Letters to the editor

Readers share their thoughts on Jacqueline Sanders’s Reminiscence of Bruno Bettelheim, the credibility of the Ethics Committee and the change in Ethics Standard 1.02, and the board of Section IX, Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility

Jacqueline Sanders’s Reminiscence of Bruno Bettelheim in DIVISION/Review, 1(1), 23–27

There is a minor historical inaccuracy in Jacqueline Sanders’s thoughtful and feelingful reminiscence of her experiences with Bruno Bettelheim and her reviews of the three biographies. She states:

He [Fisher] presents Bettelheim as a lay analyst, although he never went through a program nor did he have the training analysis. He never claimed in my presence to be a psychoanalyst and never had private patients—psychotherapeutic or psychoanalytic.…This indication that Bettelheim did not have the benefit of another helping him with the examination of his unconscious, is helpful in understanding the blind spots…(p. 27)

This seems to imply that Bettelheim was never psychoanalyzed. But Bruno Bettelheim was psychoanalyzed by Richard Sterba in Vienna before undergoing the trauma of the concentration camp. Both Bettelheim and Sterba mentioned it, with Bettelheim commenting that how Sterba began the analysis made it possible for him to be analyzed. Sterba was one of the first four candidates at the first psychoanalytic institute in Vienna and early became a training analyst. I do not know whether that psychoanalysis was a training analysis. I believe I heard Bettelheim say that no one who’d been in a concentration camp could go back to the life they led before that experience, that before the concentration camp, like most psychoanalysts, he had only worked with neurotic adults, and after coming out of the concentration camp he now only worked with psychotic children.

I believe that Bettelheim and his wife boarded an autistic child, who was treated by Editha Sterba, also one of the first four candidates and a pioneer in child analysis. Before the diagnosis “early infantile autism” was originated by Leo Kanner, she had treated a child in Vienna successfully that was published under the title “An Abnormal Child” who fit the diagnosis. American parents of a second autistic child consulted Sigmund Freud to see if anything could be done for their child. Freud said that he did not know, but he thought Editha Sterba had treated a child somewhat like that, and suggested they consult her. She accepted the child for treatment, but the parents had to return to America. But it was felt that Bettelheim, then a teacher, and his wife were good people who were interested in psychoanalysis and would cooperate with the treatment. The child was helped, and I have always thought that was where Bettelheim gained the conviction that such children were treatable.

These are minor considerations raised by an excellent and meaningful reminiscence.

- Bertram P. Karon, PhD, ABPP

The Credibility of the Ethics Committee and the Change in Standard 1.02

Frank Summers’s piece entitled “The Credibility of the Ethics Committee and the Change in Standard 1.02” raises serious allegations that the Ethics Committee of the APA itself acted unethically in delaying consideration of the Council’s request to amend the code’s infamous “Nuremberg defense” for four and a half years. Summers praises the changes that finally were implemented, in that the standard that permitted following law and military regulations over ethics was deleted and a clause that, in Summers’s description, “requires unequivocal adherence to human rights” was inserted in its place. However, he is rightly perplexed by the EC’s behavior, particularly in the endgame, where the EC issued a report opposing any change in June 2009, and then reversed itself and supported the very language the opposition had been proposing all along.

I believe I might be able to shed light on these events, by drawing on a document from the Department of Defense that has recently been brought to my attention by Len Rubenstein (formerly Executive Director of Physicians for Human Rights). Unfortunately, the conclusions I draw bring into question the victory that we all believed we had achieved in pressuring the APA into changing Ethics Standard 1.02.

But first, a bit of history is in order.

The Council of Representatives first expressed its dismay over 1.02 in 2005 after it received the report of the Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) Task Force. Unlike the conclusions drawn from similar committees reviewing the ethical standards of physicians, psychiatrists, and nurses, the PENS Task Force determined that participation in scandalous Bush administration national security interrogations was appropriate for psychologists, and worse, the report appeared to mandate that psychologists follow interrogation protocols even when they conflicted with ethics. The report specifically cited 1.02 in support of its recommendation that “psychologists have an ethical responsibility to be informed of, familiar with, and follow the most recent applicable [military] regulations and rules.” Council members from the Divisions of Social Justice were especially concerned that, contrary to usual practice, the PENS report had been approved by the APA Board without a Council vote, employing a rarely used emergency clause in the bylaws. The Council resolved that the Ethics Committee should change the wording of 1.02 to make clear that human rights were not to be violated by psychologists.

