Child psychologist and Nazi concentration camp survivor Bruno Bettelheim's influential theories of autism reveal a startling connection between Jewish identity, the medicalization of disability, colonial eugenics and race-making practices over the 20th century in North America. Using Bettelheim's life and work as a case-study, this paper explores Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant complicity in a whitened colonial landscape through the lens of Disability Studies. It asks the question: can we be more accountable to our disabled identities — and to those disabled people who have come before us — if we learn how our families, our identities, our very selves have been complicit in medicalization and violence?

This paper 1 explores the connections between the rise of the modern "psy" complex 2 and the whitening of Ashkenazi non-Orthodox Jewish identity 3 by studying the impact of one man — influential child psychologist and Nazi holocaust survivor Bruno Bettelheim. I use critical race theory, anti-colonial investigation and some of the tools of psychoanalysis to perform a close reading of Bettelheim's life and work. In so doing, I hope to shed light on some underexplored aspects of the cultural logic of disability. Using Jewish identity as an anchor, I track the specific ways in which discourses of madness have been instrumentalized to entrench racist violence, support heteropatriarchal power and justify the ongoing theft of land necessary to the maintenance of the modern colonial nation-state.

Presenting Bettelheim's life as a case-study is complex gesture. There is a special responsibility that comes with writing about the dead. Ghosts are susceptible to all manner of reductive reasoning. They can be easily recruited into myth and legend; they are uniquely incapable of talking back. This responsibility is amplified when writing critically about those whose lives were marked by war, torture or attempted genocide. Bruno Bettelheim is just such a figure. Not only did he survive the Nazi holocaust; he also took his own life in 1990. As a Jew growing up in the long shadow of the Third Reich — and a trauma-informed social-service worker with a personal history of self-harm — I am familiar with the intensity of these kinds of spirits. I hope this paper can be read as it has been written — in full awareness of the weight of haunting. I have no particular tactic for bearing this weight, save my promise to remain alive to its challenge. I must admit, however, that the tug of accountability, the sense of reverence and of legacy that informs this piece comes from a different and much more personal place. I want to dedicate my writing to another one of the dead: my late uncle Larry, whose story is entwined with that of Bruno Bettelheim. Larry was a patient at Bettelheim's Orthogenic School in the early 1970s, an experience that shaped him personally, just as Bettelheim's therapeutic contributions, as I will argue, shaped the trajectory of Jewish pathology over the 20th century. I had not given Bettelheim a thought until Larry's death in 2008. Yet, in my exploration of Bettelheim, I have come to better understand my own relationship to madness and Jewish identity within the broader matrix of colonial power. I believe that there are important macrocosmic stories about race and disability buried in the microcosms of individual lives. This is the reason I look to Bettelheim. It is also why I begin with Larry, and with myself.

Larry was remarkable for his absence in my life. In an otherwise connected family, he was a specter: a collect call from a distant payphone, a snatch of story pulled from my mother's memory, a birthday card in the mail. Mostly, for me, he was a figure of comparison. Though we only met a handful of times, I grew up knowing that Larry and I were alike. We both excelled in mandatory schooling environments. We shared political beliefs: by the time I was a teenager, I had become a vegan leftist, just like him. We were both described by our families as "unique," "special" and, sometimes, "troubled" and by the medical industrial complex as pathological, albeit in different ways. For Larry, diagnoses in his young life ranged from schizophrenic to autistic to hypochondriacal to just plain odd. Me, I have been told by various doctors that I have or have had anorexia, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and, most recently, PTSD. In response to these various psychiatric labels and some physiological symptoms (IBS, migraines, eczema, chronic allergies), my neurologist has recently been debating adding fibromyalgia, a culturally-loaded syndrome which also often finds itself in medical pathologies of the mind 4. By all accounts, Larry and I were/are seen as mad, in both its meanings: behaviorally/perceptively non-normative and, often, very, very angry at doctors, family members and society at large.

Yet, despite all this, Larry and I had/have had profoundly different experiences of the world. In the educational system, I was granted a huge amount of autonomy: in high school, I was allowed to skip required classes, turn in alternative assignments, and even graduate a year early. Larry, however, was bounced from place to place, his parents told that no public school had the resources to support his talents or meet his needs. Though there have been times when my life has been noticeably disrupted by madness 5, I have always been able to choose whether or not I access the medical system. I have never been forcibly medicated, psychiatrically incarcerated or criminalized on account of my perceived mental health status. In stark contrast, Larry was persistently intercepted by the agents of institutional social work. Similarly, while I have been able to maintain a stable job for most of my adult life, Larry was never consistently employed. Most significantly, due to my demographic (white, educated, employed, health-insured), I might expect, barring any number of potential complications 6, to live well into my 80s. Larry passed away at 48 from a combination of extremely poor living conditions, a dangerously homogeneous diet and lack of access to appropriate medical care.

Following Tam (2011), Fabris (2011), Voronka (2008) and Snyder and Mitchell (2006), I understand "madness" to be a tool of cultural categorization: an ever-changing identity-label ascribed to deviant bodies and minds according to the changing needs of the "psy" complex and other interlocking medical and social forces. As madness is a social force rather than a quantifiable characteristic of an individual, it is not relevant or reasonable to say that my life has been easier because I am less mad than Larry was. On the contrary, I believe that I am seen as less mad because something has shifted in the discourses of pathology over the past 50 years. This something is a particular aspect of Jewish identity: that is, how Jewish identity has figured into the landscape of whiteness, race and racial pathology over the 20th century 7.

Larry and I both felt/feel strongly Jewish. While our family has long been mostly secular, the centrality of Jewishness to the family line spans generations. This sense has been confirmed and reinforced by our peers: Larry and I both grew up in urban environments (Chicago and New York, respectively) where our cultural affiliations, lexicons and last names were easily identifiable as Jewish. Indeed, many of the attributes we seem to share — "book smarts," socialist proclivities, and anxious temperaments — resonate with modern stereotypes. Yet for Larry growing up in the 1960s, Jewishness was still seen as a mark of deviance, which is to say it had an unstable relationship to white supremacy, causing Larry to receive some, but not all, of its powers and protections. In contrast, my status as a white person within white supremacy is firmly entrenched. This difference in our racial status becomes extremely relevant once we acknowledge the colonial racist regime that undergirds all other elements of social organization in the United States (Goldberg, 2002; Mohanram, 1999; Razack, 2000; Smith, 2005).

