Franz Kafka Had Daddy Issues Before They Were Cool

Franz Kafka Had Daddy Issues Before They Were Cool


    I love reading and it is how I spend the bulk of my free time,  but I have a particular bias against classic literature.  I often joke that I have yet to enjoy a book written prior to 1950; countless times I have attempted to choke my way through Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, or Twain but I am ashamed to admit that I never get far. I am not asserting that they are not great and important writers, or that their prose is not of incredible quality, just that I simply do not enjoy their writing. I tend to find it stuffy, impersonal, convoluted, and most damning, near impossible to relate to, it often soars high over my head. I hold this prejudicial stance very tentatively however; I have long held out hope that I would find  one special author who might shatter the archetype and introduce me to what I have been missing. Doing research for another post, I may have finally found the author that has done the trick.

    The work of author Franz Kafka defies every expectation I held for classic literature. It is lucid, poignant, and painfully honest. Kafka rips his beating heart out of his chest, throws it on the page, and invites the reader to examine it. He deals with themes like isolation, loneliness, and melancholy so masterfully that his struggles become palpable. Kafka is primarily known for his literature, his most notable work being “The Metamorphosis,” a story of a traveling salesmen who suddenly transforms into a human sized bug. Besides fiction, Kafka journaled extensively and wrote a surfeit of letters to friends, lovers, and family, many of which have been archived. One letter in particular, a 47 page tour de force that Kafka penned to his father, caught my interest. In this letter, Kafka bears his heart and explains in excruciating detail and through specific examples how his temperamental, narcissistic, and discouraging father failed him, and by doing so,  inflicted irreparable wounds upon Kafka’s psyche. Kafka was an immensely troubled individual, and in this letter he lays the bulk  of his issues, his anxiety, his depression, and his poor self image at the feet of his father and begs him, just once, to identify with his plight.  It is impossible to read without experiencing a massive amount of heartbreak on Kafka's behalf. What I find especially fascinating about this letter though is how it demonstrates the lifelong psychological repercussions a poor parent-child relationship can cause.  Particular examples of emotional neglect and abuse can be highlighted in this letter and through them we can see the trauma that they are capable of inflicting.

   The opening of the letter is absolutely heart wrenching, but no matter how many times I read it I can not decide whether to laugh or cry. Kafka, even at age 36 when he wrote the letter, was absolutely terrified of his father.

“Dearest Father,
You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking.”

   Kafka craved his father Hermann’s approval and was constantly looking to him for validation, especially of his writing. The only thing offered though, was criticism and contempt. The elder Kafka did not approve of  his son's writing endeavors and made no effort to hide this. His constant disparagement and visceral distaste wore on his son and was incredibly deleterious to his self esteem.

“...this feeling of being nothing that often dominates me... comes largely from your influence. What I would have needed was a little encouragement, a little friendliness, a little keeping open of my road, instead of which you blocked it for me...”

   Hermann Kafka was extremely verbally abusive, constantly hurling insults and disparaging remarks at his son. Now it is possible that Herman did not completely understand the extent of the damage this behavior was causing his son.  Kafka though, paints a much more disturbing picture. He suggests that his father's awareness was not merely deficient, but entirely absent.

“What was always incomprehensible to me was your total lack of feeling for the suffering and shame you could inflict on me with your words and judgments. It was as though you had no notion of your power... But you struck out with your words without much ado, you weren't sorry for anyone, either during or afterward, one was utterly defenseless against you.”

    One can only imagine how this further compounded  young Franz's experience, to have his father constantly lash out at him, never indicating remorse, and completely oblivious to the consequences.

   The poor manner in which Kafka's father treated him clearly took a toll on his life, and it reverberated in his writing as well. For instance, a major theme of Kafka's writing is fear of authority and the unlimited and unchallenged power it can posses. One of his books, “The Trail,” deals with the protagonist being arrested and tried by a mysterious and unnamed authority with no mention of his crime. This directly connects to a part of the letter in which Kafka recounts his only early childhood memory, an incident in which, after incessantly begging his father for water, his father grew annoyed, grabbed him from his bed, dragged him to the balcony,  and left him out there all night. Kafka admitted that this traumatized him for the rest of his life and he wrote:

“… Even years afterwards I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out onto the [balcony], and that meant I was a mere nothing for him.”

    Through these quotes we can see various examples of how Kafka's poor treatment at the hand of his father was enough to damage him. The question that immediately comes to mind though, is why was this enough to cause trauma? Herman Kafka was far from an ideal parent, but he does not seem to fit the archetype of a father who would irreparably mess up their child. He provided his son with a comfortable living and never laid hands on him. All things considered, he could have been much worse. When we picture a traumatized child we see one who experiences sexual or physical abuse or crippling neglect. So how was it that Franz Kafka was traumatized so deeply by his father? The answer is that trauma can sometimes be caused by more subtle, non physical means. It can also be inflicted emotionally, through what is called emotional neglect and abuse. We will see that Kafka was emotionally abused and neglected by his father and this alone is sometimes enough to scar a child for life.

