Bruno Bettelheim, “Joey, a ‘Mechanical Boy’,” 1959

Bruno Bettelheim, “Joey: A ‘Mechanical Boy’,” Scientific American 200, no. 3 (March 1959):116-27.

Complete original source available here.

The image of an autistic child, turned into a machine by the terrible inhumanity of his human family, communicated volumes about the causes and consequences of autism. (It is worth noting that Bruno Bettelheim still called Joey “schizophrenic” in this 1959 article, and described his autistic behaviors as the chief manifestations of this disease in infantile form.) Bettelheim was an internationally recognized psychoanalyst, writer, and the foremost proponent of psychogenesis. He was an Austrian émigré who believed that he had survived two German concentration camps because of the powers of psychological observation and analysis that he later put to use in his work with children. Bettelheim went on to direct the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, which under his direction became a treatment center for disturbed children, including many children with autism, who became part of its “total therapeutic milieu.” The story of Joey, which he first told in the pages of Scientific American, was later incorporated as a central element of Bettelheim’s The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self (1967).


Bruno Bettelheim (courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf1-09273], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Not every child who possesses a fantasy world is possessed by it. Normal children may retreat into realms of imaginary glory or magic powers, but they are easily recalled from these excursions. Disturbed children are not always able to make the return trip; they remain withdrawn, prisoners of the inner world of delusion and fantasy. In many ways Joey presented the classic example of this state of infantile autism….

During Joey’s first weeks with us we would watch absorbedly as this at once fragile-looking and imperious nine-year-old went about his mechanical existence. 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, for he firmly believed that the “current” ran his ingestive apparatus….

Joey’s delusion [that he was a machine] is not uncommon among schizophrenic children today. He wanted to be rid of his unbearable humanity, to become fully automatic….

The caption Bettelheim wrote for Joey’s self-portrait summarized the theory of psychogenesis.

How had Joey become a human machine? From intensive interviews with his parents we learned that the process had begun even before birth. Schizophrenia often results from parental rejection, sometimes combined ambivalently with love. Joey, on the other hand, had been completely ignored….

“I did not want to see or nurse him,” his mother declared. I had no feeling of actual dislike—I simply didn’t want to take care of him.” For the first three months of his life Joey “cried most of the time.” A colicky baby, he was kept on a rigid four-hour feeding schedule, was not touched unless necessary and was never cuddled or played with….

When he began to master speech he talked only to himself. At an early date he became preoccupied with machinery, including an old electric fan which he could take apart and put together again with surprising deftness…. Joey’s existence never registered with his mother….

He began to develop compulsive defenses, which he called his “preventions.” He could not drink, for example, except through elaborate piping systems built of straws….

To us, Joey’s pathological behavior seemed the external expression of an overwhelming effort to remain almost nonexistent as a person….

Joey was convinced that machines were better than people…. If he lost or forgot something, it merely proved that his brain ought to be thrown away and replaced by machinery. If he spilled something, his arm should be broken and twisted off because it did not work property. When his head or arm failed to work as it should, he tried to punish it by hitting it. Even Joey’s feelings were mechanical….

Joey had created these machines to run his body and mind because it was too painful to be human….

Their [Joey’s parents] reactions to his eating or noneating, sleeping or wakening, urinating or defecating, being dressed or undressed, washed or bathed did not flow from any unitary interest in him, deeply embedded in their personalities. By treating him mechanically his parents made him a machine. The various functions of life—even the parts of his body—bore no integrating relationship to one another or to any sense of self that was acknowledged and confirmed by others…. In Joey’s development the normal process of growth had been made to run backward….

It is unlikely that Joey’s calamity could befall a child in any time and culture but our own. He suffered no physical deprivation; he starved for human contact….

Joey at last broke through his prison. In this brief account it has not been possible to trace the painfully slow process of his first true relations with other human beings. Suffice it to say that he ceased to be a mechanical boy and became a human child. This newborn child was, however, nearly 12 years old.

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