Bruno Bettelheim and "Joey"
Bill Long 12/7/07
An Influential 1959 Article
When Anne Donnellan and her editorial panel put together the first major retrospective on studies in autism (Classic Readings in Autism, 1985), they identified only two articles on autism coming from the 1950s that they felt were "classic," that is, which were significant for their time or had withstood the test of time. One of them was Bruno Bettelheim's ("B's") enormously popular and influential little piece called "Joey: A 'Mechanical Boy.'" Appearing in the March 1959 edition (vol. 200) of Scientific American, "Joey" told the heart-rending story of a child who had come to B's institute in Chicago as a "mechanical child" and had left, several years later, as a seemingly well-developed human being. Though the editors wanted to republish Bettelheim's work in their Readings volume, Bettelheim refused his permission.
Why would he have done that? Well about that time he, who had achieved near mythical status in the minds of much of the psychological community and the American public, was about ready to take the biggest fall imaginable. Stories were leaking out that his oversight of the Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago was shoddy; that his personal manner was abusive; that his research was nearly non-existent; that no one was permitted to review his findings, etc. etc. Seven years after B's suicide in 1990, Richard Pollak published a devastating biography (which I hope to review soon) entitled The Creation of Dr. B (1997), which exposed it all.
As a result, B, whose name was once synonymous with the promise and depth of the psychological profession, had become a name that made people shout for blood. This is especially true in the autism community. Mothers who were told for years that they were responsible for their child's autism because of inadequate parenting skills, can still barely contain their anger at B. He is now a person everyone loves to hate--especially in the autism movement.
But he wasn't always hated. This essay tries to take you back to the time when the name of Bettelheim evoked whispers of honor by considering this short article (pp. 116-127) which appeared in America's premier popular scientific journal of the 1950s.
The Story of Joey--According to Bruno Bettelheim
B is a wonderful story-teller. He begins. When Joey came to B's clinic, he was "a mechanical boy." He functioned as if by remote control. B gives us a vivid story:
"Entering the dining room, for example, he would string an imaginary wire from his 'energy source'--an imaginary electric outlet--to the table. There he 'insulated' himself with paper napkins and finally plugged himself in. Only then could Joey eat...." (117).
Can't you see readers of Scientific American just lapping this up? Some of them were probably saying, "That's ME!" Across the page from this description of "Joey as machine" is an early self-portrait (no dates are given for anything) by Joey. The "stick figure" is, in fact, a wire figure, with neck and arm coils stuck on leg coils. On and on goes the portrait of Joey's mechanical existence. And then comes B's question:
"How had Joey become a human machine?"
Drawing on the deep well of Freudian psychology, B concluded that "from intensive interviews with his parents we learned that the process had begun even before birth" (117). How does one know that?? And then comes the kicker:
"Schizophrenia (who said anything about schizophrenia?) often results from parental rejection, sometimes combined ambivalently with love. Joey, on the other hand, had been completely ignored," (117-18).
B has introduced the word schizophrenia, first invented by Eugen Bleuler in 1910, to capture Joey's condition. But then B goes on to describe the conditions of Joey's family life. Joey's mother didn't even know that she had been pregnant with Joey, and his father was a 'rootless draftee in the wartime civilian army." Both were not prepared for parenthood. "The mother, preoccupied with herself, usually left Joey alone in the crib or playpen during the day" (118). It is no wonder, then, that with the combination of parental neglect or outright hostility, Joey withdrew and became a mechanical boy.
But B goes further. He suggests that Joey created various "machines" to run his body and mind because it was too painful to be human. One "experiment" of Joey where he tried to escape this mechanical existence is noteworthy:
"In a recurrent frenzy he 'exploded his light bulbs and tubes [his sources of purported energy], and for a moment became a human being--for one crowning instant he became alive. But as soon as he asserted his dominance through the self-created explosion, he felt his life ebbing away. To keep on existing he had immeidately to restore his machines and replenish the electricity that supplied his life energy," (122).
So, this is B's hypothesis. Joey, the mechanical boy, was driven to this situatoin by his unfeeling parents, especially his mother. His attempts to become "human" failed. Of course, he will recover his humanity through B, but we aren' there yet.
But up until now B has only talked about schizophrenia, in one passage. Why should we accept this behavior as autistic, much less schizophrenic? Indeed, in the Readings volume there is no word from B, but there is a critique of the absent B by Lorna Wing. She concludes that there is little evidence for Joey's being autistic. But we are preempting B. Just as he slipped in schizophrenia without any definition or attempt to show that Joey fit its criteria, he also slipped in another concept without defining it--autism.
"When Joey was not yet four, his nursery school suggested that he enter a special school for disturbed children. At the new school his autism was immediately recognized," (119). Then, a few pages later, "Joey's preventions [i.e., elaborate rituals] effectively concealed the secret of his autistic behavior," (122).
That is all. No description of autism, no wrestling with Kanner or Asperger. Well, you might say, this is a popular magazine. But the phenomenon was so new, and the boundaries of the terminology were still so fluid that just throwing in the word to describe the mechanical boy was unhelpful. In B's defense, he is using the term "autistic" in a Bleulerian sense (autism as withdrawal into a fantasy world) but both Kanner and Asperger had jettisoned Bleuler's definition. And, B had taken Bleuler's work one step further. If autistic children withdraw into fantasy, what drives them to fantasy? Ah, the moms. It might be appropriate at this point to note that the other major area of B's influence in psychology was in the study of fantasy (The Uses of Enchantment, 1989).
You really don't need the rest of the story. B and his staff courageously attack Joey's problems one at a time. In time his art work becomes more "human." Joey at last "broke through his prison" (126) and finally "entered the human condition," (126). A nice story. But, more than anything, it was a story that taught the nation that autistic children were so because they had consciously chosen to withdraw from life. Why? Because of the overbearing and negative influence of parents. This story would receive a healthy dose of shock therapy through Bernard's Rimland's 1964 book (described here). But B's view persisted, and still persists, in some pockets in this country and elsewhere.