Shooting Craps With Bettelheim | Letters | Chicago Reader

Shooting Craps With Bettelheim 

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To the editors:

In March of this year, a "Giant" in the field of psychoanalysis and the therapeutic treatment of children died, by his own hand, in the private despair of a retirement home [Hot Type, March 23].

Bruno Bettelheim, the scourge of campus protester, psychophrenogenic mother and anti-Freudians alike, died in the setting that shaped two major pillars of his life: an institution.

Bettelheim took over the small, struggling University of Chicago Orthogenic School in the mid-1940's. Relatively fresh from his one year stint in Buchenwald, the bailed-out refugee of Nazism set out to build a Brave New World of treatment for the very seriously emotionally disturbed children and youth who, over the years, were select enough to somehow be admitted.

The public persona of Bruno Bettelheim was self-shaped by his books, some call them hagiography, describing his breakthrough treatments (as he saw them) of the most seriously disturbed, the autistic. His copious books described at length his walled fantasy world of treatment: happy, free children amidst an environment demanding only freedom and self- expression; caring, motherly, always helpful milieu practitioners twenty- four hours each and every day; a world where every physical item, each social set-up, each minor happenstance and accoutrement, were part of a Grand Plan based on the total therapeutic rehabilitation of the child (never, ever "patient").

But the truth, be it told as it is in this newspaper [Letters, April 6 and 20, May 4, 11, and 25], differs from the propagandistic world artfully and brilliantly woven and maintained by Bettelheim and many of his sycophantic adherents.

In truth, the Orthogenic School under his reign was a terror-ridden place, a place of savage, painful, frequent, random, abusive and searing beatings, draggings, hair-pullings, and a whole host of malicious humiliations that would break the ego and soul of any human, strong or weak.

Bruno Bettelheim beat and beat some more, for arbitrary and extremely unpredictable infractions and violations of rules in his officially "rule-less" Utopia. There was the constant, heart-palpitating fear whenever he was not around about what he would do to whom and how bad he would do it. There was always --always--a visceral stomach-tightening and inducement of terror in all when he made his nocturnal and afternoon approaches. "Did he find out about this, did he hear about that, would he beat me? Would he only let it pass with a typically wrenching and emotionally brutal putdown (a victory compared to being beaten while being propelled up and down rooms and corridors of peers and leering staff members who encouraged this sort of behavior in a sick symbiosis)?"

One fellow student at the School described the not knowing how Bettelheim would react as being a "crap shoot." You always took your chances; you never knew why he would beat you, or why he would let something pass. The demarcation between beatable and non-beatable offense was not clear and breached with clear understanding. There were no lines of conduct that would set him off on a furious and painful wounding round of flagellation, or whether or not he would merely not be told of the alleged "infraction." Or, he could choose to berate and destroy a soul or two, the very people he was so famous for helping.

There was and is a great stone wall of silence. And shame. Those like me who detested the man's brutal, nightmarish and lasting punishments without justice, mercy or measure have been silent: Until his death unleashed a torrent of letters, all well deserved. That is, save for a few official "house" apologias which all know are merely that.

Parents would not and did not believe these tales of horror because they were so enamored of this living relic of intellectual history that wrote real, big important books. Parents were sold a bill of goods by Bettelheim about how sick and far gone their kids were, so claims of his beatings and horrible behavior were seen as manipulative rantings of sick minds. After all, Bettelheim provided an escape route for parents too troubled or unable to handle errant kids. They could not bear to be confused by the facts.

A University and mass community told by us of his hijinks would also have scoffed at us, as it was our word versus a sane deity.

The shame of "fessing up" to being a resident (or former resident) of the Orthogenic School insured a wall of deep silence around the true Bruno Bettelheim.

The articulate and moving writer who "started all this" told it like it was with as fine a style and candor as could be done. This writer's words are true. I write to vouch for them. I too suffered nightmares from being beaten up one hallway, down another, up three flights of stairs, down them again, and across yet another hallway all because I told two staff members of a broken window in such a way as to allow Bettelheim a chance to make a point about how I was "playing off" one report against another, by allegedly pitting one staff member against another. This Machiavellianism and premeditated manipulation was in the mind of a twelve-year-old. That is just but one example. There are many more. This is a letter to the editor, not a book.

Some are hoping that a "lid" will be put on this running debate. "Enough already," many may be saying. Those that had the courage to tell a shameful tale deserve corroboration, and, more important, the world at large needs to know not simply of their veracity, but of the truth about this craven false God as well.

"Winston 1984"

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