[Paleopsych] Skeptical Inquirer: Martin Gardner: The Brutality of Dr. Bettelheim
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Thu Jan 27 15:42:23 UTC 2005
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
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
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. 
"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,
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
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
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
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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