This is a story about human tragedy. That’s the content.
But the context is far more important: it’s about how our childhood wounds cause suffering in ourselves and others if we don’t address them.
Andrew was born to a financially comfortable but emotionally troubled family. While he was the fourth child, he was the first to survive childhood. He entered into this world with a shroud of death and depression in the air. While his mother was very close, his father was what most people would call a monster. To add to the disjointedness, also living in the household was his father’s two children from his second marriage.
His father, Al, was a low-level government bureaucrat who lacked ambition. He’d been married twice before, had numerous affairs and several children out of wedlock. He had no interest in children and was described even by a close friend as contemptuous and cruel to his family.
Al himself had a deeply troubled childhood. He was born out of wedlock which explained his difficulty with family. It triggered him because he never had one, and he was lost inside a family structure. Significantly not having gotten his childhood needs met, how could he do that for his own children? Or his wife?
Al never knew who his biological father was. On his baptism certificate, a priest wrote “illegitimate” in the space for his father’s name. He would carry that shame and the feeling of being essentially lost, wrong, and bad his entire life. Al’s mother raised him with her elderly father. She married a man when Al was five, and she died four years later when he was nine. At age ten, Al was sent to live with another man who was either his biological father or his father’s brother. It was never talked about or determined. The man’s wife had a daughter who was either Andrew’s once-removed cousin or half-niece. That daughter would later become Al’s third wife, Clara. To call this confusion for Al would be an understatement: it was emotional chaos.
Later in life, Al was still married to his first wife when he hired Clara as a household servant and began an affair with her. Their relationship was a secret until his second wife died and Andrew’s mother, Clara, (Al’s third wife) became pregnant.
Al and Clara didn’t digest the pain from the loss of the three children before Andrew. Al left all the child-rearing to his wife, spending his spare time in bars or bee-keeping. Clara emotionally latched onto Andrew as an energetic mate and a medication for her anxiety and loneliness. Al was rough with Clara and hardly spoke a word to her. He sometimes beat their dog until it wet the floor. He demanded unquestioning respect and obedience from his children and used violence when his expectations weren’t met. This went deep into Andrew as a template for what it meant to be a man.
Andrew was a deeply porous, sensitive soul who only ever felt connected to his mother, and his mother unconsciously used this connection to vampire him: drawing a sense of meaning and security she didn’t otherwise have, especially because of her emotionally unavailable husband. They had a strong bond, but not a healthy one. Andrew was a sickly child, but survived, whereas only four of six of his mother’s children would do so.
The family moved around a lot when Andrew was young, related to changes in Al’s work, adding to the existential disorientation and lack of stability he already felt. At age eight, he took singing lessons, sang in the church choir, and considered becoming a priest. He was highly intelligent, charismatic, and very popular, but wouldn’t conform to his school’s strict discipline which reminded him too much of his father’s controlling nature and short temper. Andrew feared and disliked his father, who beat him regularly, but he was a devoted son to his mother. Andrew was born and raised in severe division, stress, and confusion.
At age eleven, he suffered from deep depression triggered by the death of his younger brother from measles, recapitulating the air of death and hopelessness into which he was born. He withdrew socially, changing from a confident, outgoing, and conscientious student to a morose, detached, and introverted boy.
Andrew longed to become an artist and attend a school that served his passion, but his harsh and controlling father forced him to attend a school that emphasized the practical. Al wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. It was the only interest his father showed in Andrew.
Andrew rebelled against his father to such an extreme that he intentionally earned poor grades with the hope to pursue his passion for art instead. He acted out, constantly fighting with his teachers and father with the hope that his lack of progress would allow him to follow his dreams. It didn’t work.
At age fifteen, his father died suddenly and Andrew’s performance at school worsened. His mother allowed him to finally leave and he transferred to a better school. Somehow it didn’t touch the pain he was already in, however, and he left at age sixteen with no further education or career plans.
Andrew applied to a fine arts program twice and was rejected both times. He had talent for architectural drawing, but the school said he lacked the necessary academic credentials, because of his earlier rebellious behavior related to his controlling father. He felt deep shame and helplessness for having sabotaged himself this way.
Four years later, at age eighteen, Andrew’s mother was dying of breast cancer. Clara was a devout Catholic and accepted her terminal fate, but Andrew begged her to try an experimental form of chemotherapy which was extremely painful and paralyzed her throat, leaving her unable to swallow. Andrew was devastated by her passing. Many would say later in his life that the most striking characteristic about Andrew was his love for his mother, especially as she was the only authority who appreciated his art.
