Berthajane Vandegrift
A Few Impertinent Questions
about Autism, Freudiansim and Materalism


Some of the therapists may have looked for easier ways to make a living, but I'm proud to report that my sanity managed to survive the encounter described here. This story is true. The names of the professionals have been changed to protect the well-intentioned. My encounter with 20th Century psychiatry put an end to any belief in philosophical materialism, and stimulated my interest in alternatives to both religion and materialistic science.  There are no authoritative answers to most of the questions.  Answers proposed by professional philosophers to such religious and philosophical concepts would be no more scientific than anyone else's speculations. 

Revised as of December, 2015    

Science has not made much progress at understanding mental illness.  Most mental illness seems to be as unique as individuals.  Nevertheless psychiatry has tried to divide it up into schizophrenia, manic depression, bipolar, etc.  Actually, making such diagnoses seems to have been psychiatrists' main preoccupation.  However such differences are vague and debatable, causes are unknown, cures are rare and treatments are of limited effectiveness.   Having irrational thoughts is usually a definition of mentally illness.  But don’t we all have irrational thoughts?  I'd be suspicious of anyone who claimed they didn't.   Children are even encouraged to pursue irrational thoughts, but adults are expected to distinguish reality from fairy tales.  What is regarded as irrational in one society might be normal in another. Homosexuality was once widely considered a mental illness, for instance.  Freud’s proposed treatment of mental illness was psychotherapy - trying to talk people out of their psychosis.  Even the mythical wicked-stepmother wasn't considering capable of destroying anyone’s sanity.  Nevertheless, Freudian psychology had no trouble persuading patients to blame their mothers for any deviant thought.  The anger and resentment generated was painful and destructive. 

My own encounter with psychology occurred when my three-year-old son was diagnosed autistic. At that time Bruno Bettelheim, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, was promoting a theory that autism was caused by “maternal rejection”, and psychotherapy for mother was the treatment.  I also suspect we were unknowingly involved in a "scientific study".  During the early 20th Century, the height of scientific materialism, just about anything scientists wanted to do was considered ethical - after all, they were the priests of our modern religion, and whatever they did was supposedly for the good of mankind.  In 1961, Kennedy, with a mentally disabled sister (who had been scientifically lobotomized), was our new President, and money was available for research on defective children. A generation of enthusiastic, young therapists had just completed training and were eager to display their wondrous, modern, scientific power to cure.  Some therapists were bullies, convinced that their scientific truths justified coercion. However even the most benign therapists faced a problem.  Most of them were men in those days (as were most doctors), and some of those nice young men were reluctant to be explicit.  Maternal rejection is a pretty offensive concept, and how could they convince women it was nothing more serious than a mild, easily cured infection?  How could they slip Mother a dose of psychotherapy without explaining exactly what they were doing?  Awful as the experience was, I often managed to see humor in it.  And hopefully the medical establishment has learned to view psychologists promoting theories with more caution.

People differ over belief in the existence of progress, some insisting that the human race is deteriorating, rather than progressing.  They are probably the same people who feel damaged by traumatic experiences.  Certainly the world is rife with challenges, and if one regarded them as damaging, it would be logical to conclude that the human race is declining.  But while Nature occasionally stagnates or temporarily regresses, most people in today’s scientific society assume the universe consists of an ever-increasing complexity   When an egg and a sperm come together to form a new organism, a creative process begins, the complexity of which we have only the most primitive understanding. Perhaps some of those human deviations from average, sometimes labeled mental illness, are merely nature's tentative, imperfect, experimental attempts to organize novel, evolutionary adaptations to a changing environment. Creativity is not consistent with conformity, and non-conforming, autistic children often seem to have nonconforming relatives. 

Twentieth Century materialists decided that evolution was an accidental processes, devoid of meaning or purpose (random-mutation-and-natural-selection).  I am a religious agnostic. I don’t believe in a personal god.  However I believe that life consists of something more than a mechanical process.  Bodies sometimes heal themselves because of belief (a thought) that a medicine has been administered.  It is called the placebo effect, and is surely evidence that abstract thoughts could be an aspect of creative biological organization.  Evolution doesn’t cease when the organism emerges from the womb.  Most organisms continue to adapt and grow during infancy and childhood.  The brain can continue to grow throughout old age. Teleology, or the concept that life itself is an intelligent, creative force, might be regarded as a religious belief, not a scientific one, and science will never prove any religion, including the religion of Atheistic Materialism.  However, Scientific evidence is presently emerging that some people find compatible with (but not necessarily proof of) DNA changing in purposeful response to environmental pressures.  Such evidence has long existed, but until recently most scientists were not motivated to look for it. I am not a scientist, and I generally accept the judgments of the authorities, but I prefer to think of myself as an active participant in an imperfectly-created, evolving universe, rather than an impotent observer of an indifferent, mechanical reality. Thus, my thoughts and actions matter, as I strive to change and adapt - and make my small contribution to the growth of this great responsive, living complexity.  And if my contributions seem limited, they are enormous when compared to what I might enjoy under the concept of genetic determinism. 


