[Paleopsych] Skeptical Inquirer: Martin Gardner: The Brutality of Dr. Bettelheim

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Martin Gardner: The Brutality of Dr. Bettelheim 

[I distinctly remember reading an article in Scientific American in 1960 
about a boy who thought he was a robot. I'd been meaning to track it down 
for years, but at least I turned up a reference to it. It was 1959 
September, not 1960, and the title was "Joey: A Mechanical Boy." Alas, 
there is not too much about the article itself, which has not yet been 
made available to academic libraries online by those digiitizing old 
journals, such as JStor of the Mellon Foundation.

[Since 1959, I've gotten interested in philosophy and have wondered why 
those who don't believe in free will do not act like Joel! This 
is clearly something for transhumanists to discuss.

[Bettelheim was a media-promoted guru in his days, but his star fell even 
more than Freudianity in general. And that is the subject of Garner's 

    Dr. Bruno Bertelheim
    Devoted most of his time
    Condemning mothers to perdition
    By blaming them for their autistic child's condition.

    Friend Armand T. Ringer composed the above clerihew after reading a
    first draft of this column. It is an accurate statement about the
    enormous harm that can be done by dogmatic, closed-minded Freudians.

    Estimates of the number of children afflicted with a broadly defined
    autism vary from one in a thousand to one in 250. It is more common
    than Down syndrome. Boys outnumber girls four to one. Symptoms start
    to appear when a child approaches two, but often are not recognized as
    autistic until the child begins school. Autistic children look
    deceptively normal, and many are very beautiful.

    Like almost all mental illnesses, autism has a spectrum of symptoms
    that range from mild to severe. Severe autism has the following

    1. Children with autism are self-absorbed ("auto" is Greek for
    "self"). They live inside a glass shell, hardly recognizing the
    existence of their parents or others. They are unresponsive to
    affection and incapable of normal social relationships.

    2. They seldom make eye contact, and rarely point to anything. Many
    refuse to talk or they speak only in brief sentences. Some speak
    fluently but in repetitive sentences. They are unable to maintain a
    normal conversation.

    3. About 80 percent are mentally retarded.

    4. Their behavior is bizarre. They are prone to a wide variety of
    repetitive rituals such as banging their head, flapping their arms,
    slapping their face, pulling their hair, or rocking back and forth.
    They can spend hours repeating such mindless tasks as running sand
    through their fingers in a sandbox, typing a single key on a
    typewriter, or spinning objects on the floor or in their hands. The
    slightest change in their experience, such as a mother wearing a
    different dress, or a toy moved to a different spot, can trigger a
    severe tantrum.

    5. Some autistic adults resemble idiot savants in developing curious
    skills such as memorizing a phone book, an ability to multiply large
    numbers or identify huge prime numbers, or quickly memorize
    complicated musical scores. Some become obsessed with calendars and
    can correctly name the day of the week for any given date. Some
    rapidly solve jigsaw puzzles even when the pieces are picture-side
    down. Such strange abilities, along with the usual self-absorption,
    were featured in the movie Rain Man, a film in which Dustin Hoffman
    takes the role of Raymond, an autistic middle-aged man. [1]

    "Joey: A Mechanical Boy," by Dr. Bruno Bettelheim (Scientific
    American, March 1959), is a famous article about an autistic child who
    thought he was a robot. He would construct all sorts of weird machines
    around his bed, and repeatedly connect himself to them to obtain power
    for running himself. It would be interesting to know Joey's later

    Autism is a mysterious malady whose causes are not known. There are
    several competing theories, none confirmed, but all recognize that
    autism is a brain disorder probably caused by a set of malfunctioning
    genes. If one of a pair of identical twins is autistic, the other twin
    will be autistic about 65 percent of the time. The most persistent
    myth about autism is that there is a normal child inside the shell
    desperately wanting to emerge if only the shell can be shattered.
    There is no normal child inside the shell.

    For a report on recent research into the causes of autism, see "The
    Early Origins of Autism," by Patricia Rodier, professor of obstetrics
    at the University of Rochester, in Scientific American, February 2000,
    pages 56-63. See also Uta Frith's earlier article "Autism," in the
    same magazine, June 1993. A London psychologist, Frith is also the
    author of Autism: Explaining the Engima (1989).

