The Survivor

Bettelheim: A Life and a Legacy

by Nina Sutton, translated by David Sharp
BasicBooks, 606 pp., $35.00


Not long after she started to research her biography of Bruno Bettelheim, writes Nina Sutton, she found herself wondering whose life it was that she was writing. When she started in July of 1990, she believed she was researching a brilliant writer and psychologist, a courageous Holocaust survivor, an almost saintly man of unblemished integrity. Fairly soon, like most biographers, she was discovering the flaws in the saint—the bad tempers, the small lies, the family difficulties. But by December of that year, if she told people what she was writing, she would be asked, “Will it be for or against?”; or simply, “Why?” For it was in March that Bettelheim, old, isolated, and very sick, had taken his life. In the months following, the Bettelheim “scandal” (as it was known in the States, although not in France or Britain) had erupted—something almost unprecedented, as she says, in the worlds of academe and psychoanalysis. Every aspect of his reputation came under sudden attack and was, so it seemed, demolished.

Odd conditions, indeed, for a biographer to meet at the start of her work—but Sutton has dealt with them magnificently. In her excellent book she has not only done the usual painstaking work, written it up with the grace that distinguishes the exciting from the boring biography, and well understood the psychoanalytic and the European background; she also has that extra touch of biographer’s intuition that enables her to put all the differing views of the man together into one whole, illuminating a single complex personality that she can regard with compassion and, in the long run, with admiration as well. In this, I believe, she will carry most readers along with her by the end of the book.

The Bettelheim “scandal” was so extraordinary that Sutton has made the decision to preface her book with an account of it. When Bettelheim efficiently took his life six years ago by means of sleeping pills and a plastic bag, he was eighty-six years old, bereaved of his wife and at odds with one of his children, unable to get about or to read, and established in that place we all prefer not to think about, the retirement home. He was an intellectual who needed occupation, stimulus, conversation with his peers. He had considered suicide a great deal and discussed it with people, and his exit cannot have been a total shock to anyone close to him. (One may consider this to be more self-euthanasia than suicide; I do, some others won’t.) Bettelheim had also, as a child, had the experience of watching his father die, very slowly over a number of years, of syphilis.

In the first few weeks after his death the press put out the usual polite and admiring notices. Too admiring, perhaps, because an unsigned letter was soon published in a free Chicago weekly by an former pupil at Bettelheim’s Orthogenic School for disturbed children at the University of Chicago, saying that during her time there she had been beaten and humiliated by the great man. Other former pupils joined in. The story reached The Washington Post with the sub-headline “The Revered Psychologist Had a Dark, Violent Side.” Bettelheim was accused of running his community of disturbed children and their counselors like a cult leader. One of the kinder comments came from a good friend: “He had seen a dictator who destroys people, and he became a dictator who wanted to rescue people.” Counselors from the Orthogenic School weighed in with letters defending him. Another paper queried the validity of his Viennese qualifications. There was a suggestion that he had plagiarized material for one of his books—quickly quashed by the author from whom the material was said to have been lifted.1

Surprisingly, the controversy does not seem to have particularly concerned the more important matter of whether his writings on childhood autism have been validated. The furor died down, but the final impression left—and not disputed by Sutton—was of a man whose contradictions included irascibility as well as compassion, authoritarianism as well as dedication. He was never afraid to put forward views that would make him unpopular. In his later years at the Orthogenic School he was tired and perhaps disillusioned. And he had a few secrets.

Bruno Bettelheim was born in 1903 into a petit-bourgeois Jewish family in anti-Semitic Vienna—the city of which Goering was to say admiringly that it had done more in five months to round up its Jews than the Nazis had done in five years. He was short-sighted and bookish, and all his life rather spectacularly ugly. His mother was said to have exclaimed, “Thank God it’s a boy” when she looked at the baby—but about this all-important mother, as with mothers of other outstanding men from that period (Einstein’s? Freud’s?), we know little. Bettelheim was understandably always ambivalent about the birthplace that rejected him, and when the ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim was made president in 1986 remarked that Waldheim and the Austrians deserved each other.

The home he grew up in seems to have been respectable and well-intentioned but dogged by sadness. The chief reason for this, and one of Bettelheim’s miserable secrets, was that his father was diagnosed as syphilitic when the boy was still young. Nothing was really said, of course, nothing explained. When Bruno was thirteen the father, in addition, had a stroke and, in the words of a letter of Bettelheim’s, “lived the next ten years as a wreck till he died when I was twenty-three, much too early for me.” What could he have thought but “I’ll never let this happen to me?”

