Bernstein, Richard. "Accusations of Abuse Haunt the Legacy of Dr. Bruno Bettelheim," New
York Times, 4 November 1990, p. E6.
Bruno Bettelheim has been one of the big names in American psychiatry for decades. He was the
longtime head of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School in Chicago. The school he headed was
supposed to be one full of nurturing, loving, care. He developed his ideas about the home from
his experience in a German concentration camp where the "total community" was destructive.
But he saw in that community the power of the total community; he then sought to use the total
community effectively in curing patients. He sought to create, as it were, a positive total
community wherein children could feel the positive effects of a holistic community. That was the
"When Bettelheim took his own life last March at the age of 86, the obituaries stressed the
greatness of the man and his pioneering methods. But the praise has now led to a powerful
reverse current, with the psychiatrist portrayed not as a dedicated man of wisdom, but as a
megalomaniacal tyrant who systematically abused children, undermined their self-confidence,
and publicly humiliated and beat them. The angry charges, made by former patients and at least
one former counselor at the school, question not only Bettelheim's judgment but his honesty.
One contention of the critics - hotly contested by therapists who worked with Bettelheim - is that
some of his patients were never as desperately sick as he said they were. Bettelheim, they say, set
himself up as a kind of judge and jury at the school, never submitting his diagnoses or
assessments of cures to peer review."
Bettelheim has his defenders. Former employees at the clinic and its present director argue that
while Bettelheim may have used corporal punishment, they insist that he never used it in an
uncontrolled way. "Some therapists suggest that the former students are working out the normal,
even healthy anger they might feel toward Bettelheim, who intentionally served as a kind of
surrogate father..." They further explain, "Incidents that happened 20, 30 or more years ago may
have been distorted in the minds of some students..." A the uses to which time and theory can be
"Maybe the most troubling aspect of the issue is the impossibility of reconciling it once and for
all. Bettelheim, after all, can no longer speak for himself, so there is no way to resolve the
conflicting stories of a man everyone sees as not only powerful and complex, but mysterious as