BRUNO BETTLEHEIM'S suicide this past spring shocked his admirers, who came forth with generous eulogies and sympathetic memories. They recalled the survivor of the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps who took over the University of Chicago's Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School in 1944. They spoke of his books, in particular "Love Is Not Enough: The Treatment of Emotionally Disturbed Children" and "The Uses of Enchantment," a defense of fairy tales. They applauded his guiding philosophy, influenced by Freud, which stressed emotional nurturing.

The Orthogenic School was, and remains, a residential center for emotionally disturbed children, including those diagnosed as autistic, withdrawn, anorexic, severely neurotic or suicidal. And the former director was described variously as a man who "left to the world -- and especially to parents and children -- an enduring vision of love, innocence and idealism" (Parenting magazine); "one of the great figures in American psychology, known for the originality, warmth and wisdom he brought to the study of the minds and emotions of children" (The Washington Post); and a "pioneer in treating childhood mental disturbances {who left} major contributions to therapy for children" (The New York Times).

For me, though, the memories are a different kind. The Bettleheim I knew was a man who, while publicly condemning violence, physically abused children. And the Orthogenic School I knew was an Orwellian world where mail and reading was censored, where staff tried to monitor conversations and few were permitted outside unescorted.

Bettelheim was coauthor of a book on racism ("Social Change and Prejudice"), but in fact he never admitted blacks to the school he directed for nearly 30 years; he told me once that they would feel isolated. He described in his books a world made attractive through art. Actually, he was an art historian with an excuse to spend thousands of dollars on expensive art to decorate parts of the institution that children seldom saw. He claimed to have successfully rehabilitated 85 percent of hopelessly disturbed children, but no one ever checked his claims.

My knowledge comes from first-hand experience -- a fact many of my friends will not know until now. I spent a decade at his school against my will from age 11, and now I've decided to go public to set the record straight.

I know the risks of doing so. Those who complained about him to the law or their parents weren't taken seriously and, after all, what was the word of a mental patient against a world-famous psychologist? And ex-patients are scared to reveal their past. I contacted many for this report, and almost all supported my endeavor. But most didn't want their names made public.

I also acknowledge that many credit him for helping them. And I've talked to some who worked for Bettleheim who also had distinctly mixed views about his school. Reid Schwartz, a Chicago-area psychologist and former counselor who first encountered Bettelheim in a University of Chicago class, noted, "The school was helpful to some people and not helpful to other people, {but} the books made it seem like the school was helpful to everybody. Time has shown that in terms of trying to help people with their emotional problems, you have to do some additional or different kinds of things than the school did."

I can only speak for myself, but I do not think my experience was unusual. Iwas sent to his school in 1965. I know that coordination problems made my handwriting nearly illegible and that I could not function in suburban Chicago's public school system. Bettelheim's diagnosis was that I was "crazy," a favorite word around his school. He said that only he could cure me. I will never know what a clinical diagnosis might have shown; my parents never thought to get another opinion. No doubt this was because our family ties to Bettleheim were strong. (My grandfather had gotten Bettelheim his job and had backed him financially for years.)

Bettelheim had standard lines he gave us all: we were considered hopelessly "crazy" by the outside world and only he could save us from lives in mental institutions or jail. "You get better here or you go to a nut house," I heard him routinely tell school-aged children. He insisted that he cured me and many of my colleagues, but there was no one to check the original assessment or the outcome.

"Those who were going through normal adolescent growing pains were labeled as psychotic," said Alida Jatich, a Chicago computer programmer and former inmate. He didn't cure autistic or extremely disturbed children. "There were a lot of kids with learning deficits that had nothing to do with emotional disturbance," said William Blau, a counselor at the school in 1949 and 1950. (Blau recently wrote to a Chicago newspaper, using the initials "WB," to say, "I would characterize the atmosphere at the Orthogenic Schoool, at that time, as the beginnings of a cult, with Dr. B. as the cult leader." Blau compared the relationship between Bettleheim and his followers to that between TMers and the Maharishi, and blasted Bettleheim for a "limitless ability for self promotion.")

Bettelheim's books described a world in which a child's every need was met in non-threatening ways, where a kind staff answered troublesome behavior only with gentleness and understanding, where Freudian therapists helped children understand their feelings. Tom Lyons, who spent 11 years at the school and wrote about it in a 1983 autobiographical novel, "The Pelican & After," says he learned first about the school from a book by Bettleheim. "I got the impression of it being a very nice, benign place." He believes the school helped him in some ways, but also remembers a world of terror and restrictions. "You cannot see the movies you want; you cannot wrestle or fight; you cannot climb trees," he found out. "Love Is Not Enough" described therapeutic value in letting boys overflow bathtubs. But when Lyons did it, he recalled recently, Bettelheim hit him.

In the four books he wrote about the school, Bettleheim never mentioned hitting. But he created a climate of fear -- we could never tell when he would attack us for any arbitrary reason. Once, after a boy returned from a visit home, Bettelheim spent five minutes slapping him in the face, hitting him in the sides with fists and pulling his hair. Midway through, he revealed why: The lad had told his brother to "do well in school." He had no right to "push" his brother around. To be sure, the blows he struck, though often painful and humiliating, did not physically damage people. But I often saw Bettleheim drag children across the floor by their hair and kick them. He even hit autistic children who couldn't speak clearly.

We were supposed to "get better" by talking about our feelings. But we were only supposed to express feelings the staff wanted us to hear. Students who said uncomplimentary things to staff, such as "I hate you," got beaten. I refused to participate in group therapy (why did I need to know everyone else's problems?), so Bettelheim slapped me. Though he warned us not to tell outsiders that we attended the school because it could hurt our reputation, he once hit a teenager for saying he lived at a "boarding school" instead of a mental institution. He stormed into the dining room one day in a rage, screaming that people have no right to be angry.

