Given His Tortured Sense of Inferiority, Did Bettelheim Want To Be Found Out?

By Christine Downing

I met Bruno Bettelheim only once, at the 1985 conference in Phoenix celebrating "One Hundred Years of Psychotherapy." My most vivid memory of those few days is of an evening session planned as a dialogue between one of Freud's granddaughters and a grandson of Jung's.

Because Sophie Freud-Lowenstein was kept away by a delayed flight, Margo Adler, Alfred Adler's granddaughter, who was attending the conference as a journalist, was talked into being part of the panel, as was Bettelheim.

When Margo protested that she knew almost nothing about her famous grandfather, who had died years before her birth, Bettelheim explained to her that there was really no way her father could have communicated what his father's life had been like, so different was the Vienna of the early decades of this century from contemporary America.

I remember how moved I was by the gentleness with which Bettelheim tried to explain this to her and by the evident nostalgia he felt for the world of his own early years. This may have touched me even more than it did others there, for my parents are of the same generation as he and they, too, were forced by Hitler to leave their motherland as young adults. I had so often heard them speak of the incommensurability of their lives there and their lives here.

In the midst of all the American optimism about the efficacy of psychotherapy, I also deeply appreciated Bettelheim's witnessing of how a commitment to healing need not occlude a recognition of how much human pain is incurable.

I realize, too, that I was predisposed to respect and like the man. His book, Freud and Man's Soul, has been particularly important to me. It lent authority to my long-standing attempts to communicate to my American students that to understand Freud, it is important to appreciate his deep immersion in classical culture and German literature, and how different the Freud available to his German readers is from the Freud we know through the English translation.

The Uses of Enchantment moved me in part because it reminded me of how, during our first years in America, my mother would read to us from the well-worn copy of Grimms' fairy tales her own mother had once read from to her. I remember how impressed I was on first reading Bettelheim's early theoretical book, Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Males, by his then-unprecedented recognition of the importance of male womb envy.

Recently, as I have begun working on a book about my own relation to the Holocaust, I have found it important to lay Bettelheim's reflections next to all the many other survivor accounts.

I own but I think never read any of Bettelheim's books about autism, though I do remember his speaking about his work at the Orthogenic School one morning during the Phoenix conference and his being followed on the podium by R. D. Laing. Bettelheim had left a handkerchief on the lectern and when Laing began to pick it up, he shouted, "Don't touch it. You'll catch my germs." To which Laing replied, "I'd be honored."

So when Bettelheim died in 1990, I was as dismayed as any other admirer. Not by the suicide which, coming after his wife's death and his own increasing loneliness and isolation and incapacity, struck me as entirely compatible with his life, but by the sudden appearance of accusations by former co-workers and patients that Bettelheim had abused, both emotionally and physically, the children entrusted to his care.

As I sought to understand how much I wanted to resist letting this new information in, I realized that, like many others, I had invested Bettelheim with the aura of the healer archetype and that it was painful to see him reduced to ordinary mortal size.

My own earlier difficulty in reconciling an idealized image of Carl Jung with the facts of his anti-Semitism, his initial blindness to Hitler's evil, his chauvinism, his self-indulgent exploitation of his wife and mistress had taught me how our longing to find someone onto whom we might project the healer archetype leads to idolization - and then inevitably to demonization.

I had also learned how easily being seen by others in terms of this archetype can lead to an inflated sense of identification with it and to an uneasy awareness of the falsity of the identification. I had a hunch that understanding the ways in which this archetype had functioned in how others had responded to Bettelheim, both positively and negatively, and how it had entered into his own self-understanding, might enable me to put the new information into some kind of meaningful context, but knew I didn't really know enough to do so.

Thus I welcomed the opportunity to read the two very different recent biographies devoted to Bettelheim: Richard Pollak's The Creation of Dr. B (Simon & Schuster, 1997) and Nina Sutton's Bettelheim: A Life and a Legacy (Basic Books, 1996.)
Pollak's brother, a patient of Bettelheim's in the mid-1940s, died while on vacation from the school after falling through a chute in a barn floor as the two boys were playing hide and seek. The book reads like a personal vendetta, inspired by Pollak's still-smoldering anger at Bettelheim's failure to heal his brother and at Bettelheim's laying the responsibility for his brother's illness on their mother's rejection of him as an infant - and perhaps (though this is never acknowledged) by Pollak's own unconscious guilt at his own role in his brother's death.

Pollak - a novelist and journalist, long connected with The Nation, who has focused much of his earlier writing on the media -seems determined to help others see through the facade to the "real" Bettelheim, the charlatan.

My own title for Pollak's book (whose every chapter focuses on a deception) would be Secrets and Lies. He has no interest in trying to understand Bettelheim from within. He shows no appreciation of psychoanalysis, no real understanding of the unconscious, little sense of how different the Vienna of Bettelheim's early years is from his own American world.