Since that time, we have learned that the majority of the Task Force psychologists were employed by the Department of Defense in positions directly related to the very interrogations under ethical investigation, including at least four who were supervising and/ or training the interrogators in abusive tactics and/or designing detention conditions aimed at breaking down detainees. Further, since Department of Defense policy required that all psychologists involved in national security interrogations “regularly monitor their behavior and remain within professional ethical boundaries as established by their professional associations, by their licensing State, and by the military,”1 an ethics clause which reduces ethics to military policy protects these psychologists from running afoul of either professional ethics or military regulations. That is one reason why, after the other professional associations weighed in on the ethics of health professional participation in these interrogations, the Department of Defense decided to use only psychologists for their intelligence “behavioral science consultation teams” (BSCTs).

It was precisely because APA dissidents believed that ethics could be the wedge that separates psychologists from these abusive practices that we fought so hard and so long to change Standard 1.02. I am convinced that it was for the same reason that the Ethics Committee, following APA leadership, worked so hard to delay any such changes.

So, one way to look at the turnaround, in August 2009, of the Ethics Committee’s position regarding 1.02 and its support for the vote to amend it in February 2010 is that our endeavor to mobilize the membership, culminating in the members’ referendum opposing human rights violations, shamed them into finally doing the right thing. I wish that were the case.

The newly discovered BSCT memo, however, offers an alternative, less sanguine, explanation. The memo reveals that by the time the Ethics Committee made its reversal and supported a change in Standard 1.02, the Department of Defense had already made a significant change in its policy on psychologists engaged in national security interrogations. The new BSCT policy, written in 2009 and implemented in January 2010 states: “The DOD requires that all military professionals perform their duties in an ethical manner, consistent with their professional ethics although they are neither required to join nor adhere to the policies of any specific professional organization2 (italics added).

I believe it likely that the Ethics Committee was permitted, finally, to support a change in 1.02 because the change no longer had any bearing on the actual practice of psychologists functioning in intelligence operations. Thus, our “clear victory,” alas, is pyrrhic. Furthermore, while we hoped to include in our ethics code an unambiguous support for human rights, what was written in the revised 1.02 is simply that “[u]nder no circumstances may this standard be used to justify or defend violating human rights.” This is far from requiring “unequivocal adherence to human rights.”

The APA leadership has been consistent in aligning our ethics code with DOD regulations and practices, even when those practices require egregious violations of human rights. Neither the ethics code changes nor the member-approved referendum, which demands the APA request the removal of psychologists from sites that violate international standards of human rights, has had any impact on psychologists’ roles in intelligence operations. The APA has simply refused to implement the referendum’s mandate, in spite of documentation by the New York Times and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that the DOD continues to operate detention camps in a manner that violates these standards. And thus far, APA has not registered any protest to the new DOD policy that no longer requires that BSCT psychologists  adhere to the profession’s standards of professional ethics.

Until the APA Ethics Committee issues a clear statement that psychologists are beholden to the highest standards of professional ethics, to upholding international standards of human rights, and may not work at sites, such as Bagram and Guantánamo, where these standards are being systematically violated, we must conclude that the APA remains complicit in human rights violations.

- Steven Reisner

  1. Lt General Kevin C. Kiley, Surgeon General of the Army, OTSG/MEDCOM POLICY MEMO 006- 029. October 20, 2006. Subject: Behavioral Science Consultation Policy.
  2. OTSG/MEDCOM Policy Memo BSCT POLICY 09-053, January 7, 2010.

Board of Section IX, Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility

This letter serves as a brief rejoinder to the Board of Section IX (Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility) response (Board of Section IX, Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility, 2010) to my recent letter to the editor of Psychologist-Psychoanalyst (Thomas, 2010).

