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The Cult of Bettelheim



To the editors:
"Never kick a man when he's down," and certainly Bruno Bettelheim is now down. This saying should really not apply to Bettelheim because he got a free ride from the psychoanalytic mafia in this country for over forty years, and now the worm is turning. Those of us who really knew him best, former Orthogenic School students and counselors, finally have an audience that has been created as a result of his bizarre death, and we deserve to get a few kicks in after all these years [Letters, April 6 and 20; May 4, 11, and 25; and June 8 and 15].

The Bettelheim I knew had little mercy in his heart, and exuded a particularly obnoxious strain of old Viennese arrogance. These traits, combined with a limitless ability for self promotion, seemed to both cow and attract the uninformed media into allowing Bettelheim to put forward his opinions, without question, in innumerable TV interviews. Not one of these interviewers would have thought to elicit an opposing view. But now people are listening because of the strange circumstance under which Bettelheim exited this mortal coil, and in doing so raised questions about the way he lived his life and all of his views.

Based upon the letters in the Reader from former Orthogenic School residents in which they recount their fears, confusion, and detestation of the man, and letters of slavish sycophancy from some counselors, I feel a kick for old "Dr. B." from a former counselor like myself might help the students like "Winston 1984" (see Reader letters 6/8/90) understand they are not alone.

I was one of the early counselors at the school, in the late 1940's, following WW II. A number of us were veterans, who had probably seen more of life by age 21 than Bettelheim had seen at age 40. That fact never seemed to penetrate Bettelheim's low threshold of awareness of the true nature of the world around him. He tried to bully the counselors as much as he did the defenseless children in the school. He was just a bit more circumspect with us veterans. We stuck with the job though because it was a good one for a U.C. graduate student at the time. The pay was low but fair. Free meals came with the job. We enjoyed working with the children. An on-campus location made it convenient, and yes, one gained instant social and academic stature because at that time, America and the U.of C.'s love affair with psychoanalysis was at its height.

The majority of the counselors at the Orthogenic School through were women. Bettelheim seemed to feel more comfortable with the female counselors and used them, rather than men, as his deputies. The female counselors were truly Bettelheim's Roman cohorts. The understanding that most of the men had was that Bettelheim tried to seduce everyone into relating to him as their "therapist," and this was a condition of job tenure. Our general feeling was that most of the women accepted this relationship, but we never knew for sure. Their job tenure certainly was longer than most of the men's.

I would characterize the atmosphere at the Orthogenic School, at that time, as the beginnings of a cult, with Dr. B. as the cult leader. To question the edicts of the "leader" was not only to bring his wrath down on you but to risk ostracism by your co-workers, the Roman cohorts. Counselors who were weak always succumbed to this pressure and ended up adulating the leader. (See: Anna Freud's essay "Identification with the Aggressor")

Using the concept of a cult to describe the Orthogenic School under Bettelheim seems to work because it gives some sense to an observation that always nagged me about the school. I observed that none of the children appeared to be as "disturbed" as Dr. B. described them in staff meetings or articles he wrote. But then in a cult, the leader always defines reality in his own terms, and the loyal cohorts flesh out that reality to the outside world. It is the same relationship that TMers have to the Maharishi, or ESTers have to their leader.

Bettelheim's world was disturbed, so that is what he saw in other people's worlds. At that time, in the late forties, I probably had more experience upon which to assess the adjustment of the children than most of the counselors at the school. By age 22, when I worked there, I had spent fully a third of my life in group living with a variety of youngsters under stress; four years in an orphan home followed by three and a half years in the wartime army. I understood that the stream of human normality was very wide, and that time healed many wounds without human intervention. It amazed me that Bettelheim, a man from another culture, could look at the same child as I and see a "schizophrenic" while I saw another rambunctious American kid. What did a forty year old Viennese intellectual really know about the inner (or outer for that matter) life of a ten year old West Side Chicago Irish kid who had no one to care for him? As a result, judging from the letters in the Reader from former students, Bettelheim's medicine was worse than the illness he purportedly sought to cure.

What puzzled and frustrated me then, and in later years, was the uncritical acceptance of Bettelheim's pronouncements by psychoanalytically oriented intellectuals. Sad reality! Poor children!

Bettelheim was a professional success. Why? Simple. He defined a child's problem without any meaningful critical peer review, and then proceeded to solve the problem, again without critical review. A generally compliant and emotionally dependent staff then put their imprimatur on his self-declared and widely proclaimed success. Oh, that's life's tasks should be so easy for all of us. Invent a problem, then declare the invented problem solved. If the biological sciences used that same methodology, Stalin's favorite biologist, Lysenko (He was a Russian biologist who was given dictatorial control by Stalin over Soviet agricultural policy. Lysenko's theories coincided with Stalin's view of how man, and therefore plants, could be "remade" by experience. Those who disagreed with Lysenko were often physically and, most certainly, intellectually liquidated) would have received a Nobel prize, but the Russians would still, as today, be buying American wheat to feed their people. Bettelheim, like Lysenko, was smiled upon by the leadership, but his theories may have as little substance.

My experience with Bettelheim provided me with enough insight to see that I was not cut out to build success on other people's weakness, as the field of clinical psychology and psychiatry seemed to dictate. There seemed to be an inherent deceitfulness in proclaiming a desire to "help" people, and at the same time shoving your "therapy" down their throat while they are in a vulnerable state. I ultimately ended up in the business world, where knives are always in clear sight.

As America's love affair with psychoanalysis cooled in the late seventies and eighties, and no one longer saw the "Herr Doktor" pontificating on morning talk shows in New York, I often wondered if professionals in the field still paid much attention to his writings. After the recent revelations that have come to light about Freud's case distortions, my interest has been further stimulated in this question. I believe that many children in this country have paid a very high price for the uncritical acceptance, by "mental health" specialists, of ideas that were based on Bruno Bettelheim's questionable case interpretations.

In one of the earlier letters t the Reader on this topic reference is made to a planned Bettelheim "archives at the Orthogenic School. Much as the Rumanians have torn down the icons to their recently departed leader because of his deceits, i would suggest that the Orthogenic School directors tear down the Bettelheim icons and sever their emotional ties to the dear, departed Dr. B. before a legion of those children, whom he hurt, overwhelm them with the tawdry facts about his real "therapy."

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