When a famous man dies and is eulogized, those who knew him often feel a shock of non-recognition. Such was the case for me last March in reading the notices on the death by suicide, at age eighty-six, of the renowned psychoanalyst, author, and educator Bruno Bettelheim. In these notices and elsewhere Bettelheim, who was born in Vienna and came to the United States in 1939, has been widely mourned as a paragon both of insight and of compassion; but to me, in the twelve years I spent as his student/patient, he was a bully, a tormentor, and a liar.
I was seven years old when my parents brought me to the Orthogenic School in Chicago, the residential center Bettelheim founded in 1944 as a “total therapeutic milieu” for the treatment of “between 30 and 50 autistic, withdrawn, anorexic, severely neurotic or suicidal children” (as the Washington Post obituary put it). My father, a psychoanalyst, considered me imbalanced, morbid, “disturbed.” For one thing, I paced up and down a great deal. (I still do.) Sometimes I paced with my hands clasped behind my back, “like an old man” (surely in imitation of my foreign-born father). I also twiddled my fingers in what looked like a nervous tic. Sometimes I skipped while I paced. I had other unacceptable mannerisms, too: I sometimes talked to myself, lips moving, when lost in thought.
In my parents’ search for a “cure” they were drawn to Bettelheim’s words and ideas. (My father could not “cure” me because he lacked professional distance.) They knew the Orthogenic School’s reputation for indulging kids with unlimited amounts of good food and candy, for its spacious play areas, for the contemporary paintings and sculpture that adorned the buildings and grounds. And they possessed the necessary financial means.
The case for admitting me was built on assertions about my internal state. The initial verdict was “obliviousness,” or not paying attention to the world around me. I often “dreamed off.” Furthermore, I mispronounced sounds, especially “th,” and that not even consistently but sometimes as “z” (like my father, born abroad in one country) and sometimes as “d” (like my mother, born abroad in another). Finally, I had not yet learned to read. Bettelheim diagnosed me as autistic, and thus began our twelve-year relationship.
I still remember the shock of my first meeting with Bettelheim. I do not know whether or not he treated me the same way he did every child who came to him, but he certainly did not abide by his own oft-proclaimed dictum that every child had to see the Orthogenic School for himself and consent to go there. I neither saw the place nor consented to go there. I did not want to leave home anyway, and after meeting him, I would have preferred a stay in the Arctic to any place run by that man. If I had known I would spend all the years of my childhood and youth with him I would have been utterly shattered.
I drew for him a picture of a man. I don’t remember now if he asked me to, but all psychologists seemed to crave such pictures, and I may have tried in this fashion to break the ice. “What a stupid and ugly picture,” he snapped. (I did not yet know that he fancied himself an art connoisseur.) “You did not draw his hands!” “They’re behind his back,” I explained. “You just did that because you can’t draw hands! Do you know what it means when a boy can’t draw hands?” I did not. I still don’t.
To appease him, I redrew the picture and added some hands, carefully showing all five fingers. “Preposterous! You drew the hands entirely out of proportion! They’re bigger than his head” Once more he scowled darkly, as if I were expected to know the sinister significance of such a reversal of normal proportions.
He asked what I hoped to become when I grew up. A scientist, I replied. “Ridiculous!” he spat. “You want to be a scientist? You can’t even read.” “You’re rude,” I bristled. “I never met such a rude man.” I stormed out of the room and repeated this complaint to my parents. To them, it was irrelevant, and irrelevant it remained to them for at least the next twelve years.
For all of those years, they too endured his insulting and intimidating theatrics. But from his behavior they never drew the obvious conclusion about his character, nor did they ever pause to consider how he must be treating those whom he had totally in his power. It did not seem to occur to them that in his “total therapeutic milieu,” the professional distance they sought had been delegated to people who raised us, educated us, disciplined us, and controlled us far more completely than any parent—and kept our real parents in the dark. Indeed, Bettelheim’s constant verbal abuse of the parents with whom he dealt, and whom he refused to allow past the visitors’ area—combined with his well-publicized assertion that it was parents who caused mental illness in their children—systematically destroyed their will to stand up for themselves or their children.