After Larry's death, I began to ask questions. Some were theoretical: Were Larry and I really alike? How did Larry think about his identity? Is it different from how I think about mine? Some were concrete: Why was Larry so reluctant to access medical care? What happened that made him so afraid of other people? At the interstice of the abstract and the practical, I found the Orthogenic School. At the Orthogenic School, I found Bruno Bettelheim.

According to my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother, Larry's time at Bettelheim's institution gave him a lifelong distrust of doctors and permanently negatively impacted his sense of self. Thirty years later, he was still angry for having been sent there. In hopes of learning more, I began to research the school and its notorious headmaster and made a fascinating discovery: Bruno Bettelheim was important both in Larry's life and in the history of contemporary psychology. Not only that — he was a significant figure, in part, because he was a Jew. Bettelheim wrote books and delivered lectures on his experience in the concentration camps, on Jewish identity and on the relationship between these things and "psy" treatment. Over his lifetime, Bettelheim participated in and was subject to changes in both the discourses of madness and of Jewish identity.

History is peopled. In our tiny acts of resistance, our minute complicities, our momentary thoughts and fleeting actions, we shape, define and defy those broader structures of power and domination that predate us. It is essential to map the matrices. It is just as crucial, however, to look at the individuals caught within, shaped by and shaping the structures. Towards this end, the rest of this paper grapples with the idea that Bruno Bettelheim may have been an (unwitting) architect of shifts in psychopathologization and racial identity in North America. I argue that Bettelheim's influence in 20th century public discourse on madness, race and childhood was substantial, and that his rehabilitative practice at the Orthogenic School was indicative of (and simultaneously affected) a shift in the place of Jewish identity within the medical and racial pathologies of the United States. I propose that Bruno Bettelheim's life can serve as a case-study in Jewish complicity in the de-pathologizing and subsequent racial whitening of Jewish identity —a process which secured the further pathologization (and, indeed, racialization) of people of color and Indigenous people. I further challenge that Bettelheim's work at the Orthogenic School was a tacitly eugenic project, situated within hetero-patriarchal cissexist 8 secular/Christian 9 disableist structures of rehabilitation.

I want to return briefly to the difficulty of writing about the dead, and the particular trouble of writing about those who survived violence. This paper presents an analysis of how Bettelheim's work supported and affected the political economies of race and madness in colonized North America. Bettelheim was, of course, both born into and violated by these structures of power. I write critically about Bettelheim's ideas and choices. This does not mean, however, that I believe he intended for his actions to reinforce existing relationships of domination or invent new ones. As a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and a Jewish immigrant to North America, Bettelheim was a profoundly traumatized man with a limited range of options. While I assert that Bettelheim's practice of psychotherapy entrenched a white colonial logic, I know that this was likely an inadvertent tactic of survival for him. I believe, as Chris Chapman (2010) writes, that we all "navigate our lives in ways that are available to us in part due to the structural contexts in which we find ourselves and the stories we tell about ourselves and the world" (p. 2). Like Chapman, I am interested in "carefully attending to the 'hows' of such navigation," exploring the consequences of actions rather than their intended effects (ibid). I neither wish to demonize nor exonerate Bruno Bettelheim. I am not here to cast aspersions on his intention, but to assess the context in which he made his choices and their impact on the world. In this way, I hope to provide a model for looking at my uncle's Larry's life, and mine. I hope to set up a structure in which I can interrogate both how I came to be and what I might do to become accountable to those who came before me.

This rest of this study is divided into four sections. "Rehabilitation" gives a brief overview of the history of North American rehabilitative sites for mad and disabled people, linking the projecting of straightening deviant bodies to colonial power. "Bruno Bettelheim" explores Bettelheim's life as a study in the changing Jewish narratives of masculinity 10, disability and race. "Orthogenic Schooling" deals with the particular ways in which Bettelheim conceived of madness and his attempts to straighten and whiten mad youth at his Chicago institution. In the conclusion, I return to my uncle Larry — and to myself — in hopes of thinking through the identities and responsibilities I carry with me as the legacy of the dead.


Following David Theo Goldberg (2002), Andrea Smith (2005), Radikha Mohanram (1999), Sherene Razack (2000; 2002), Sunera Thobani (2007) and many others, I assert that violence and domination in colonized North America play out primarily in and through organized land theft/settlement and racializing social regimes. I agree with Snyder and Mitchell (2006) that capitalist colonial power works not only on a systemic level, but on the lives and bodies of individuals. In the modern colonial nation-state, people are marked as deviant because their very bodies challenge hegemony. Disabled, racialized, and, crucially, Indigenous people embody (albeit differently) a refutation of foundational national myths: the notion that colonization is a historical (rather than present) process; the idea that the ideal/normal citizen is white, straight and fit for manual/intellectual labor; and the assertion that the state is inherently benevolent. The production of deviance is therefore a threat-management mechanism, an act of discursive and material violence to justify state/mainstream responses to racialization and disability. These responses vary. For the purposes of this paper, I want to suggest that they can be broadly grouped into three distinct categories: elimination (through genocide, negative eugenics and enforced poverty), quarantine (through incarceration, long-term institutionalization and ghettoization), and rehabilitation (through short-term treatment facilities and schools) (Agamben, 1998; Smith, 2005). This study concerns the intricacies and effects of rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation emerged in the post-World War I landscape as part of the neo-liberal push towards a globalized market. As international economic speculation increased, so did the development of ever more technologies to extract labor from previously "non-viable" bodies — that is, people whose embodiments, language, cultural practice or behavior meant that they could not participate in the normative, legal workforce. Through institutional social work and private charities, rehabilitation emerged as an alternative to quarantine framed in the language of benevolence and individual aid. These narratives obscure underlying projects of assimilation and labor extraction that sought to "straighten up" the "sick" to "functional productivity" (Stiker, 2000).

