Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Refrigerator Mothers

Release Date: 2003
Production Company: Kartemquin Films
Director: David E. Simpson
Run time: 60 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD, formerly on PBS's POV
Recommended: Yes

Refrigerator Mothers is a great example of how a short documentary can illuminate a powerful subject.  This documentary sheds light on a generation of mothers in the 1950s and 1960s who had children diagnosed with autism.  The term "Refrigerator Mother" came from the prevailing idea that a cold and distant mother was the psychological cause of their children's autism.  Doctors and "Experts" labeled these mothers as frigid and distant caretakers who were unable to love and care for their children.

The documentary revealed the effect of a difficult diagnosis combined with the dehumanizing aspect of being blamed for their children's disorder.  Several mothers are interviewed in their homes.  The documentary also combines home movies, family photographs, and visits with their children.  Even something as simple as a photo album can be powerful.  One album shows a son sitting on Santa's lap over the course of several years.  You can see his detachment grow with the progression of his autism from about a year old to age 7. 

This doc calls into question the authority of "experts" over the relationship of a mother and child.  Dr. Bruno Bettelheim was a prevailing "expert" on autism in the 1950s and 1960s.  Bettleheim, an Austrian survivor of concentration camps, compared the experience of a child with autism to a the isoloation of person in a concentration camp.  He compared the mothers to Nazi guards, lacking compassion and interest towards their childen.  Unfortunately, Dr. Bettelheim had an international reputation for his work with children.  His views were widely known, and once accepted by the medical community.

This documentary, like the best documentaries, calls into question the accepted norms and requires you to consider your position.

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