NOT THE THING I WAS by Stephen Eliot


Thirteen Years at Bruno Bettelheim’s Orthogenic School
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A New York City investment banker recounts his long haul through a childhood and adolescence of emotional troubles.

By the time he was eight, Eliot remembers, he saw dangers everywhere. In response, he became verbally vicious, full of rage and sadness, arrogance and grandiosity. In profound disequilibrium, he was diagnosed as a borderline schizophrenic. Here, recounting his 13 years at Bruno Bettelheim's Orthogenic School in Chicago, he tries to crawl back into the skin of the boy who never felt comfortable in that skin. Bettelheim would have approved, for it was his conviction that to help a disturbed child, you first had to see the world as the child did. But Eliot is a different creature now, and it is difficult for him to coax his strange younger self onto the page, despite reference to notes taken by his counselors. However, he is eloquent in describing the Orthogenic School’s routines and in weaving his progress through them, from the battling child who established a relationship with another person for the first time, to the golden middle years when he started to catch glimpses of his behavior in a context other than his own, to the desire to be free of observation and others’ control. Also sharp is Eliot’s portrait of Bettelheim, contradictions and brilliance and all. A genius at “digging out the underlying truth about an issue,” the psychologist had less attractive traits, including a weakness for humiliating students and an inability to adequately contend with teenage sexual issues. Yet he created an environment that could foster and re-create personality, at least for some. Eliot knows that leaving the school at age 21 to attend Yale was not a miracle or a matter of luck, but the result of counselors who knew he had “a streak of sanity somewhere” and helped him find, mine, and refine it.

Flawed, but in patches a vivid depiction of an unorthodox school and its controversial director.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-312-30749-7
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2003