Please view my prior post: Refrigerator Mothers
"[Bettelheim's theory] suggested that autism may be related to a genuine lack of maternal warmth; women who were emotionally frigid and had “defrosted” just enough to produce a child." ~Carolyn Doyle
"There has probably been no group more crucified by the mental health profession than the mothers of autistic children. It is my own personal belief that it will rank high among the scandals of the twentieth century."~Dr. Ruth Sullivan
I'm old enough to remember Dr. Bettelheim. I even read one of his books, The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. So after watching the 'Refrigerator Mothers' documentary on my prior post, I read further about this infamous man. He appears to have been a media huckster, promoting his Freudian-based theory that the precipitating factor in infantile autism was the parent's wish that his child should not exist. He managed to persuade lay folks, including the psychiatric community, into believing his theory about the etiology of autism. In hindsight, suggesting an emotionally cold mother could single-handedly cause her child's autism was a preposterous idea; at the time, it was plausible to both professionals and the public.
My last point is crucial because without an audience willing to suspend commonsense, Dr. Bettelheim would have been viewed as another nincompoop in a whole string of beard-stroking nincompoops. Had professionals and laypeople not collectively suspended their disbelief, they would have limited the harm perpetrated on innocent people and the generational harm caused by allegations that the mother had consciously or unconsciously rejected her child. What can a mother say to such an accusation? "The "unconsciously" caveat creates endless scope for over-interpretation." ~link
It's flabbergasting that Freudian-wary common-sense audiences would consider Dr. B's theory with more than a raised eyebrow. It's also curious that the 'Refrigerator Mothers' theory would embed itself in our culture so completely that remnants of this idea have lasted for decades. As a young mother in the early 70's, I experienced the fallout of blame-mama-pop-psychology and lest you think I was too brilliant to fall for that shit, I wasn't. Everything was my fault from the thin enamel on my daughter's teeth to my son's developmental delays. My doubts weren't neurotic hand-me-downs from a "patriarchalized" grandmother either. My self-doubt and uncertainty stemmed from consultations with family doctors. Oy Vey!
Rough days, those 1970's---when daughters inherited their mother's codependent survival traits and were forced to bite their tongues during Psyche 101 lectures on penis-envy.
In 2011, we might wonder how someone like Dr. B could popularize an idea so repugnant as comparing the homes of autistic children to Nazi concentration camps; accusing mothers of being the “pathogenic” factor in the development of autism when siblings were doing just fine with their mother’s “inadequate affection and mechanical caretaking.” Commonsense alone would counter Bettelheim’s cruelty. Had he been practicing in a small clinic, his theory may have been quarantined by limited exposure---rather than popularized through the media spotlight. His publicity smarts provided easy access to a wider audience. Curiously, Bettelheim's popularity hindered criticism because Dr. B was revered (even deified) by his audience.
Not everyone revered Dr. B, though. Audrey Flack, mother of an autistic daughter named Melissa, articulates a different point of view most people did not want to hear (and still don't, in some circles):
“It was while waiting in the lobby of Lenox Hill Hospital that I got acquainted with and came to love the other mothers of these sick children. These loving, selfless women not only carried the burden of their sick children, but had to bear the guilt, blame, shame, and accusations heaped on them by the medical profession, including social workers and teachers, as well as an entire society that shows little empathy for those who don’t fit in.
Families were destroyed. Husbands left and wives stayed behind, becoming alcoholic or dependent on pills given to them because they were “neurotic.” Husbands who remained understandably escaped to their jobs, a relief for them, but not for the wives who were left to care for non-communicative, mute, and uncontrollable children.” ~Audrey Flack
The harm done to families of autistic children was indefensible despite Dr. B's "good intentions" and deeds. Nonetheless, we can't examine Bettelheim's culpability without examining our complicity. It's tempting to think of Dr. B as a charlatan deceiving innocent people to meet his misogynistic agenda. As difficult it may be though, we need to admit to ourselves that while Bruno Bettelheim was the spokesman for Mother-Blame, his theory didn't appear from nowhere. He didn't have power over others without being granted power over (m)others. He, like self-promoting narcissists, popularized an idea that was already in existence. The social soil was fertile. All Bruno did was 'drop the seeds' and allow us, a society, to reap the harvest of our collective contempt, our fears, and our vulnerability. If there's one thing we have in common no matter where or when we are born, it's the fragility of infancy when our life depends on a caregiver's good will.