Pollak has no interest in trying to understand Bettelheim from within. He shows no appreciation of psychoanalysis, no real understanding of the unconscious, little sense of how different the Vienna Bettelheim's early years is from his own American world.

Indeed, at times the book seems as much an attack on Freud, on psychoanalysis as such, on the general tendency in the 1940s and 1950s to see autism as a developmental disorder, as on Bettelheim - though it certainly highlights the accusations directed against Bettelheim as an abusive therapist and as someone whose success depended on false credentials.

Pollak seems never to try to see what might lie behind the accusations or behind Bettelheim's eruptions of anger or his exaggeration of his past accomplishments.

Sutton, London-born but educated in Paris where she still lives, is a political journalist; her book was initially written in French for French publication. Her deep immersion in European culture and sophisticated understanding of psychoanalysis and her recognition that Bettelheim was "a man from another age, another world" enables her to approach his life with the human empathy Pollak lacks.

Her prologue expresses her own shock at the revelations about Bettelheim's deceptions and abusiveness that emerged for the first time immediately after his death, and her determination to understand how to integrate this Bettelheim with the noble healer whose life she had thought she would be exploring. She assumes that neither is the real Bettelheim, that her task is to uncover the relation between the two, to apprehend the complexity of "the flesh and blood man with his little lies and major bouts of rage."

She comes to believe that the disclosures bring into view not only Bettelheim's weaknesses but also what made him a truly great therapist. My title for her book would be Surviving, for it seems dedicated to helping us understand how Bettelheim's struggles to overcome his lifelong lack of self-love and deep-seated pessimism underlie both his accomplishments and his failings.

Yet Sutton's ability to uncover the unconscious roots of Bettelheim's more troubling behavior, to see the whole story in relation to him, may lead her to forgive him too much. She recognizes that the charges, whether true or not, are part of the Bettelheim story, since they arose in response to his relationship to children entrusted to his care, but evinces little interest in the suffering that lay behind the accusations. That is, she sees Bettelheim's woundedness but seems not fully to acknowledge the wounds he inflicted.

Both books speak of Bettelheim's assent to the central theme of Hans Vaihinger's "As If" philosophy: that we must live by fictions to make life meaningful and bearable. For Pollak this was a way of rationalizing a life of dissembling, for Sutton it explains how Bettelheim managed to live a meaningful life despite the depth of the depression that haunted him throughout his life and the deeply pessimistic world view he shared with many of his Viennese contemporaries.

Both describe the lifelong impact of Bettelheim's mother's initial rejection of her ugly infant son: no matter how successful he became, Bettelheim continued to believe he was ugly, small and Jewish. Both note how Bettelheim's early years were colored by the household secrecy surrounding the syphilis his father contracted when Bruno was 4; both communicate how young Bruno feared he was responsible for the oppressive cloud that hung over his childhood home. Pollak suggests weakness of character kept the adult Bettelheim from leaving these childhood wounds behind; Sutton quotes Bettelheim's own observation that "those who single-mindedly devote themselves to making this a better world for children are usually motivated by their own unhappy childhood."

His father's death in 1926 forced Bettelheim to drop out of the university and take over his father's lumber business. If not for that, he later observed, "I could have had the life I imagined."

The life, we might say, that he did imagine when after his arrival in America he presented himself as having impressive university credentials and as an intimate of the circle around Freud. In actuality, although in 1936 he returned to the university to study the philosophy of art and was one of the last Viennese Jews to receive a Ph.D., he never earned the degrees in art history and psychology he later claimed. It is unclear when Bettelheim's unremitting depression led him to enter psychoanalysis nor how long his analysis lasted, but in all probability it was for no more than a year or two (though he had been an ardent, careful reader of Freud since early adolescence).

In his later years Bettelheim confessed that although this analysis provided him with insight about the sources of his depression, it did not issue in a full working-through of his emotional problems. Yet Sutton believes that, despite its brevity, Bettelheim's analysis taught him the real mystery at the heart of the analytic process: the healing power of transference. Bettelheim's later embellishment of his Viennese credentials led him to claim it was he rather than his first wife, Gina, who took care of the autistic American who lived in their home in Vienna for the seven years before the Anschluss, the Nazi takeover of Austria.

Not surprisingly, Bettelheim's story about applying for psychoanalytical training and having Freud himself appear to say that his background in art made him an ideal candidate turns out to be pure fabrication. Like so many of his stories, it represents the kind of thing that could have happened (Freud did believe that a background in art and literature would more adequately prepare one to be an analyst than medical training) and should have happened had Bettelheim's education not been disrupted.

Gina reports that although Bettelheim was always seeking to make an impression, even as a young man, he didn't start lying until after he came to America, until after his time in Dachau and Buchenwald. Bettelheim was imprisoned simply because he was a Jew and had passed up opportunities to leave Vienna because of his responsibility for his sister and widowed mother.