When I first entered the school I was allowed to bring some possessions, but Bettelheim made sure that I did not feel at home. On his order, my comic books were confiscated, and a new rule was promulgated that no child could have or read such works. As I unpacked, he glowered at my things. My wooden train caught his eye. Although it did not run on tracks or under power, each car featured an animal head that fit into a hole in the next car, above the curved axle for the wheels. Thus, as the train moved, the heads bobbed up and down. It was new, and I found it fascinating, and said so. “It’s a stupid toy,” he replied. The school had no policy against stupidity in toys, nor did he have some special squeamishness on the point—rather, I learned as the years passed, he insulted people just in order to break any self-confidence they might have.
In time, he broke mine very thoroughly. I came to experience a side of the school that Bettelheim’s reputation obscured: the restrictions placed on our non-physical desires; the insistence on locating psychosomatic origins for our physical ailments before seeking medical advice; the smell of urine pervading the dorms of younger children, emanating from the bathroom and sometimes from a bed because, it was held, overassiduous housecleaning would betray a middle-class obsession with hygiene.
Above all, though Bettelheim routinely proclaimed in print and speech that no one should ever use corporal punishment on children, he himself just as routinely administered it. And so I lived for years in-terror of his beatings, in terror of his footsteps in the dorms—in abject, animal terror. I never knew when he would hit me, or for what, or how savagely. For Bettelheim prized his upredictability, no less than his unconventionality: as someone who saw into the secret depths of men’s souls, he gloried in defying ordinary notions of which offenses were important, or even what constituted an offense. “What a hostile character!” he would say of me, and countless other boys, as he beat us publicly. These beatings, which made the greatest impression on me of anything that I have known in life, stick in my memory as grand performances of exultant rage.
A typical example. Once some all-school games were organized. We played musical chairs. A boy I shall call Seymour jumped into a seat before I could, and from then until the end of the game, which I had to watch from the sidelines, he silently taunted me, smirking and wiggling his behind in time to the music, with bumps in my direction. After the game finished, Seymour approached me with that gloating smirk still on his face. I said, “I wish I could chop your head off.” The counselor promptly told Bettelheim, who just as promptly beat me, adding neck chops to his standard slaps, and a denunciatory monologue in case I missed the poetic justice of it all. The counselor interjected, “Seymour behaved rather provocatively.” “Of course!” Bettelheim answered, never at a loss for words.
Bettelheim controlled the whole system and the staff followed along, many doting on his every word. When some bright staffer suggested that Bettelheim honor us with a weekly lecture on his thoughts concerning history, art, religion, philosophy, he gladly acceded. The content of these compulsory lectures, which were delivered in his highly Teutonic accent and academic style, was for the most part derivative of clichés popular with the educated middle classes in interwar Vienna. Thus, he informed us that Western law is irrational because it punishes assault and battery more harshly than it does traffic accidents; that our civilization properly derives from the Greeks, who believed in a “sound mind and a sound body,” and that Christianity is therefore essentially alien to the West; that Christianity nevertheless represents an advance over Judaism, “the religion of a desert people,” as it is more universal and humanitarian; but that more advanced yet is the modern realization that God is merely a projection onto an imaginary being of our own best human qualities. (Bettelheim took the Freudian line that religion is an illusion and would not allow us to attend church or synagogue.)
Although he was opinionated about everything, even a child could see that he had not given careful thought to these subjects. Mostly his lectures served as still further occasions for calling attention to the inadequacies of particular children in his care, which he seized on to illustrate his “ideas.” As for the staffers, they seemed happy to accept it all, just as they accepted his lack of restraint in treating the children themselves.
This puts me in mind of another incident. When we came down to meals, we had to sit on a bench outside the dining hall before a counselor would lead us in. As the bench was normally quite crowded, sometimes I would sit in an armchair just inside an adjacent room, to steal a few moments of darkened serenity before the glare and din of the meals. One day, Bettelheim found me there and dragged me back to the bench by the hair. “Do you know what they call people like you?” he thundered. “A megalomaniac!” Later, when our group returned to the dorm, the counselor harried me to find the word in the dictionary: “Don’t you want to know what he called you?” I did not. With perfect zeal, she made me look it up anyway. Supposedly, as with the other terms they freely hurled at us—narcissistic, paranoid, anal-retentive, obsessive, psychopathic—no moral blame was to be inferred since the terms themselves were “scientific,” value-free. Thus did they force us to pour out with our own hands the salt they proceeded to rub in our wounds.
