Angres, Ronald. "Who, Really, Was Bruno Bettelheim?" Commentary October, 1990, pp.
Bruno Bettelheim was not beloved by all his patients. One long-time patient of his at the
Orthogenic School in Chicago here describes his 12-year "cure" at that school. Briefly, this
former patient thinks of Bettelheim as "a bully, a tormentor, and a liar." (p. 26) Angres was a
patient at the school from his 7 to his 19th year for a "disease" whose symptoms were: "...I paced
with my hands clasped behind my back... I twiddled my fingers in what looked like a nervous tic.
Sometimes I skipped while I paced. I had other unacceptable mannerisms, too: I sometimes
talked to myself, lips moving, when lost in thought." (p. 26) "Bettleheim diagnosed my as
autistic..." (p. 26)
This patient was the child of a psychoanalyst who refused to accept his son's descriptions of
Bettelheim's crude abuse. His status as an autistic child meant that his descriptions of abuse
could be discounted. The patient's father never drew any conclusions about Bettelheim; parents
were kept in the dark as to the "treatment" the kids received.
"Above all, though Bettelheim routinely proclaimed in print and speech that no one should ever
use corporal punishment on children, he himself just as routinely administered it. And so I lived
for years in terror of his beatings, in terror of his footsteps in the dorms - in abject, animal terror.
I never knew when he would hit me, or for what, or how savagely. For Bettelheim prized his
unpredictability, no less than his unconventionality..." (p. 27)
Even the schoolwork for the children became psychiatrized: "School papers became grist for
further dissecting of our characters, and were thrown back in our faces with accusations about
our motives and the ‘symptoms' that were supposedly revealed by our ideas. Writing a factual
essay was risky; writing fiction was downright reckless. Grammar itself became fair game for
psychologizing/moralizing: ‘It's ‘he and I,' not ‘me and him,' but then, you always think of ‘me'
first." (p. 28)
Angres explain in part Bettelheim's power: "...his Orthogenic School... became the last hope for
children no one else would accept. Or at least so their parents believed. Connected with this, too,
was Bettelheim's habit of making a mystique both our of autism itself - he rediagnosed as autistic
many children sent to the Orthogenic School on other grounds - and out of his claims to cure the
disease in most cases. So awed were people by Bettelheim's willingness to deal with such
children in the first place, and then by his supposedly high success rate, that few were disposed to
question his diagnoses or his results." (p. 29)
In discussing the concept of the total milieu, Angres makes it clear that Bettelheim was a major
source of control. "Bettelheim made an art of accusation. He did not ‘sort of' blame victims, ...
he set himself up as their special prosecutor." (p. 30)
Angres suggests that similar reports on Bettelheim are available from other "graduates" from the
school. Indeed, he goes further and says that Bettelheim's abuse of patients was well-known to
the psychiatric community. "And so to the scandal of terror spread by Bruno Bettelheim in his
school another scandal needs to be added: the fact that so many people who knew about the terror
went to such lengths to cover up for him - and,, to judge by the mostly adoring accounts that have
appeared in the press after his death, that they are still willing to do." (p. 30)