In Memoriam: Mira Rothenberg (1922-2015)

Mira Kowarski was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Jan. 15, 1922, the oldest of three children of Jacob Kowarski, a landlord, and the former Rose Joffe, a dentist. As anti-Semitism swept Europe, her mother and two younger siblings fled to the United States. She emigrated to New York on her own in 1939, joining relatives. Her father remained in Lithuania and died in the Holocaust.

She graduated from Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, studied education and psychology at Brooklyn College and Columbia University, and enrolled in a graduate program in psychology at Yeshiva University. She was studying at Columbia and had volunteered at a local synagogue when she encountered the orphans who had been rescued from concentration camps in Europe.

Ms. Rothenberg had never intended to become a clinical psychologist. In Europe, she said, she had studied and performed ballet and actually aspired to be a cordwainer, because she loved the smell of leather and considered fine shoes to be works of art.

“That’s what I am now is a shoemaker,” she said in a 1978 interview. “I try to put the children together, measure the fit and then give them back.”

She began teaching at the League School, founded by Carl Fenichel, an influential figure in treating emotionally disturbed children, in 1953. Five years later, she and two fellow therapists, Zev Spanier and Mr. Goldsman, whom she would marry, shepherded 11 disturbed children to a remote island in the Adirondacks for an immersive therapeutic program that, when she was 90, she recounted in her book “The Children of Raquette Lake: One Summer That Helped Change the Course of Treatment for Autism” (2012).

That experience inspired her and Mr. Goldsman to establish Blueberry Treatment Centers, which by 1990 was providing services to more than 200 children and adolescents through its residential and day treatment programs, nursery and summer camp.

Their son, Akiva, who grew up in the group home in Brooklyn, became a writer, director and producer and won an Academy Award for his screenplay for “A Beautiful Mind,” the movie, based on a book by Sylvia Nasar, about John Forbes Nash Jr., the mathematical genius who overcame his struggle with schizophrenia to win the Nobel Prize for game theory.

A 1958 article about her in Coronet magazine, while she was teaching at the League School for Seriously Disturbed Children in Brooklyn — and, 19 years later, her book “Children With Emerald Eyes: Histories of Extraordinary Boys and Girls,” written when she was clinical director of Blueberry Treatment Centers — propelled Ms. Rothenberg and her embryonic therapy into prominence and helped alter public perceptions of mental illness.

A review of the book in a Times education column said, “These case histories of a remarkable therapist’s work with deeply disturbed children are vivid and profoundly moving.” But it also cautioned:

“These are not success stories. Progress is frequently intermittent, resistance remains high, and the moments of exhilaration and joy are infrequent.”

Ms. Rothenberg’s marriage to Mr. Goldsman ended in divorce in 1970. He died in 2012. Besides her son, she is survived by two granddaughters.




design by clerestory creative