My Commonplace Book (a diary of excerpts copied from printed books, with comments added by the reader).

By Dorothy Bryant
Tuesday August 16, 2011 - 10:11:00 PM

“According to Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, who seems to have an unusual gift for handling autistic children, the cause of ‘autism’ is that the child is convinced . . . that its parents wish it did not exist.”

—copied from A Certain World (1970) the commonplace book of W. H. Auden (1907-1973), famed poet

Mention Bettelheim’s name now, and, at most, you might hear a vague reference to his Freudian (plagiarized) book about fairy tales (that and his other dozen or so other books are no longer to be found at the Berkeley Public Library). No mention of his numberless articles and syndicated newspaper columns advising mothers on how to undo brain damage they had inflicted on their children by unconscious rejection. Certainly, the University of Chicago would not welcome questions about his “Orthogenic” boarding school based there, claiming “cures” for mental disorders that continue to mystify medical/psychiatric authorities. Nor would prestigious foundations want to publish the total in dollars of the many grants they awarded to him. And, please, don’t bother Woody Allen with questions about the cameo appearance of Bettelheim as emblematic psychiatrist in Zelig (1983). 

Bettelheim’s death in 1990 released a tsunami of articles and books exposing his non-existent European degrees and experience (all “lost” as he and other Jews escaped the Nazis); his statistics of falsified results and often brutal “treatment” of children in his “Orthogenic” school; the inflated account of his few pre-war months in a concentration camp before he bought his way out and headed for America—where an Austrian accent went a long way toward enhancing the illusion of therapeutic expertise. 

How did he get away with it for 50 years? And why was he virtually forgotten within a few months of his death? Don’t bother to question the prestigious foundations that gave him huge grants, nor the surviving psychologists and teachers who parroted his theories for so many years. All have suffered mass amnesia—Bruno Who? 

But some of us are old enough to remember the misery of blame he added to the life of a friend or two struggling to care for a child afflicted with the mysterious mental disability called autism. 

Auden’s statement should be read as a warning that a clever con man can fool even the best minds of a century. 

(Send the Berkeley Daily Planet a page from your own Commonplace Book)