If the fundamental structures that undergird colonial capitalism are racial — that is, if white supremacy forms the basis of government/ality — and, further, if, as Dyer (1997) writes, colonial whiteness is predicated on "Christianity, 'race' and enterprise/imperialism" (p. 14), then rehabilitative straightening has particular goals: whiteness, Christianity, participation in empire. As Snyder and Mitchell (2006) write, "the material body of the citizen (with all of its variety of appearances, capacities, and vulnerabilities)" must, through rehabilitation, become "the idealized body of the nation (with all of its nationalistic implications that propelled the question of individual biology into a matter of public hygiene management)" (p. 24).

Thus, citizenship as a tactic to mold the individual/national body and settle the land is a key technology in and outcome of the seemingly individuated programs of rehabilitation. Here, we may recall Richard Pratt, founder of the first United States off-reserve boarding school for Indigenous children. His "kill the Indian, save the Man" philosophy advised the following: "Transfer the savage-born infant to surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit" (Smith, 2005, 36). Pratt advocated for the "curative power" of the white Christianity through the boarding school system 11 — a notion that resonates with Bettelheim's "milieu therapy" and some of his tactics at the Orthogenic School.

I do not intend to create a relationship of equivalence between Indigeneity and disability; in fact, I want to advocate quite the opposite. I mention this as a reminder that colonial power, land theft and genocide constitutes the original site of violent domination North America. All forms of racialization, all the uses of the "psy" complex and all constructions of disability within the colonial context follow from and interlock with the foundational colonial mandate. My assertion is that Bettelheim's rehabilitative practices plugged into already established tactics of containing and reforming deviant bodies and upheld the discursive conflation of disability, race and Indigeneity, even as they were designed explicitly to act upon the less threatening bodies of mad white youth.

Bruno Bettelheim

I want to take seriously that notion that history is peopled by looking closely at the life and work of Bruno Bettelheim. In what follows, I use — and comment upon — a psychoanalytic paradigm to understand and explore Bettelheim's life and actions. This is a complex gesture for two reasons: first, because I believe that psychoanalysis is a tautological product of/descriptor for the development of Western European imperial/colonial subject 12 and is therefore inherently limited and culturally specific and second, because Bettelheim himself used the paradigm to such detrimental ends. I persist in using psychoanalysis in spite — or in light — of these reservations because I have no other discourse readily available, and also because, as Cheng (2001) writes, "we already do" (p. 28, emphasis in the original). Indeed, Cheng holds that within post-Enlightenment modernity, "the politics of race have always been spoken in the language of psychology" (ibid). I would argue that the same applies to systems. We already understand matrices of oppression psychologically. We speak about power in the language of desire and repression – power wants to self-perpetuate; power operates by subsumed logics. Thus, in order to speak to my audience — and understand my critique myself — I will inevitably fall back upon psychoanalytic terms, phrases and ideas, even as I feel wary of them.

Bettelheim was born in 1903 in Vienna, in a landscape where Jewishness had for centuries been understood as both a racial marking and a disability. According to Sander Gilman (1991; 1998) Jews in Europe 13 were both practically and discursively Othered through the medical and sociological gaze of popular race science. Jews were seen as ugly, sickly, mad, deceitful, swarthy creatures, primitive relics from a remote biblical time and place, out of step with modernity 14 (Boyarin, 1997). There was a strong heteropatriarchal thrust to the stigmatization of Jews: according to Boyarin (1997), Jews were understood to defy Western European gender and sexual norms. Jewish men were seen as "effeminate sissies" unfit for labor while Jewish women, when they appeared discursively at all 15, were read as "phallic monsters" (Boyarin, 1997, p. xxii). Jews were perceived, broadly, as deviant, perverse and "inbred" sexual aberrations (Gilman, 1991).

Despite the intense Othering of Jewish identity, however, Ashkenazi Jews also occupied a complex place of proximity to whiteness not shared with Sephardic Jews or the inhabitants of Western European colonies. According to Dyer (1997), Ashkenazi Jews have always occupied a position of relative structural instability in relation to whiteness; a structural instability which perhaps accounts for the paradox of Jewish stigma even after centuries of assimilation. Indeed, in recalling how "Christ was a Jew, but the Jews rejected him," Dyer (1997) writes that Jews "could have been, perhaps still could be, white — [they] have constituted the limit case of whiteness" (p. 53). Thus, they occupied a precarious space — both accepted and rejected, pathologized and powerful.

Bettelheim's childhood was archetypal in this way. Though he was raised in a secular, comfortably middle-class Austrian Jewish family, his early life was nonetheless marked by the narratives of Jewish racial weakness, aided and abetted by his constant illness. Biographer Richard Pollack (1998) describes Bettelheim as "a sickly child…in bed for many weeks at a time" (p. 21). Further, in 1907, Bettelheim's father contracted syphilis — an event which "cast a pall so lasting that Bettelheim rarely spoke of the affliction outside of his family, and then not by name" (Pollack, 1998, p. 235).

In the early 1900s, syphilis carried the stigma of both sexual perversion and sexual inadequacy; it marked bodies as both promiscuous and impotent, attributes that also inhered in narratives of Jewish identity (Gilman, 1998, p. 152). Syphilis was encoded not only with paradoxical sexuality/madness, but also, like Jewishness, was transmissible through the blood. Thus, in Western Europe in the early 1900s, Jewishness became syphilitic and syphilis became Jewish. Pollack (1998) writes, "Like AIDS, syphilis brought with it a numbing sense of doom and a cruel social stigma; also, like its counterpart, it could flow quiescent in the bloodstream for many years" (p. 25).

Syphilis made Jewish masculinity — already marked as lacking and incomplete (through circumcision and feminization) — queer, sick and doomed to madness, a striking contrast to the "idealized the essential male citizen as productive, autonomous, white and sane" (Menzies, 2002, p. 197). In this way, anti-Jewish narratives of Jewish masculinity emerged, in sharp relief to white masculinity that could both "master and transcend the body" (Dyer, 1997, p. 30).

As Boyarin (1997) writes, "[It is an] insistence on embodiedness that marks the male Jew as being female, for maleness in European culture has frequently carried a sense of not-being-a-body, while the body has been inscribed as feminine" (p. 8). For Bettelheim, his father's syphilis may have carried the threat of excess embodiment, confirming Jewish difference and consequently endangering the privilege of assimilation. Thus, Bettelheim took pains to distance himself from his father, making claims that he had "no suitable masculine figures" in his life, and comparing his father to "a simpering fool who spoke with the voice of a eunuch" (Pollack, 1998, p. 24).

