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Orly Benaroch Light
President and CEO of Mid-Life Women

How the Childhood of Tyrants is Affecting Us All

Valencia, Ninot de las Fallas 2018. Photo: Mikel Ponce. Archdc. Credit: Album / Archivo ABC / Mikel Ponce.  Alamy Stock Photo
Valencia, Ninot de las Fallas 2018. Photo: Mikel Ponce. Archdc. Credit: Album / Archivo ABC / Mikel Ponce. Alamy Stock Photo

It is hard to remain oblivious to the fact that we are living in exceptionally violent and uncertain times. Bad news has become the norm. We are almost becoming desensitized to it in order to preserve our own wellbeing.

Tragedies and evil actions occur every day, but the senseless violence of the October 7 massacre, followed by the hostage crisis in Gaza, the Palestinian death toll, the rise in antisemitism, and ongoing protests across U.S. campuses, has ripped the world apart. Many of us are left confused, frustrated, and heartbroken.

In recent years, we have witnessed both a heroic ‌struggle for democracy and the rise in violent tyrannical regimes around the world.

Sometimes, these leaders come to power genuinely intending to lead their nation toward a better future, yet over time, they morph into power-hunger, ruthless tyrants, oppressing the citizenry and willing to do anything to remain in control.

With Mother’s Day behind us and Father’s Day approaching, I began pondering the impact of parenting on some of the world’s most notorious authoritarian leaders during their formative years.

What leads someone to authoritarianism, to commit atrocities like mass murder, societal repression, genocide, breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud? It remains unclear whether it’s nature, nurture, or circumstance.

In “For Your Own Good,” renowned Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller explores the childhoods of various violent or self-destructive world leaders. While historians, sociologists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts have extensively studied these figures, many overlook the impact of their early years. Miller looks at how experiences stored from their childhoods and the behavioral models available to them played crucial roles in shaping their tyrannical personas. Without exception, she found that all the childhood histories of dictators she examined had been victims of extreme cruelty in childhood, although they themselves denied it. “The absence of trust and love is a common denominator,” she concluded.

Gaining personal insights into political tyrants is challenging as interviews often avoid tough questions and offer propaganda-filled answers. Since face-to-face psychological evaluations cannot happen, research on these leaders usually relies on secondary “informant reports.”

What I discovered in my quest to learn more about the early years of some of the most notorious, tyrants and fascist-leaning leaders is that they come from diverse backgrounds yet have common themes of adversity in early life and complicated family dynamics:

Vladimir Putin, a ruthless dictator willing to do anything to silence those who oppose him, invaded both Georgia and Ukraine. He was raised in a harsh environment that likely influenced his leadership style. His mother, a factory worker who endured the psychological scars of losing her first two sons and nearly starving to death during the siege of Leningrad, still maintained a compassionate view of the war. Putin’s father, a Soviet Navy conscript who later joined the NKVD’s destruction battalion, contributed to a family life marked by poverty and struggle in a dilapidated, vermin-infested communal apartment. Left mostly unsupervised, Putin grew up as a troubled youth prone to fighting, shaping his character and future path in leadership.

Kim JongUn is shrewd and ruthless. He eliminates anyone who potentially poses a threat to his power. To embed fear, he publicly executed his uncle and brother, securing his dominance in North Korea and internationally. He is successor to his father Kim Jon II, the last Stalinist dictator of North Korea, whose regime was known for its iron grip and global influence through threats of mass destruction. His mother, a Japanese-born ethnic Korean and former dancer, influenced his upbringing. Described as ambitious and personable, she was key to the political exile of Kim Jon II’s first mistress due to her insistence on exclusivity. At eight, Jong-Un received a little general’s uniform and was announced as his father’s heir. Generals saluted him. His often-lonely adolescence and schooling in Switzerland, and his passion for machines and aviation, prepared him to govern with ruthlessness and skill. His mother visited him

Ismail Haniyeh, a top Hamas leader, is criminally responsible for the October 7 massacre that killed over 1,400 Israelis and involved in the abduction of more than 300 people to Gaza. Born in a Gaza refugee camp, his fisherman father, often absent, left the household management to Haniyeh’s mother. In his youth, Haniyeh worked in Israel to support his family and later graduated with a degree in Arabic literature from the Islamic University in Gaza, where he joined Hamas. Currently living in Qatar, he has an estimated net worth of $11 billion, while his sisters and their families live in a Bedouin town in southern Israel, where some of Haniyeh’s nieces and nephews have served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Sayyid Ali Husseini Khamenei is Iran’s Supreme Leader. His regime supports Hamas, calls for “Death to Israel and America,” and Iranian women suffer from gender and political oppression. He was born into a family with humble beginnings. His father led a simple life as a respected religious figure and educator. Despite often having just bread and raisins for supper, Khamenei recalls the richness brought to his early life by his mother’s wisdom and education. An avid reader of Hafiz’s poetry, she was deeply familiar with the Holy Quran, which she recited to her children, enriching their understanding of the prophet’s lives. Khamenei’s childhood was marked by economic hardship, yet it was culturally and spiritually rich, deeply influenced by his mother’s teachings and recitations.

Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, currently serving as Israel’s Prime Minister since 2022 and previously from 1996-1999 and 2009-2021, faces charges of fraud, breach of trust, and accepting bribes. His plan to weaken the independence of Israel’s judicial system brought the country to the brink of civil war. For years he propped up Hamas, encouraging Qatar to finance the terrorist organization. A poll published in the Ma’ariv newspaper showed that as many as 80% of Israelis blame him for security lapses during the October 7 Hamas attack. Born in Tel Aviv, he was raised between Jerusalem and the U.S., experiencing both academic rigor and the personal tragedy of his younger brother’s death in 1976’s Operation Entebbe. His father was a historian who viewed the Arabs as a nation of half-savages to be defended against. His father’s ideology had a great influence on Bibi. His mother, one of the few women to enroll at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in the 1930s, dedicated much of her career to supporting her husband’s scholarly endeavors. Netanyahu is known as a polarizing figure, admired for his dedication to Israel and criticized for arrogance and perceived insincerity.  Bibi’s mom was heard saying to her other son, “If someone doesn’t say nice things about him, that means they don’t know him. We are right and they are completely wrong.”

 

Donald Trump, made history as the first former president to become a convicted felon. A New York jury found him guilty of 34 charges in a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 election through a hush money payment to a porn actress who said the two had sex. His father owned a real estate firm which provided him with early business exposure. Behavioral challenges led to his enrollment at the New York Military Academy at 13 for discipline. He later earned an economics degree from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce. Trump’s mother, an immigrant maid-turned-matriarch, was described as an ordinary, devoted mother. His niece, clinical psychologist Mary Trump, attributes his narcissistic and bullying traits to emotional neglect by his father. She also accuses him of academic cheating and mistreatment of women, claims supported by his sister, Maryanne Trump Barry.

These examples illustrate that many authoritarian leaders had absent or dysfunctional fathers and complex relationships with their mothers who sometimes provided unconditional love and support. Most people, however, who face severe adversity in their formative years do not become authoritarians or terrorists. No amount of trauma exempts that person from being held accountable for hurting others.

The journey from hardship to leadership is shaped by a mix of genetics, environmental factors, and family dynamics intertwining to shape personalities.

According to the Synergia Foundation, authoritarian leaders may rise under specific conditions which contribute to their development. From a young age, these individuals often harbor anger toward a world they perceived has harmed them. They may become detached from those around them, developing coping mechanisms to endure hardships. Trauma breeds further trauma, triggering paranoia, and suspicion of others. Additionally, the absence of a stable paternal figure may force children into premature leadership roles, where they develop an unhealthy relationship with power and control. A profound need for attention and love, coupled with the grueling demands of political life, may drive individuals toward authoritarianism.

Parenting, like any other endeavor in life, is filled with success and failures every day. In “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder notes that effective parenting is not about power or demanding blind obedience. Instead, engaging thoughtfully with children and setting ethical examples both as parents and citizens are crucial. He advocates for truthful, kind communication.

These times are marked by violence, hatred, and dangerous power struggles. Globally, democracy is cracking, leaving an opening for a rise in tyranny. While we can’t change authoritarian leaders, we can encourage and educate mothers and fathers about how not to create more tyrants. Dictatorship and tyranny should have no place in society or parenting. Research in human development shows the importance of nurturing and ethical parenting. Parents play a pivotal role in meeting their children’s physical and emotional needs and guiding them to become kind, ethical, and responsible adults. Ensuring that children feel loved is essential – it’s what matters the most in the end.

About the Author
Orly Benaroch Light is the Founder and CEO of Mid-Life Women Inc. Mid-life Women is a community hub where women 50+ can connect, share, learn, inspire, champion, and support each other. Orly is also the Founder and CEO of MCE Conferences Inc. an all-female continuing medical education company. She is an activist for women empowerment and humanitarian. Previous and current affiliations: WILPF-US, Peace is Loud, UN Women, NGO CSW/NY, Peace Now, ALLMEP, and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Orly was a training captain for Vice President Kamala Harris during her 2019 presidential campaign. She is most proud of being a mom.
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