Bobby is seven years old, but this is not the first time he has been subjected to electroshock. It’s his third time. In all, over the next year, Bobby will experience eight electroshock sessions. Placed on the examining table, he is held down by two male attendants while the physician places a solution on his temples. Bobby struggles with the two men holding him down, but his efforts are useless. He cries out and tries to pull away. One of the attendants tries to force a thick wedge of rubber into his mouth. He turns his head sharply away and cries out, “Let me go, please. I don’t want to be here. Please, let me go.” Bobby’s physician looks irritated and she tells him, “Come on now, Bobby, try to act like a big boy and be still and relax.” Bobby turns his head away from the woman and opens his mouth for the wedge that will prevent him from biting through his tongue. He begins to cry silently, his small shoulders shaking and he stiffens his body against what he knows is coming.
Mary is only five years old. She sits on a small, straight-backed chair, moving her legs back and forth, humming the same four notes over and over and over. Her head, framed in a tangled mass of golden curls, moves up and down with each note. For the first three years of her life, Mary was thought to be a mostly normal child. Then, after she began behaving oddly, she had been handed off to a foster family. Her father and mother didn’t want her any longer. She had become too strange for her father, whose alcoholism clouded any awareness of his young daughter. Mary’s mother had never wanted her anyway and was happy to have her placed in another home. When the LSD Mary has been given begins to have its effects, she stops moving her head and legs and sits staring at the wall. She doesn’t move at all. After about ten minutes, she looks at the nearby physician observing her, and says, “God isn’t coming back today. He’s too busy. He won’t be back here for weeks.”
From early 1940 to 1953, Dr. Lauretta Bender, a highly respected child neuropsychiatrist practicing at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, experimented extensively with electroshock therapy on children who had been diagnosed with “autistic schizophrenia.” In all, it has been reported that Bender administered electroconvulsive therapy to at least 100 children ranging in age from three years old to 12 years, with some reports indicating the total may be twice that number. One source reports that, inclusive of Bender’s work, electroconvulsive treatment was used on more than 500 children at Bellevue Hospital from 1942 to 1956, and then at Creedmoor State Hospital Children’s Service from 1956 to 1969. Bender was a confident and dogmatic woman, who bristled at criticism, oftentimes refused to acknowledge reality even when it stood starkly before her.
Despite publicly claiming good results with electroshock treatment, privately Bender said she was seriously disappointed in the aftereffects and results shown by the subject children. Indeed, the condition of some of the children appeared to have only worsened. One six-year-old boy, after being shocked several times, went from being a shy, withdrawn child to acting increasingly aggressive and violent. Another child, a seven-year-old girl, following five electroshock sessions had become nearly catatonic.
Years later, another of Bender’s young patients who became overly aggressive after about 20 treatments, now grown, was convicted in court as a “multiple murderer.” Others, in adulthood, reportedly were in and of trouble and prison for a battery of petty and violent crimes. A 1954 scientific study of about 50 of Bender’s young electroshock patients, conducted by two psychologists, found that nearly all were worse off after the “therapy” and that some had become suicidal after treatment. One of the children studied in 1954 was the son of well-known writer Jacqueline Susann, author of the bestselling novel “Valley of the Dolls.” Susann’s son, Guy, was diagnosed with autism shortly after birth and, when he was three years old, Dr. Bender convinced Susann and her husband that Guy could be successfully treated with electroshock therapy. Guy returned home from Bender’s care a nearly lifeless child. Susann later told people that Bender had “destroyed” her son. Guy has been confined to institutions since his treatment.
To their credit, some of Dr. Bender’s colleagues considered her use of electroshock on children “scandalous,” but few colleagues spoke out against her, a situation still today common among those in the medical profession.