On 1 April 1986 the BBC broadcast a documentary called Standing up for Joe. It was about Joe Horsley, a boy with severe disabilities, who had gone with his artist parents Lise and Michael to attend the Pető Institute in Budapest. The film caused a massive stir. Thousands wrote to the BBC wanting to know more and it sparked off a veritable “invasion” of Budapest by British parents hoping against hope for something that could dramatically help, if not cure, their disabled children.
Standing up for Joe and a BBC follow-up, To Hungary with Love, showed the workings of the institute, which had existed in Hungary under different names since its establishment by András Pető (pictured above) soon after the Second World War. What really struck people was that there, in faraway Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain, children (and adults) with severe motor disabilities were undergoing an experience that in many cases enabled them to walk and perform other functions such that they could live a “normal” life. In the UK at the time many people with similar conditions were virtually written off as “incurable”.
No wonder that families suddenly realised there was hope, believing that miracles were happening in Hungary. No wonder that across the UK grass-roots, local community organising got under way to help raise finance for those hoping to travel to Budapest. It’s also no wonder that there was much controversy.
The medical establishment was extremely reluctant to acknowledge positively what was happening in Hungary, and the well-established Spastics Society was initially very sceptical. The problem was – or was perceived to be – that there seemed to be no fully developed theory of Pető’s conductive education, as it had come to be called, presented in a suitably academic way, which could account for its undoubted success.
The matter was debated on television and in the press, but the families kept coming and they were soon followed by teachers wanting to learn about the Pető system.
Today the situation is quite different. There are well-established conductive education institutes in countries as far apart as Britain, Israel and Japan. Adults and children no longer have to travel to Hungary to benefit from conductive education, though potential conductors, as they are called, still come to Budapest from around the world to attend lectures and experience what’s going on at first-hand.
The man behind the movement
Nevertheless, many questions remain, notably who was Pető and what was actually in his head as he “invented” his unique approach to helping people with motor disabilities, an approach that on the surface appears simplistic, involving repeated movement tasks along with verbal expressions, and a minimum amount of equipment (primarily bed-like structures with wooden slats and high-backed chairs), albeit all “conducted” with great intensity and care, which in the early days was provided by people who had no particular qualifications apart from doing what Pető told them. This book aims to provide some answers – though “clues” might be a better word.
András Pető was born in 1893 in Szombathely in western Hungary. In 1911 he went to Vienna where for the next decade he studied medicine. From 1921 he worked in different hospitals and institutes in and around Vienna but he left Austria in 1938 after the Anschluss, when the country was incorporated into Hitler’s Third Reich (Pető was a non-practising Jew).
Some sources say he went to Paris for a while but by the beginning of the Second World War he was back in Hungary. There seems no explanation why he should have returned to his homeland, with its by then well-established Anti-Jewish Laws. What Pető did during the war remains unclear and it’s only after 1945 that the story of the man and his “method” really takes off.
The editors of András Pető have produced a compilation consisting of memories of colleagues and others who knew him at different times, notes and letters written by Pető himself, obituaries following his death in 1967 and a selection of overviews. What emerges cannot – even in the editors’ opinion – be regarded as clear-cut or in any way final in terms of fully understanding Pető and his thinking. Nevertheless, certain themes shine through.
András Pető was a driven man. He was sure he could help people otherwise dismissed as “incurable” – a word he refused to recognise. His belief, his passion and his will affected all who met him. His results seemed to confirm him as a miracle worker.
He was, however, – according to one who knew him and echoed by others – “an absolute autocrat”. She adds: “There was no way you should question or argue or even make a suggestion. Never. There was something God-like in his absolute authority about everything.”
Yet the same person comments: “It would not have worked, however secure he was, if people had not seen the results of what he did.”
Paradox seems to surround Pető. His unorthodox approach was launched and took off during Hungary’s most hard-line Stalinist period, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Did he have connections or even sympathy with the ruling party? After all, it was a period when orthodoxies ruled, so it’s odd that a man such as András Pető, who appears to have been attracted more by Buddhism than Marxism, was tolerated and even assisted by some of the people in power. Or was it “simply” that some of them had been successfully treated by him?
These are just a few of the issues explored by this book. Its editors, who are also its compilers, should be congratulated for giving the wider world an opportunity to ponder about the enigma known as András Pető, who, without ever fully explaining how, positively affected the lives of thousands of people who otherwise were considered “hopeless cases”.
Edited by Gillian Maguire and Andrew Sutton
Conductive Education Press, 2012
Paperback, 281 pages
GBP 17.50, available at www.blurb.co.uk/bookstore/detail/3647662