Nevertheless Bettelheim and his generation did grow up with the advantage of the firm moral and cultural structure of the time, something that later he evidently found lacking sometimes in the United States. At the Bundesrealgymnasium he tended to be top of his class, and at weekends the Viennese teen-agers, the Wandervögel, hiked, picnicked, and argued their way around the nearby countryside. The 1914-1918 war meanwhile had meant hunger, cold, and the loss of income. Bettelheim had to take over the family lumber business because of his father’s illness and at the same time to finish his university courses in psychology, philosophy, and art. Not a bed of roses, even before Nazidom. And he was being psychoanalyzed, and he had made an incompatible marriage.

The Anschluss came a few weeks after he had finished his doctorate. Within hours Jewish shops were being vandalized, businesses and vehicles confiscated, and propaganda leaflets dropped over the city by Wehrmacht bombers. Everyone Jewish who could get out was doing so: Gina Bettelheim got a passage to the United States, but red tape seems to have held up her husband’s visa. Within weeks of the Nazi takeover he was rounded up for Dachau—one of the first Viennese Jews to be taken just for his Jewishness rather than for any political activity.

What is there to say about Bettelheim’s ten months in Dachau and Buchenwald, so indelibly documented in his paper “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations” and in the book, The Informed Heart, that followed? First, that in 1938 these were of course concentration camps rather than extermination centers, where everything was done to break and degrade inmates, sometimes to the point of death, but where mass gassing had not yet been devised. When Bettelheim said that his time in the camps had been more help to him than his psychoanalysis, it was later to anger the few who did emerge from the death camps. The Informed Heart is about ways of surviving a brutal assault on the personality; in the later camps there was no such thread of hope—survival was rare and random. Bettelheim survived as a person, too, because he could use his intellect and training to study what was being done there; he was no doubt aware that if he had not been able to buy himself out fairly quickly he might himself have lost his soul.

When he arrived in New York in 1939 he had, like the other refugees, lost everything material, and in addition his wife was suing for divorce. The period between 1939 and 1944, when he took over the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School in Chicago, was one of spectacularly making good. He had learned about survival and was to make it the center of his thinking for the rest of his life; now he put his energy into full-time surviving. He was penniless, he looked for any job available, he remarried, he got less penniless, he taught in a backwoods girls’ university, he exaggerated his Viennese credentials, he got published, and, in 1944, he found himself head of a rundown school with a long history of difficulties.

When Bettelheim was to hint in later life that he had dark secrets that could undo him, he more probably meant the moderate exaggeration of his qualifications than the family history of syphilis or any imagined string-pulling in the camps. His psychoanalysis had not been very long, his doctorate was in aesthetics rather than psychology, an autistic foster child who had lived with the Bettelheims for six years had been more his wife’s project than his own. Nina Sutton argues that, from these white lies, a gap opened up and widened between his greatly admired accounts of the Orthogenic School and its actual patchy progress.

One has to look back too at what else was happening to Bettelheim during this time of struggle. The writing of “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations” was begun in 1940, when his English was limited and he was only months away from the conditions he was trying to describe. No one else, I believe, was at that time trying to tell the world about them from personal experience. The roll call on December 14, 1938, when, in a blizzard and without outdoor clothes, all Buchenwald prisoners had to stand for nineteen hours under the camp spotlights, and in which eighty died and many more had to have frostbitten limbs amputated; the random killings, the systematic humiliation, the floggings, the unceasing racist obscenities, the typhus, the hunger, the mud: in the United States no one believed a word of it. Rejection slips for the article accumulated.

This first paper was eventually published by the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1943 (and was later, in 1945, to be distributed, at Eisenhower’s own request, to the traumatized American troops who opened up Buchenwald). But Bettelheim had had several years to struggle with his disbelieved experiences alone. As he indicates in Surviving, published in 1979, he had to clarify those experiences in order not to go mad, yet he must have gone through this period blaming himself for not having woken up Americans to the facts. And when publication did vindicate him, his insecurity (which, Sutton makes clear, underlay the arrogance apparent throughout his life) made him feel ashamed of success. And aware, always, of his burden as a survivor.

Bettelheim has made it clear in his writings that his lifelong debt had to be paid by helping other prisoners (of whatever kind) to escape. Survivorship, he wrote, is “an existential predicament which does not permit of any solution.” It can only be lived with. He quotes a letter sent to him by a part-Jewish German woman who was saved by Dutch friends:

You probably know how many perished in Holland under the Nazi occupation, even if they had good faked papers. I was among the lucky ones, but again and again I have asked myself, “Why was I saved?”

After the war I met Eva Hermann, a German gentile who had been imprisoned for years because she had helped Jews. When I put the question of “Why?” to her, she answered, “So that you prove for the rest of your life that it was worth you being saved.”