Regrettably, in their statement, the Board of Section IX created a plethora of “straw man” issues regarding my positions, and then presented copious information in support of the philosophical and historical bases for the existence and purposes of Section IX. Specifically, unlike me, they failed to distinguish between analyzing social and political issues and proselytizing about them, a distinction which the Board has apparently also chosen to ignore in its so-called political work (Board of Section IX, Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility, 2010, p. 8). Although they presented a scholarly justification for applied psychoanalysis, they used this information to discredit positions that were never taken by me in the first place. For example, I certainly have no objections to the application of psychoanalytic theory to a wide variety of academic disciplines and social issues. In fact, it is probably the aspect of Freud’s work that I most enjoyed reading when I was formally studying psychoanalysis. Moreover, my own publications include a rather lengthy armchair psychoanalysis of Alexander the Great (Thomas, 1995) and several other articles on the application of psychoanalytic theory to professional and clinical issues in counseling and rehabilitation (Cubbage and Thomas, 1989; Huebner and Thomas, 1995; Thomas, 1991, 1997; Thomas and Garske, 1995; Thomas and Kaplan, 1994; Thomas and McGinnis, 1991).

I do, however, object to psychoanalysts purporting to be scientifically objective and then labeling those who disagree with them politically as being ill informed, unethical, or pathological in some way (e.g., see Crouse and Stalker, 2007). Also, I am concerned that Section IX is being used to advance what are clearly political objectives in the name of psychology or psychoanalysis. The most salient example relates to the controversial and ambiguous “enhanced interrogation” issue, but also, whenever an organization organizes itself around the members’ demographic characteristics (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, multicultural issues) or around (nebulous) ideals such as “social responsibility,” the stage has been set for more than simply studying these topical areas and relating the findings productively to the clinical situation. For example, I think that promoting concepts like social justice and multiculturalism, which are also quite nebulous, often serves more of a political than psychoanalytic purpose.

Most importantly, taking political positions also carries a heavy risk in terms of marginalizing the credibility of the profession and polarizing its membership. Of course, psychoanalysts have political opinions. However, to use the Section to promote these opinions as established facts, instead of analyzing how various social, economic, and political issues affect the social context of the profession, the patient, the analyst, and the clinical situation, seems like an inappropriate professional activity. Psychoanalysts, after more than a hundred years of intensive study, have been profoundly unsuccessful deciding which, if any, theoretical or clinical perspective offers empirical superiority for explaining and improving the human condition. To me, it seems rather arrogant to think that such internal theoretical ambiguity and indecision would offer a firm scientific basis for instructing others on how to view and act upon the complex political and social issues currently affecting our society.

- Kenneth R. Thomas, EdD, Professor Emeritus, Madison, WI


Board of Section IX, Psychoanalysts for Social Responsibility. (2010). Letter to the editor. Psychologist- Psychoanalyst, 30(2), 8–9.

Cubbage, M. E., & Thomas, K. R. (1989). Freud and disability. Rehabilitation Psychology, 34, 161–173.

Crouse, J., & Stalker, D. (2007). Do right-wing authoritarian beliefs originate from psychological conflict? Psychoanalytic Psychology, 24, 25–44.

Huebner, R. A., & Thomas, K. R. (1995). The relationship between attachment, psychopathology, and childhood disability. Rehabilitation Psychology, 40, 111–124.

Thomas, K. R. (1991). Oedipal issues in counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling and Development, 69, 203–205.

Thomas, K. R. (1994). Drive theory, self psychology, and the treatment of persons with disabilities. Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, 11, 45–53.

Thomas, K. R. (1995). A psychoanalytic study of Alexander the Great. Psychoanalytic Review, 82, 443–485.

Thomas, K. R. (1997). Countertransference and disability: Some observations. Journal of Melanie Klein and Object Relations, 15, 145–161.

Thomas, K. (2010). Letter to the editor. Psychologist- Psychoanalyst, 30(1), 5.

Thomas, K. R., & Garske, G. G. (1995). Object relations theory: Implications for the personality development and treatment of persons with disabilities. Melanie Klein and Object Relations, 13, 31–63.

Thomas, K. R., & Kaplan, S. P. (1994). Greenberg’s two-factor safety and effectance drive theory: Implications for rehabilitation. Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling, 25(3), 3–6.

Thomas, K. R., & Siller, J. (1999). Object loss, mourning, and adjustment to disability. Psychoanalytic Psychology,16, 179–197.