Even after I learned to read, the atmosphere in the school allowed me no peace. My senior counselor would scold me for reading too much, for “shutting out the world.”
While I did learn to read, however, I never learned to write well enough to produce a coherent essay of any length, on any subject. I feared expressing myself. I had reason to. School papers became grist for further dissection of our characters, and were thrown back in our faces with accusations about our motives and the “symptoms” that were supposedly revealed by our ideas. Writing even a factual essay was risky; writing fiction was downright reckless. Grammar itself became fair game for psychologizing/moralizing: “It’s ‘he and I,’ not ‘me and him,’ but then, you always think of ‘me’ first.”
The school stifled my extracurricular development far more extensively than it did my academic development. We were not to be diverted from the task of “understanding” our “problems” by concentrating on achieving excellence in debate, games, or any of the arts. Sports, too, were in general kept to a minimum, for two additional reasons: to prevent us from competing, and to prevent the possibility of physical accidents. Though we played with tennis balls and plastic bats, Bettelheim and most of the women counselors reacted with extreme ferocity to any mishap. The school particularly disliked team sports—because, I think, team members prod each other to play harder, and also because they tend to form independent loyalties and hierarchies.
My physical awkwardness was another mark against me. At age nine, I joined a baseball team that some of the kids were trying to organize. I put my all into improving my skills. But I kept running into the institutional obsession with accidents. Every ball that hit a child was regarded as an intentional assault, requiring punishment. Needless to say, the intent did not have to be “conscious.” Though most of us were clumsy, if not “spastic,” our “unconscious” was credited with superhuman skill and with the single determination to bean other kids with tennis balls.
In time I grew discouraged. They kept us from forming teams, from keeping score, from deciding with whom we would play, and from playing without the threat of punishment hanging over us.
Years passed. After they moved me to the older boys’ dorm I tried to take up sports again. The counselor let us play catch in the gym. I caught and threw to George, who stood across the gym. One throw was high and wide. George jumped several feet off the ground; though he just missed snagging the ball with his mitt, by a fluke the ball hit his head as it ricocheted off the corner of the high gym window. George behaved well, but the counselor decided to make an issue of it. He called off the game, took us back to the dorm, and collected us around the group table to await Bettelheim. When he arrived I tried, in a tremulous voice, to explain what had happened, but he cut me off with a slap in the face and continued to slap while he cut me down with words. Then he left, once more triumphant, I once more in tears.
Throughout my years at the school, my parents saw me improving; I felt myself deteriorating. The school left me with little ambition of any kind. “I’ll wait,” I told myself. “I’ll try to make up for it when I finally get out.” But I was counting on a nine-year limit and they kept me for twelve, almost until I was twenty.
Who, really, was Bruno Bettelheim? About that, the memorial articles provide surprisingly sparse and contradictory information. Bettelheim refused to write an autobiography, on the grounds that Freud’s strictures on biographers applied even more to autobiographers: they were prone “to lying, to concealment, to flummery.” Those words appear in the introduction to Freud’s Vienna and Other Essays—Bettelheim’s last book, and the one most centered on his own life.
That he was born (in 1903) to middle-class Jewish parents in Vienna; that the Nazis arrested him within a year of the 1938 Anschluss and sent him to Dachau and Buchenwald; and that he was released after a year and came to the U.S. as a political refugee—all this is known. But on certain crucial questions accounts differ. Some sources, for instance, state that Bettelheim was arrested because of his Jewish origins. Bettelheim himself, however, always maintained that the Nazis arrested him because of his activities in the Austrian underground.
Bettelheim recounts that in the spring of 1917, at the age of thirteen, he joined the Jung Wandervogel, which he describes as a radical Viennese youth movement, pacifist and socialist in orientation. About the same time, he became a believer in the educational reforms instituted by Gustav Wyneken in the Freie Schulgemeinde (Free School Community) at Wickersdorf, Germany. Bettelheim subscribed to Wyneken’s magazine Anfang (“Beginning”) and discussed its ideas with friends in the Jung Wandervogel. These ideas formed the basis for the educational program he would put into practice in America at the Orthogenic School.