    Ponder this quote:

“I cannot recall your ever having abused me directly and in downright abusive terms. Nor was that necessary; you had so many other methods...”

    So what is trauma exactly? And how does it relate to emotional abuse and neglect?

    Psychological trauma occurs when someone is exposed to a severely distressing event once or repeatedly. The person becomes emotionally overwhelmed and the trauma sometimes has residual effects lasting a lifetime. Because young children are more vulnerable and do not have the tools to properly manage emotions, they are especially susceptible to trauma. You might feel inclined to believe that only big events  are capable of causing trauma and that smaller, less distressing events  have no impact on a child. This, however, is false. Smaller traumas can cause damage as well and it has even been proven that repeated small traumas can be just as impactful as a single big one. Think back to your childhood for a second. How easy was it to become frightened and completely emotionally overwhelmed? It didn't take an earth shattering event for something to really freak you out. One of the most emotionally trying episodes of my life happened when I was around five years old. I was at a friends birthday party playing hide and seek and decided to hide in the bathroom and lock the door. When I wanted to get out though, the lock was stuck. Realizing I was trapped, I quickly grew absolutely terrified and was brought close to tears. I’d been in there for more than a minute before I was let out, the fear I felt is still palpable to this day.  For a long time after I was scared of being locked in a bathroom again and would make sure the lock wouldn't stick several times before locking the door. In the grand scheme of traumatic events, this ranks incredibly low. It actually seems kind of silly and I wouldn't dare compare this event to the terrible suffering that many people have endured growing up. What I want to be taken away from this example though, is that it still counts as a traumatic event. I was completely overwhelmed and the effects of the event lasted for years. Smaller traumas can indeed leave impacts.

    Parents, like bathrooms, also have the ability to inflict trauma. A psychology professor of mine recently gave a fantastic personal anecdote to illustrate this. He told us about his troubled relationship with his father growing up and how it traumatized him moving forward. Just like Kafka this man was never beaten by his father, but he experienced a deal of emotional neglect and abuse. He recalled a specific instance how, when he was just eleven years old, his father called him a coward. He went on to tell us that with the help of therapy, he realized this event, that happened almost 60 years ago, was a major factor in a litany of emotional problems that he has been experiencing to this day. Think about that for a second. A single phrase uttered by his father six decades ago left an indelible, detrimental impression that he is still reckoning with. This makes clear that we are even more emotionally fragile than we are physically. The aphorism “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” should really go “Worst case scenario, sticks and stones may put me in a cast for a few months but words will put me in weekly psychotherapy for the foreseeable future.” Kafka's father did not have to beat him to inflict trauma. Though it certainly could have been worse, the manner in which his father treated him was truly scarring.

   There are two main types of maltreatment; neglect and abuse. Abuse tends to be active whereas neglect is passive. If your parents lock you in a closet and don't feed you, that is abuse. If they simply forget to feed you, that is neglect. If they lock you outside as a punishment in the winter, that is abuse. If they neglect to pay the heating bill and your room is 45 degrees, that is neglect. When we think of child abuse and neglect we tend to think of very extreme examples. We hear  horrifying stories of children getting sexually mistreated or otherwise physically hurt. We imagine children living in squalor subsisting on snack food.  However, not all types of child maltreatment are this outright. One type of neglect and abuse, emotional maltreatment, tends to be much more subtle. When Kafka said that his father had so many other ways of abusing him, this is what he meant.

   Emotional neglect occurs when a parent does not respond enough to a child's needs. Attachment theory states that a strong emotional connection with a caregiver is critical for development. If a child does not receive this type of connection from a parent, they are being neglected and will not develop properly. It is worth noting that even otherwise great parents can emotionally neglect their children to some degree, and it can lead to various emotional problems down the line. For instance, it is important for parents to validate the emotions of their children. When a child is sad about something, the parent should talk to the child about why they are sad and make sure the child understands that it is ok to be sad sometimes. If instead of doing this, the parent tells the child to man up and stop being a baby, this is a type of emotional neglect and it can be very damaging. Moving forward a child will have trouble processing and trusting their own emotions. When they get sad, they will bottle it up or blame themselves instead of dealing with it in an effective manner.

   When a young Kafka would express concerns to his father, they would be completely downplayed. He would say things like:

"Is that all you're so worked up about?"
"Such worries I'd like to have!"
"The things some people have time to think about!"  
"What a song and dance about nothing!"

  This caused Kafka to doubt the validity of his emotions and as a result, he became very tentative and self critical.

  Everything Kafka discussed with his father, from his emotions to his writing pursuits was summarily dismissed and this made it impossible for him to have any semblance of confidence in himself.

“Courage, resolution, confidence, delight in this and that, could not last when you were against it or even if your opposition was merely to be assumed; and it was to be assumed in almost everything I did.”

  Low confidence and low self esteem is often a symptom of having a disproving or emotionally uninvolved parent so this is perfectly in line with what we would expect for Kafka.

   Furthermore, Some scholars actually believe that Kafka was anorexic and if so, this was unquestionably caused by his father. It is well documented that emotionally neglectful or abusive parents can cause eating disorders in children. This goes beyond the obvious such as outright criticism, and extends to the more subtle nature of emotional absence and manipulation.  This is illustrated in the following quote from the letter.

