To the editors:
Thank you for printing the numerous letters concerning the late Dr. Bruno Bettelheim and the Orthogenic School [April 6 and 20; May 4, 11, and 25; June 8 and 15]. I feel that the letter from ex-staffer Stephen T. Herczeg needs an answer. No one else has specifically responded to the statements he made. Since I was a teenager at the school during the time Herczeg was there, I would like an opportunity to do that.
I am deeply disappointed that Herczeg took it upon himself to deny that anything was wrong. Was I an absolute fool for having liked and trusted him so much in the past? Some of his remarks sidestepped the real issues. For instance, Herczeg said, “Physical and psychological violence towards others and their property was not permitted. Counselors and teachers were expected to intercede long before such incidents could occur.” I saw no evidence that the other kids there were dangerous, and no evidence that they would have been dangerous in a less strict environment. The kids there seemed to be victims rather than bullies, who in fact needed protection from abuse by those in authority.
He said, “The children were placed at the Orthogenic School because they could not function in normal family, social, or educational settings for their own highly personalized reasons.” Does he expect us to believe that the mere fact that someone chose to put us there is proof that we couldn’t function anywhere else? It’s true that there were some autistic children at the school and some with severe neurological problems. But for the most part, the school was being used as a dumping ground for young people who were “different” in some way or, for whatever reason, didn’t match their parents’ expectations. Many parents were given bad advice by “experts” and did not know that there were alternatives. Some of the young people needed to be in special classes for gifted youth or for those with disabilities in specific areas. Some needed treatment for medical problems. Some had been abused in the home or at school and needed an advocate. Some were just going through normal processes of growing up. To label all of these people as “psychotic,” as Bettelheim called us, was a truly evil act.
Herczeg claimed, “We did not speak of success or failure at the School, just as we did not refer to the children as autistic, schizophrenic, or borderline.” Maybe Herczeg himself didn’t use those terms, but Bettelheim certainly did, in person and in his published works.
He also said, “Children were not pushed beyond their psychological capacities to function. . . .” Actually, the school went to the opposite extreme, with destructive results. For me, the worst thing about the place, worse even than the public humiliation and corporal punishment, was the fact that I spent my teen years being treated like a two-year-old. Being held back in this manner was agonizing at the time and did me permanent harm. As my sister wrote, “Putting you in that place did more damage than putting you in a closet at home would’ve done [which my parents NEVER did]. You didn’t belong there any more than half those kids. You missed growing up and having fun and just doing normal kid stuff.”
Teens had to go to bed at the same time as the small children, for the convenience of the staff. We had no privacy while dressing or bathing. Intellectual inquiry was effectively forbidden. We weren’t taught much in what passed for “classes” and reading material was censored. We were seldom permitted to listen to rock-and-roll. We were shown movies appropriate for small children. We were given toys intended for small children and were expected to play infantile games and sing nursery-rhyme songs. The building was decorated like a day-care center. The counselors used to read to us from Winnie-the-Pooh and Beatrix Potter books. I didn’t even enjoy that sort of thing when I actually was two years old. This pointless effort to force me to repeat my infancy in effect deprived me of my adolescence. I was treated worse than a prisoner under the guise of “nurturing.”
The rationale behind this form of indignity was Bettelheim’s theory that we all had to start over in life and regress to infancy in order to be cured of our alleged psychoses. I have no quarrel with those who find it helpful to play-act childhood scenes in therapy sessions, if they so choose. However, it’s wrong to force anyone to live that way, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with no end in sight, until some “school director” arbitrarily decides the victim has finally “gotten better.” I was not given the opportunity to demonstrate to myself and others that I could handle real-life situations and therefore should not be in that institution. This is not the way to develop self-esteem. I had little or no opportunity to acquire education, job skills, social graces, or familiarity with the mechanics of day-to-day living. After a time, I came to doubt my own abilities. When I finally was scheduled to leave the school, I was justifiably frightened because of my lack of experience of the outside world. It took me a long time to fill in the missing skills, which made my adult life far more difficult than it needed to be.
To add insult to injury, I was expected to be GRATEFUL for being made to feel small and helpless. My unwillingness to go along with the program was seen as my own lack of insight and my ingratitude toward the staff who were trying to help me. Bettelheim and the staff decided what feelings I was supposed to have and what my needs should be, and if I didn’t agree, I was wrong. Disagreement with the Orthogenic School party line was considered to be a symptom of “emotional disturbance.” Whenever I didn’t act in a sufficiently self-effacing manner, in other words if I had any opinions at all, I risked being criticized or punished. I spent years trying to second-guess what the staff wanted to hear me say. Actual two-year-olds often chafe at the restrictions they live under. Can you imagine how a teenager or young adult of normal or gifted intelligence would feel if treated in that way? Bettelheim and his staff totally misunderstood what it means to respect another human being.
Bettelheim might have been exposed to a much milder form of this sort of “nurturing” in the nursing home where he committed suicide. This survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald apparently preferred death to institutional living.
Alida M. Jatich
W. 56th Place