July 20, 2011

Refrigerator Mothers Commentary on Bruno Bettelheim

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:

Celebrity Experts
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

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


  1. Thank you for sharing the documentary and your comments. Autism is a difficult enough without blaming those that are not at fault. I came from a home that believed the experts. By my teens, I realized that the experts could contradict each other. Being an expert in one area seemed to allow them to spout off in another unrelated field without question. I learned at an early age to doubt and do my own studying. Whenever I came across a question I wanted to learn I would choose books both for and against a particular theory. My strong background in science led me to question, investigate, and eventually form my own theories that seemed to land somewhere between the opposing camps. I read of a family with an autistic child escaping to Canada in the '70s to keep the child out of the clutches of the medical field. I watched my own grandmother that was a legal drug addict as she took numerous drugs given to her for complaints that may or may not have existed. When I had my own mental health problem I used studying many books to do my own research then compared it to my own experience. Decided that the 'experts' should try a little real life experience before telling someone else what they should do. Like you mentioned with Dr. Rimland, real life experience probably acted as a strong motivator to find truth rather than what is convenient or popular.

  2. Hi Ruth!

    Thanks for reading that long essay with about ten smaller essays embedded in the content. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow and see where it leads.

    I was raised to defer to authority--questioning authority was a 'no-no' and took a lot of courage on my part to get over this 'upbringing'. Someone like Bettelheim could easily have persuaded my family into submission. So the 1960's brought about some much-needed change as far as questioning "the establishment".

    Today, instead of being better at critical thinking, I feel like people have just become more cynical, distrusting, even apathetic because they can't trust authority figures to have anyone's best interest at heart other than their own! I see this everywhere: politics, religious organizations, corporations. It's a sad situation in a world that operates on mutual trust.

    So as usual, we've gone from blind obedience to open-eyed-cynicism but gosh, that's how we seem to do things---the old 180 degree dysfunctional flip!

    It sounds like you were able to 'empower' yourself from an early age and take charge of your life and your healing. That's remarkable, Ruth and commendable.

    I'm very curious about the family escaping to Canada in the 70's. Do you have a link? I'll try googling because it's unclear why they were forced to do something like that...perhaps they were seeking better health care?


  3. I don't remember the name of the book. They escaped to Canada because someone was planning to take them to court and turn their child over to the medical doctors to be institutionalized. It had a huge impact on my but unfortunately names escape me. I tried looking for a link to a book and did find some amazing links for autism but none sounded like the book I read. Plus it had to be written before 1985. I think the name was "A house on a hill." I did find an autistic school called House Hill and wondered if it is influenced by the book I read. The book really made a huge impact.

  4. Before my son was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, one of the elders at my church took my husband aside and said our son had the worst case of emotional dysfunction they had ever seen. This was after we had gone to this elder for some counsel and support. We knew our son had some issues, we didn't know how to approach them. The elder then told my husband that our son's problem was that I didn't love my son enough.

    I suppose I should thank this person because the ensuing emotional and spiritual spiral caused my husband and I to look for reasons why my son did not improve after I had performed the required penance (admission of guilt and hours of prayer/repentance/tears). Lo and behold, after an official diagnosis from a child psychiatrist (who by the way was a complete narcissist despite his ability to diagnose autism), we went back to the elder and told him what the problem was, thinking that this charlatan would rejoice with us that it wasn't lack of love which caused the problem.

    He simply nodded in my direction and said 'It is hard'. End of story.

    This man is the father of five sons, one of whom is profoundly mentally handicapped. He actually was my high school sports teacher, before he became the youth pastor at the church we attended and has continued in this position for some decades. Within the very large group of hundreds of teenagers, there were, we later discovered, at least four boys with Asperger's Syndrome, yet our son was apparently the worst case the elders had ever seen. Since the elders had absolutely no capacity to recognise actual problems and an abundance of talent for blaming the wives and mothers for every ailment from uterine cysts to nervous breakdown, you can imagine the sort of turmoil that congregation is in.

    Fortunately for us, we left very soon after this. Unfortunately for many christian women, the 'refrigerator mother' syndrome which existed once amongst misogynistic medical professionals is clearly experiencing a revival within the clergy.

  5. "Since the elders had absolutely no capacity to recognise actual problems and an abundance of talent for blaming the wives and mothers for every ailment from uterine cysts to nervous breakdown, you can imagine the sort of turmoil that congregation is in."

    As you will see after reading the comments on my blog (re: Refrigerator Mother, listed under the Asperger category on my sidelinks), the idea that mothers cause children's autism is Alive-and-Well.

    I stumbled across another paper just last week, suggesting a similar thing but using updated language to get the message across: IF your child is autistic, YOU are to Blame!!

    The idea is so ridiculous, the absurdity makes it plausible.

    I've read stories and talked to people with the most nightmarish mothers in the world---women who give Hitler competition. And their children are NOT autistic so what gives here?

    I also think that women want to get 'credit' for being nurturing---especially if they are not employed outside the home and put all their energy, attention and "self-esteem" into mothering. They want to believe their life's devotion is integral to their children's mental, physical, spiritual and emotional well-being. So in an unintentional way, women uphold theories that are misogynistic without intending to hurt other women or themselves!

    I figure 'churches' will be the last to let go of the Blame Women ideology.

    Women may be put on pedestals with 'mothering' deified as her greatest calling. What some of us learn the hard way though is that pedestals are doomed to topple.

    In the back of many people's minds, the MOTHER is still to blame for whatever problems her child may have. Sometimes you aren't even aware of your own conditioning...

    Thanks for writing about your experience, anonymous.


  6. Sadly, the view that mothers are to blame for their child's autism is still widely held in France.

    See here: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17583123

    Here: http://www.english.rfi.fr/france/20140329-autism-campaigners-march-paris-better-care

    Here: http://commonhealth.wbur.org/2012/01/controversial-autism-treatment-in-france/

    Here: http://www.care2.com/causes/autism-in-france.html

    Here: http://runningahospital.blogspot.com/2012/01/autism-in-france.html

    And here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/health/film-about-treatment-of-autism-strongly-criticized-in-france.html?_r=0

    There is more information on the issue than the articles I linked, of course. Another thing: While the ban on the film mentioned in some of the articles has been lifted as of January 2014, an English-subtitled version has yet to reappear.


    1. Thanks for the links, Amy. And thank you very much for reading and posting. This is very interesting to me because we lived in France for several years!

      The first article you linked about France reinforces why the Internet has been invaluable for families with autistic children:

      "Once, families did what they were told. The state was ultimately benevolent, and had massive resources to dispense. If doctors chose institutionalisation, then who was to argue?

      Today it is different. Thanks to the spread of knowledge, the internet, consumerism and the decline of the collective spirit - families for the first time feel emboldened to think, and act, for themselves."

      I ran a search to find the film and as you said, it's not yet available in English. My French is as rusty as my creaky knees these days!

      thank you so much! I'm very interesting in reading all of the links!



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