Film peeks into 'refrigerator'

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

When in doubt, blame Mom.

That may sound trite, but such thinking once formed the cornerstone of medical thinking about the origins of autism. This controversy unfolds on the poignant and provocative documentary "Refrigerator Mothers" on "P.O.V." (9 p.m., PBS Channel 11).

During the 1950s and 1960s, mothers who consulted doctors about autism were told that their child's withdrawn behavior, communication difficulties and repetitive, obsessive behavior was a result of the mother's own emotional frigidity. Women with autistic children were branded "refrigerator mothers," and therefore blamed for their child's plight. The fact that many of these mothers had raised other seemingly normal children meant nothing to the psychological community.

The "refrigerator" diagnosis was based almost entirely on the research of expert Bruno Bettleheim. He had spent time in a Nazi concentration camp and theorized that there were clear parallels between the behavior of brutalized prisoners and his autistic patients. So, mothers who came to Bettleheim-influenced psychologists were essentially accused of being the emotional equivalents of Nazis.

This moving film includes first-person interviews with "refrigerator mothers," now in their 60s and 70s, many of whom still provide care for their adult autistic children. One woman tells of how the stigma almost drove her to suicide. A black mother recalls that when she took her son to a specialist, he insisted that her son could not be autistic because he did not fit the prevailing profile. Autism was thought to only strike white, upper-middle class and well-educated parents. "The irony is," she recalls, "I couldn't even be considered a 'refrigerator mother."'

The film cleverly uses scenes from movies including Alfred Hitchcock's 1945 classic "Spellbound" to evoke popular attitudes toward psychoanalysis. There is even a clip of Bettleheim discussing his ideas on "The Dick Cavett Show." "Refrigerator Mothers" makes a powerful and sympathetic case for women who were cruelly punished by the very doctors they turned to for support and understanding. It also casts a skeptical eye on the medical and mental health establishment. As this film demonstrates, one generation's orthodoxy may seem bizarre and even grotesque in the light of history.

� The History Channel devotes the next three nights to "Inside the Soviet Military Machine," a three-hour series examining top-secret weapons developed during the Cold War. "The True Story of K-19" (8 p.m.) looks at a little-known 1961 accident aboard the Soviet Union's first nuclear ballistic submarine. Many crewmembers sacrificed their lives and died horrible deaths from radiation poisoning to avert a catastrophe that might have ruined the environment of Northern Europe and provoked World War III. The story of the K-19 is now the subject of a Hollywood movie, starring Harrison Ford.

Tonight's other highlights

� Dean is jealous of Rory's dramatic turn with Tristin on a repeat of "Gilmore Girls" (7 p.m., WB).

� Ten finalists meet on 90-minute edition of "American Idol: The Search for a Superstar" (7:30 p.m., FOX).

� Factions form on "The Mole II: The Next Betrayal" (8 p.m., ABC).

� "Driven: Celine Dion" (8 p.m., VH1) follows the singer's rise from provincial Quebec chanteuse to international superstar.

� Scheduled on "Dateline" (9 p.m., NBC): After using DNA technology to determine that three of his wife's four children are not his own, a divorced husband sues to reduce his child-support payments.

� The real life hospital drama "Houston Medical" (9 p.m., ABC) continues.

� Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw star in the 1972 bank heist thriller "The Getaway" (9:30 p.m., AMC).