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Dr. Bleuler’s Diagnosis

In response to:

Dr. Bleuler from the October 22, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

Dr. Benda’s quarrel [NYR, October 22] is not with my book, but with Elizabeth Hardwick’s review. Hardwick is, perhaps inadvertently, unaware of Dr. Bleuler’s reputation. I am not. If Dr. Benda would take the trouble to read the book itself, he would find the following on page 179:

On the 22nd Dr. Forel called in Dr. Paul Eugen Bleuler for consultation. Bleuler was a distinguished authority on psychosis (specifically schizophrenia which he had named)…. Bleuler spent an afternoon with Zelda and the evening with Forel and Scott. Zelda’s personal reaction to Bleuler was succinct; she thought him “a great imbecile.”

I go on to state Bleuler’s comments to Fitzgerald on Zelda’s chances for recovery—that, in fact, three out of four such cases might be discharged as cured. Is that an example of the “hopeless mental disaster” Benda says I say it is?

But, frankly, none of this is what has moved me to reply. It is the peculiar arrogance implicit in Dr. Benda’s remarks about the authority of Bleuler’s diagnosis. “Nobody,” he writes, “could resist” Bleuler, and Benda is “quite surprised” that Zelda did not respond to him. After all not only was he “on the peak of his fame,” and his diagnosis “the most authoritative,” but his beautiful head “was cast from the Swiss mountains….” Is Dr. Benda really willing to say that Zelda Fitzgerald was somehow in error because she did not respond to one afternoon with Dr. Bleuler? Does Dr. Benda care to speculate upon whom the responsibility for that failure rests?

Zelda Fitzgerald was treated by Forel, Bleuler, Meyer, Rennie and many other outstanding psychiatrists; in fact, the roll call of her doctors provides names of the most distinguished men and women of her time. The “mystery” of her schizophrenia withstood their authority, their inquiry, as well as their personal magnetism. Where was I to find that “greater expert” who would risk the years of work, let alone the ordinary hazards of biography, in taking on the most complex of mental illnesses? In Dr. Benda who judges a book by a review, and who chastises a patient for her failure to respond to authority?

Nancy Milford

New York City

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