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Defending Bruno Bettelheim

To the Editors:

It is disconcerting that when one sees one’s name for the first time on the pages of an esteemed national publication, it is associated with one of the more embarrassing episodes of one’s life. In his reference to me, Jacquelyn Sanders, “one of Bettelheim’s closest associates,” Robert Gottlieb [“The Strange Case of Dr. B.,” NYR, February 27] compounds the discomfort by a somewhat distorted account and interpretation of an even more distorted report of Richard Pollak.

I am, nonetheless, willing to forgive him because his example makes a valid point about the power of Bettelheim’s personality and the varied, intense, and complicated reactions it engendered. I am sure it’s not relevant to an assessment of Bruno that I never consulted with him very much about the school after he left, nor did I stop talking to him for several years, nor did I ever forget my professional debt to him. It is true that for a while I didn’t see him as an “old man…like Lear” nor give him the sympathy that Gottlieb considered due his age—but he was then only seventy-seven (I am now seventy-two) and I was still expecting him to try to act like a wise mentor.

I am not, however, as forgiving of Gottlieb’s statement that “no word of corporal punishment leaked from the Orthogenic School.” In a 1987 letter to Gottlieb I wrote:

After a few years, I began to believe that we should make changes in three other areas: view of the staff, discipline, and mode of presentation of results…. By not addressing these issues fully his writings give the erroneous impression of a never never land and to some extent lose credibility in the profession. In this book I address one of these issues: discipline, particularly the problem of the need for aversive measures. I believe that to acknowledge that he and I sometimes hit a child, does not diminish the value and validity of all of the positive modes of developing a disciplined person that he emphasizes….

The letter was an inquiry regarding my manuscript, A Greenhouse for the Mind, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1989, before Bettelheim’s death and the sensational “revelations” that he had used corporal punishment. This is one of the issues that neither Bettelheim’s detractors nor his defenders seem to get right.

I do not advocate corporal punishment, nor can I make great theoretical distinction between punishment and discipline—but, I do know that I prefer a well-placed smack to quiet rooms, drugs, or physical restraints. Those were the methods in place when Bettelheim practiced. I have no regrets about hitting a kid who is banging his head hard against the floor and I can’t contain; one who is throwing ice cubes at another’s face; or one who has just kicked me hard in the shins. It was very effective in protecting the kid, me, others. I put an end to the practice when I realized that, though I was quite astute, I couldn’t always know when it was really bad for a particular kid—might, for example, play into his/her masochistic fantasies. But, the image Gottlieb (and other liberal-minded) evokes is of “defenseless—in fact, damaged—children.” It is possible to find other ways, but it isn’t easy and Bruno did run a tighter ship than I, and both children and staff felt, therefore, more protected.

The two other persistently misconstrued issues are those of his credentials and of autism. I worked very closely, adoringly, with Bettelheim for thirteen years and ran the enterprise after him for twenty years. I reviewed all of the records in the school, including his correspondence—no longer adoringly, in fact, critically. I found no evidence of his falsifying or exaggerating credentials. The distorting documents that Pollak refers to are those found in a file at Rockford College, whereas his real career began at the University of Chicago. There then still existed the tradition of not requiring an academic background for faculty appointment. Bruno made much of his training in philosophy and aesthetics. His colleagues at the University of Chicago were well aware of this background. In 1944 there were no credentials for running a residential school for disturbed children; in fact, milieu therapy was too new a concept for any such thing.

Much as I don’t know how to rectify what is said about me in any of the biographies, I don’t know how Bettelheim could have possibly rectified the misconception that he was a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst—even a disclaimer in Woody Allen’s Zelig (where he was a cameo of an analyst) would not have done it.

And Gottlieb also gets confused about autism. Though Bettelheim was wrong about its etiology (as were many others in those early days, including Kanner, who first coined the “refrigerator mothers” phrase), he was not at all wrong about its treatment. It is not true that “Bettelheim failed to make real headway with seriously autistic children.” What is true is that he (we) didn’t make as much headway as he led us and some parents to expect. We counselors in those days expected that any child who came into the Orthogenic School could leave and grow like a Bert Cohler into an esteemed scholar or a successful investment banker like Steve Eliot. And the public were, in part, misled by assuming that all children who entered the Orthogenic School were autistic. The autistic children that I knew, more often than not, got significantly better while with us (testimony to that is that it was very rare that a child was withdrawn, and usual when we finally gave up that the parents wished that we wouldn’t).

I do appreciate Gottlieb’s comment that it is unfortunate that discussions of Bettelheim’s contribution always have to begin by addressing the accusations against him rather than the lasting contributions that he made. One of those lasting contributions is the Orthogenic School itself that now, thirty years after his departure and ten years after mine, continues to treat with compassion some of the most seriously troubled students for long periods of time, despite the current climate of demand for fast cure. Its director is chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychiatry and though he is not a Bettelheim disciple or psychoanalytically trained, the people in the three key positions next to him all worked with and were taught by me, who was taught by Bettelheim. So despite all the contention, the good that some men have done does live after them.

Jacquelyn Seevak Sanders, Ph.D.
Director Emerita,
Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School
Clinical Associate Professor Emerita,
Department of Psychiatry
Senior Lecturer Emerita,
Department of Education
University of Chicago

Robert Gottlieb replies:

I very much appreciate the temperate tone of Jacquelyn Sanders’s letter; in a way, the entire impulse behind my article was my hope of bringing a measure of temperate disinterestedness to the overheated accounts of Bettelheim from both hagiographers and demonizers. Also, I am clearly in agreement with Sanders’s view that the Orthogenic School, both under Bettelheim and afterward, did a great amount of good.

Perhaps she will forgive me for not remembering a letter she wrote to me more than fifteen years ago, and for not having read her 1989 book, of whose existence I was unaware. I’m surprised that she feels we are in disagreement about Bettelheim’s use of corporal punishment. My “liberal-minded” image of “defenseless—in fact, damaged—children” being struck is, I think, a fair reflection of the way most people, of whatever political persuasion, viscerally react to learning that such children were disciplined in this way. That Bettelheim (and Sanders) were nevertheless, both in theory and practice, justified in what they did is clearly the burden of my discussion of this issue.

In the matter of Bettelheim’s veracity, I simply think Sanders is wrong. The evidence is compelling that he lied about or exaggerated various aspects of his background. But as I tried to suggest in my piece, I don’t find this a defining characteristic of a great man.

It is the subject of autism that seems to most violently inflame Bettelheim’s critics, who blame him both for misunderstanding and mistreating the autistic children in his care and for propagating the “rejecting mother” theory that blames cold mothers for the autism of their children. I have no expertise in this field, and reached my conclusions from the various accounts I had under review. I certainly got the impression that it was far from “very rare” for an autistic child to be withdrawn from the school—or, more important, to be quietly passed along to another kind of institution. But I have seen no records that might clarify these matters conclusively, and of course no records could indicate the motives of the people involved.

Finally, that Dr. Sanders is defending Bettleheim from me, however unnecessarily, seems to me a noteworthy and inspiring act of self-healing. To recklessly overwork the King Lear metaphor, it’s as if Goneril had metamorphosed into Cordelia.

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