    Evidence that autism is in any way related to how parents behave is
    unconvincing, nor is there evidence that it is related, as so many
    parents foolishly believe, to early vaccinations. Marian DeMeyer, an
    Indiana University psychiatrist, made a careful study of three groups:
    parents with an autistic child, parents with normal children, and
    parents with a brain-damaged child. Personality tests showed that the
    three groups were indistinguishable. (See DeMeyer's paper in The
    Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, Vol. 2, 1972, pages
    49-66.) More recent work, I am told, has cast doubt on DeMeyer's

    Siblings of autistic children are normal. The percentage of children
    with autism is the same in all cultures, and among all racial, ethnic,
    and socioeconomic groups. Medication and therapy help mildly autistic
    children lead normal lives, but for severe autism no cures are known.

    Strong evidence that autism is a dysfunction of the brain has been
    available for half a century, and was taken for granted by
    neurologists outside the Freudian tradition. For a while it was called
    childhood schizophrenia. However, psychoanalysts and amateur Freudians
    persisted for decades in the fantasy that autism was somehow caused by
    unloving parents, especially by cold "refrigerator mothers." The
    leading advocate of this absurd view was Dr. Bruno Bettelheim

    Bettelheim was a small, bald, nearsighted man with thick glasses and a
    strong Austrian accent. He liked to tell people he was so ugly that
    when his mother first saw him after his birth she exclaimed "Thank God
    it's a boy!" Born in Vienna to a Jewish father who died of syphilis,
    Bettelheim claimed to have studied under Freud. Although he was
    briefly psychoanalyzed in Vienna, he was not trained as an analyst. He
    never claimed to be a psychiatrist of any sort -- only a psychologist.
    His doctorate in Austria was on the aesthetics of nature.

    Arrested by the Nazis, Bettelheim spent a year in Nazi concentration
    camps, first at Dachau, then at Buchenwald. This was before they
    became extermination centers. Released in 1939, he came to the United
    States where he was given a job teaching at Rockford College for
    women, near Chicago, and later at the University of Chicago. In 1994
    he took over the University of Chicago's decaying Sonia Shankman
    Orthogenic School for disturbed children, which he headed from 1944 to
    1978. During this period he became one of the country's most respected
    experts on childhood pathology.

    Bettelheim wrote eleven books, numerous articles in technical and
    popular journals, and an advice column that ran for ten years in The
    Ladies Home Journal He lectured everywhere, and even appeared as a
    psychiatrist in Woody Allen's 1983 film Zelig.

    In 1983 Bettelheim retired from the Orthogenic School, or Bruno's
    Castle as it was sometimes called, and moved to California. He had
    early on been divorced from Gina, his first wife. His second wife
    Gertrude died in 1984 after forty-three years of a happy marriage and
    three children. After a stroke in 1987, Bettelheim moved to a
    retirement home, which he despised, in Silver Spring, Maryland. In
    1990, ill, lonely, and depressed over a rift with his daughter Ruth,
    he overdosed on sleeping pills, fastened a plastic bag over his head,
    and died.

    After his suicide, evidence of Bettelheim's dark side began to emerge.
    Although many of his counselors at the Orthogenic School considered
    him brilliant and admirable, others began openly to call him a cruel,
    egotistical tyrant, the guru of a cult, and a power-mad mountebank.

    Evidence accumulated that Bettelheim exaggerated his bravery in the
    concentration camps, and lied when he said that Eleanor Roosevelt had
    helped him escape. He claimed an 85 percent cure rate of autistic
    children in his care, a boast no other psychiatrist came close to
    making. Critics pointed out that Bettelheim alone diagnosed autism and
    he alone evaluated "cures." Most of his cures, they charged, were of
    children who were not even autistic or only mildly so.

    Although untrained in analysis, Bettelheim was a Freudian
    fundamentalist. Counselors reported that every trivial incident that
    occurred in his school, such as a child breaking a dish or
    unintentionally hitting another child with a rubber ball, was taken by
    Bettelheim to be an unconscious expression of hostility. He was given
    to outbursts of anger and frequently slapped children. Alida Jatich, a
    patient for seven years who became a computer programmer in Chicago,
    published an article in The Chicago Reader (a weekly newspaper) in
    which she said Bettelheim once dragged her naked and dripping from a
    shower and slapped her repeatedly in front of her dorm mates. In her

    In person, he was an evil man who set up his school as a private
    empire and himself as a demigod or cult leader. He bullied, awed, and
    terrorized the children at his school, their parents, school staff
    members, his graduate students and anyone else who came into contact
    with him.

    Roger Angres, another former patient, in an article for Commentary
    (October 1990), described what he called Bettelheim's "insulting and
    intimidating theatrics." He insulted children, Angres wrote, "just in
    order to break any self-confidence they might have. I lived in terror
    of his beatings, in terror of his footsteps in the dorm."