Bettelheim received a degree in Aesthetics from the University of Vienna in 1938. That same year, just months after the Anschluss, he was captured by the Nazis and taken to Dachau, where he spent four months, and then Buchenwald, where he spent the better part of a year. Though Bettelheim's camp experiences were undeniably horrific, he was able to maintain relative safety while interned as a person who was "assimilated and educated" (Pytell, 2007, 647).

Bettelheim's writing about his time in concentration camps occupies a fraught historical space. In 1942, Bettelheim released his first and most influential article on his camp experience, "Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations." In it, he attributed the success of camp tactics in traumatizing Jews not to Nazi torture but to inherent Jewish weakness. Bettelheim claimed that Jewish prisoners were more likely than any others to regress under oppression to "types of behavior characteristic of infancy or early youth" because of failings in the Jewish character (Pytell, 2007, p. 648). He claimed that concentration camps "disintegrate[d] the personality of the prisoner" (ibid). In the "final stage of disintegration," Jews would actually become Nazis, changing their personalities "so as to accept various values of the SS" (ibid).

Throughout both his early and his adult life, Bettelheim seems to have seen Jewish identity as an "affliction," that can — and should — be cured or overcome (Bettelheim in Pytell, 2007, p. 651). Timothy Pytell (2007) has explored Bettelheim's propensity to demean other concentration camp inmates. I draw on Pytell's writing to provide groundwork for a study of how Bettelheim attempted to enact his own whitening through the rehabilitation of other pathologized, white or nearly-white bodies. Pytell (2007) writes:

As he worked through the experience, it served his current psychological need to exploit those elements that were useful in constructing a version of surviving the extreme that suggests he alone, unlike the vast majority, was able to keep his personality intact. This version of survival, built on his peculiar perspective, dovetailed with his own psychological needs to overcome his sense of shame and humiliation at being victimized…In short, after his experience Bettelheim was bitter and angry and to reconstitute himself he had to reestablish his sense of self-worth. To do so…he [had to] suggest he had survived better, and to do so he had to belittle the other prisoners by turning them into infants and proto-Nazis (p. 649)

The trauma of the camps is unimaginable and emotional survival is complex. However, it seems that Bettelheim equated recovery from his trauma with "overcoming" Jewishness itself. For Bettelheim, "surviving better" meant "surviving whiter": it stands to reason that he constructed his Orthogenic school as a model white Christian home, with himself as the patriarch. This was perhaps in part a personal effort to rectify a Jewishness that, even in North America, was categorically "outside(r) to the order of the middle-class family" (Boyarin, Itzkovitz & Pellegrini, 2003, p. 13).

Bettelheim immigrated to the United States in 1939, arriving in the middle of a significant shift in United States racial politics. As Matthew Frey Jacobson (1999) explores in his seminal Whiteness of a different color: European immigrants and the alchemy of race, nation-building priorities changed between the 1930s and the 1960s from a focus on westward expansion and "settling" the land to an investment in entrenching social division through the legal apparatus of Jim Crow, new immigration policies and urban ghettoization initiatives. This period gave birth to what Jeffery Decker (2006) calls the "culturalist, white ethnic" movement, a discursive and material push to alter the "syntax" of American nationalism, "transforming the location of America's myth of origins from Plymouth Rock to Ellis Island, while shifting the nation's master narrative from the melting pot model to a pluralist paradigm" (p. 1240). Of course, the "pluralism" of the white ethnic movement was limited in scope to white or newly-white Western European immigrants who were invited into power provided they maintained a white/black divide (Jacobson, 1999, p. 188).

Institutional social work, psychology and psychiatry were hugely crucial sites in this syntactical shift — especially for Bettelheim, who sought (and achieved) work as a psychologist after immigrating to the U.S. 16 Psychology and psychiatry had been involved in race-making and pathologizing work since early colonial times (Fernando, 1999; Churchill, 2004; Smith, 2005) 17 . However, what Fernando (1999) calls the "the fundamental racism of psychiatry" shifted immensely over the 20th century (p. 83). For example, while most immigrants, Jews included, were still subjected to IQ tests at Ellis Island, designed to pathologize non-English speakers and create a docile menial work-pool, many Jewish immigrants in the 1940s and 1950s were also able to enter the field as practitioners, becoming influential psychologists, psychiatrists and researchers, career options not open to immigrants from racialized and colonized countries (Heinze, 2001).

According to Andrew Heinze (2001), Jewish psychologists in mid-20th century promoted a theory of human consciousness they called "functionalism": the idea that the human being, when "functioning properly," is fluid and adaptable, able to assimilate into any environment. As Heinze writes (2001), "with its emphasis on adaptation and change, the functionalist model appealed deeply to Jews, whose success as citizens and professionals depended on fluidity in the social order" (p. 967). Indeed, Jewish psychologists "wrote mid-class Americans a moral prescription that, if followed, would produce a social order that was 'good for the Jews' but also propitious for other outsiders seeking integration into American society" (ibid).

In the socio-cultural landscape of the modern colonial nation state, mobility and access inhere in whiteness, while racialization both discursively and geographically constrains and confines (Mohanram, 1999, p. 24). For Jews in the mid-20th century, the possibility for fluidity and adaptation depended on an appeal to whiteness. Brodkin (2002) locates the 1944 GI Bill, "the biggest and best affirmative action program in the history of our nation…for Euro males" (p. 27), as the key turning point for the possibility of Jewish de-racination. It extended benefits such as low-interest home loans, educational tuition expenses and gentrifying incentive to "male, Euro-origin GIs," many of whom were Jewish (Brodkin, 2002, p. 38). This bill set in motion economic revitalization and the growth of a white-collar workforce, just as it simultaneously promoted urban renewal and suburban sprawl at the expense of low-income housing and accessible educational and employment opportunities for people of color and women.