The character of the ideas themselves becomes clearer in Bettelheim’s account (in Children of the Dream) of the influence of the Wandervogel upon the kibbutz movement in Jewish Palestine.
. . . The Wandervogel movement was a revolt against the authoritarian family in which these essentially middle-class youths had been raised, against the authoritarian schooling of the German Gymnasium most of them had attended. What they sought was a more authentic, more nature-bound way of life.
All these ideas appealed to Jewish ghetto youth who rebelled at the even more binding traditions their parents lived by, and a system of religious education that was vastly more oppressive than any German school.
As a reference here Bettelheim cites Walter Laqueur’s Young Germany: A History of the German Youth Movement (1962). But in that book Laqueur reveals that the Free School was not without its problems. Wyneken could never cooperate with his colleagues, and though he preached a system of collective control by students and faculty, in practice—shades of the Bettelheim future—he never tolerated the least opposition.
Wandervogel ideology remained influential with Bettelheim, though he came to regard the “educational reform philosophy of Wyneken” as trite “compared with the much more penetrating one of Dewey.” In any case, while in Vienna Bettelheim was concurrently occupied with his academic training in philosophy and art history, writing a dissertation that drew on the psychological ideas of Freud and the aesthetic ideas of Kant. In 1929 he began to undergo psychoanalysis with Dr. Richard Sterba. Sterba’s wife was one of the first child analysts. Bettelheim claims that he first became interested in curing disturbed children while sharing a waiting room with one of Mrs. Sterba’s patients, a small “psychotic” he calls Johnny. In Freud’s Vienna Bettelheim devotes several pages to the implications of a statement by Johnny on the one occasion he, Bettelheim, succeeded in getting the boy to respond in a complete sentence.
A year later, Bettelheim himself took on an “autistic” girl, the daughter of a “prominent and wealthy New York family” (in the words of the Washington Post obituary). The fee from the child’s parents must have enabled him to complete his psychoanalysis, as well as to begin and complete a doctorate in a new subject, psychology, within six years. The Post explains that although he was a businessman at the time, Bettelheim took the child because Anna Freud recommended him to the parents as a member of the Vienna “psychoanalytic circle.” It seems that Bettelheim was the last in a chain of four recommendations: Jean Piaget had said that he did not work with ill children and recommended Freud; Freud said that he did not work with children and recommended his daughter Anna; Anna said that she did not work with children who were that ill, and recommended Bettelheim.
If true, this story prefigures a means by which Bettelheim would later gain immunity from criticism of his Orthogenic School: it became the last hope for children no one else would accept. Or at least so their parents believed. Connected with this, too, was Bettelheim’s habit of making a mystique both out of autism itself—he rediagnosed as autistic many children sent to the Orthogenic School on other grounds—and out of his claims to cure the disease in most cases. So awed were people by Bettelheim’s willingness to deal with such children in the first place, and then by his supposedly high success rate, that few were disposed to question his diagnoses or his results.
As for Bettelheim’s original “autistic” girl, whatever he did or did not do for her (according to the Post, she was helped but not cured), her parents saved Bettelheim when he fell into the Nazi net in the late 30’s by appealing successfully to New York’s governor, Herbert Lehman, and to Eleanor Roosevelt to intercede. Once in the United States, Bettelheim achieved his first public notice, and some notoriety, in October 1943 when he published an essay based on his experience in Nazi internment camps and titled “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations.” After the war the article became required reading for all U.S. military-government officers in Europe. It was also quite controversial, especially within the Jewish community, for reasons alluded to obliquely in the New York Times obituary last March:
Dr. Bettelheim’s first work, in which he described the disintegration of dignity and personality in the Nazi concentration camps, was criticized as well as widely read for its insights. “It was his first impact on the intellectual world, but many Jews were offended because he felt that to some degree the Jews provoked some of the actions of the Nazis,” said Dr. [Peter] Blos.
In articles and speeches after the war, Bettelheim continued to work this theme, of the identification and hence the complicity of victims with their aggressors. Structurally speaking, his implied attack on the behavior of European Jews during the Holocaust would resemble his later explicit attacks on parents for causing mental illness in children. The Chicago Tribune quotes the psychologist David Gutmann on this point, revealingly:
Not all of Bettelheim’s theories have stood the test of time. For example, he said parents were largely responsible for autism, a belief that hardly anyone in the field subscribes to today.