Because his family could afford to bribe the Nazis, he had access to extra food rations and relatively light work assignments in the camps and was eventually released; after his release he obtained an American visa because of the intervention of influential Americans (though Eleanor Roosevelt played no role, as Bettelheim claimed).

As Sutton notes, Bettelheim's experience in the camps gave birth to Bettelheim the psychoanalyst, for there he discovered the strength of his will to live. In order to maintain a sense of his own identity and autonomy, to establish a kind of control in a situation where he had no control, where he was by definition an object not a subject, he deliberately became an observer of his own reactions and of those around him.

In the camps he also quickly learned that survival required one to lie. As Sutton puts it, "the closed barbaric world of the camp provided the ideal breeding ground for those larger-than-life stories that can help one stay alive." Bettelheim's fellow prisoners testify to how the stories he told them about his earlier life gave them hope - and how his listening to their stories confirmed them in their own sense of identity.

After his liberation Bettelheim sought to make sense of his experience and to share what he had learned from it. Wanting to inform Americans about the horrors of the concentration camps, he initially found that no one wanted to listen. Pollak seems to hold it against Bettelheim that though he had a relatively easy time and short stay in what were after all only concentration camps (rather than extermination camps like Auschwitz), his 1943 essay "Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations," the first account of life in the camps by a survivor, immediately led him to be seen as an expert on the Holocaust.

Of course Pollak is right to indicate how angry after the war those who had been at Auschwitz, or whose family had died there, were at Bettelheim's presumption to speak about their experience, which was so radically different from his, and by his unwillingness to modify his views in response to later reports about the psychology of those who survived in the extermination camps.

Sutton is more interested in how Bettelheim's survivor guilt helps explain why, once given the mantle of authority, he couldn't let it go. She believes that when the corpses and gas chambers appeared, Bettelheim's inner feeling that he had in some way cheated to gain the role of expert, retriggered a desperate battle against his lifelong feeling of being a fraud.

Sutton sees how, when he came to America, Bettelheim must have felt forced to create a new life for himself and how this inevitably left scars on a man who so much desired to be admirable and could not stand the idea that he was not.

Completely broke when he arrived, he was thrilled by the opportunity to participate in a University of Chicago study of secondary education because (even though an unpaid position) it might lead to the university connection he had always wanted, and did indeed lead to several years of teaching (first art history and eventually philosophy, psychology, and German literature as well) at a small women's college outside Chicago. Later Bettelheim reluctantly agreed to become director of the University of Chicago's Orthogenic School, although what he had really wanted was not to run a home for emotionally disturbed children but to teach at the university.

Yet it is easy to see how his camp experience shaped Bettelheim's determination to provide not just custodial care but to make the school an outstanding center for treatment and study.

The premise of Bettelheim's "milieu therapy" was that just as the extraordinarily cruel environment of the camps could destroy human autonomy, so an extraordinarily benevolent environment might heal the severely wounded. Bettelheim's survivor guilt led to a longing to help the helpless and to his conviction that this entailed being able to imagine what the children were feeling, understanding what their behavior meant, how it expressed their suffering.

Yet Pollak, who sees the school not as a healing but as an abusive environment, vividly describes the school as dominated by a "climate of fear." Although Bettelheim always said that physical punishment of any kind was completely forbidden at the school, Pollak recounts numerous instances, not only of Bettelheim's cruel verbal abuse, but of his slapping patients, hitting them with a belt, beating their bare bottoms. He reports that one former patient complained that Bettelheim had pulled her naked out of shower and beaten her in front of dormmates, that he fondled her breasts (though Pollak admits he was unable to corroborate her testimony and that most persons he interviewed, even those otherwise highly critical of Bettelheim, doubted its truth.)

Even so, the other accusations are daunting enough, even after we take account of Sutton's attempts to put them in context. She reminds us that Bettelheim's defenders were not free to say what they knew about the psychological history of the accusers and notes that all of them were from the generation of patients Bettelheim had abandoned by retiring. She notes how the accusations were amplified by those, like Jeffrey Masson or Frederick Crews, who see all psychoanalysis as a fraudulent endeavor.

Admitting that Bettelheim could be cruelly sarcastic, that especially in the later years he could fall into rages, she relates this to his conscious assumption of the role of "Big Bad Wolf," his sense of the need for a strong authority figure in the permissive atmosphere of a school where there were no drugs, no physical restraints, no isolation rooms. I was struck by the power of a former patient's observation:

"One of the deepest hurts at the school was the constant belief that Bettelheim's brutality was therapy." Because Sutton never really discusses the more troubling episodes Pollak mentions (including the problematic aspects of Bettelheim's taking on the dual role of personal therapist and employer with some of his counselors), the disquiet his presentation evokes is not fully assuaged.

