Bruno Bettelheim (August 28, 1903 – March 13, 1990) was an infamous child psychologist. He earned a degree in philosophy, writing a dissertation relating to the history of art. He was interested in psychology for much of his life but never studied it formally.
After buying his release from a concentration camp, he traveled to the United States, where by fraudulent means, he presented himself to be a professor of psychology. He claimed that the Nazis had destroyed proof of his credentials. Shockingly he was hired as director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, a home for emotionally disturbed children.
He suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1990; after his suicide, evidence of Bettelheim’s dark side began to surface. Although many of his counsellors at the Orthogenic School considered him brilliant and admirable, others call him a cruel tyrant.
Although untrained in analysis, Bettelheim was a Freudian fundamentalist. Bettelheim was convinced, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that autism had no organic basis but was caused entirely by cold mothers, who he dubbed “refrigerator mothers,” and absent fathers. “All my life,” he wrote, “I have been working with children whose lives have been destroyed because their mothers hated them.” Other Freudian analysts, as well as scientists who were not psychiatrists, followed Bettelheim in blaming mothers for their child’s autism. Bettelheim’s work has been discredited.
A personal aside: I grew up in a suburb of Chicago: Family friends had a son who was diagnosed autistic. After many attempts to find help and not finding any, the parents were referred to Bruno Bettelheim at the Orthogenic School, where their son became a resident. After a few weeks, the mother was devastated by the verbal abuse that she endured. Bettelheim blamed her for her son’s difficulties. She was attacked for being highly educated and accomplished: a type of profiling that Bettelheim used to discredit and shame mothers of autistic children. In addition, when visiting her son she discovered evidence of beatings; such was the unassailable reputation of Bruno Bettelheim, that this poor woman FELT GUILTY for even questioning his authority. The family was devastated and eventually torn apart, and the son remained at the “school” much too long given the evidence of abuse.
This rampant “denial” of abuse is NORMAL in the U.S. due to social protection of “high class” psychopaths.
Notice the reaction of alarm on Dick Cavett’s face while listening to this dangerous man and his seriously twisted assertion that ONLY HE cares about autistic children, whom “the world” and “parents” want “dead.”
Bruno Bettelheim’s abuse of autistic children in his care points to an all-to-familiar pattern of protecting child abusers in the United States.
Bruno Bettelheim arrived in the USA without any credentials in psychiatry or psychotherapy, but was appointed Director of the University of Chicago’s Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School for disturbed (autistic) children: in 1956 the school received a Ford Foundation research grant of nearly half a million dollars. Bettelheim’s meteoric success, without qualification for the position, point to the classic “social skills” that manipulate others into “trusting” the psychopath, who then gains entry into a high status class in the social hierarchy. If he could “fool” personnel at the University of Chicago, what else was possible? This false presentation of knowledge, skills and trustworthiness is the classic way that abusers gain access to children.
Psychopaths use tales of personal experiences to build cults of personality. Bettelheim was held in Dachau and Buchenwald for ten and a half months in 1938-9 and believed that he saw a valid parallel between the behavior of autistic children and prisoners who had given up hope; avoided eye contact, refused to eat, and become completely passive and zombie-like. If children with autism acted like this, it could only be because their mothers were like Nazi guards. Proliferation of this wildly twisted conclusion found acceptance and propagation in the American media, and became the notorious refrigerator mother theory of autism.
According to Bettelheim’s employees and colleagues, physical and emotional abuse was a part of everyday life at the Orthogenic School, with children living as trapped and terrified prisoners. Bettelheim’s most serious defect was his lack of interest genetic, medical, and constitutional factors in autism. Punishment, specifically slapping and hitting children in the presence of other “students” and teachers, and verbally shaming children, was an ongoing form of “therapy.”
High-functioning psychopaths “get away with” abuse of children by using social and political skill. To this day, Bettelheim’s abuse of autistic children is excused by many in the field of child psychology on the basis of his high position in the hierarchy: “The Great Man” delusion permits criminal behavior as the “privilege” of those with high academic and social status.