To the editors:

Re: the “Brutal Bettelheim” letter, April 6, 1990. I attended the Orthogenic School from 1951 to 1963 while it was directed by Dr. Bruno Bettelheim. Dr. Bettelheim’s recent suicide at 86 touched off a spate of laudatory obituaries which inspired an anonymous response by a former Orthogenic School resident. I would like to add my perspective to that of the anonymous author whose residency began after my departure.

The author charges that, for an unknown reason, Dr. Bettelheim pulled her out of a shower and beat her in front of a group of people. A former Orthogenic School resident tells me that the author was in or near adolescence at the time, and is reliable. Some crimes may justify execution. Nothing justifies traumatic sexual degradation.

Could it have happened? I never saw Dr. Bettelheim do anything that cruel. Like others, I was sometimes hit, but for me the intervals could be months or perhaps even a couple of years; something of a miracle in face of my early behavior.

Sometimes, however, we were hit unjustly. A boy in my group accidentally bumped a girl in the eye during a game. Dr. Bettelheim thrashed him severely, his theory being that there are no accidents. Dr. Bettelheim slapped me several times across the face for referring to the Orthogenic School as a “boarding school.” I had used this term to preserve my privacy when I entered the University of Chicago High School which I attended during my final three years at the Orthogenic School. Even though I freely admitted this, Dr. Bettelheim called me a liar. Apparently he felt I had disowned my roots. Finally female couselors tended not to respect the bodily privacy of adolescent boys. Based on the unjust hitting and failure to respect privacy, I believe the anonymous author’s charge should certainly be taken seriously.

Let me discuss the anonymous author’s claim that it was impossible to complain because mail was monitored and possessions searched “so that it wasn’t safe to keep any records or diaries.” Although I kept a diary without fear, a former resident told me that the freedom to keep private diaries may have been curtailed for the duration of Dr. Bettelheim’s final years. When I was at the Orthogenic School, all mail was indeed monitored. But, like many others, I had a lot of “visits” for over a month with my family during which I frequently aired my complaints about the Orthogenic School.

Were Dr. Bettelheim and his work a fraud, as the anonymous author claims? She says she never saw autistic kids “improve in any significant way.” Diagnostic terminology in mental health is imprecise. But I will corroborate the author’s observation if by “autistic” she means children who were basically unable to communicate. These were probably pseudo failures who would never have entered the Orthogenic School had the neurological vetting been more sophisticated.

I must question the claim that many children were put in the School because, “For whatever reason, their parents didn’t want them in the home.” From what I know about my contemporaries, most of us were referred to the Orthogenic School by other mental health agencies. I am something of an exception. My mother contacted Dr. Bettelheim on her own. But she did this only after being referred to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas by the Louisville Child Guidance Clinic. She says she immediately contacted Dr. Bettelheim when people at the Menninger Clinic told her they did not want to treat me and that they did not know of any treatment that would work for me.

I believe I received a great deal of help from the Orthogenic School; not so much from Dr. Bettelheim as from devoted, nurturing staff members who worked under him in a unique institutional setting. It is of course difficult to substantiate this belief since emotional disturbance is like artistic achievement; hard to define, hard to verify, more measurable by opinion than by objective standards, but probably only a myth if it is described as a medically diagnosable condition. Add to this the legitimate claims of patient confidentiality, and it is easy to see why putative cures elude peer review and objective reportage.

From what I have heard, the quality of the staff may have deteriorated after I left, probably due to the fact that qualified women were less willing to work so hard for so long for so little pay. I believe the current directress, Dr. Jacquelyn Sanders, has ameliorated this situation.

Apparently the Orthogenic School failed the anonymous author by not providing her with the nurture that would enable her to understand what the Orthogenic School did for me. I would like to see the anonymous author’s letter entered into the archives of the Bettelheim Center for Research and Training planned for the Orthogenic School. To give her a voice alongside Bettelheim would indicate real concern. It would bear out what a very devoted Bettelheim era counselor of mine recently told me: That the kids always came first.

Tom Wallace Lyons

New York City