July 10, 2011

Refrigerator Mothers

Documentary Trailer: 4 minutes

You can watch the 53-minute documentary here:
Refrigerator Mothers

PBS.org Article about the documentary: "If anything could be more devastating to a mother than having her child succumb to autism, it might be having to shoulder the blame for the affliction. That's what happened to a generation of mothers in the 1950s and '60s, when medical orthodoxy blamed autism on the mother's failure to bond with her child. Though wholly discredited today, the "refrigerator mother" diagnosis condemned thousands of autistic children to questionable therapies, and their mothers to a long nightmare of self-doubt and guilt. 

In Refrigerator Mothers, the new film by David E. Simpson, J.J.Hanley and Gordon Quinn, and a Kartemquin Educational Films production, these mothers tell their story for the first time. Today, we know autism as a mysterious, even frightening neurological disorder that affects more than one in 500 American people. Typically its victims seem to begin life as normal, active babies only to slip into varying states of mental isolation, marked by speech difficulties, self-imposed social isolation and obsessive, ritualistic behavior. 

In the '50s and '60s, however, an entirely different view held sway. In retrospect, it seems incredible — and not a little disturbing — that the medical establishment should have based its understanding of autism on a sweeping comparison made by one man. Bruno Bettleheim was one of the first child development specialists to focus on autism, but his explanation for its origin was breathtakingly wrong. 

Bettleheim, who had spent time in a Nazi concentration camp, believed he saw parallels between the behavior of some camp prisoners and autistic children. This led him to posit that autism was a psychological disturbance arising from detached and "frigid" mothering — something akin to how prisoners reacted to the cold authority of camp guards. 

The shock is not so much that Bettleheim could be so wrong as that it took decades before anyone in the medical community listened to the few lone voices, such as Bernard Rimland, Eric Schopler and the mothers themselves, who had been challenging the unfounded theory of mother-blame since the early 1960s. 

Refrigerator Mothers shows that many of the women branded "refrigerator mothers" had successfully raised other children. Deeply shaken to be told they were the cause of such a nightmare in one of their children — a judgment driven home by the fact that one popular therapy was to remove the child from the mother — many of the women, over time, resisted the verdict of medical authority. Most tellingly, these mothers continue to care for and advocate for their autistic children today — a dramatic demonstration of a bond that has outlasted scientific error and unfounded accusation and blame. 

Refrigerator Mothers compels us to closely examine how we understand the role of the medical establishment in our lives. It opens the door to an intimate, moving account of life with an 'invisible' disability — one that isn't always immediately obvious. Finally, the film serves as a striking cautionary tale about the tragedy that misdiagnosis can cause, and a dramatic portrait of women whom society rejected as mothers but who never stopped being mothers to their children." Link to Article on pbs.org 

You can also watch the trailer in our theater, "WoN Cinema Presents"


  1. I shall have to come back and watch -- it is my bedtime.

    But... you raise a really really important question at the end. Really important.

    Thank you!

  2. Very good post! I know a woman whose child was fine and recently she had her vaccination shots, only to have a severe allergic reaction and the sweet little girl has now been diagnosed autistic as a result. Devastating, but her mother is a fighter for sure and will fight til the end of her days, I know.

    What you speak of also happened to Mother's with sons (and maybe daughters too) who have schizophrenia. They always blamed the parents, particularly the mothers. This view is still alive, even if it isn't as popular, many people still blame parenting for this very serious brain disease. I know as a mom, we blame ourselves.

    I'm sure many mothers of children with autism must also blame themselves, as I have. I think whenever something goes wrong with our children, our instinct is to first say, what did I do wrong? We must move past that, but when there are people out there saying we DID do something wrong, well, personally, I find this very difficult to get around in my mind.

    I too will come back for a viewing.

  3. We must each have been pressed for time last night. I posted the documentary trailer and article from PBS to get started and today, I'll write the post I didn't have time to write yesterday.

    Autism and vaccinations....well, that's a controversial topic! There seems to be a connection between the two events though not causation (imo).

    Autism shows up about the time a baby is scheduled for vaccinations which makes it look like the vaccinations are the cause of the autism. I don't believe vaccinations cause autism--the evidence just isn't there. BUT, the idea has been popularized and people are desperate to find 'cause' (something or someone to blame--it's a 'normal' reaction).

    I'll pick up your other comment about mothers of children with schizophrenia, dogkisses. I was hoping you'd chime in on this topic!


  4. I like documentaries and PBS is great!

    I must admit I did not know this nor had I really thought about it before. The title "refrigerator Mothers" and the melancholy music in the trailer really creeped me out. Sometimes, I complain that we hold "Mothers" to saint hood but it is very MEAN to blame a mother for an illness, psychiatric or otherwise. Ignorance is NOT bliss for its victims.

  5. Few people know this, actually. The legacy lives on however. As a young mother in the 1970's, we were still being blamed for our children's problems that doctors could not explain. Like ADHD and Autism...there are reasons why this documentary touched my heart so much.

    I'm trying to finish my commentary for this documentary so I can post it. People keep interrupting me in my office, LOL and so far, I have ten good starts on an essay. My nephew asked me WHY I had so many word docs on my desktop 'cuz it looked pretty messy to an Asperger's kid.

