The Joey Machine

Ian Haig, 2011

In the 1950s at the Sonya Shankman Orthogenic School in Chicago, Illinois, noted child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim treated an autistic child who came to be known as ‘Joey the mechanical boy’. Joey’s every human action was taken over by his imaginative fantasy that he was a machine. Bettelheim published his research into Joey’s condition in Scientific American in 1959.

In 1980 Bruno Bettelheim committed suicide. After his death co-workers revealed his emotional abuse of children entrusted in his care. In the case of Joey, his psychology of autistic machine fantasies were replaced with another psychology of brutality as therapy. A concentration camp survivor, Bettelheim – or ‘Dr. B.’ as both staff and patients called him – passionately believed that ‘if the Nazis could create an environment to destroy personality … he could build an environment that could foster and re-create personality’.

The Joey machine is a recreation of Joey’s bed machine apparatus built to ‘live him’. The drawings, too, are a recreation of those produced by Joey while in the care of Bettelheim, which point to extended machine and bodily fixations. The Joey machine, is not an exact replica, more a fusion of Joey’s fantasy world of  machines, bodily fluids, shit and vacuum tubes.

The Joey machine is a complex and precise technological apparatus as dreamt up by the mind of a six-year-old autistic child. The complexity of the machine and its variety of functions were partly unknown, however the primary function of the machine seemed to be designed to isolate Joey from being human. For Joey, his bed machine, and the other machines he created and imagined in his drawings, were his reality and anything outside of it were less than reality.

Joey’s condition was diagnosed as a product of infantile autism, brought on – it was believed in 1959 – by improper parenting. Autism often motivates those inflicted with it to isolate themselves from the world, from human emotions and socialisation. In Joey’s case this took on the extreme manifestation of literally becoming a crude cyborg incarnation of the body as an other, a primitive self-regulating human–machine system. His body connected to an imaginary electrical current assisting his digestive system while eating; his bowels evacuated with the use of vacuum machines; his sleeping enabled by his bed machine.

Made out of materials at hand – masking tape, cardboard, rope – such materials take on almost psychic possibilities, a crude collection of autonomy for the body. Steering wheels, radios, controllers, speakers and engine parts to drive Joey’s fantasy as he slips off into the very human state of sleep, with a fear that, without such contraptions, Joey would emerge awake as a human boy.

Joey was eventually rescued from his machine fixations and went on to leave his obsessions behind. Did Joey retreat into his machine fantasy because of the emotional abuse at the institution? In order to remove himself as much as possible from the human race he perhaps became its absolute opposite: a machine.

A machine for Joey that was so intensely real it verged on its own form of machine-biology. While shitting functions as an everyday reminder of our true organic selves, of our humanness, this was something no doubt Joey feared. A machine, on the other hand, that takes on such a realistic fantasy of a functioning self-regulating human-machine system must also take on human characteristics such as regularly empting its bowels. For the machine to be real it needs to be more than a machine, it needs to be part human.

The work explores how one forms relationships with the world at an early age and, in particular, how those relationships can be transformed, perverted, skewed and confused to almost take on another kind of reality and other kinds of meanings. The Joey machine attempts to extend Joey’s fantasy. While Joey probably didn’t really shit in his own bed – though one of his drawings alluded to a bed assisting in the eradication of the contents of his bowels – my Joey fantasy employs the idea of shit as the residue of a new kind of machine biology.


Not every child who possesses a fantasy world is possessed by it. Normal children may retreat into realms of imaginary glory or magic powers, but they are easily recalled from these excursions. Disturbed children are not always able to make the return trip; they remain withdrawn, prisoners of the inner world of delusion and fantasy. Bruno Bettelheim ‘Joey: A mechanical boy’, Scientific American, March 1959.

Every aspect and every movement of the machine is calculated; and the working of the machine confirms how each calculation holds up to certain norms …whereas the living body functions according to experience … Hence the overwhelming but often misunderstood fact that life permits monstrosities. There are no monstrous machines. There is no mechanical pathology … whereas monsters are still living things, there is no way to distinguish between the normal and the pathological in physics and mechanics. Only among living beings is there a distinction between the normal and the pathological. Georges Canguilhem, ‘Machine and Organism’ in J. Crary and S. Kwinter (eds) Incorporations (New York: Urzone Inc, 1992).

A human body that functions as if it were a machine and a machine that duplicates human functions are equally fascinating and frightening. Perhaps they are so uncanny because they remind us that the human body can operate without a human spirit, that the body can exist without a soul. Bruno Bettelheim ‘Joey: A mechanical boy’, Scientific American, March 1959.

A cyborg is essentially a man-machine system in which the control mechanisms of the human portion are modified externally by drugs or regulatory devices so that the being can live in an environment different from the normal one. E. Clynes, Manfred and Kline, and S Nathan, ‘Cyborgs and Space’ in Astronautics, Issue 13, September 1960.

The evolution, by distortion of the human apparatus into a machine, is a projection that corresponds to the development of the pathological process that converts the ego into a diffuse sexual being – or expressed in the language of the genital period, into a genital, a machine independent of the aims of the ego and subordinated to a foreign will. Here too one is reminded of the astonishment of boys when they become aware for the first time of erection. The fact, moreover, the erection is shortly conceived as an exceptional and mysterious feat supports the assumption that erection is felt to be a thing independent of the ego, a part of the outer world not completely mastered. Victor Tausk, ‘The Influencing machine’ (1919) in J. Crary and S. Kwinter (eds) Incorporations (New York: Urzone Inc, 1992).

Modern psychology, at its high point, represented the ultimate attempt at treating life, scientifically as a machine – that is, a working part of the productive body. Didier Deleule, ‘The Living Machine: Psychology as Organology’ in J. Crary and S. Kwinter (eds) Incorporations (New York: Urzone Inc, 1992).

…only a blind machine can be ideal … a machine blind from birth. Having been born into a different but complete world in which every problem must be resolved by touch, it would use its robotic claws or grips to carry out each productive task with mechanical precision, over and over again. The question of adaptation would never come up. Didier Deleule, ‘The Living Machine: Psychology as Organology’ in J. Crary and S. Kwinter (eds) Incorporations (New York: Urzone Inc, 1992).

In Joey’s world the gadgets had to move their bowels too. He was terribly concerned that they should but since they were so much more powerful than men, he was also terrified that if his tubes moved their bowels their faeces would fill all of space and leave him no room to live.Bruno Bettelheim ‘Joey: A mechanical boy’, Scientific American, March 1959.

How much (Joey) feared annihilation as he eliminated was further suggested by his screaming ‘Explosion!’ at the moment when faeces left his body. Its nearly cosmic effects were inferred from statements like ‘I’m plugging in my tube. I’m going to make a bowel movement; I’m going to light up the lights outside’. Bruno Bettelheim ‘Joey: A mechanical boy’, Scientific American, March 1959.

Laying down an imaginary wire (Joey) connected himself with his source of electrical energy. Then he strung the wire from an imaginary outlet to the dining room table insulating himself, and then he plugged himself in … These imaginary electrical connections he had to establish before he could eat, because only the current ran his digestive apparatus. He performed the ritual with such skill that one had to look twice to be sure there was neither wire nor outlet nor plug … those who watched him seemed to suspend their own existence and become observers of another reality.Bruno Bettelheim The empty fortress: infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self (The Free Press, 1976).