Joey, the “Mechanical Animal” Boy

“I laid myself as an egg, hatched myself, and gave birth to me.”

The hen electric, pregnant with the electric fetus. (The Empty Fortress 323)
I just finished reading the mammoth chapter on Joey in Bruno Bettelheim’s The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self as part of my research for my paper presentation at SLSA 2012. It is a greatly expanded account of the case study Bettelheim presented as a Scientific American article almost a decade earlier in 1959, and offers much more detail about Joey’s treatment at the Orthogenic School as well as the psychic “rebirth” that marks the beginning of his journey out of his delusion.

The tale of Joey initially interested me because of his elaborate fantasy, according to which he believed himself a machine requiring elaborate apparatuses to remain alive.  The Scientific American article concentrates on Joey’s machine world, Bettelheim going so far as to suggest that this extraordinary case study “has a general relevance to the understanding of emotion in a machine age” (“Joey” 117).  It is this dimension of the story that establishes the broad topic of my SLSA paper, where I will primarily explore connections between children and machines.  But Joey’s story, as recounted in The Empty Fortress, closes the “cybernetic triangle” of animals, humans, and machines, with numerous references to nonhuman animals and a crucial role played by hens.

Now, there is no shortage of controversy over Bettelheim’s diagnoses and interpretations of autism as well as the treatment of the children at the Orthogenic School.  There have been a number of charges of harsh discipline and corporal punishment meted out by the School’s counsellors and Bettelheim himself.  The most ire, however, gets levelled at Bettelheim’s understanding of autism as a pathological response to negligent parents, in particular the apathy of the mother toward the newborn infant.  This “refrigerator mother” theory grounded his diagnoses and guided his therapeutic practice.  For Bettelheim, a holocaust survivor  who spent a year at Dachau and Buchenwald, the autistic withdrawal into the “empty fortress” of the child’s psyche was a means of survival when confronted with a deeply hostile world, where the hostility often manifested as cold, alienating indifference from the child’s primary caregivers.

In Joey’s case, the delusion that he was some sort of electro-mechanical device rather than an organic human being is a perfect fit with this interpretation: “If the world of human warmth was closed to him so that to feel was to be hurt, he would create one where feelings had no place.  But since things do happen, it had to be a world where they can happen without feelings being involved.  It had to be a world of machines” (Empty Fortress 234).  Though there are a handful of fringe adherents, Bettelheim’s theory has largely been discredited, autism spectrum disorders and various forms of Asperger’s syndrome now believed to be primarily neurological conditions.  For fairly obvious reasons, then, Bettelheim’s name elicits more than a little hostility and resentment within the autistic community, especially since it held a good deal of traction during his lifetime.

I don’t wish to defend Bettelheim’s reputation as a psychiatric practitioner in any way, or lend credence to his theorizing qua authoritative psychological explanations of autism.  What I would like to do is tackle the text more or less on its own terms.  Despite my reservations about Bettelheim’s claims as to the origins and significance of Joey’s disorder from a straight-forward epistemological standpoint, I am intrigued by narratological and rhetorical dimensions of the tale of the Mechanical Boy.  Bettelheim was a Freudian psychoanalyst, after all, so an intimate give-and-take between the dreamy, associative world of the human psyche and the world of literature, tale, and metaphor is to be expected; indeed, one of his more well-known books, The Uses of Enchantment, is about the symbolic importance of fairy tales for children’s psychological development.  I must also admit that Bettelheim tells a very moving story that, for me at least, compensates a little for its contentious arguments.

In the case of Joey, Bettelheim raises his story to the status of a myth of modern “machine age” society:

Elsewhere I have discussed the fact that while all psychoses are due to conflict within the person are due to conflict within the person, his specific delusions will reflect the hopes and anxieties of the society he lives in.  Comparing modern delusions with those of the Middle Ages, for example, I suggested that even Lucifer was viewed as a person, though a distorted one.  What is entirely new in the machine age is that often neither savior nor destroyer is cast in man’s image any more.  The typical modern delusion is of being run by an influencing machine. . . . [M]an’s delusions in a machine world seem to be the tokens of both our hopes and our fears of what machines may do for us, or to us.  In this sense, Joey’s story might also be viewed as a cautionary tale. (234)