    I told him that if he's like, I could open each word doc and tell him 'who' had interrupted me with 'what' when I saved the document for later.

    hahaha! He laughed so hard! I'm one of those mother-types who doesn't mind people interrupting me, or dropping whatever I'm doing (obviously!!).

    BUT, if my blog were a 'job' and someone was holding me accountable for finished projects, o my gosh. I'd have been fired by now.



  6. Very interesting to me, as a mom in the special needs community. I will have to pass this on. My 7 yr old daughter has Downs Syndrome. Today we know, without a doubt, it is not the parents fault. (Well, unless having a baby later in life is wrong). However my own narcissistic family of origin did blame me. They stopped just short of asking me what drugs I used while pregnant. I know they are ignorant people, and while I felt anger and hurt--- at least I know the truth. I can't imagine how it would feel to have the disorder blamed on my parenting skills, when I try so hard to be the best parent I can be. How that must shake one's very foundation.

  7. Imagine the harm done to mothers who were already devastated by a child's autism. The children in the documentary were 'low-functioning', requiring extraordinary supervision by caregivers. I cannot even fathom being one of the mothers subjected to psychological scrutiny.

    Its nice to hear from you, Brenda---thank you for speaking up especially since you're the mother of a child with Downs Syndrome. It's not very hard to imagine what you were subjected to as her mother---the kinds of hurtful questions people ask without "thinking before they speak."


  8. This "blame it on poor mothering" also holds true for long held beliefs on homosexuality. If a boy was gay, it was because of his "overbearing mother." Fortunately, that theory had fallen out of favor by the time my younger son came out as gay.
    I'm afraid many of these "experts" are actually experts at cultivating the media. Buyer (of information) beware. My new favorite postcard says, "I'm not cynical - I've just been taking notes!"

  9. I suppose one of the father's of modern psychiatry was wrong and an idiot, and every lay person and hand fed psychiatrist from any two bit school is right in propounding the belief that toxic psychosocial has nothing to do with developing autism or autistic traits.

    Well, I think that is improbable. Dr. Leo Kanner was a very meticulous and practical man. One of my psychiatry instructors and one of my neurology instructors at Mass General had the fortune of learning from the man and conferred upon me some of the wisdom they had obtained from his teachings.

    In his famous 1943 article in Nerv Child Dr. Kanner describes the types of personality he encountered in the nature of the parents' who were with their children the main subjects of his case study. The description goes as such: Donald T's" father "is a successful, meticulous, hard-working lawyer who has had two 'breakdowns' under strain of work. He always took every ailment seriously, taking to his bed and following doctors' orders punctiliously even for the slightest cold."

    What Kanner choses to note about the father becomes even more interesting:
    "When he walks down the street, he is so absorbed in thinking that he sees nothing and nobody and cannot remember anything about the walk.

    These types of idiosyncrasies in parents are expressed throughout the article and in other articles by Kanner and other psychiatrists until the advent which made examination of parent's involvement in the progression of the disease too taboo to talk about even privately in professional circles.

    I believe the assessment of these mothers that they just are happening to defrost enough to produce a child is extremely apt, and after having worked with thousands of families with autistic children I can verify it as fact. The parents of these children are extremely abnormal at best, and dysfunctional and dangerous at worst. Additionally, were it not for living in these acrimonious circumstances these children would develop into much more adjusted adults. I can say this because I have had the pleasure of helping a good number of autistic children escape from physically abusive parents and go onto living a more mentally adjusted life than their counterparts who continue to reside with their biological parents.

    I am not going to account for taste and pretend to agree with anything anyone has said here on this board, as such factorizations do not come into play when making a judgement using scientific reasoning processes. I will say, however: If you choose to believe a fallacy and rationalize it to be a truth because you have heard it repeated enough times for it to have a sense of personal resonance then I will ask you to step back and ask yourselves whether or not in such a state of mind you are TRULY fit to judge and discern the realities of this controversial phenomenon.

  10. Very interesting comment, anonymous. I appreciate reading your viewpoint and your experience working with thousands of autistic children.

    Do you have a website or a blog where I can read more about your work?

    I recognize autism is a hot topic today though the majority of professionals agree that it is biological. Autism is not the result of ineffective parenting.

    This brief article sums up the debate rather nicely and may be of interest to 'readers'.


    I think it is important to recognize Dr. Kanner's contributions to our understanding of autism. Just because we learn sixty years later that there are biological causes does not mean Dr. Kanner is an idiot. Please take note that YOU said that, I didn't.

    Human beings are constantly learning, standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. Our predecessors deserve our respect. And I would hope to high heaven that scientists and researchers had learned something since 1943 when Dr. Kanner presented his theory.

    I trust most scientists welcome truth over theory but so many times, ego is primary. Usually though, it's the loyal followers who get a wild hair up their arse when their idealized guru is dethroned.

    Just sayin'...


  11. Sometimes anonymous readers stumble on a single post, having no knowledge about the blogger's situation or life experiences.

    These two post detail my experiences with my nephew who has lived with me for fifteen years:

    Boo'ya Moon and Aspergers

    My Commentary on Bruno Bettelheim

  12. CZBZ,
    Look forward to watching the documentary in it's entirety. Thank-you for posting this. I have a good friend with an autistic child and I'll be sharing this with her.

    To anonymous:
    I'll apply my scientific reasoning to your post. Without the necessary substantiated facts I can't consider your comment as anything but an opinion.


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