In this same year — 1944 — Bruno Bettelheim both received his United States citizenship and landed the prestigious position of director of the Orthogenic School. His tenure profoundly changed the nature of the institution, moving it from a site of containment to a site of rehabilitation, where children might be straightened towards a white colonial Christianity. His writing and therapeutic practice, in turn, went on to influence a generation of psychologists, educators and parents. Ultimately, he left a dent on the racial schema of the United States at large.

Orthogenic Schooling

Literally, "Orthogenic" means "making upright" or "straightening out": Ortho, from the Greek, meaning "correct," "straight" and "upright" and genic meaning "producing or causing." The School's motto, fittingly, is "a place to grow straight and tall" (Orthogenic School, 2009). Founded in 1915, it has long been and remains a residential educational facility housed on the University of Chicago campus designed for the rehabilitation of "emotionally disturbed" children and adolescents of "above-average" intelligence (ibid). When Bruno Bettelheim became director in 1944, one of his first orders of business was a profound reorganization of enrollment policy. Whereas prior to his tenure, the school offered a residential program for children with epilepsy and cerebral palsy, Bettelheim was certain that "public institutions could handle such cases" (Chicago, 1968). This was a bold claim, given that public schools weren't "mainstreamed" 18 in the United States until the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) of 1975. In the 1940s, thus, those public institutions "handling" children with epilepsy and CP were abusive state institutions, group homes, and hospitals.

Bettelheim's second act as director of the Orthogenic School was to recruit a new population of students. He focused mostly on autistic children and others whom he called "young victims of extreme psychosis" — that is, he explicitly limited his work to students without visible physical disabilities (Chicago, 1968). In constructing a dialectical opposition between epilepsy / cerebral palsy and autism, Bettelheim helped to tacitly promote a eugenic logic of "unreformable" vs. "reformable" bodies. While the Orthogenic School was once a site of containment for people with visible embodied differences, Bettelheim's desire was to rehabilitate the minds of those people whose bodies appeared congruent with the normate (Garland-Thompson, 1997).

His third change was to institute a "white only" policy for his students and staff; a racist and exclusionary tactic that remained in place even after 1954's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision. According to Bettelheim, racialized children might "confuse" white children, interfering with their recovery (Pollack, 1998). Bettelheim, further, was only interested in attracting those white students from "good, high-class stock" (Pollack, 1998, p. 186), whose university prospects were already established. He ensured that no working or poverty-class people attended his institution by setting the tuition at $8,000 to $12,000 a year.

Bettelheim made some strange and telling claims about the motivations for his work. As Pollack (1998) writes, over the years, Bettelheim repeatedly reaffirmed that:

his commitment to saving the children stemmed from his camp experience, from his anger at the idea of wasted lives, whether trapped behind metal or emotional barbed wire. He was determined to give the children a good life and hoped that by promoting their integration, he could promote his own, that by serving the living he could, as much as possible, meet his 'obligation to the dead.' (p. 142)

Who are these dead to whom Bettelheim felt obliged? Given the restrictive attendance criteria at his school, it seems that it must have been to those of "high class stock." It is difficult to imagine that he might have been referring to the Roma people, disabled people, leftists or queers. Rather, it seems he must be referring here to the Jewish dead, those afflicted with the disease of Jewish weakness, those who "went to their death like lemmings" (Bettelheim in Pytell, 2007, p. 651). Certainly, it wasn't their Jewishness Bettelheim was interested in saving. Viewed in this way, it does not seem coincidental that Bettelheim's therapeutic practice, which I discuss below, required a tacit conversion to white Christianity. Was Bettelheim constructing a situation in which he could save Jews (his students) from their Jewishness (their madness)? If so, what did this mean about his own identity, about his relationship to himself? I suggest that beneath much of Bettelheim's work lay a deep desire to erase or destroy Jewishness. For this reason, before I proceed, I want to share an incident recounted by biographer Richard Pollack (1998):

In the late 1940s, Bettelheim revealed for the first time in public how uncomfortable he felt in his Jewish skin. He had come to speak on 'Anti-Semitism today' at Hillel House…He astonished the gathering at the outset by asking: 'Anti-Semitism, whose fault is it?' ….'Yours!' he shouted. 'Because you don't assimilate, it is your fault. If you assimilated, there would be no anti-Semitism. Why don't you assimilate?'

At the end of his talk, the young [Eric] Schopler braved the machine-gun fire and raised his hand for clarification. He said that he understood Bettelheim's remarks to mean that Jews could end anti-Semitism if they relinquished their religious and ethnic interests and had their identifying noses altered. If that was the case, then what was the difference between the speaker and an anti-Semite.? In red faced anger, Bettelheim shouted, 'I am only the doctor prescribing the cure' (p. 228)

The cure that Bettelheim put into practice at his Orthogenic School also called upon Jewish identity and experience, albeit in a somewhat different way. "Milieu therapy," Bettelheim's treatment program, was based on his theory of autism: autistic children are, in fact, just normal children who are living in a facsimile of the concentration camps created by their parents. "Autistic behavior," according to Bettelheim, was a child's natural reaction to living in a household with deviant, oppressive parents: an emasculated, passive father and a "refrigerator mother" whose secret hatred of her own femininity manifests as a death wish for her child. This theory, which was promoted both at his school and in his books, formed the basis of most mainstream North American clinical thought and practice in the 60s and 70s.

The term "refrigerator mother" was first used by another Austrian Jewish immigrant: Dr. Leo Kanner, the first professional child psychiatrist. Kanner's work, along with that of Hans Asperger (also an Austrian Jew), formed the foundations of clinical/therapeutic notions of autism. Of the three, it was Bettelheim who gained the most widespread popularity and has had the most lasting impact. According to Bettelheim, autistic behavior (cognitive, behavioral and linguistic deviation from the norm, including intellectual fixation, repetitive motion, social withdrawal and difficulty expressing emotions) is a child's response to a mother who is selfish, controlling and as cold as an icebox. This image of femininity gone awry resonates with certain attributes of the archetype of white women, who, as Dyer (1997) explains, must comport themselves with "rigidness in domestic arrangement and eating manners, privacy in relation to the bowels, [and] abstinence or at any rate planning in relation to appetites" (p. 24). The "refrigerator mother" displays feminine white conduct — but she lacks that crucial quality of "white spirit," an intangible but necessary presence that organizes and elevates the fleshiness of womanhood (Dyer, 1997, p. 15). Feminine in body, the "refrigerator mother" seems to have a masculine soul — she is self-centered, independent and success-focused, defiant of the mandate to prioritize or nurture her child.