The frustrations involved in trying to work with the autistic children Bettelheim began admitting to the school in 1955 seems to have sparked his increasingly uncontrollable rages. He clearly hoped that an unrelievedly beneficent environment could heal even these most seriously disturbed children; a decade later, when he had discovered how little he could really do for them, he underwent a severe mid-life depression.

Sutton concludes that some of the autistic children at the school made real progress while others didn't, but that all were better off than they would have been elsewhere because under Bettelheim's care they were treated as suffering human beings. But she realizes that this was not enough for Bettelheim, who needed to believe in his healing powers and therefore exaggerated his successes.

In writing about his autistic patients he couldn't resist making a better story out of a good one. By so doing he reached a wide, popular audience and quickly became viewed as the national expert on autism. His catchy titles (Love is Not Enough, Truents from Life, The Empty Fortress) helped, as did his richly detailed anecdotal style. He said he wanted to offer hope, but I think Pollak is right in accusing him of offering false hope to the parents of autistic children.

Once Bettelheim began embellishing, exaggerating, lying, he didn't seem able to stop. Pollak and Sutton both ask why those who could have challenged his stories never did so while he was alive, for their silence seems to have encouraged him to continue elaborating his stories. Some of those the biographers interviewed explained that one doesn't denounce a fellow exile, especially one who was in the camps, but it seems that no one ever directly confronted Bettelheim himself either.

The hesitation on the part of the former patients to speak out earlier is easier to understand; many seem to have felt that only when so much negative media attention was being given to Bettelheim's suicide (which many of them experienced as a betrayal) would they be believed.

Both authors also suggest that Bettelheim wanted to be found out, that, as Sutton puts it, while covering his tracks, he left a trail of white pebbles that made it relatively easy to uncover the actual path (though during his lifetime he seems to have feared that should his "dark secrets" - his lies about his past - come out, it could destroy the school.) It is as if, though he didn't believe it could ever happen, Bettelheim still deeply longed to be loved for who he really was. Sutton relates to Bettelheim's fraudulence as primarily an inner problem.

She sees him as so haunted from childhood by a feeling of fraud that the more he appeared great and beautiful to others the more he felt small and ugly inside. That is, she understands Bettelheim's most troublesome behavior as he sought to understand that of his patients - as expressions of his suffering. I find her view of Bettelheim as someone early wounded in his capacity for self-love and obsessed with his ugliness persuasive and moving. She reminds us that Bettelheim recognized that his analysis had helped him master his suffering intellectually but not on a deeper emotional level. She sees how such unresolved feelings shaped his whole life and how powerfully they emerged again at the end of his life. His work had forced him to be optimistic; without it nothing had power to do so.

"The old wounds and obsessions had not healed, despite a lifetime spent trying to help others," she writes.

After his wife's death, when Bettelheim no longer felt sustained by her love, his depression and his deep-seated pessimism got the upper hand. He came to believe that a person never really gets over the experience of having been in the concentration camps, an experience that makes him lose his belief in humankind.

My own understanding of Bettelheim, based on what these biographies reveal, is close to Sutton's but subtly different. Without ever directly invoking the healer archetype, she communicates how possessed Bettelheim was by it, how painful it was for him to confront the gap between the magician he believed he should be and the actual disappointing results. Her claim that in writing about his camp experience Bettelheim had fulfilled his mission by transforming his sufferings into a useful message suggests the kind of transformation association with the mythic figure of the wounded healer.

Often in myth the wounded healer seems really to be a once-wounded but now-healed healer, but sometimes he appears as a still-wounded healer. In Greek mythology, for instance, the healer Cheiron suffers from an incurable wound so unremittingly painful that he comes to regret an immortality from which he can not escape.

Often in myth the wounded healer seems really to be a once-wounded but now-healed healer, but sometimes he appears as a still-wounded healer.

It is as a still-wounded healer that I have come to see Bruno Bettelheim. I believe that Sutton sees him thus as well. Her whole book seems dedicated to helping us see how Bettelheim's wounds were the source of his gifts and also of his limitations. She understands and she forgives. To her picture I would only want to add that I see Bettelheim's wounds as also the source of real wounds he inflicted on others. I see him rather as a wounded and wounding healer - and as a reminder to all of us of how closely allied are the power to heal and to wound. In his later years Bettelheim confessed that although this analysis provided him with insight about the sources of his depression, it did not issue in a full working-through of his emotional problems. Yet Sutton believes that, despite its brevity, Bettelheim's analysis taught him the real mystery at the heart of the analytic process: the healing power of transference. Bettelheim's later embellishment of his Viennese credentials led him to claim it was he rather than his first wife, Gina, who took care of the autistic American who lived in their home in Vienna for the seven years before the Anschluss, the Nazi takeover of Austria.