In person, he was an evil man who set up his school as a private empire and himself as a demigod or cult leader. —Anonymous letter writer describing Bruno Bettleheim, April 6

Who was Bruno Bettelheim?

The suicide of the famous child psychologist and author (The Uses of Enchantment) received a passing comment as a “great Chicagoan” in my Hot Type column on March 23. The floodgates opened. For weeks to come we were publishing anguished letters from former residents of Bettleheim’s Orthogenic School in Hyde Park. A former counselor at the school wrote on July 6:

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 . . .

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 often worse than the illness he purportedly sought to cure.

The most troubling Reader article ever

“House of Screams” by John Conroy, Jan. 26

Two Chicago policemen were shot dead in the street in 1982. Andrew Wilson, their killer, would not waver from his story—that when he was arrested, Area Two detectives led by Jon Burge tortured him. Wilson sued the city. Conroy wrote:

Wilson testified that he was then taken to Interview Room Number 2, and that Burge said something on the order of “My reputation is at stake and you are going to make a statement.” According to Wilson, Detective Yucaitis entered the room a short time later carrying a brown paper bag from which he extracted a black box. Yucaitis allegedly pulled two wires out of the box, attached them with clamps to Wilson’s right ear and nostril, and then turned a crank on the side of the box. “I really can’t explain it,” Wilson said. “The first time he did it, it just hurt. I can’t explain it. When Burge was doing it I can explain more because he did it more. . . . It hurts, but it stays in your head, OK? It stays in your head and it grinds your teeth. . . . It grinds, constantly grinds, constantly. . . . The pain just stays in your head. . . . It’s just like this light here like when it flickers, it flickers . . . and your teeth constantly grinds and grinds and grinds and grinds and grinds and grinds. All my bottom teeth was loose behind that, these four or five of them, and I tried to get the doctor to pull them. He said he wouldn’t pull them because they would tighten back up.”

“I kept hollering when he [Yucaitis] kept cranking,” Wilson said, “but he stopped because somebody come to the door, so he went to the door and see what they wanted.” When Yucaitis came back, Wilson said, he put the device back in the bag and left. Wilson testified that Burge returned with the black box about an hour later.

Q: What, if anything, did Commander Burge say when he came into the room?

A: He said “fun time.”

Conroy reported that not just Wilson, but a “parade” of other suspects, accused the same officers of torturing them. In the main, Chicago reacted to Conroy’s story the way people do to most unsettling news—by ignoring it. But in the long run, that wasn’t possible. Three years later former police commander Jon Burge was kicked off the force. Last summer he was convicted of lying about police torture and sentenced to prison.