but we now understand that the "he" is Ray's father. As the film ends, Ray and his father reach a perfect understanding -- just as a huge line of cars approaches the baseball field. These are all the people who don't know why they are going there, but the film tells us that they are drawn to the field as the place where dreams come true, a true heaven on earth. And Ray will charge each of this huge number of visitors $20.00 for the privilege of temporarily visiting heaven. Redemption, reconciliation with dead parents, and financial security, all in one fell swoop. That's magic for you. It sure as hell isn't life, not if we are at all honest.
While "Field of Dreams" is not remotely truthful about the nature of child abuse, it does provide one valuable service: it shows very clearly how we lie to ourselves about child abuse, and how we cover it up. More than that, it shows how the truth about child abuse is inverted -- so that the burden and responsibility of understanding and resolving all the complex problems caused by child abuse become the child's, and not the parent's. The parent is entirely innocent; it is the child's responsibility to understand and comfort the parent ("Ease his pain."). Let's consider how the film conveys this message, a message which our culture communicates to us via a wide array of "experts" and also by the majority of laypeople generally.
The film's opening narration tells us some basic facts: Ray's father was born in 1896. He played a little bit in the minor leagues, but nothing ever came of it. He moved to Brooklyn in 1935, and married Ray's mother in 1938. "He was already an old man when I was born in 1952." Ray says:
Mom died when I was three, and I suppose dad did the best he could. Instead of Mother Goose, I was put to bed at night with stories of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the great Shoeless Joe Jackson. Dad was a Yankees fan then, so of course I rooted for Brooklyn. But in '58, the Dodgers moved away, so we had to find other things to fight about. We did. And when it came time to go to college, I picked the farthest one from home I could find [which was Berkeley]. This of course drove him right up the wall which, I suppose, was the point.
Note the critical omission: "so of course
I rooted for Brooklyn." But many children root for their father's (or mother's) team. Why did Ray deliberately choose to root for the Dodgers, instead of the Yankees? And then: "we had to find other things to fight about." Why were they constantly battling with each other? What had happened?
A bit later in the film, Ray tells us more about his view of his father:
I'm 36 years old. I have a wife, a child, and a mortgage, and I'm scared to death I'm turning into my father. ... I never forgave him for getting old. By the time he was as old as I am now, he was ancient. I mean, he must have had dreams, but he never did anything about them. For all I know, he may have even heard voices too, but he sure didn't listen to them. The man never did one spontaneous thing in all the years I knew him. I'm afraid of that happening to me, and something tells me that this may be my last chance to do something about it.
To be certain he doesn't become his father, Ray is determined to build the baseball field, even if it means losing his family's home.
Still later, Ray is talking to Terence Mann, a J.D. Salinger-like writer who was widely acclaimed in the 1960s, but who later became a recluse:
RAY: [My dad] never made it as a ballplayer, so he tried to get his son to make it for him. By the time I was 10, playing baseball got to be like eating vegetables or taking out the garbage. So when I was 14, I started to refuse. Can you believe that? An American boy refusing to have a catch with his father ... I never played catch with him again. ... Anyway, when I was 17, I packed my things, said something awful, and left. After a while, I wanted to come home but I didn't know how. Made it back for the funeral, though. ...
MANN: What was the awful thing you said to your father?
RAY: I said I could never respect a man whose hero was a criminal.
MANN: Who was his hero?
RAY: Shoeless Joe Jackson.
MANN: You knew he wasn't a criminal. [Ray nods in agreement. The film is very insistent on Shoeless Joe's innocence. Even though he took a bribe, we are told that no one could ever prove that Jackson had done anything to deliberately throw a game. Although I am not overly familiar with the details of this historical episode, I don't have the impression that Jackson's innocence is all that clear. And there is no dispute that he did take the bribe.] Then why did you say it?
RAY: I was 17. The son of a bitch died before I could take it back. Before I could tell him ... you know. He never met my wife. He never saw his granddaughter.
MANN: This is your penance.
RAY: I know. I can't bring my father back.
MANN: So the least you can do is bring back his hero.
The key is in this snippet of dialogue: "[My dad] never made it as a ballplayer, so he tried to get his son to make it for him. By the time I was 10, playing baseball got to be like eating vegetables or taking out the garbage. So when I was 14, I started to refuse. Can you believe that? An American boy refusing to have a catch with his father ..." In a few brief lines, we learn that Ray's father "tried to get his son to make it for him" as a ballplayer -- that is, his father never encouraged his son to pursue his own interests and passions, or even allowed him the space to discover what those interests and passions might be. His father would use his son to redeem his own failure, and transform it into success. To whatever extent a child has an independent and vital sense of self, he will bitterly resent manipulation and control of this kind. Resentment and anger are healthy
reactions to parental cruelty of this kind -- and cruelty is precisely what it is.
