To the editors:
I was utterly and profoundly shocked at Michael Miner’s reference to the late Bruno Bettelheim as a “great Chicagoan” (“Some Professor Down in Hyde Park, 3/23/90, section 1, page 4). Miner said that Bettelheim “was understood to be a great Chicagoan everywhere but in Chicago.” Well, Mr. Miner, unlike you, some of us in Chicago know only too well what he was really like.
Several national magazines ran obituaries which portrayed Bettelheim as a smiling, warmhearted man who cured emotionally disturbed children by surrounding them with an atmosphere of love, kindness, and security. That was Bettelheim’s public persona, carefully constructed in his many books and articles. In person, he was an evil man who set up his school as a private empire and himself as a demigod or cult leader. He bullied, awed, and terrorized the children at his school, their parents, school staff members, his graduate students, and everyone else who came into contact with him.
How did he get away with this? He cut his school off from the outside world so that nobody would see how cowed and frightened the children were. Children were allowed out only under close supervision, and were discouraged from talking to anyone “outside,” even about the most innocuous topics. Bettelheim told the children over and over how lucky they were to be at his school, and that if they didn’t do as they were told, they would end up in a state mental asylum where they would be given drugs and shock treatments. He censored the children’s mail, so that they couldn’t complain to anyone. The staff regularly searched the children’s few belongings, so that it wasn’t safe to keep any records or diaries. Bettelheim went out of his way to worsen the already weak relationships between children at the school and their parents. He had all of those little people completely at his mercy.
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.
I often wake up with my heart pounding from claustrophobic nightmares of being confined at his institution. Other people who had been confined there tell me the same thing. Ironically, in the Time magazine obituary, Bettelheim is quoted about his concentration camp experience: “What of the horrible nightmares about the camps which every so often awaken me today, 35 years later . . . ” Well, what about them? How do I get rid of them?
It’s obvious to me that Bettelheim learned his methods from the Nazi guards at Dachau and Buchenwald. What a tragedy that he had to deal with his own emotional pain by becoming as much like his enemies as he possibly could. In a manner of speaking, he was worse than the concentration camp guards. The guards were “only following orders,” while Bettelheim in his school GAVE the orders. But every bully is a coward at heart. According to the obituary in Time magazine, Bettelheim had suffered a stroke in 1987 “that impaired his ability to write.” Six weeks ago, he entered a Maryland retirement home. Apparently, after having spent much of his life confining others in an institution, he couldn’t tolerate being in one himself. According to Time, “he took some pills, then pulled a plastic bag over his head and lay quiet until he died.” He could dish it out, but he couldn’t take it.
How did Bettelheim make it look as though he had a high success rate? He admitted a lot of kids to the school that weren’t crazy in the first place. For whatever reason, their parents didn’t want them in the home. These kids were, of course, unhappy, but that was the extent of it. There were some autistic children there too, but the whole time I was there, I never saw any of those autistic children improve in any significant way. I observed that those of us who were NOT autistic, instead of becoming happier and more productive during our stay, simply became quieter and more subdued. This isn’t a recipe for success in the outside world. In fact, I remember on one occasion that Bruno Bettelheim told us all that two young men who had left his school had committed suicide under the influence of LSD.
It’s agonizingly difficult to write about this. 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. If I may quote a letter from a longtime friend who was a teenager at Bettelheim’s school when I was there, “Isn’t it frustrating to want to tell your story but be afraid to because 1) who wants to relive those years in hell and 2) who wants to announce to the world that you lived in a loony bin, even if the inmates were saner than the keepers? . . . It’s hard to tell people about the OS [Orthogenic School] years, because you always feel that no matter what they say, they’re thinking, “Who have I gotten mixed up with this time?'” Bruno Bettelheim did not help children at his school; instead, he damaged everyone he came in contact with. Bettelheim and his life’s work is a fraud.