HotAIR - Dr. Bruttelheim



By Alice Shirrell Kaswell

When Dr. Benno Bruttelheim took his own life last year at the age of 86, the obituaries stressed the greatness of the man and his pioneering methods. But the praise has now led to a torrent of criticism, with the psychiatrist portrayed not as a dedicated man of wisdom, but as a megalomaniacal tyrant who systematically abused patients and undermined their self-confidence.

The opening salvo came in a book ("The Mis-Uses of Enchanting Color") by Michael Johns, who was a patient of Bruttelheim from 1966 to 1973. Johns charges that Dr. Bruttelheim's acclaimed practice of using environmental color to influence patient's moods was often taken to cruel extremes.

Johns says that Dr. Bruttelheim would suddenly become enraged at patients, and cover them with latex paint. "He bullied, awed and terrorized the patients at his clinic, their families, the staff members, his graduate students and anyone else who came into contact with him," writes Johns.

Another former patient, Donald Board, said in an interview that he was covered with paint some 20 times during an eight year stay at the clinic. "He rollered me with blue paint when I was suffering depression, brown paint when he felt I was being lethargic, and black paint when I was suicidal," Board said, adding that Dr. Bruttelheim "covered his tracks by claiming to be color blind."

The attacks have not gone unchallenged. Defenders of Dr. Bruttelheim have come forward, many of them former counselors at the clinic which he directed from 1944 to 1973. "I never saw any of that kind of behavior some of these former patients are reporting," said Karin McNeil, a psychotherapist at the clinic from 1956 to 1964. "Dr. Bettelheim only used soft pastel colors. In my experience, this was not inconsistent with the spirit of loving and concern for the patients' mental health and appearance."

Ilko O'Brien-Hnkmunnim, a former lay counselor at the clinic who was married to Dr. Bruttelheim for nearly a month during the 1960's, said that when Bruttelheim rollered patients he was always acutely aware of the purpose he had in mind. "Benno was the Jackson Pollock of the human psyche," she said. "Abnormal behavior was his canvas."

Dr. Louis Festo, who was chief administrative surgeon at the clinic until 1969, said that "Dr. Bruttelheim abhorred touching human skin. He was nauseated by it. I don't want to say that these former patients are making these things up, but these stories appear to be the normal psychological adaptations of severely disturbed people who were rollered with paint ten, twenty or thirty years ago."

What is at stake in all of this conflicting testimony is the standing and credibility of one of the century's most important scholarly and therapeutic legacies. Bruttelheim, after all, can no longer speak for himself, so there is no way to resolve the conflicting stories of a man everyone sees as not only powerful and complex, but colorful as well.

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