To the editors:
I am writing this letter in response to the letter written by a former Orthogenic School child [April 6]. I was also at the School as a counselor for approximately six years prior to Dr. Bettelheim’s retirement. My perceptions, memories, and feelings about the School, staff, and children are not in concert with those presented in the letter.
The teachers and counselors chose to be at the School for highly personalized reasons. 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. Dr. Bettelheim and the staff had a singular focus and purpose –to develop a nurturing environment in which severely disturbed children could function and develop psychologically. Dr. Bettelheim emphasized that our children needed time, usually years, to develop relationships in order to use the School’s nurturing and healing treatment. Children were not pushed beyond their psychological capacities to function, rather they were allowed to express those innermost feelings which kept them prisoners, without fear of retaliation from others. 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. We had to learn, to understand, and to accept that even what appeared to be the most noxious behavior was used by a child to maintain his or her integrity and was a protective measure, not an assaulting one. Denigrating a child or reacting insensitively to a child’s need for integrity usually evoked Dr. Bettelheim’s wrath upon us, the staff. He helped us to understand that the most disturbed child must be honestly respected.
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. Each child was a person to be understood and respected, not a diagnostic classification to be memorized. Therefore each child was responded to individually. A child’s success was measured by his or her psychological growth as well as the depth of the emotional disturbance observed when they arrived at the School. As in real life, some children experienced more success in these terms than did others.
Dr. Bettelheim helped all of us, children and staff alike, to have the courage to observe our own feelings, and how those feelings affected our lives and the lives of others. He also helped us use our inner strength to make healthy choices for ourselves, to take responsibility for these choices, our actions and behavior. Dr. Bettelheim’s philosophy was that the more one understands oneself and one’s past, the freer one’s choices can be. Those of us who have lived and worked at the Orthogenic School understand that we have the freedom and choice to perceive the School and Dr. Bettelheim as it benefits us psychologically.
Stephen T. Herczeg, PhD