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The Monster of the Midway


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To the editors:

I read with interest Michael Miner's article "The Squib Heard Round the World" [Hot Type, March 15] in which he described how the "fallout" from his brief Bettelheim obituary led to the dismantling of the man's reputation. "To our amazement," he writes, "our casual little paragraph had more of an effect than anything we had ever written in our life." He is certainly correct. As the writer of the first anti-Bettelheim letter [April 6, 1990, signed "Name Withheld"], I would like to thank the Reader for having the courage to print our letters at a time when no other magazine or newspaper would touch the story. Bettelheim's grotesque suicide made it possible to call his reputation into question. Were it not for the courage of the Reader editorial staff in their willingness to allow open debate on this issue, I doubt that we would ever have been able to get the story out. Free and open debate is the only way to make sense of what happened to me there.

One astonishing item that has come to light is the fact that Bettelheim never acquired the credentials to practice in his chosen field. He never obtained a degree in psychology or in medicine; his only PhD was in aesthetics (art history). He never completed a training analysis, either in Vienna or in the U.S. Nor did he attend clinical seminars. He was NOT a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. He did NOT study under Sigmund Freud. Bettelheim had absolutely no qualifications to diagnose mental illness or to practice any type of therapy whatsoever! I did not know this and neither did my parents. He had no right to label me or anyone else "emotionally disturbed." We were bullied and intimidated by this "expert" who was no expert at all. Somehow I had gotten the impression that he had studied under Freud, which was untrue. I could not believe that the University of Chicago would have made him a tenured professor unless he had some qualifications or training in his field. It simply never occurred to me that he had none!

A particularly revealing letter in the Reader was signed "W.B., a former counselor" [July 6, 1990]. The writer worked at the Orthogenic School in the late 1940s, long before my time. He wrote, "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." Other staffers never had this experience of seeing what normal kids are like when they are being raised in an institution, therefore they could not recognize normal kids when they saw them at the Orthogenic School. After all, Bettelheim had taught those staffers to misinterpret every aspect of our normal childhood behavior, EVERY thought, word, and deed, as a symptom of "disturbance." The staff, in turn, led us to take that same completely negative view of ourselves. I saw myself as nothing more than a collection of problems. Stop and think for a moment about how devastating this is! "Success" was measured in how much the staff could get the kids to "change." Trouble is, nobody knew what was "normal"!

To my knowledge, none of the staffers who were present during my stay (1966-72) have come forward to acknowledge that this view was mistaken. Some of these staffers were well-intentioned people who probably liked me after a fashion. This makes their lack of understanding and insight all the more hurtful to me, even to this day. Many staff members left the Orthogenic School during those years, not all of them because of the 100-hour work weeks and poverty-level pay. I've heard rumors that some of these people left because they had misgivings about what Bettelheim was doing. Of course, we did not know that at the time. Here again, where are these people now?

One year later, there still has been no official response from the University of Chicago, or from Bettelheim's former colleagues. The Newsweek article of September 10, 1990, said that "There are indications that at least the local psychiatric community knew exactly what was going on and did nothing. Chicago analysts scathingly referred to the doctor as 'Beno Brutalheim.'" Who are these analysts? Why didn't they warn the university and our parents? Why are they still keeping silent?

I suspect that the main reason why it's so hard to talk about the Bettelheim tragedy is this: in one way or another, he induced all of us to act in ways that we feel sick to think about now. This includes kids, parents, staff members, students and faculty at the University of Chicago, colleagues, and so forth. It's so easy to intimidate kids. At the risk of beatings and public humiliation, we all had to go along with Bettelheim's ideology to a large extent. If we didn't, he threatened us with spending our entire lives in an even worse institution, where heavy tranquilizers or shock treatments would be used. This caused me to break down under fear and to go along with things that were wrong.

Bettelheim was interviewed before his death by David James Fisher [Society magazine, March/April 1991]. In that interview, Bettelheim said, "I think that anybody who spent time in a German concentration camp--it does not necessarily have to be an extermination camp--never gets rid of the feeling of guilt and shame. . . . You have to suppress your normal reactions . . ." He described his feelings of torment at not having dared attempt to rescue his cousin who was being beaten in the camps. I felt absolutely sick reading that, because I watched Bettelheim beat up on so many other kids and I never said a word. I am sorry about that now, regardless of what the consequences might have been. One of my dorm mates wrote in a letter that she called for help when Bettelheim was beating her. She was justifiably appalled that nobody, neither a staff member nor another kid, spoke up for her or tried to intervene. Of course I was there when that happened. A close friend of mine was beaten while sitting less than a foot away from me in the dining room, and here again I never said a word.

The distortion went further than that. To avoid punishment, or to get a little bit of attention from the counselors, I would sometimes play-act whatever Bettelheim and the staff seemed to want me to be. Like all abandoned children, we tried to get affection and approval from staff members, even though they were convinced we were "disturbed." Since he taught his staff that it was "therapeutic" to treat us as though we were two-year-olds, I often play-acted babyish dependency, at the permanent cost of my self-esteem. Since nobody believed me when I told the truth, I spun out wild tales, volumes of nonsensical Freudian interpretation, whatever I thought the staff expected me to say. Soon it reached the point where I no longer knew what the truth was anymore. I am still battling the confusion, shame, and guilt which result from my having gone along with this pressure.

I have to ask, if Bettelheim's "concentration camp survivor's guilt" was anything more than crocodile tears, why did he put me and others in the same position he claimed to have been in? Did he get some truly satanic satisfaction out of proving that everyone can be stripped of free will if the pressure is sufficiently intense? That everyone can be made to sell out, to do wrong, to freeze in terror, to believe falsehoods? That there is no place for courage, honor, and truth in this world? Or was he just venting his hatred and fear of kids, spontaneity, and the human spirit, a hatred which grew from his own beliefs long before the Nazis came to power?

Alida M. Jatich

W. 56th Pl.


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