The "refrigerator mother," then, is not the archetypal white woman: she is merely proximate to whiteness. Upon inspection, she fits quite neatly in the stereotype of the Jewish mother — a domineering "phallic monster," a failure at "romantic" or "bourgeois" white femininity (Boyarin, 1997, p. xxii). Antithetical to Mary, the ultimate archetype of Christian/white femininity — the virgin mother, both chaste and fertile — the "Jewess" is both sexually-charged and masculinized (ibid). In a perversion of Christian doctrine, the 'Jewess' has sex for pleasure, not procreation. She fails both as a white woman and a mother. Given the similarly decidedly Jewish character of the "refrigerator mother's" counter-part — an emasculated, passive father who cannot provide for or discipline his children on account of his inherent weakness — it seems apropos to wonder if autism, at least in mid-20th century North America (for Bettelheim, and, perhaps, for Kanner and Asperger) was a diagnostic/medicalized attempt at contending with/seeking to cure Jewish difference.

Bettelheim's theory of the "refrigerator mother" and his white-only policy at the Orthogenic School created what Snyder and Mitchell (2006), following Ian Hacking (2004), call an "identification feedback loop" (p. 11). This is a phenomenon in which an identity label presupposes a certain population. The "discovery" of this label prompts efforts by people in power — teachers, parents, medical professionals — to retroactively refashion the histories and identities of people in their care to fit the diagnostic and social parameters of this new label. The discursively refigured population is used to confirm the relevance and usefulness of the label, which then circulates, attaching itself primarily people who have been predetermined to fit the necessary criteria. Invested in the success of his rehabilitative practice, Bettelheim created strict entrance rules for his Orthogenic School — the students had to be white, middle/upper-middle/upper class, academic achievers with "emotional problems." He used "autism" as a unifying diagnosis for all these students, a gesture which invented commonality between his students, who, despite shared identity markers, had an incredibly diverse range of behaviors, contexts, and histories. In doing so, Bettelheim solidified the notion of autism as a "reformable" white diagnosis, which, in turn, worked to create more possibilities for white autistic subjectivity, and denied the possibilities for autism diagnoses — and, subsequently, access to specialized resources — for people of color 19.

As Pytell (2007) writes, Bettelheim turned his "concentration camp experiences into forms of psychotherapy" (p. 656). The Orthogenic School was structured "in the reverse image of the camps" (ibid). "Milieu therapy" prescribed no medication, no talking cures, no explicit "treatment" as such - rather, the children were expected to be "cured" by total immersion in heteronormative, procreative, binary-gendered, white Protestant family environment.

As a "reverse-image" of the camps, the Orthogenic School transposed Pratt's colonial educational directive to "transfer the savage-born infant to surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit" (in Smith, 2005, p. 36). Whereas the residential schools that Pratt designed functioned to quarantine and, in many cases, murder Indigenous students, Bettelheim's white-only institution was intended to transform unruly bodies into model citizens through coercive applications and withdrawals of care. At the Orthogenic School "doors [were] never locked, [there were] no bars on the windows [and]…bedrooms burst with toys and stuffed animals" ("Chicago," 1968). It was "was plush by any standards for institutions," a far cry from the deadly environments of residential schools (Goleman, 1990). As Bettelheim believed that madness was incubated by inappropriate parenting, his attempt to reverse the process (and thereby straighten the children) required the creation of new, more viable parents in his staff. Bettelheim's staff was comprised entirely of warm, "young, pliable, agreeable, passionate women" trained explicitly to become "instant mothers" (Pollack, 1998, p. 148), human facsimiles of the concrete statue of the nude "super mother" in the school courtyard.

Though the school did not allow outright religious expression, it did make use of the full scope of normative Christian white configurations of family life. As Dyer (1997) notes, "many of the fundamentals of all levels of Western culture — the forms of parenting, especially motherhood, and sex — come to us from Christianity, whether or not we know the bible story or recognize the specific items of Christian iconography" (p. 15). Thus, Bettelheim's "normal" American school-home life became a Christianizing project. Indeed, Christmas, the only holiday celebrated at the Orthogenic School, was a formidable affair — Bettelheim, who was known on most other days to dole out all manner of violent abuse (from spankings to outright beatings) dressed up as Santa Claus and personally handed out gifts to the children (Gottleib, 2003, para. 7).

According to Richard Pollack (1998) and Robert Gottleib (2003), Bettelheim's Orthogenic School was also rife with physical and psychological abuse. One former student called it "a dumping ground for young people who were 'different' in some way or, for whatever reason, didn't match their parents' expectations" (Pollack, 1998, p. 188). Bettelheim was known to slap and punch children. He would often tell his students that they were at the Orthogenic School because their parents "couldn't stand them" (Gottleib, 2003, para. 51). He called them "megalomaniacs" and "neurotics," and forced them into uncomfortable or violent situations against their will. Children were expected to shower, naked, in front of the staff and one another throughout their stay, regardless of age or comfort level, and many students and staff were physically and sexually abused. Jacqueline Sanders worked for Bettelheim for thirteen years and became the director of the school after Bettelheim left. She writes, "we became abusers of abused children" (in Pollack, 1998, p. 209).

The privacy of the Orthogenic School was intended to protect it from any external forces which might interfere with the retraining of children inside. Bettelheim's intention was to create an entirely new environment for the children to grow up in. Indeed, the "success" of Bettelheim's "milieu" was predicated on a complete removal of the child from their birth family, a strategy that calls upon the horrors that the Indigenous families were subjected to historically, in residential schools, and currently through so-called child protection agencies 20. Under Bettelheim's leadership, the Orthogenic School was completely sealed: children were committed for a two year minimum, but encouraged to stay for the entirety of their elementary and high school years. Parents and family members were not allowed contact of any form for long periods of time and few people were allowed into or out of the facility itself.