But then, we are immediately told: "I started to refuse. Can you believe that? An American boy refusing to have a catch with his father ..." The father's manipulation and cruelty, and the disastrous consequences to which they lead, consequences which will shape Ray's adult life in significant part, are all ignored -- and it has become the child's fault and responsibility.
He refused to play catch with his father; he rejected his father or, to be more precise, he rejected his father's efforts at controlling and directing his life. But Ray was absolutely wrong to do that.
We know that he was wrong according to the filmmaker's catechism, because the ultimate payoff is that his father finally comes to Ray's field to play baseball. His father is the "he" in: "If you build it, he will come." In the final scene, Ray and his wife, Annie, chat with Ray's dad (who is now a young man again):
RAY: It's my father. "Ease his pain."
ANNIE: "Go the distance."
RAY: My God. I only saw him years later, when he was worn down by life. Look at him. He's got his whole life in front of him, and I'm not even a glint in his eye. What do I say to him? ...
DAD: It's so beautiful here. For me, well, for me it's like a dream come true. Can I ask you something? Is, is this heaven?
RAY: It's Iowa.
DAD: I could have sworn it was heaven.
RAY: Is, is there a heaven?
DAD: Oh, yeah. It's the place dreams come true.
RAY: Maybe this is heaven. ... Hey, Dad? You want to have a catch?
DAD: I'd like that.
As Ray and his dad have a catch, and all wounds are forever healed, we see the throngs of people coming to Ray's baseball field, to visit the place where dreams come true. And at 20 bucks a pop, Ray and his family won't only be able to keep their farm. They'll be rich! Hell, yeah! America!!
This is truly godawful stuff. I wouldn't object to the film as strenuously as I do if it were merely a minor film, seen by few people, a movie which gave its viewers the opportunity for a good cry (even if it is a cry arising out of a fundamentally false scenario). But "Field of Dreams" was enormously successful, seen by a great many people, and it is widely regarded as correct
in its depiction of the relationships between parents and children. Don't take my word for it. Look at what two reviewers said.
“Field of Dreams” is a fairly talky, convoluted film, for all its iconic baseball diamond images. It’s the perfect family pick for you and your teenagers and tweens – not to mention grandparents – on an off night during the Rockies’ World Series run. And you won’t find a better film to clue your children into how important their parents will seem to them as they grow older. Is it a shameless way to tell your kids to show a little love? Yes, and it will probably work.Reviewer Two
Robinson`s film looks back on a lost father figure from the perspective of guilty adulthood, trying to reclaim the dad who disappeared, or was actively denied, during the process of growing up.
So our "kids" should "show a little love" to their parents? What about the parents showing a little love to their children? Oh for Christ's sake, most people will object. Parents always
love their children. Everyone knows that parents always love their children.
That claim may be true, but only in terms of gross sentimentality, identical to the damaging and destructive sentimentality that suffuses "Field of Dreams." True, most parents don't actively set out to systematically damage their children. They reenact the patterns of behavior they learned from their own parents. And like their own parents, they are incapable of seeing and treating their children as inviolable, independent persons -- persons who are entitled to find their own way, and their own passion. Demanding that one's child be used to fulfill the parent's denied dreams means that the parent denies the child's claim to his own soul, and to a life that belongs to him and no one else. In the film, Ray's father is like the worst imaginable kind of "stage mother." Yet, the second reviewer clearly implies that Ray was profoundly wrong to "actively den[y]" his father: Ray looks back "from the perspective of guilty adulthood." If Ray (or any child in similar circumstances) wishes to survive with his own identity at all intact, he must
deny his father, at least that part of his father that seeks to control him.
Many will continue to object to my observations, insisting that what Ray's father did, for example, wasn't that
destructive. When I was making my way through Alice Miller's work more than 20 years ago, I sometimes had that same reaction to stories of cruelty that Miller examined. About that reaction of mine, I wrote:
My own reaction reveals yet another means by which the truth of childhood is buried and denied: as we grow up, we identify with the authority figures in our lives. We dare not question them, or their "goodness," or their "good intentions." We dare not, because we depend on them for life itself. Since the child cannot question them, he must question himself, and he must believe that the fault lies within. And that leads him to believe that if he alters his own behavior (and even his very being) in some unidentified manner, then he will win his parents' complete love. The child cannot grasp that his parents' behavior has nothing to do with him at all; it arises out of their childhoods, and the abuses they themselves suffered. In this way, the child is left feeling that he himself is wrong, in some fundamental way.
Because most of us identify to varying extents with authority (and most adults identify with authority almost completely), it is impossible for us to understand the child's experience.