"What bothered me the most, more than the beating, insults, whatever, {was} throughout my adolescence, I was basically treated like I was a 2-year-old," Alida Jatich said. "I missed out on all the experiences {and didn't learn skills} that a person would ordinarily want to acquire in that time in their life." Spending time learning sports, music or anything else was considered a distraction from personality rebuilding. Bettelheim attracted many young staffers, mainly women right out of college. In the 1950s and '60s, he could find women willing to work 100 hours a week for $2,500 a year (plus room, board and some other benefits). These counselors, looking for a guiding light, deified Bettelheim -- as he expected everyone to. He was called "Dr. B," though everyone else from administrators to counselors and cooks were first-named.

"I believed blindly in him, and I don't like to think of myself as the type of person who would believe blindly in anything," reflected Jacquelyn Sanders, Bettelheim's hand-picked successor, who eventually rejected much of his approach. Bettelheim "was such a good teacher that he could attract top people to work there and {make parents} think something good was going on," recalled Reid Schwartz.

But what Schwartz called Bettleheim's "legendary temper" instilled fear in the staff as well as students, leading to rapid turnover. Staff constantly feared getting fired. "He'd get mad and yell at people and tell people in no uncertain terms they had done a terrible job and made people miserable," Schwartz said. "You never knew when it was coming." Bettelheim always asked staff to think about how their actions affected kids, Schwartz recalled. But he said Bettelheim went "overboard," constantly blaming staff for children's problems.

"One incident led me to quit," recalled former counselor Blau. "I was sitting with my group for dinner . . . . As we were leaving, he pounces on us and says someone stuck gum under our table. He starts roaring at all of us like we have just defiled Mother Superior. He makes us turn the table over. There was no gum there . . . . He kept on ranting and raving." In his recent letter, Blau wrote, "The Bettleheim I knew had little mercy in his heart, and exuded a particularly obnoxious strain of old Viennese arrogance."

Bettelheim treated parents badly too; he was quick to tell them that they caused their children's problems. Norma Glassner, whose son spent six years with Bettelheim, said, "Bettelheim called me at my office and just lambasted me that it was my fault . . . that I really don't want him, I don't care about my son. I broke down crying."

Bettelheim diagnosed many problems as psychological that actually weren't. His theory that autism is caused by a cold mother, expounded in his book "The Empty Fortress," has been widely discredited in the field. I have no doubt that children in his care who suffered from neurological disorders didn't get treated because Bettelheim thought the mind controlled everything. I often lay awake all night, gasping for breath, because I was refused medication prescribed for my allergies. Reid Schwartz said the school minimized contact with families, depriving some people of a chance to resolve conflicts -- and declined to use medication that helps people with depression.

And Bettleheim didn't believe in accidents. I heard him proclaim that even sporting collisions were always the result of deliberate aggression (even from children with motor problems lacking normal nerve controls). And I saw him hit children who had such accidents.

Bettelheim acknowledged in interviews that he took inspiration for his school from his time in the Nazi camps, where he watched guards systematically destroy people's self respect. He claims he reversed the process by respecting disturbed minds and catering to their every need. In fact, he did the opposite. He often told me that I never had any friends. He called us all "crippled in the mind." Roberta Redford, who spent her late adolescence at the school and is now an Ohio office manager, said he called her a "slut" for putting pictures of the Beatles on the wall. Often, Bettelheim used all-school assemblies to tear people down; once he used the forum to tell a boy that his father had asked to have him committed for life. Bettelheim's destruction of self-esteem often lasted until the minute someone left the school. At leaving "parties," Bettelheim would assess departing students. Once he told someone "unless you change, don't have any children, because you will just mess them up, just like you were messed up."

We had no privacy. The boys were required to bathe in front of female counselors, sometimes not much older. If we objected, staff said we shouldn't be "ashamed of our bodies." When several of us refused to disrobe before a new counselor, Bettelheim burst into the room shouting, "What kind of nonsense is this?" I remember that one boy said, "I'm not going to get in trouble for something I believe in." Bettelheim seized the lad's head and repeated one of his favorite lines: "You don't have to put on a show for us to prove that you are crazy. We already know that."

Bettelheim himself often walked into bathrooms where teenaged girls were undressed, Redford said. Jatich said that Bettelheim once pulled her out of a shower and beat her, wet and naked, in front of a room full of people. Contrast this to "Love Is Not Enough," where Bettelheim wrote, "We respect {children's} desire for privacy at all times when we have no weighty reasons not to."

Sanders ultimately ousted Bettleheim from his own school (though eventually they had a partial reconciliation). She acknowledges that she was not immune from professional animosity. "I was angry that he had not really encouraged my own independence and my own achievements," Sanders said. "He didn't do the kinds of things that a mentor really should have done, such as introduce me to people" and co-author articles. But, while declining to comment for the record on the veracity of Bettelheim's books, she said that he did a disservice by giving the impression one could run a school for disturbed children without discipline. She also said she has banned corporal punishment and installed shower curtains.

Bettelheim died this past March, at age 86, in isolated misery. He had seen himself as a tower of sanity with a unique cure for unhappiness, but he had often been depressed since his retirement, especially after his wife's death in 1984. He forced many people to live in institutional settings, yet he could not bear to live in a retirement home. Like so many bullies, he could dish it out, but he couldn't take it.

Charles Pekow, the editor of a national newsletter, Day Care USA, is a Washington writer.