“Since there was nothing at all I was certain of, since I needed to be provided at every instant with a new confirmation of my existence, since nothing was in my very own, undoubted, sole possession, determined unequivocally only by me — in sober truth a disinherited son — naturally I became unsure even of the thing nearest to me, my own body.”

    What Kafka means here is that every facet of his being was reinterpreted, usually negatively, by his father. Because of this, he became so tentative and insecure about his opinions and emotions that he began to unequivocally question all of them, even the straightforward ones. He simply could not reach a positive conclusion about anything, even about what he saw when looking in a mirror, without it being negatively construed by the bullying voice of his father barking at him inside his head.  

    Kafka was rather promiscuous, reportedly frequenting brothels and having a liking for pornography (your guess is as good as mine as to what pornography looked like in the 19th century.) In addition, he struggled greatly with relationships, breaking of two engagements and being a serial cheater. Again, this is exactly what we would expect from someone who had the type of paternal relationship that Kafka did with his father. Having emotionally neglectful or abusive parents is often a cause of promiscuity, or what is colloquially known as “daddy issues.” When a child does not receive proper affection or attention at home, they will seek it elsewhere whether in childhood or later in life. They use sexuality to fill the void left by the emotionally neglectful or abusive parent.

    Compared to physical abuse, emotional abuse is much more subtle and harder to pinpoint. Several examples from Kafka's letter though, show that it can be just as damaging. Kafka's father rarely if ever actually laid hands on him, but he would often become absolutely livid and threaten to do so. In the heat of a particular outburst, his father once remarked that he would “Tear him apart like a fish.” Kafka knew that this was an empty threat, nothing of the sort would actually ensue, but he believed that the mere threats and the accompanying rage were actually worse.  

“…although I knew, of course, that nothing worse was to follow...the shouting, the way your face got red, the hasty undoing of the suspenders and laying them ready over the back of the chair, all that was almost worse for me. It is as if someone is going to be hanged. If he really is hanged, then he is dead and it is all over. But if he has to go through all the preliminaries to being hanged and he learns of his reprieve only when the noose is dangling before his face, he may suffer from it all his life.”

    The routine threats of abuse instilled terror in Kafka, but being let off the hook time and time again offered no reprieve. Instead, it ingrained a great sense of guilt in him. As these threats of physical abuse wore on, Kafka began to believe that he actually deserved to be battered and the constant escaping of his fate resulted in a continual sense of shame.

“Besides, from the many occasions on which I had, according to your clearly expressed opinion, deserved a beating but was let off at the last moment by your grace, I again accumulated only a huge sense of guilt. On every side I was to blame, I was in your debt.”

    If Kafka ever found himself angering or contradicting his father, he would raise his hand as if to hit him, and these interactions greatly stunted his ability to formulate thoughts and words. Though a magnificent writer, Kafka was shy, and struggled with speaking and verbalizing ideas properly. In the letter, he attributes this to to his father's mistreatment.

“The impossibility of getting on calmly together had one more result...I lost the capacity to talk. I daresay I would not have become a very eloquent person in any case, but I would, after all, have acquired the usual fluency of human language. But at a very early stage you forbade me to speak. Your threat, "Not a word of contradiction!" and the raised hand that accompanied it have been with me ever since. What I got from you... was a hesitant, stammering mode of speech, and even that was still too much for you, and finally I kept silent, at first perhaps out of defiance, and then because I could neither think nor speak in your presence. And because you were the person who really brought me up, this has had its repercussions throughout my life.”

   Besides for the threat of violence, Kafka's father had a special way of keeping him in place. He would be sarcastic, pointed, and manipulative.

An admonition from you generally took this form: "Can't you do it in such-and-such a way? That's too hard for you, I suppose. You haven't the time, of course?" and so on. And each such question would be accompanied by malicious laughter and a malicious face. One was, so to speak, already punished before one even knew that one had done something bad.

   Ending here for the sake of brevity, I am leaving 95% of the letter unexplored and I fear that I am not doing it justice. The entire letter is truly eye opening to an aspect of psychology often left unexplored by the layman. Kafka's writing is beautiful and chilling and I highly suggest everyone give it a read to  gain your own glimpse into a very tragic soul.



Image credit:



Kafka, Franz. Letter to His Father. Brief an Den Vater. New York: Schocken, 1966 (Written in 1919). Print.

Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-37651-2.

Stach, Reiner (2005). Kafka: The Decisive Years. New York: Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-15-100752-3.

"Franz Kafka – Biography". European Graduate School. 2012.

Alt, Peter-André (2005). Franz Kafka: Der ewige Sohn. Eine Biographie (in German). München: Verlag C.H. Beck. ISBN 978-3-406-53441-6.

"Child Abuse Statistics". Childhelp. Retrieved 5 March 2015.

 Lyons-Ruth K (February 1996). "Attachment relationships among children with aggressive behavior problems: the role of disorganized early attachment patterns".Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology64 (1): 64–73. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.64.1.64. PMID 8907085.





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