    The degree of Bettelheim's cruelty toward patients was mild compared
    to his cruelty toward mothers. For a detailed account of this I
    recommend science writer Edward Dolnick's excellent, hard-hitting
    Madness on the Couch: Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of
    Psychoanalysis (Simon and Schuster, 1998). It is one of a raft of
    recent books exposing psychoanalysis as one of the most monumental
    pseudosciences of the last century. What follows is taken mainly from
    Dolnick's book.

    Bettelheim was convinced, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the
    contrary, that autism had no organic basis but was caused entirely by
    cold mothers and absent fathers. "All my life," he wrote, "I have been
    working with children whose lives have been destroyed because their
    mothers hated them."

    Again: "The precipitating factor in infantile autism is the parent's
    wish that his child should not exist."

    In the mid-fifties Bettelheim adopted a policy known as
    "parentectomy." Under this policy, parents were not allowed to see
    their children for at least nine months!

    You can imagine the desolation felt by mothers when they were told
    they had created their child's pathology. Annabel Stehli, one of many
    such mothers, read Bettelheim's book about autism, The Empty Fortress
    (1967), a book his detractors called The Empty Book. In The Sound of a
    Miracle (1991), Stehli described her reaction this way:

    I was carrying around this terrible secret. I didn't want to talk to
    anyone about Berrelheim. My husband said that he thought it was
    baloney, but I didn't talk to my friends about it. I was very alone. I
    really felt as if I had a scarlet letter on, only the "A" was for

    I felt that I'd hurt Georgie in some subtle way that I couldn't grasp,
    and if I could just figure it out, then maybe she'd be okay. There was
    a part of me that wanted to believe Berrelheim, because that would
    mean that if I got better, Georgie would get better.

    A typical bit of Freudian nonsense in Bettelheim's Empty Fortress was
    how he explained a child's obsession with weather. The child broke
    down the word "weather," unconsciously of course, into "we/eat/her."
    It's hard to believe, but Bettelheim actually wrote: "Convinced that
    her mother (and later all of us) intended to devour her, she felt it
    imperative to pay minutest attention to this 'we/eat/her'."

    Other Freudian analysts, as well as scientists who were not
    psychiatrists, followed Bettelheim in blaming the poor mothers for
    their child's autism. Psychologist Harry Harlow's research with
    monkeys who were deprived of mothers convinced him that autism was
    caused by icebox mothers. Dutch zoologist Nikolaas Tinbergen, who for
    his study of bird behavior shared a 1973 Nobel Prize in medicine with
    zoologist Konrad Lorentz and Karl von Frisch, also fell for the
    preposterous cold mother theory. He actually wrote a book titled
    Autistic Children: New Hope for a Cure (1983). And what was the cure?
    It was constant hugging of children by their mothers!

    Dolnick records an ironic twist to all this. Psychiatrists Maurice
    Green and David Schecter, in several technical papers, argue that
    autism is caused not by cold mothers, but by mothers who love a child
    too much! They give a milk bottle before a child asks for it, or a toy
    before he or she wants it. By excessive anticipation of their child's
    needs, the child naturally doesn't bother to speak and remains a
    permanent infant.

    There are two biographies of Bettelheim. Richard Pollak, former
    literary editor of The Nation, published The Creation of Dr. B in
    1997. It's a bitter attack on Bettelheim, who was called Dr. B by his
    patients and counselors. Nina Sutton's Bettelheim: A Life and a Legacy
    (1996), translated from the Greek, is more balanced. She sees
    Bettelheim as a complex man with both good and bad qualities. A
    hostile account of a character called "Dr. V" is in Tom Wallace
    Lyons's autobiographical novel The Pelican and After (1983). Lyons was
    a former patient of Bettelheim

    Bernard Rimland, a psychologist and father of his autistic son Mark,
    is the author of Infantile Autism (1964), another slashing attack on
    Bettelheim. Dolnick devotes several pages to Mark, an amiable man who
    has managed to adjust to life. Mark is one of those autistics who can
    name the day of the week for any date, but is unable to explain how he
    knows. When Bettelheim died, Rimland's comment reflected the opinions
    of almost all authorities on autism. "He will not be missed."

    My next column will be about Facilitated Communication, a crazy
    development involving autistic children that is almost as sad and
    deplorable as Bettelheim's attacks on refrigerator mothers.

    Martin Gardner's two-volume Annotated Alice has recently been
    reprinted in a one-volume edition.


    (1.) Such abilities can be greatly exaggerated. For example, a
    Newsweek cover story "Understanding Autism" (July 31, 2000), cited an
    autistic savant who could memorize a phone book in ten minutes. No one
    can even read a phone book in ten minutes, let alone memorize it.

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