“Bruno Bettelheim, a renowned professor of child development, was most prominent between the 1940's and the 1970's. He was also a great self-promoter, and often cited in the media.” ~About Autism
The popular Dr. B was a celebrity figure respected to the point of hero-worship, popularized in the media, promoted by the media, bringing profits to the media. As I read about his rise to success, it occurred to me that Bettelheim was a harbinger of things to come:
When media presence supersedes presence of mind
Bettelheim's rise in popularity was founded on a savvy media presence. He was an opportunist, that's fair to say, whose self-promotion took advantage of a new marketing tool: television. He appeared on shows like Dick Cavett, in magazine articles, photo shoots, books and articles. Creating a 'wise' father figure with his Viennese accent, Freudian vocabulary intimidating most people, his vast connections to famous people and his status as a victim of the Holocaust, granted automatic respect as an authority. Had he been handsome and suave, we might question his motives but being a man of forgettable features, most people perceived him as credible. In addition, his focus on child psychology evoked public sentiment thus projecting onto Dr. B, the image of an intellectual with a heart.
In my experience, people revere doctors dispensing fatherly advice and tending our children the way 'we' wanted to an ideal father to care about us. We wish Dr. B into existence with a fervency that goes unquestioned, so much do we want him to be real. In a father-hungry society as we are even today, the public wanted Dr. B to exist as much as Dr. B wanted to exist for them. Yes, this is conjecture on my part though the same psychological mechanism creates and sustains celebrity experts today. The celebrity meets our needs (idealized as an expert or devalued as a scapegoat) as much as we are meeting the celebrity expert's narcissistic needs (an admiring audience---the approving mirror). Considering what we know about the symbiotic relationships, Dr. B's image was a narcissistic collaboration between Bettelheim and his audience. This celebrity relationship was not unlike our media-ated world today only we consider ourselves sophisticated---wiser than gullible audiences of the 50's and 60's and even 70's. (insert another oy vey! here)
We assume we're less vulnerable to manipulation because we know the media is a marketing tool, duh. Hell, we use the media to Bettelheim ourselves, i.e.: our lifestyles, our opinions, our persona. So are we less vulnerable to being misled by celebrity experts like Dr. B because we think more critically about media than people fifty years ago? Are we less likely to be misled because we accept self-promotion as a necessary albeit regrettable fact of modern life? I don’t really think so. For one thing, we’re so accustomed to celebrity experts that we expect doctors to be on Oprah and if they don't have a lay-out in People magazine or Time, we question their ambition. I think rather than eradicating narcissistic self-promotion, we've normalized it. Now we have an entire slew of Bettelheimed celebrity experts spouting slogans like secular scriptures. Make a list of all the expert doctors you recognize---celebrity doctors like Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Dr. Ruth, Dr. Pinsky, Dr. Chopra, Dr. Laura, and my favorites Dr. Evil. Dr. Who, and Dr. Seuss some of whom do not have doctorates in the field for which they are known with the exception of Dr. Seuss who had a doctorate in philosophy wasn't he genius?
We have legitimized entertainment as news and given the television network's stamp of approval to celebrity experts. With more information at our fingertips than we can possibly digest, we look for a sorting hat discerning the credible from the in-credible, culling opinion from fact. We hope credentials like Dr. means the Celebrity Expert is smarter and saner than the rest of us nincompoops. Not necessarily. Which means we should never:
1-suspend our commonsense
2-allow academic eggheads to intimidate us
3-stop questioning, criticizing, and thinking critically
4-rate someone's intelligence (or our own) by credentials
5-assume a psychologist is saner than yourself
We should never:
1-grant credibility based on popularity
2-confuse entertainment with news; legitimize entertainment as truth
3-stop questioning why we need/want celebrity Drs. to be who we 'think' they are
If there's anything useful I learned from Dr. Vaknin, it was exposing my deference to people with credentials. If I knew ‘lettered’ individuals personally, it was easier to gauge my respect. But with celebrity figures we will never meet (this is particularly true online), it's valuable to ask what traits we are projecting onto that celebrity expert. What are your motives? Does this person merit your respect? Are you transferring YOUR values and traits and beliefs onto the celebrity expert?
I had to examine my respect automatically given to authority figures upon whom I had projected what I needed/wanted to see. And I really needed/wanted to believe Dr. Vaknin was a reformed narcissist doing penance for his antisocial past. This belief gave me hope that the people I love might break through their narcissism, too. Then we could join the Peace Corps and hand out love buckets in between saving polar bears, whales, and coastlines.
Consider the popular Dr. Phil. Now who would watch Dr. Phil if they didn't need/want to believe the pop-cliche: "You teach people how to treat you". Which also suggests, "You can teach people how not to treat you." I believed that for a while after reading Relationship Rescue. Then I realized that if I could teach narcissists how to treat me, they wouldn't be narcissists and I'd still be married.
