To the Editor:
As someone who knew Bruno Bettelheim very well (I worked with him as a counselor for thirteen years and succeeded him as Director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School of the University of Chicago for twenty years), I was glad to see your review (Spring 2010) by Professor Kenneth Kidd of David James Fisher's Bettelheim: Living and Dying. Dr. Fisher, more than any of Bettelheim's three biographers, has captured the essence of the man that I knew. Fisher was able to acknowledge both the angel and the devil in Bettelheim.
I am moved to write because I am concerned about the continuing repetition of some of the fallacies of Richard Pollak's book, The Creation of Dr. B. Perhaps most troubling is Professor Kidd's assessment of the book as a reliable document, largely because of the extensive research that Pollak did. Since I was part of his evidence (we talked for many hours) and personally know the people from the Orthogenic School who talked with him, I also know that the presentation of the results of his research was not always accurate. He repeatedly reported only the negative that was told him, or he reported what he was told in such a way that distorted it. For example, he called the Orthogenic School a house of fear, and quoted me in the same paragraph as saying that Bruno could be a bastard, giving the impression that I thought the school was sometimes a house of fear. I, in fact, thought it was the warmest haven I could imagine. And I still think Bruno was, sometimes, a bastard. But he also was, sometimes, one of the most empathic, supportive people I've ever known.
Throughout the whole book it was as though Pollak would shout the bad (a former parent's report that Bruno made his wife feel guilty and miserable), and whisper or not say the good (that this man and his wife were endlessly grateful for saving their daughter's life and enabling her to be the most mature, reliable, and emotionally stable of their children). [End Page 323]
Professor Kidd asks, "Are we to dismiss all or most of the former Shankman patients who have claimed abuse at Bettelheim's hands as delusional or as simply projecting their own needs and desires onto the good doctor?" One need not make such assumptions to put these claims in reasonable perspective. First, I would point out that the number of such claimants is small. Second, there is no way of determining the accuracy of the claims because the staff is constrained from discussing them. Although we never referred to our kids as "patients" we have always assumed they had the confidentiality rights of patients. In my experience Bruno did not abuse kids—he did, however, hit them. Not to write about that was a very serious mistake on his part. Not only did this prevent a thorough examination of the practice (which, in my mind was better than the then-current alternatives of straitjackets, unsupervised quiet rooms, or mind-deadening drugs—and it wasn't illegal for years after he retired), but also it led to a youngster not being believed by parents when she or he reported it. However, as far as I know, Bettelheim never lied about what he did. I did write about the hitting in my book about the Orthogenic School, A Greenhouse for the Mind, published in 1989, before the much-publicized accusations.
I believe that Bettelheim did exaggerate clinical success. I looked into this matter carefully because I would compare my results when I was director to his. In his defense I have to say that the assessment tools at the time were so sloppy—for example, the following categories were used to measure improvement: not improved, improved, much improved—that it was easy to present the data in a favorable light.
The other two issues to which Professor Kidd refers are not ones with which I am so personally acquainted, but I do have some knowledge and opinion about them:
First, to refer to "forged" documents...