Joey’s story thus follows a fairly familiar, moralized trajectory about getting technology “spiritually in hand,” as Heidegger would say, and about the journey from a dehumanized existence of mechanical insensitivity to a properly human life of feeling.  Describing the unsettling “fascination” Joey elicited from the adults around him, Bettelheim writes:

In retrospect, it is easy to see what was so upsetting to us who tried to come close to him.  All of us have feelings about how powerful our machines have become: in this nuclear age we have reason to fear that our own creations may destroy us.  In Joey it was so blatant that this had already happened.  Joey had lost himself to machines; he was living proof that our fears were not groundless. . . . Often the fascination was morbid, instead of the vital one so needed to reach him.  It also belonged to the tantalizing question of what was the purpose of this machine, because it posed the unspoken anxiety of our age: do machines still serve our human purposes, or are they cranking away by now without purpose?  Even more unnerving: are they working away for their own ends which we no longer know or control?  (238)

In Bettelheim’s account, Joey’s therapy is a matter of encouraging him to shed his mechanical existence, prompting him at last to be reborn into the “human condition,” according to which, the reader discovers, he embraces the vitality of emotion, and learns how to accept the life-and-death risks of being loved and loving others in return.  At the end of the story, Joey returns to his family to “try for greater closeness with his parents,” an undertaking that the text links to a recovered mastery of the machine world: “From there he completed his education in a technical high school, making good use of his persisting but now more normal interest in technical matters” (329).

But Joey’s genesis is not quite as orthotic as Bettelheim lets on: it does not at all follow an unswerving path toward engendering a straight-up “human” subject.  Despite Bettelheim’s claims, I would argue that his tortuous process of rebirth does not end at something purely anthropomorphic.  Joey’s therapeutic journey is not simply the transformation of his relationship to technology, but engages a zoological dimension that ushers him through an small bestiary that includes bears, dinosaurs, hens and other birds, and kangaroos.  These latter are especially prominent as the narrative shifts from describing Joey’s imprisonment within his delusion to his self-gestation and -rebirth.  About mid-way through the narrative, as Joey begins to show signs that his defences are breaking down, Bettelheim tells of how Joey and his counsellor played a game in which she introduced him to  stuffed kangaroo, whereupon “he accepted her invitation and the infantile care it implied.  He said, ‘You are the kangaroo.  I want to be a little kangaroo and ride in the kangaroo’s pouch’” (290).  For Bettelheim, the “marsupial mother” is a crucial index of “life before birth” that allows children to visualize and work through the notion of growing in the womb.  This image has a more profound significance in terms of his theory of autism insofar as it represents a maternal care that the child has supposedly been denied: “Nearly all psychotic children we have worked with also engage in elaborate fantasies about kangaroos, but for another reason.  What they feel they missed out on was not so much life inside the womb, as the warmth, the total protection and indulgence after birth that they think the marsupial baby enjoys in the mother’s pouch” (290-91).  Curiously, as Joey’s experience of rebirth progresses, he travels farther and farther from the human to find the means of his symbolic gestation, first making hop across evolutionary clades to non-placental mammals before leaping over entire classes to embrace birds.

One of the major aspects of Joey’s delusions involved a fixation on defecation and the control of his bowels.  Bettelheim details Joey’s ritualistic need for vacuum tubes and other electronics to ensure the proper functioning of his bowels, his obsession with pipes and sewage systems, his elaborate fantasies of pumping and drilling for oil, all of which culminated at a later stage of his care in a “world of mire,” in which everything around him gushes forth with uncontrollable diarrhea.  The meanings attached to feces and defecation are complex and varied, but in the latter half of the narrative, Bettelheim emphasizes a notion of rectal or fecal birth.  He writes, “Joey wished to be reborn, to get a new life for himself.  Preferably it would be out of the body of someone who would want to rebear him.  But if there were no one who loved him that much, his own body would do.”  Thus the importance of elimination, “which at least held out chances for a fecal birth” (285).  Bettelheim’s own attitude toward this idea of fecal birth is highly ambivalent, and leads him to striking contradictions that undermine the simple narrative of Joey’s “humanization.”

