Monday, January 28, 2013

My review of a treatise about infanticide

Below, my review published in The Journal of Psychohistory 36, 2 (Fall 2008) of Hardness of Heart, Hardness of Life: The Stain of Human Infanticide by Larry S. Milner

When I first discovered Lloyd deMause’s writings in the internet in February 2006, I was slack-jawed. My first reaction was a healthy skepticism about the most gruesome aspects of childrearing and, like a member of a juror, I decided to listen to both sides of the story. I promptly purchased a copy of Colin Heywood’s 2001 History of Childhood because Heywood, a senior lecturer in economic and social history in the University of Nottingham, is not a psychohistorian. It surprised me that, although Heywood does indeed accept the historicity of the data of abusive childrearing in history, he did not reach the same stance of deMause by condemning the abuse. After reading his book I could not conjecture another reason for this omission but that Heywood simply chose to close his eyes. Thus the first “witness” against psychohistory in our hypothetical trial had, in fact, the opposite effect in my mind: the data that deMause had amassed was right, but an academic did not want to reach the natural conclusion that childrearing methods have been a nightmare throughout history.

There are not many places in the internet to follow a discussion with knowledgeable academics hostile to psychohistory. But I found an active forum in the talk pages of the articles of Wikipedia related to Psychohistory. Again, after editing quite a few Wikipedia articles and engaging in the lively debates this experience strengthened, not weakened, my working hypothesis that the psychohistorical model was sound. Still unconvinced that the model could potentially shift the paradigm in the humanities and social sciences, I decided to read the most scholarly treatise on infanticide to date, Hardness of Heart, Hardness of Life, first published in 1998 and authored by Larry Milner, a physician who currently has a private medical practice in Illinois. Milner’s treatise is certainly a treasure of very valuable sources for the psychohistorian, and his book is certainly the first exhaustive survey of infanticide. Like most readers of this journal, Milner accepts the evidence of the propensity of parents to murder their children, and in his webpage he estimates that the frequency of infanticide indicates that “up to 10-15% of all children ever been born have been killed by their parents: an astounding seven billion victims!”

Far beyond my expectations, after studying closely Milner’s monograph it corroborated, again, the veracity of the information about what deMause has termed “early” and “late” infanticidal modes of childrearing. Nonetheless, Milner’s views on the subject, not the vast information he collected, left me so speechless that I cannot resist the temptation of quoting him extensively. In the first chapter of his treatise, Milner wrote:
If our forefathers had to practice infanticide, it was because of the hardness of their life, rather than the hardness of their heart. It was not anger that led them to strangle or expose their children, it was the only way they could assure that the other members of a family could survive (p. 19).
I could easily rebut this statement, but in Milner’s work there are so many similar, outrageous statements that paradoxically it would be more eloquent simply to let him speak out.

In the chapter on medieval infanticide Milner quotes from a book by Linda Pollock: that children “were often brutally exploited and subjected to indignities now hard to believe.” Pollock might be described as an author who wants to idealize the parents’ behavior. Just like Pollock Milner idealizes the parents adding that “this did not necessarily mean they did not love them” (p. 72). Before the school of thought named cultural relativism appeared in anthropology and history, nineteenth century scholars were more willing to express value judgments on infanticide. For instance, in his chapter on tribal infanticide Milner quotes Brough Smyth’s 1878 study of the Australian aboriginals, a practice that Smyth described as “savage” and the tribes as being in a “half-civilized state.” Milner, following the political correctness of our times, comments that Smyth’s statement “is unfairly colored by our own particular moral judgments and bias” (p. 139). In the next page Milner states that the adults’ needs have priority over the needs of the infant, and he grossly misrepresents deMause’s views on infanticide:
As a result, infanticide may become a necessity when certain stressful conditions, like extreme shortage of food, are met. According to Lloyd deMause, hunter-gatherer tribes are frequently forced into such circumstances, and are thereby “in the infanticidal mode” (p. 140).
It must be noted that Milner seems to be familiar with deMause’s History of Childhood and the first issues of deMause’s journal, which he mentions fairly often. In his study of the diary of Herold, the doctor of the infant Louis XIII, deMause has called our attention about how the infant was invested with massive, paranoid projections from the adults. Quoting Edward Westermarck, Milner projects similar delusions onto the child: “The adults had to resort to the killing of infants ‘as a means of saving their lives’“ (p. 141). In the next page Milner adds: “It was necessary at times to look at the greater good, and not let the birth of an unwanted infant jeopardize the survival of the entire family or tribe” (p. 142). How a tiny newborn could be so phenomenally powerful, Milner does not explain. In the same chapter on tribal infanticide and cannibalism Milner makes this remarkable comment: “The newborn was occasionally sacrificed in order to help save the life of an older sibling” (p. 151), and using language in a way I could only describe as Orwellian Newspeak, he adds: “[Australian] infanticide was never effected by violence, such as a blow or cut, but rather either by exposure, strangling, or burying alive” (p. 152; my emphasis). Milner continues with this misuse of language when writing about Eskimo infanticide. While he concedes that “the baby is killed”, he comments that “this attitude is not cold-hearted”, and here goes the Newspeak: “This empathy [my emphasis]...has resulted in a general understanding that children must be sacrificed before the adult” (p. 167). In the next pages I marked non-empathetic phrases toward the child such as “One advantage of this destruction of females at birth...,” “forced circumstances to destroy them,” and “they have even been forced to eat the children.”

I could easily fill a chapter with these sorts of quotations that appear throughout Milner’s long monograph. But for the sake of brevity I will only add a few more. In the chapter about child sacrifice, Milner states:
If so many diverse cultures thereby found the offering of their offspring beneficial, can we merely pass them off as chaotic, or pathologic, customs? I think not... Somehow we must find a more rational explanation for their behavior (p. 319).
Milner repeats the above sentence almost verbatim in his final chapter, “Conclusion.” What I found most offensive in this concluding chapter were these words by the author while speculating about a possible genetic explanation of infanticide:
Such research must be supported, however, and our beliefs must include the realization that killing may not always be wrong. Quintilian [ca. 35 -100 CE] noted that “to slay a man is often a virtue and to put one’s own children to death is at times the noblest of deeds” (p. 549).
Milner wrote the above sentence on the very last page of his voluminous treatise. The remainder of the book contains a vast bibliography and an index of names and subjects.

What strikes me the most is that Milner agrees with deMause and some historians about the magnitude of infanticide throughout pre-history and history. Milner even quotes anthropologist Laila Williamson as the chosen epigraph at the beginning of his book: “Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunter gatherers to high civilizations, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule” (p. 1). However, like most anthropologists and orthodox historians who have ventured on writing childhood history, Milner seems emotionally incapable of a proper evaluation of the data he amassed through ten years of research. If Milner is representative of the academic idealization of the parental Holocaust perpetrated since our simian ancestors, it is no surprise that psychohistory has yet to be recognized in the academia.


  1. I am writing a blog post about filicide as well !!!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.