Bettelheim's obsession with separating children from their families, and in particular from their mothers, also appears to have roots in his personal history and anti-Jewish sentiments. In Bettelheim's philosophy, the specter of monstrosity associated with disability was displaced from the child to the mother. With the "blood logic" of matrilineal transmission of Jewishness, and the association of Jewishness and madness, it seems possible that the intention of displacing madness from the child to the mother is the effect of a concurrent displacement of racialized Jewishness from child to mother. "Refrigerator mothers" (and weak Jewish fathers) imbued their children with both psychosis and Jewishness.

School therapy had two distinct steps — quarantine from the presumably contagious family line and rehabilitation towards white Christianity. Bettelheim deemed his students "cured" once they had learned to function appropriately within the Orthogenic school — his "family" structure — and they had expressed what he deemed to be "healthy" desires for normative life. Most essentially, Bettelheim advocated for his students to desire — and receive — higher education. This emphasis on college-level education as the mark of a "cured" student resonates with the ways in which Jews were simultaneously being whitened in North America through new educational opportunities and access to white collar employment.

As Irish Catholics, Jews and other "ethnic" white people advocated for a more "inclusive version of whiteness" (Brodkin, 2002, p. 36), Bettelheim — who had notoriously prescribed total assimilation as the "cure" for both Jewishness and madness (identities which were still inherently linked) — measured his success by determining how well his students were able to gain access to dominant power structures. As these power structures opened to newly "whitened" identities, they remained decidedly closed to Indigenous and racialized people.


My uncle Larry was born in 1960 on the South Side of Chicago, the third child of Ruth and Oscar. My mom is their eldest. She was born in 1952 — the same year that the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 21 was released.

Larry grew up reserved, serious and whip-smart. From the stories my mother and aunt tell, Ruth, their mother, was self-centered, emotionally absent and cruel. I should be able to describe her personality myself — she's still alive. I barely know her, though, in part because I have always felt she was so cold, a thought that, in light of this research, gives me chills of a different sort. Their father, they recall, was sweet, kind, caring man, whose passivity they attribute to the impact and influence of his wife and his own childhood trauma. He spent much of his adult life in and out of psychiatric institutions, sometimes receiving electro-shock therapy. I barely remember him — he passed away when I was six years old.

In preschool, Larry's teachers were impressed with his aptitude and diligence. As he grew older, however, people were increasingly frightened by his behavior. He was smart and passionate, but had trouble integrating with other kids. He developed the practice of arriving incredibly early to school, waiting outside the doors beginning at 6am. In 1968, Oscar was hospitalized for a year, and the whole family moved from the South Side to the North Side. Larry changed schools. It all went downhill: Jewish Family Services got involved, and there was much tumult. In the early 1970s, Larry was sent to the Orthogenic School.

My aunt and mother remember Larry's time away with immense sadness. They knew he was unhappy, but they were powerless to change the situation. He wrote hundreds of letters in a tiny, cramped hand begging to be allowed to come home. When he came out, he was angry and he stayed that way.

As a general rule, my family has been successful in the mainstream sense of the word. My mother and aunt both have higher education and good jobs. My mom has received accolades for her work as a journalist and television producer. Larry's life also had great accomplishments, by normative standards. He got two masters degrees and started a PhD. He was able to find a little bit of teaching work for a while, but it petered out eventually. He lived the rest of his life in relative isolation. He never let anyone visit his tiny apartment, would only call from payphones. But he continued to think, to write, to imagine a better world. His birthday cards were gems, full of surreal wisdom and astute analysis.

After he passed away, my mother became attached to a phrase, repeating it over and over like a charm: you and your brother, you're Larry's legacy. My search for answers — my study of Bettelheim, the Orthogenic School, shifts in the "psy" disciplines — has been an attempt to understand and contend with this idea.

I carry Larry with me. I hold his memory close. In this way, I represent his ongoing presence in the world. My inclinations, my political hopes and dreams, my ways of thinking about the world have been shaped by Larry's influence. But our differences speak louder than our similarities. For Larry, madness and Jewish identity were conflated. He was pathologized by virtue of both identities; they combined to subject him to marginality and violence within a racialized and disableist world order that had yet to fully assimilate Jewishness into white supremacy or subsume certain kinds of white madness into manageable, treatable "illnesses." Larry was a casualty of the very social process that created my comfort and safety. At the Orthogenic School, he experienced first-hand, but did not benefit from, the interventions and knowledge regimes that led to the de-pathologization and whitening of Jewish identity.

I speculate that few people directly, historically involved with the changes happening at the Orthogenic School felt any positive impact from those changes. Students, staff, even the director himself experienced a great deal of trauma. The story of Bettelheim's life — how it began, and how it ended — is not one of comfort, security or ease. These things — the frightening unearned benefits of whiteness within white supremacy — were given to the generation that followed, to my generation, to me. In this way, I am Larry's legacy — though perhaps not a happy one.

I am left as I began — with ghosts. Through my study of Bruno Bettelheim, and my sense of myself as Larry's legacy, I have come to wonder: How much have my ideas about myself and my family been shaped by colonial whitening regimes? What does it mean that I see my grandfather as passive, my grandmother as cold? What did this social climate do to my mother's perceptions? How did her childhood affect her own parenting style? Am I repeating a brutal history when I reflect with sadness on my own childhood traumas, troubles, sleights? What does it mean to be attached to Jewish identity as a white setter, or to disabled identity as someone whose madness is so concealed, so quiet, so secondary to my experience of power structures in my life? How can we ever be accountable to the living — let alone the dead?