“There’s now evidence that the disease may be at least partially neurological,” Gutmann said. “He was sort of blaming the victim. There are a hell of a lot of well-meaning parents who have found themselves with autistic kids.”
In fact, there was always evidence that autism “may be at least partially neurological.” Everyone before Bettelheim believed that it was. No one but Bettelheim and his most fervent followers ever believed otherwise. And even on Bettelheim’s assumption that the origins were psychological rather than biological or neurological, why go on, as he did, to accuse parents of such crimes—such “schizophrenogenic symptoms”—as wishing that their child did not exist? Bettelheim made an art of accusation. He did not “sort of” blame victims, as Gutmann puts it; he set himself up as their special prosecutor.
To be sure, he made a therapeutic doctrine out of all this, and a very subtle and sophisticated one. Bettelheim did not leave it to potential detractors to note that the term “total institution” applied as much to his school as it did to a concentration camp, but in his scheme of things he would be, of course, not the all-powerful persecutor but the all-powerful protector, and the syndrome of “identification with the aggressor” would become, by a dialectical process of inversion, a means of salvation and cure. As he formulated his paradoxical insight in The Empty Fortress:
I had experienced being at the mercy of forces that seemed beyond one’s ability to influence, and with no knowledge of whether or when the experience would end . . . of living isolated from family and friends, of being severely restricted in the sending and receiving of information.
. . . Perhaps this sudden reversal helped me first to understand how the camps could destroy personality, and later to resume, with I hope greater insight and empathy, my earlier task: that of creating a milieu which would favor the reconstruction of personality.
Many who have discussed Bettelheim’s concentration-camp experiences have resorted to similar language:
“He told me that once you were in a camp, you could never escape the cruelty,” said Rudolph Eckstein, a psychoanalyst in Los Angeles and a close friend. “He turned it upside down when he started his school for disturbed children. It was a protected, caring environment, the mirror opposite of the camps. The door was locked to the outside, but always open from the inside.” [New York Times, March 13, 1990]
But I do not believe that Bettelheim first learned either his manner or his methods from the SS in the camps. In 1938 he was, after all, an adult who had already studied educational theories and had taken in an “autistic” child, so he must have had established ideas and habits. As for the idea of turning experience “upside down,” it has long been a staple of radical and dialectical thinking.
Both Bettelheim and the people who admired and supported him were possessed by a dream, a dream of all the wonderful things they could do for mankind if only they had the power. In their view, a true humanitarian could perhaps learn from the concentration-camp experience a valuable lesson about techniques for reforming mankind. But no one had to go to the Nazis for the idea of a system of total control. The intellectual and political worlds of our century have bubbled over with such schemes. The real question in Bettelheim’s case is why his experience in the camps did not sour him on such ideas once and for all.
And there is another question. Many people knew that Bettelheim beat children. Everyone who worked at the Orthogenic School knew. His beatings, after all, were usually performed in front of staff members and, almost as often, in front of classmates or dorm mates. Yet those who observed these scenes for the most part kept silent.
So have his latter-day hagiographers. An article in the Chicago Tribune on March 15 of this year conceded that Bettelheim did not “coddle the children” at his school, and that he sometimes shouted at them that they were “crazy-insane.” But according to the Tribune, this was the only practice of his which “would shock modern psychiatrists.” In fact, however, that Bettelheim dealt out arbitrary punishments of the kind I have described was widely known, and was confirmed at least as early as 1983 by Jacqueline Sanders, his successor as director. Dr. Sanders was responding to The Pelican and After, a fictionalized account of the Orthogenic School by a “graduate,” Tom Wallace Lyons. This past April, moreover, in an anonymous letter to the Reader, Chicago’s free weekly newspaper, another “graduate” of the school testified that Bettelheim once beat her for saying the school had too many restrictions, and that on another occasion he dragged her naked from the shower and beat her in front of her dorm mates. And in August, in a piece in the Washington Post, another “graduate,” Charles Pekow, offered testimony similar to my own.
So to the scandal of terror spread by Bruno Bettelheim in his school another scandal needs to be added: the fact that so many people who knew about the terror went to such lengths to cover up for him—and, to judge by the mostly adoring accounts that have appeared in the press after his death, that they are still willing to do so.