Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Autism: A Self Chosen State

Those of you who have been following the debate about the way autism is being treated in France will have noticed that the current French notion that autism is caused by “refrigerator” mothers dates to Bruno Bettleheim.

Bettleheim became an authority on autism in the 1960s through a clinic he ran in Chicago and through a book called The Empty Fortress. In later years Bettleheim was exposed as a fraud with merely a Ph. D. in art history. He committed suicide in 1990.

Naturally, French psychoanalysts who are mired in the fever swamps of the psychoanalytic past are drawn to his theories. Once a reactionary, always a reactionaray.

Now, a young filmmaker named Leo Fleming has crafted a film about a man who was, as a boy, treated by Bettleheim and his proxies. The film shows Fleming’s uncle Thomas today and is intercut with pictures from his childhood. Throughout the movie we hear the ghostly voice of Bettleheim himself fabulating a theory of autism.

Fleming introduces his movie, entitled, A Self Chosen State on Vimeo:

Bruno Bettelheim states in his 1967 book 'The Empty Fortress' that "...the precipitating factor in infantile autism is the parent's wish that his child should not exist." Bettelheim subscribed to the 'Refrigerator Mother' theory; a theory that proposed autism as a 'self-chosen state' prompted by a 'cold' mother, in which children are compelled to shut themselves off from an uncaring, unloving world.

Martha and Jim Fleming were among countless others who were told that their child's autism was due to their unloving nature. They were also among the many whose children were taken away under the care of Bruno Bettelheim to his facilities in Chicago, to be 'cured' of this malady. A Self Chosen State is a short film detailing a personal history of a widespread injustice, of the trauma it inflicted and of the selfless love it inspired into action.

My thanks to commenter KCFleming for bringing this to our attention. He informs us that the movie was chosen for the “AS Film Festival where it will play next month in the Maxxi National Museum of Art in Rome, Italy.”


KCFleming said...

I posted this on a prior post:

That's very kind.

Bettelheim was one of those actual impostors you wrote about, a true fraud.

"Bettelheim came of age in the 1920s in Vienna, which, as home to Sigmund Freud, was the capital of the psychoanalytical world. When the Nazis took over Austria in the late 1930s, Bettelheim was taken off to a concentration camp along with other members of the Jewish community.

Those reports of Bettelheim's sadistic side inspired reporters (including myself) to look into his professional qualifications. It was thus discovered that, somewhere between Vienna and Chicago, he had reinvented himself--right out of the proverbial whole cloth.

It turned out that Dr. B wasn't a medical doctor nor even did he have a degree in a psychology. As a young man, he had operated his family's lumber yard, even though he detested a businessman's life. Belatedly, he had earned a doctorate in art history, the subject he taught at Rockford College.

But when the directorship of the Orthogenic School became available, he evidently gambled that because of the war no one would be able to check on his credentials. So he intimated to U. of C. officials that he had been cross-trained in psychology. Yet when his transcript was posthumously examined, it showed he had taken but three introductory courses in the field.

During his Vienna years, Bettelheim had undergone analysis. His friends and ex-wife recalled that he was motivated to do so because his first marriage was failing. Yet once he became Dr. B of the Orthogenic School, he reinterpreted those sessions on the couch as the kind of training analysis every psychoanalyst must undergo.

Once having fictionalized his autobiography, Bettelheim embellished it with successive retelling of the story. Eventually, he portrayed himself as having been accepted as a candidate for membership in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society--the movement's mother church--even according the great Sigmund himself a role in that scenario.

"This is just the person we need for psychoanalysis to grow and develop," Freud supposedly said of Bettelheim."


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Stuart, you've mentioned this issue of the French way of looking at autism before. Why do the French psychologists/psychoanalysts fall for this sort of tripe? Is it like you talked about in "The Last Psychoanalyst"? My sense was that Freud, et al, created this grand "narrative" (to use the postmodernists view of the world) to explain psychological phenomena. Is this true of Bettelheim as well? Did he just have a great story that people oohed and aahed over? Seems remarkably shallow, to the point of negligence. For the person creating such a narrative, it sounds psychopathic or sociopathic... writing stories to overlay people's real suffering. I'm consistently amazed at how we give a pass to the power of words, and the responsibility we absolve the "great minds" for creating. To my mind, Rousseau may be the most scandalously awful person who ever lived.

Ares Olympus said...

re: Bettleheim became an authority on autism in the 1960s through a clinic he ran in Chicago and through a book called The Empty Fortress. In later years Bettleheim was exposed as a fraud with merely a Ph.D. in art history. He committed suicide in 1990.