A Few Autistic Questions

About Freud, Marx and Darwin

Question 1

Is volition another term for  creativity?


"Tell me about yourself," suggested the young pediatrician.

What a strange request for a pediatrician to make!  Especially a pediatrician at a busy Army clinic, where no one had time for idle social-chatter. Wearing a starched white coat over his Army uniform, the doctor sat behind his desk regarding me gravely through horn-rimmed glasses. I stared back, baffled. What did he expect me to respond? That I was an Army wife?  But that was obvious, wasn’t it, since this was an Army hospital?

I had never even met a psychiatrist, much less a mentally ill person.  (The mentally ill were usually confined to institutions in those days).  The silence became uncomfortable. The partitions of the clinic were flimsy, and I could hear a buzz of activity out in the crowded waiting room.   I had only vague ideas about psychiatry, but while uncertain about what psychiatrists actually did, I was pretty sure I had no need for one.  In those days people didn’t usually consult a doctor for colds and other minor problems.  The medical profession was less wealthy - and also less worried about law-suits.   My father had been an automobile mechanic, and during my childhood Daddy maintained the doctor’s car in exchanged for our family’s medical treatment.  So I often felt compelled to convince everyone (including myself) that my medical problem was sufficiently grave.  However on this particular occasion no one was sick, and I hadn't arrived at the pediatrician's office in my usual state of anxiety.  I did feel a little self-conscious about my reason for consulting a doctor.  I'd brought Tony to the clinic, not because I thought something was wrong with him.  My handsome, independent little three-year-old was actually in excellent health.  I was here because a neighbor had suggested it. I would have felt foolish admitting I'd consulted a doctor just because a neighbor disapproved of him, so I explained Tony didn't talk much, was still in diapers, and maybe he should have a check-up.  But to my bewilderment, instead of examining Tony, the doctor kept trying to initiate personal conversation.

“How do you like the new administration in Washington?” he asked.

“It's exciting, isn't it?” I responded.

“Society will be in trouble unless people start taking responsibility for their own lives,” the doctor said disapprovingly. “People expect the government to do everything for them.”

I was a political liberal who believed some of mankind's most magnificent accomplishments were achieved democratically, through government action. The abolition of slavery and the end of segregation were bitterly contested at the time, but most of us are proud of such achievements today. Establishment of an education system and Social Security were less controversial, but nostalgia for a simpler, more primitive society seems to ensure that all innovation faces some opposition.  So I admired Kennedy, our new, liberal, young president, but I also realized some conservatives appear to feel a near religious reverence for "private-enterprise" and believe government should never interfere with the survival-of-the-fittest. (And a Nazi style  eradication of the less fit, I presume.) Apparently this doctor and I would disagree on politics, I decided, but a doctor's office didn't seem an appropriate place for such a discussion. I sat waiting for him to begin examining Tony. 

“So now, why don’t you tell me about yourself,” the doctor again suggested, with a self-conscious little smile. He spoke rather tentatively, as though he realized his request was somewhat unusual for a pediatrician. 

I had never encountered a doctor with such a desire for social conversation! 

I looked at Tony, busy examining the contents of the wastebasket. "Tony sometimes has a rather violent temper," I finally managed to offer, hoping to return the doctor's attention to his patient. Maybe one of Tony's glands needed adjusting or something.  (My understanding of biology was obviously limited.)

“Does he understand what you say to him?” 

“I'm never sure. He rarely does what I tell him but he's independent and stubborn.”

Tony was on his knees, his little blue-jean-clad rear-end up in the air and his head on the floor, trying to see under a partition into the next office. If anyone were on the other side of that partition, they'd probably feel uncomfortable to see his bright, inquisitive little face peering up at them. I picked him up and held him on my lap.

“How does he get along with other children?”

I thought a moment. “I don't think I've noticed him play with other children,” I finally said, as I realized Tony usually played by himself.

“Does he have opportunities to be around them?”

“Off and on, I suppose. Actually, he doesn't play with his brother and sister very much.” I admitted.

“Where do you live?”

“In a big old house on a hill ovelooking San Rafael.”

“You own your home?” I nodded. “You are lucky to own property in such a valuable area,” he continued.