"Field of Dreams," together with the reaction to it of many viewers, reveals these dynamics in a striking manner. The entire film is devoted to the efforts of the child
to console, nurture, redeem, and heal the parent.
The wounds inflicted on the child by the parent are mentioned only glancingly. It is the parent's
wounds and the parent's
pain that are the film's concern. The ending of the film tells us that, once the child has successfully reached out to, consoled, and healed the parent, then all be well. The responsibility is entirely the child's. The two reviewers -- and their perspective is typical of many of the film's viewers (including many friends and acquaintances of mine whose reactions I've heard over the years) -- rush to defend the parent, but who will speak for the child? The injured child is the world's foremost forgotten victim. For most people, the injured child barely exists.
The truth is that the methods most commonly used to raise children are designed to deaden the child's soul, and to prevent the growth of an independent, genuine, vital self. No, most parents do not realize this consciously -- which makes the danger only greater. No, most parents do not intentionally set out to cause their children grievous harm: they simply repeat what they learned from their own upbringing. That does not lessen the damage done to the next generation. Alice Miller offers this critical definition:
Poisonous pedagogy is a phrase I use to refer to the kind of parenting and education aimed at breaking a child's will and making that child into an obedient subject by means of overt or covert coercion, manipulation, and emotional blackmail.
In my books For Your Own Good and Thou Shall Not Be Aware, I have explained the concept using concrete examples. In my other books I have repeatedly stressed how the mendacious mentality behind this approach to dealing with children can leave long-lasting imprints on the way we think and relate to one another in our adult lives.
I have summarized Miller's perspective this way:
There are several interlocking parts of the mechanisms that Miller describes that must be kept in mind ... The first part is obedience to the demands of the parent and/or other authority figure -- the second part is denial of the pain experienced by the child himself, when he is made to "conform" to arbitrary edicts and to suppress his own spontaneous, genuine emotions -- the third part is idealization of the parent and/or additional authority figure, since the child depends on the parent for life itself and dares not challenge the parent or the parent's "good intentions" -- and the final, inevitable part is the denial of the pain experienced by others. If we fully acknowledge the injuries sustained by others and the pain they experience, it will call up our own injuries. Because this would call into question our most fundamental sense of ourselves, this cannot be permitted. In this manner, the deadening of the soul -- which began with our own souls -- must expand to deaden us to the full reality of the selves of others.
If you wish to read a detailed analysis of how a parent manipulates a child, and forces the child to focus on the parent's well-being and happiness as the standard for "proper" behavior, you can consult this essay
, and the story about a mother disciplining her young child for splashing too much in the bathtub. (I have written a great many articles about Miller's work and its applications. You will find a number of those articles, although not all of them, listed and described here
[more recent ones] and here
[older ones]. I remain deeply proud that Alice Miller's own site still maintains the link
to the collection of my older essays. [It appears very doubtful that Miller had seen the more recent essays before her death several years ago.])
I've devoted this article to a consideration of "Field of Dreams" for several reasons. Given the focus of my writing over more than ten years, it would have been more than sufficient justification to explain again how the scourge of child mistreatment and abuse is covered up and lied about. For the reasons I've set forth, the film offers a strikingly clear example of common mechanisms by which these ends are accomplished. But, as this article demonstrates, you have to know what to look for. The clues are always there, but it requires time and work to bring them to the surface. That is the second reason for this essay, which I intend to be only the first in a series of articles (which might number five or ten, or even more, by the time I'm done).
Over the years, I've sometimes expressed one of my frustrations to friends by noting that, in order to discuss any issue of importance, it is first necessary to sweep away a host of rationalizations, distortions, misrepresentations, and outright lies. We're drowning in a sea of notions devoid of supporting evidence or argument, accusations hurled in every direction, again often in the total absence of supporting data, and lies, lies, and more lies. Nowhere is this more true than in politics. I'll get to politics in this series, as I work my way up the ladder of examples I think worthy of consideration (or down, which is the more accurate direction given the ugly and blatantly irrational nature of politics as currently practiced). As we consider very different kinds of examples of these issues, we might adopt a question asked by Errol Morris as one of our guidelines. You may know Morris as the filmmaker who brought us "The Thin Blue Line
," and whose earlier film, "Gates of Heaven
," led to "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe
Morris asked: “What if everything is the opposite of what it seems?” It doesn't matter what in particular Morris asked this about (although I'll be telling you in an upcoming article), for it can be applied to a number of subjects. It is certainly applicable to many aspects of parent-child relationships, and God knows it's applicable to politics. As I think about the many issues I'd like to address in the political realm, I'm often brought up short by the fact that almost everyone is lying about almost everything. To say anything meaningful, all that must first be swept away. It's daunting work, and should be performed only after one has put on the most impregnable hazmat suit imaginable.
So suit up -- and get ready.