That's a short and unsympathetic biography, the last two sentences seemingly to imply his sucide was related to being exposed as a fraud. It it accurate?

On the end of his life, wikipedia has this summary:
At the end of his life Bettelheim suffered from depression. He appeared to have had difficulties with depression for much of his life. In 1990, widowed, in failing physical health, and suffering from the effects of a stroke which impaired his mental abilities and paralyzed part of his body, he committed suicide as a result of self-induced asphyxiation by placing a plastic bag over his head.

There's no word "fraud" in the article, but a link to one article from 1997:
Shortly before his suicide, two rival biographers set out to reconstruct the life of Bruno Bettelheim, the most celebrated child psychologist of his day.

Their accounts are so strikingly different it's tempting to believe there must have been not one but two Dr. B's, as he was known to colleagues and patients at the Orthogenic School, the home for severely disturbed children he ran at the University of Chicago.

Reading Sutton's and Pollak's recounting of Bettelheim's lifetime of praise and his career's post-mortem re-evaluation seems to confirm Bernard Malamud's verdict on their chosen literary form. "All biography is ultimately fiction," the late novelist once said.

Both biographers are mystified by their counterpart's findings.

"I couldn't have spent five years writing someone's biography if I thought the man a fraud," said Sutton, a former Washington correspondent for Paris-Match, speaking by phone from her home in Paris. "But I understand that it's easier to demolish than to do a rounded portrait."

On the grounds of fraud in regards to degrees, there can be sympathetic positions to consider, at least we all recognize "creditialism" as a modern evil, and not necessarily a good indicator of skill or integrity of work. Ideally we want all our respected leaders to follow the rules, and yet life is short and we can consider good people will take shortcuts.

But if the point is simply to say his theory of autism was flawed and ridiculous, and we want to see his theory brought misery to parents who felt wrongly blamed for their child's ailments, it looks like a more worthy truth to point out, regardless of his educational credentials.

And in fact it suggests the reverse. It shows the problem of experts in general, however they are creditialed. The smartest people will grab on to an idea that seems to work on one small example, perhaps untestably consistent, and the mind jumps to a vast cause and effect game that is fundamentally flawed, and not quickly dismissible.

So it might as well show why we should distrust any psychological theory, whether by a no-name crank, or a high status one. Just because they're smarter than us doesn't mean their extrapolations are accurate or good. And as well we know even if we diagnose a problem, all our solutions to them are still as much trial and error.

So anyway, it seems better to avoid the fraud charges as irrelevant, and just demonstrate how theories go wrong, and lead us into superstition and hide simpler truths that are ignored just because they don't help us formulate best solutions without the messiness of trial and error.

Ares Olympus said...

I was curious, going with Bettelheim's intuition, whether bad orphanages were also connected to autism, and this article suggests at least the symptoms might be similar.
When Nelson first visited the orphanages in 1999, he saw children in cribs rocking back and forth as if they had autism. He also saw toddlers desperate for attention.
The scientists realized the cause wasn't anything as simple as malnutrition. It was a different kind of deprivation — the lack of a parent, or someone who acted like a parent.
Tottenham, who is a parent herself, says all the research on neglected children reminds her of something that should be obvious: "Parents are playing a really big role in shaping children's brain development." And parenting, she says, is a bit like oxygen. It's easy to take for granted until you see someone who isn't getting enough.

Children who are adopted by about age 2 are most likely to grow up with typical brains, researchers say. Other neglected children, though, often show remarkable recoveries.

But none of that doesn't excuse Bettelheim's bad generalizations that misdiagnosed autistic children. No one will deny mothers and fathers as essential for developement, but you can easily identify causes when development fails some children.

We all want to imagine we can identify a human cause to suffering, better than to believe in a random God who causes it regardless of our best intention. So the blame game for poor morals or incompetence of others can come up with wrong answers as much as right ones.

Anonymous said...

Despite his potential personal flaws Bruno B. wrote a book, The Uses of Enchantment, that includes some interesting ideas about how children might make use of fairy tales (the old variety not the Disney versions) to aid in personal development. I don't doubt that children benefit from such stories in general but I doubt a socially wounded (traumatized) child can manage to salvage rewarding human relationships later in life simply from being exposed to fairy tales or literature or media.

For an introspective person there is one very excellent and accurate idea in The Uses of Enchantment: when a child observes human behavior or experiences characters in a drama, he or she does not ask, "Who is good?", but rather, "Who do I want to be like?"

Who do pretentious authority figures want to be like? Why, they want to be like pretentious authority figures, of course!