Bettelheim's The Empty Fortress takes on a distinctly Pynchonesque tone of paranoia when the author discusses the fascination Joey's caregivers experience in observing him and his machine-like ways.
Once accused by Bettelheim of being the cause of autism, parents are now seen as its heroic and tragic victims. A catastrophic view of autism means that any scrutiny of the parents' claims is not only unlikely, it is assumed to be reprehensible.
While we have barely scratched the surface of Bettelheim's rhetoric in this paper, it is perhaps this fundamental need to believe in the figure of the "good doctor" that underlies the mythic rhetorical structure of the persistent belief in the maternal-cause theory of autism. Viewed in hindsight, it appears that Bettelheim's work, like that of Freud himself, was less that of a modernist effort to replace religion with science than that of an effort to preserve a space for traditional, allegedly "humanist" values. It was an attempt, finally, to affirm that we have "minds" and "souls" rather than simply "brains." That a more humane treatment for autistic persons would come from focusing on their neurology rather than on the "meaning" of their lives is but one of the many ironies of the career of Dr. Bettelheim.
Dr. Bruno Bettelheim/Devoted most of his time/Condemning mothers to perdition/By blaming them for their autistic child's condition.
Pollak powerfully demonstrates the flaccidity of the doctor's scholarship and the flimsy, if lofty-sounding, conclusions that the politics of fame allowed him to foist upon the world.
As a comprehensive worldview, psychoanalysis provided both theory and evidence; less research program than interpretive schema, it offered an explanation for autism that worked until it failed to cure. Psychoanalysis failed as a biomedical theory and form of treatment; nevertheless it did indeed spawn research schools, generate funding, and offered a systematic means of comprehending the previously inexplicable, in this case severe disorders of development. The emphasis on the contingent, rather than determined, aspects of development, recurs in contemporary discussions of both gene-environment interactions and therapeutic modalities.
I have nothing personal against Bettelheim, if it is not personal to resent being compared to a devouring witch, an infanticidal king, and an SS guard in a concentration camp.
Bettelheim vindictively blamed autism on bad mothering. All that desperate parents got for trusting this slick predator with their children and their money was false guilt and true grief; yet he remained a venerated celebrity in his lifetime.
He announced remarkable rates of success with autistic patients. But, as Pollak proves on the basis of school records, reality didn't measure up. There were far fewer demonstrably autistic children--or cures--than Bettelheim advertised.
Here is a man who comes out of a concentration camp with the idea that prisoners are like children, and later turns the idea on its head to suggest children are like prisoners. Mr. Pollak's book is a startling and thorough account of a life of lies.