Andrew was just eighteen when his mother died, leaving him with no parents, no support, and no direction in life. He spent his inheritance quickly and was forced to live in various homeless shelters and hostels for four years. He earned money here and there selling his paintings, postcards of the local sights, and doing manual labor.
Andrew felt destitute, alone, and angry. To compensate for all of this, he wanted someone to blame. His father had felt the same way and modeled for him how to cope: with rage, blame, and cruelty. But Andrew was a more powerful soul than his father, so he went bigger. He was a natural leader destined for influence. He was too much an artist to not express himself in some dead-end job like his father. He couldn’t ignore the strength he felt inside, even though he had no outlet for it and no traction in the world.
His sense of inner disempowerment drew him to nationalistic and outer forms of strength as a venue to express his inner fortitude. He became interested in right wing, divisive politics. He attributed his socio-economic distress not responsibly to his horrific childhood but to multiculturalism and followed thought-leaders who looked for scapegoats for the plight of lower and middle classes.
He was conscripted into the military at age twenty-five, but was deemed unfit for service because of “inadequate physical vigor.” He was too soulful and honest to put his body where his heart wasn’t. He was bitter, cynical, and had no confidence in his home country at the time.
Likely due to an administrative error, he was able to enlist in the army of a neighboring country and served in a war based on a cause he believed in. He finally had relief from the frustration and aimlessness of his former life. The military gave him a sense of purpose he never had and an identity he could be proud of. It was the best experience of his life and he received two medals for bravery.
Despite having fought bravely, his country surrendered and he said he felt “stabbed in the back” by the civilian leaders who signed the armistice. The family he finally found and gave him his first sense of self-authority had failed, so he resolved to enter politics to change that. He was angry, but as he had no room for his healthy anger as a child, he channeled it into work and looked for people to push against, just like his father did.
Andrew was appointed to the intelligence section of the army. He received political, propaganda, and rhetoric training and gave nationalistic speeches to align and inspire troops. He was good at it and built confidence. He joined a new political party with an extreme patriotic and xenophobic right wing orientation.
As his father never dealt emotionally with his own illegitimate conception, the rage, confusion, and wounded feeling of impurity was absorbed by Andrew as an infant. Blaming the increasing multiculturalism for society’s problems made sense, and became a tempting target for directing rage. The year was 1919 and Andrew was thirty years old, with his entire career unfolding before him. He was finally getting traction in the world, and belonging to a group who saw reality like he did gave him a family he never had, and a place to share feelings he never could express with others.
Much of the rest of Andrew’s story you actually already know. The timeline and facts above are all true, except that his name wasn’t Andrew, it was Adolf Hitler. His father was Alois and mother Klara. I added some intuited emotional color to fill things out that we couldn’t necessarily know for sure, but isn’t difficult to deduce.
Which makes more sense to you: that Hitler was essentially evil or that his undigested unconscious wounds from childhood drove him to do extreme things that stemmed from a profound inner confusion that had him rejecting his father and becoming his father simultaneously?
Can you imagine the shame Adolf experienced the more he realized he became that which he hated most, his tyrannical father? Can you imagine the pain he felt having left the call of the artistic and spiritual and succumbed to the will to power to fill a hole inside him? Is it any wonder that he regularly used steroids, cocaine, and methamphetamine, all of which make your ideas seem amazing and numb any emotion besides rage?
The shadow side of the artist archetype is the vandal. When artistic ability isn’t given room to flourish, it sours and punishes those it perceives as in its way. I’m not saying what Hitler did wasn’t evil. I’m just saying why he did it wasn’t. He did it for the same reason an alcoholic drinks: to cope with pain. It doesn’t make what he did okay in the least, the same way drunk driving isn’t okay. We’re all responsible for how our unconscious influences us, and sometimes we let our unconscious do atrocious things. Sometimes it colors our behavior in quieter ways, but it’s all worthy of attention. To do this, we must be able to separate what someone does with why they do it, and that requires understanding and feeling how the human wounded unconscious works.
If we cannot do this, then the same wounds that drove atrocities in the past will do the same in the future.
Most of us don’t automatically look to childhoods when we see negative adult behavior, largely because the concept is relatively new and still trickling into the collective consciousness. About 40% of Americans still think dinosaurs and humans coexisted. The evolution of consciousness is slow for most and new information can be frightening to integrate when it threatens unconscious safety structures.
What percentage of your life do you think is driven by your unconscious? How important is it for you to find out? Contact me let me know what you think. If someone could show you exactly how and where you life wasn’t in your conscious hands, would you want that? 😉 Be careful what you wish for.