The hennigan wagon, a mobile, cybernetic incubator. (The Empty Fortress 307)
Bettelheim writes that Joey “had to work out and humanize his machine life . . . . Most important of all, he had to get free enough of his anal concerns and misconceptions so that his birth would be a human one, not anal” (295).  Yet, as the boy’s self-gestation progresses, his “anal concerns” become bound up with the avian act of egg-laying.  Joey begins drawing vehicular structure he calls “hennigan wagons,” which are protective enclosures that nevertheless allow for autonomous movement.  Bettelheim interprets Joey’s neologism as “hen-I-can,” and argues that the hennigan wagon represents a vital epiphany:

Joey was finally ready to believe he could do something about his greatest emotional need: to be reborn into a new life. . . . Through the hen he could rebuild an emotional relation to the world.  He did not yet say what it was he could do.  But since hens lay eggs out of which new life emerges, the “hen-I-gan” represents the hope of regaining the very life from which he had cut himself off.  (308)

Chickens and eggs become a new fixation for Joey, and Bettelheim endeavours to suggest that Joey begins to relinquish his machine world through this new attention to living beings.  Such an easy narrative is betrayed, however, by the hybridity of the hennigan wagon and the “hen electric,” which was “pregnant with the electrical fetus” (325).  Joey even repurposes his tubes and electronics to build a replica of an egg incubator he saw at the Museum of Science and Technology.  Joey’s seeks to birth himself by way of cybernetic organisms, composites of animals, humans, and machines.

Despite Bettelheim’s wishes, Joey is not concerned to undergo a strictly “human birth”: “Looking through books about the birth of babies, and knowing they described human birth, he said his only interest was to learn more about chickens and eggs” (320).  The “misconceptions” of anal birth are not abandoned in favour of a more orthogenic vaginal delivery.  Instead, anus is translated into cloaca. Throughout the narrative, Joey fears the vagina, which is, for him, continuously exploding.  Bettelheim acknowledges that such a volatile organ “can be dispensed with if birth is from the cloaca . . . . Also, if he felt he had to give birth to himself, such a birth could only take place out of a body opening he possessed.  If this opening was the rectum, then all was well” (326).  As a human boy, Joey cannot give birth to himself; as a hen, he can.

During the weeks in which Joey made the drawing of the hen electric, Bettelheim tells us that “he behaved more and more like an excited hen, flapping his arms like wings, stuttering and cackling, fluttering about as if he were trying to take off and fly” (325).  Finally, the day of his rebirth had come:

On this day his cackling, flapping of wings, and his stuttering reached a paroxysm.  Suddenly he became very still and crawled under a table over which he had draped blankets so that he was entirely hidden beneath them.  There, by his own statement, he gave birth to an egg out of which he pecked his way newborn, into the world.  “I laid myself as an egg, hatched myself, and gave birth to me.”  (325)

To describe the event, Joey writes a riddle whose culminating sentence reads, “A hen is living” (325).  Bettelheim insists on his easy humanist narrative however, writing on the same page:

Obviously he had feared all along that in the process . . . the life-bearing hen that carried Joey might die.  That was one of the reasons he had waited so long, testing us out.  When at last he felt sure that the egg would not be destroyed . . . he broke through and came into this world.  He was not longer a mechanical contrivance but a human child.  (325; my italics)

And thus, with a subtle tip of his hat to himself and the counsellors at the School, the disturbed boy emerges into a properly anthropomorphic self.

I wonder, however, if this insistence on the starkly moralized myth of man and machine does not discount the singularity of Joey’s story as well as the unique means by which he was able to effect his remarkable rebirth and recovery.  Where Bettelheim seeks to impose a narrative of orthogenesis, I see instead a tale of heterogenesis.  Joey’s regeneration does not simply result from the solicitude of his human caretakers, but passes through a host of animal, technical, and hybrid others that animate and enrich his new coming-to-life.  Even Bettelheim himself was, according to Joey, “a chicken who laid an egg” (321).  Instead of embracing this extraordinary and imaginative kinship, however, Bettelheim grants himself the right and the authority to choose a more familiar, more appropriate, and, to my mind, more impoverished, designation for this newborn child.

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