The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
There’s been a lot of extraordinary writing and reporting in the Reader over the years, a lot of it from staff and freelancers, but a lot from readers as well, including Studs Terkel, who was in the habit of writing letters to the editor, and especially one anonymous correspondent who wrote in in April of 1990. The writer had taken issue with a column by Michael Miner that referred to the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim as “a great Chicagoan.” There was nothing great about Bettelheim, the letter said, except for his capacity for cruelty.
The writer knew about this firsthand. He or she had been a student at Bettelheim’s Orthogenic School for emotionally disturbed children and saw how Bettelheim solidified his power by bullying everyone he came into contact with and hiding the inner workings of his school from the outside world.
I lived in fear of Bettelheim’s unpredictable temper tantrums: public beatings, hair pulling, wild accusations and threats and abuse in front of classmates and staff. One minute he could be smiling and joking, the next minute he could be exploding. Almost anything I did could be construed as a form of rebellion or as a type of behavior that had to be changed. One time I made the mistake of telling Bettelheim, in a quiet tone of voice, that I thought there were too many restrictions at the school. Bettelheim beat me for that. Another time, he dragged me out of the shower with no clothes on and beat me in front of a roomful of people. I hadn’t even said anything to him and I wasn’t expecting to be punished for anything. I believe that he simply did this to break my spirit because he didn’t want me to have a mind of my own. It wasn’t just me. Just about every child or teenager there was treated this way on a regular basis.
Bettelheim spent many years breaking down my identity and self-image, telling me that I was crazy, that I couldn’t be trusted to handle even the simplest things, and that nobody would ever hire me or marry me when I grew up. My belief in myself didn’t come back after I left, got a degree, made a few friends, and found some work. Bettelheim might have tried to claim me as one of his school’s successes, but I know better than that. I am functioning at a level far below my potential, because I’ve never gotten over the way I was treated there.
If this is difficult to read, it was even more difficult to write. “I’ve been trying to put these memories behind me for a long time . . . since before some of your readers were born. These memories have robbed the joy from my life. But when I saw those obituaries that painted Bettelheim as a hero, I could keep silent no longer.”
The letter opened up a floodgate of responses from other students and staff members from the Orthogenic School who corroborated the original letter-writer’s account. “I was expected to be GRATEFUL for being made to feel small and helpless,” wrote one former patient.
“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,” wrote a former counselor later that summer.
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’) . . . . 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.
People who had no connection to Bettelheim also weighed in. “The letter is totally convincing,” wrote Royce Wright. “It bears no taint of being based on hearsay or vindictiveness. The writer seems to have no selfish motive, only to relieve his (or her) terrible anguish.”