Who would watch Dr. Oz if they didn't need/want to believe death could be forestalled with pomegranate juice, positive thinking, and bran muffins stuffed with vitamin D fortified raisins? (News Flash: Dr. Oz was featured as a Time magazine centerfold when he had his first colonoscopy. I keep this magazine in my bathroom for visitors who might be interested in Dr. Oz's recent brush with death.) If you need/want to believe Dr. Oz has discovered the fountain of youth, you’ll be his avid supporter and sign up for his newsletter like I did.
In the same vein of reasoning, people believed Dr. Bettelheim because they needed/wanted to believe autism could be prevented with an extra dose of motherly love. Without realizing the harm they were doing to innocent families by accepting Bettelheim's theory, adherents were consciously-or-unconsciously protecting themselves because unlike those other mothers, they needed/wanted to believe their love would prevent autism. (Don't nitpick with me on this point. I used the 'unconsciously' argument).
During Dr. B's reign of terror, people needed/wanted to believe they could prevent or cure autism by loving their children properly. When you have a child with disabilities in your family, I can testify that you'll believe almost anything if there's a chance of cure. You may even relinquish your child to the good Dr.’s “perfect home” and submit yourself to soul-crushing psychoanalysis just to see if somewhere in the secret crevices of your unconscious, you wished your child didn’t exist. If you bring your unconscious hatred to light, or so we bargain, then perhaps your conscious love will heal their autism.
I am not suggesting the majority of people are misogynistic mother-blamers. I think most people needed/wanted to believe Dr. B’s theory in order to protect themselves---to reinforce their belief in a just world or at least a world in which they had a modicum of control. Every parent needs/wants to believe in prevention and cure because of course, they love their child. They may be challenged by the extraordinary demands they face as caregivers for a child with disabilities, but there is absolutely no doubt that they ‘love’ their child.
Bettelheim sold hope and thousands of people needed/wanted to believe he had discovered a fatherly cure to motherly deficits. ;-P
And yet, even after carefully managing his career and surrounding himself with loyal supporters, Bettelheim's empty fortress was eventually threatened with collapse. His 'Refrigerator Mother Theory' was refuted by Bernard Rimland who discovered a neurological cause for autism having no connection to unloving mothers or ineffective fathers, or concentration camps disguised a suburban homes. Perhaps Dr. Rimland was more motivated to question standard psychological theory when his son Mark Rimland, was diagnosed with early infantile autism. Call me cynical.
Eventually, former followers of Dr. B alleged abuse. Loyal devotees defected, giving the inside scoop to curious audiences because just like in 2011, inquiring minds wanted to know. Critical books annotated humiliating facts about Dr. B’s faked credentials, exaggerated accomplishments, and according to some: blatant lying. Depending on who was writing the article or book, Dr. B was a snake oil salesman, a charlatan, a prideful man whose success and power had seduced him; or, according to others, he was a genius of our times, a loving and tender man devoted to the autistic children formerly ignored by the medical community. As with most narcissists, people loved Bruno or hated Bruno depending on their willingness to minimize-deny-rationalize-ignore or explain his less-than-stellar behaviors.
When The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim by Richard Pollak was published (a shocking expose), Jacquelyn Sanders wrote in the Chicago-Sun Times:
“The people who are so surprised are the popular media and people who believe in fairy tales. People who knew [Bettelheim] knew he could be a bastard. He could be charming, scintillating, extraordinarily [empathic], but also a goddamned bastard who could say horrible things.” ~Molly Finn
Did she really call Bettelheim a bastard? That settles it for me, then. The man was a narcissist. Pathology predominates the Rat Bazturd Philosophy of life.
In 1990, at the age of 86, a very depressed Dr. Bettelheim committed suicide having never apologized to families (mothers in particular) for the harm caused by his discredited theory. The true test of one's love for children may be whether or not a father figure is willing to sacrifice his theory in service of the child, or protect his theory in service of his ego.
“A feeling of relief and satisfaction came over me when I heard that Bruno Bettelheim had committed suicide. Justice had prevailed, the evil man was dead, and I was, after 40 years of torment, redeemed. Mountains of guilt collapsed like compacted garbage heaps but the emotional trauma remained…Today I persevere, searching for an answer, but I am no longer alone. A strong body of passionately committed parents, many of them doctors and scientists, is united in the efforts to find the cause and a cure.” ~Audrey Flack
Hugs to all,
Bruno Bettelheim, Wikipedia
In the Case of Bruno Bettelheim by Molly Finn
The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim by Richard Pollak
The Mirror Effect by Dr. Drew Pinsky and Dr. S. Mark Young
Audrey Flack’s essay, “The Madonna’s Tears for a Crack in my Heart” (1999) Published in the book, For Women Only by Gary Null and Barbara Seaman. Pages 1167-1175