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  1. This paper is dedicated, with great respect and gratitude, to Dr. Sheryl Nestel.
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  2. Following the work of Louise Tam (2011), I use the term "psy" complex to refer to the system of knowledge and practice that aims to delineate, quarantine, eliminate and/or "treat" madness. In Tam's (2011) terms, "psy" practices "refer to processes of psychiatric and psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment both within and outside of the mental hospital, including sites such as schools, prisons, settlement agencies, and international aid organizations" (p. 1).
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  3. For the remainder of this paper, the terms "Jewish identity," "Jewishness," and "Jews" refer specifically and solely to Ashkenazi non-Orthodox Jewish identity: that is, "Rhineland" Jews, those who come from Eastern, Central and Western European contexts and, as I will discuss, currently participate in white supremacy as white people. I refer to this very specific subsection of Jewish identity in this way — as merely "Jewish" — foremost for simplicity's sake, but as an acknowledgement that Ashkenazi non-Orthodox Jews are culturally understood in contemporary North America, Western European and Israel to be archetypally Jewish, whereas Sephardic, North African and Middle-Eastern Jews are often qualified as such and subject to racism typical to that qualification. I recognize that in referring to Ashkenazi non-Orthodox Jews as "Jews," I am following a racist script — firmly placing white people in the unqualified center of my analysis and casting racialized Jews to the periphery. I hope to keep the problematic nature of this gesture in mind even as I participate in it.
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  4. The fibromyalgia diagnosis is quite socially complex. Many doctors refuse its existence, denying and demeaning the real experiences of their patients. Others use it as a catchall diagnosis, saving them the work of further or more specific inquiry into their patients' pain. Despite the broad range of responses, most doctors agree that there is some "psy" component to the condition either in cause or effect. For more on this, see Thorne, McCormick, and Carty (1996), Mollow (2004) and Lightman, Vick, Herd and Mitchell (2009).
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  5. When, for example, I have acted erratically, withdrawn from social connections and responsibilities or made sudden, major and bewildering life choices.
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  6. Personal or global
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  7. I just want to note here that this paper engages with one very particular aspect of the whitening of Jewish identity — the aspect of disability/madness and institutional psychiatry/psychology. Though I do not have time or space to write about it here, I want to add that Zionism has also been a foundational element of the change in Jewish identity over the 20th century, and remains a key anchor in North American secular Jewish whiteness as well as in the entrenchment of global white supremacy. Some of writers that I use to discuss shifts in Jewish racialization / whiteness as they relate to madness in this text — Daniel Boyarin (1997), for example — have also written extensively on the ways in which the colonization of Palestine has factored into contemporary whitestream Jewish identity.
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  8. "Cisgendered" refers to people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. "Cissexism" describes the sexist investment in the binary gender system and the related treatment of transgender/transsexual/gender non-conforming people as inferior.
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  9. When discussing the general cultural and legal systems of colonial North America, I use "secular" and "Christian" interchangeably.
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  10. Masculinity" herein is understood as a social process, which both dictates and is dictated by broad cultural norms. Because I am analyzing history within patriarchy and exploring writing that has emerged within a cissexist historical paradigm, I assume that the "men" and "women" that history has written about as men and women were cisgendered. However, as much of the history I analyze concerns the narratives of Jewish gender as queer within the binary gendered system of Christian heteropatriarchy, it is difficult to know how the "men" and "women" Jews I discuss actually identified. I recognize that using "men" and "women" (without qualifier) to refer to people I assume to be cisgendered men and women is cisnormative. At the same time, I do not want to assume gender-variance/trans identity where it may not have been.
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  11. Delivered, of course, through cultural genocide, physical violence and torture and secured by a complete removal of Indigenous children from their families
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  12. As Nast (2000) writes, the very concept of "the psyche" is a colonial production; it "emerged as an embodied spatial effect...across place and time in tandem with European colonialisms across the world" (p. 215).
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  13. That is to say, Eastern and Central European Ashkenazi Jews displaced further West by pogroms.
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  14. The "anti-modern" character of Jewishness resonates with the colonial narratives of primitive Indigeneity. It also resonates with Darwin's late-nineteenth-century diagnoses of intellectually disabled people as "evolutionary throwbacks" (Snyder & Mitchell, 2006, p. 13). Again, the intention here is not to create a relationship of equivalence, but to look for the ways in which structural contexts and overarching discourses travel, interlock and change in their material manifestations.
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  15. In keeping with the patriarchy of academia, Jewish women are often remarkably absent from studies and critiques of the stigmatization of Jewish identity in Europe. As Anne Pellegrini (1997) writes, "significantly, in the implicit equation of Jews and women, the Jewish female body goes missing. All Jews are womanly, but no women are Jews" (p. 109).
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  16. Bettelheim has been accused of falsifying his qualifications upon his arrival in the US. While Bettelheim claimed to have studied under Freud and earned his degree in psychology, there is no evidence to support this. While Freud did teach at the University of Vienna, which Bettelheim attended sporadically between 1930 and 1938, there is no record of them ever working together. It is difficult to attend to the complications of this here. Whether this is an issue of translation or the understandable attempt to minimize potential discrimination / maximize job potential is a matter of speculation.
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  17. Fernando (1999) writes:
    In the nineteenth century, psychiatrists in the US argued for the retention of slavery, quoting statistics allegedly showing that mental illness was more often reported among freed slaves compared to those who were still in slavery (Thomas and Sillen, 1972)…. Throughout the first half of this century, the apparent rarity of depression among African-Americans and Africans was attributed to their 'irresponsible' or 'unthinking' nature (Green 1914) n or the 'absence of a sense of responsibility' (Carothers, 1953) in their character. In the 1920s, Carl Jung postulated that the 'Negro' 'has probably a whole historic layer less' in the brain (p. 81)
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  18. That is, disabled students were allowed in public school classrooms.
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  19. To this day, autism remains a suspiciously white diagnosis. The 2002 documentary "Refrigerator Mothers" outlines the "classic mold" of children diagnosed with autism as white, upper-middle class and very, very bright." Children of color are 2.6 times less likely than white children to receive an autism diagnosis (Mandell, et al, 2006, p. 1795). The whiteness of this diagnosis is likely linked to its relative social valorization, at least in the "psy" disciplines: autism is seen as a diagnosis of extreme intelligence, rather than, for example, pathological violence. However, the whiteness of the autism diagnosis may, indeed, also be indebted to Bettelheim's work and his white-only policy.
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  20. For more on the Indian Residential Schools, 60s scoop and other atrocities of removal, see Chrisjohn, Young and Mauran (2006) and Churchill (2004). The targeting of Indigenous children continues unabated — according to First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, there are three times as many Indigenous children in state care today than there were at the height of the Residential School system (Dunn, 2012, para. 3).
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  21. The DSM — now developing its 5th iteration — is the text used by psychiatrists and clinicians to diagnose people with mental illnesses. Its release in 1952 marked a new era in the medicalization of madness.
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