He seemed to expect a response, so I tried to think of one. “The house is a hundred years old and has termites,” I said. “In the coming depression it probably won't be worth what we paid for it.”

“We don't have depressions anymore,” the doctor scoffed.

Many of us who grew up during the thirties, sometimes accused of having depression mentalities, didn't really trust prosperity, but the doctor's comment seemed condescending. “You are probably too young to know what a depression is,” I said.

The doctor frowned. I was startled by my own impertinence. I didn’t usually come out with such retorts. Suffering from shyness, I was rarely rude or impudent. Perhaps the doctor was just making an effort to be friendly. Army doctors were not known for their bedside manner though, and I'd never encountered one with time or inclination for this kind of personal conversation.

"Tell me about your husband," he suggested, ignoring my comment.

Tony slid off my lap to examine the scales. Again, I was baffled. I couldn't imagine why our personal lives might be of concern to this pediatrician. Surely he wasn't interested in Ike's vital statistics, such as height, weight or eye-color.

“He's stationed in Greenland at the moment,” I finally offered.

"Uh-oh! That's bad." It seemed another strange reaction for an Army doctor.  There was nothing unusual about overseas duty for military families. Again, I couldn't think of anything to say, and the doctor continued. "How do you feel about your husband's absence?" 

"Well he'll be home in a couple of months."

The doctor glanced at Tony. After trying to turn the valves under the sink, Tony had crawled onto a bookcase. With a self-satisfied smile, he crouched on the bottom shelf like a life-sized bookend. We talked some more, and the doctor continued to try to discuss everything except Tony.

"Ever since you came your little boy has been running around the office examining the equipment," he finally said, as he watched Tony leave the bookcase and crawl under the desk. "He's paid no attention to me. Why he's hardly aware I'm in the room!"

Why should Tony pay attention to you, I wondered. You haven't done anything but talk, and Tony wouldn't understand much of that. The doctor appeared strange to me, but Tony wouldn't understand enough of our conversation to share my bewilderment. However I wasn't accustomed to challenging doctors, and I nodded. 

"Your child is not normal," the doctor said.

"You really think so?" I murmured.

His words seemed to have no impact upon me. After all, he hadn't paid much attention to Tony. He hadn't even examined him. For some reason, that pediatrician acted as though his purpose was to examine me, Tony's mother! I listened to the doctor make another appointment for us, but I was busy puzzling over what on earth this peculiar doctor had been up to for the past half-hour.  Ask a silly question and you get a silly answer, I thought as I left the doctor's office.  Whatever that pediatrician had been up to, that's what I got for taking my child to a doctor when there was nothing wrong with him, I mused with chagrin.  I had never heard of autism, and it would never have occurred to me to challenge this doctor’s pronouncement that Tony was not normal.  He obviously had more imagination than most children.  And his curiosity was monumental.  Tony was slow to mature, but my other son had also been a “late bloomer”.  I realized that psychiatric evaluations are not a pediatrician's specialty, and this doctor's manner may have been a little clumsy.  But whatever a psyche consisted of, I was confident there was nothing wrong with mine.  Today some scientists are pondering the complex nature of consciousness, but even without defining it, the psychiatric profession had already divided human consciousness up into imaginary ids, egos and superegos, and declared their ability to repair them.  And if we laymen didn't understand the details – well, we didn't understand lots of modern technology, such as the atom bomb, or how penicillin worked either.


The controversy over philosophical materialism wasn’t yet a part of my thinking, but my distaste of therapy would draw me into it.  Disagreement over evolution is where materialism is most often debated.  Materialists declared RM&NS (Random-mutation-and-natural-selection) to be a “natural law”.  We are far from understand the details of life's complexity, but what science has been able to learn about the process fills many, many volumes.  Can anyone imagine a new biological feature appearing in one of those medical books as the result of a series of typographical errors - random mutations?  Survival-of-the-fittest was eagerly accepted by 19th Century scientists, probably because scientists of that time were struggling against a rigid, religious orthodoxy.  However a rigid, materialistic orthodoxy had replaced religion for many scientists.  People expressing skepticism about the creative power of "natural selection" were scornfully denounced as "ignorant, religious creationists".   Many of us view free-will as real.  Certainly, there is nothing supernatural about our own purposeful, conscious, human volition.  Whatever the organizing force in living systems is labeled - biocentrism, self-organization, epigenetics, intelligent design, James A Shapiro’s genetic engineering, or a phrase that encompasses them all: cognitive biology - they are all closer to Lamarck's inheritance of acquired characteristics than to Darwin's RM&NS.  And Lamarck would be a more appropriate “father of evolution” than Darwin.