A heavy, even monstrous lifetime task. As Bettelheim wrote, what should have been a birthright—not to be murdered by the state—is experienced by the survivor as a stroke of extraordinary, undeserved luck. Voices tell you:

Some of them died because you pushed them out of an easier place of work; others because you did not give them some help, such as food, that you might possibly have been able to do without.” And there is always the ultimate accusation to which there is no acceptable answer: “You rejoiced that it was some other that had died rather than you.”

So it was with this burden and this rich, extraordinary, terrible background that the forty-one-year-old exile took over a failing school. He determined to use it to bring back to life children who had the worst prognosis. The children he most wanted to treat he saw as replicas of the Müsulmänner—the camp nickname for those inmates who had withdrawn totally from reality. Regardless of formal training and analysis (and, Sutton points out, no one in the Chicago psychoanalytic group was fitted to continue the analysis of a concentration camp survivor), could there have been anyone else with quite such qualifications? The irony is that while it was Freud’s Austria that rejected psychoanalysis and its practitioners, it was his much-distrusted America that was providing the homes and the power for these dispossessed Europeans.

Sutton judges that it was the first ten years, or even less, that were the “magical years” of the school (though magic is always rather a loaded attribution). Over these years Bettelheim was creating with furious energy his philosophy of treatment. It was his own, though owing much to his psychoanalytic colleague Emmy Sylvester and to precursors such as Fritz Redl. And in spite of the openness encouraged at the school, he was inevitably becoming autocrat and patriarch of the institution. His very demanding milieu therapy for damaged personalities required that counselors, who spent long hours with the children, adapting to their needs, understanding rather than punishing them, should also consult with Bettelheim as with a psychoanalyst. At the same time he was making the case studies that were to be The Empty Fortress. That the book did not appear until 1967 Sutton attributes to Bettelheim’s anxiety about the patchy success of these heroic therapeutic attempts. Of the earlier book Love Is Not Enough, Redl had said, “Your book’s great, Bruno. But why did you turn it into a fairy story?” Why not talk about problems, about discipline? A tendency to whitewash the material was already being perceived.

The intractability of his task must have begun to exhaust Bettelheim over the years. As Sutton makes clear, the full story of the Orthogenic School cannot be written until legal restrictions on personal documents held by the University of Chicago are lifted. Meanwhile she has interviewed many former pupils and staff. She found that both categories presented problems, the former as people who, once at any rate, had been rated as disturbed, the latter being defensive of the reputation of their guru. Objectivity was not easily found. She also points out that the ex-pupils who attacked Bettelheim’s reputation were all from the later years of the school, when its early impetus had been exhausted. Attempts to sanctify the man have obviously been counterproductive and not of Bettelheim’s own choosing—he was as often hard on himself as he was apparently arrogant.

A Holocaust survivor is not automatically a saint, though in our guilt we are anxious to attach the halo. There is a story of Bettelheim feeding an anorexic girl slowly, one raisin at a time, and so saving her life. It may well be true; and so, no doubt, are stories of angry slaps.2 An autobiographical novel written by a former pupil of the school—The Pelican and After by Tom Wallace Lyons—does not make particularly pleasant reading, though the author claims it was not written as an attack. In it “Dr. V” appears as a feared and autocratic figure who hands out slaps as well as support. It ends with the advice given to the teen-age hero that “if you can buck that old man, then you’ve got the rest of the world at your feet.” The author evidently could and had, and on publication Bettelheim wrote to congratulate him (there was, however, the usual analytic sting in the tail—“I am sure it is a true picture of how you saw things when you were fourteen”).

Sutton makes it clear that over time Bettelheim, carrying his enormous weight of restitution, understandably did grow wearier, and perhaps disillusioned by some therapeutic failures. No one has denied that for other children he achieved much, though enemies would say that the success stories involved the less damaged children. One ex- counselor from the school has accused Bettelheim of being a fraud who did more harm than good; but there were many others, on the other hand, who told Sutton quite the opposite. And though the job of counselor was extremely demanding and the salary minimal, there was no shortage of people wanting to work with him. He was never accused of the slightest sexual misbehavior; but charisma creates favorites, which leads on to jealousies and disappointments in a community where the emotional temperature is high.

Perhaps a central problem is the actual nature of autism, Bettelheim’s chosen field (and of other severe maladjustments, for only a few truly autistic children could be managed within the school at any one time). Autism is a subject that can only be approached with caution. It was not until the 1940s that this specific pattern was distinguished among the crowd of children generically seen as mad, bad, or retarded. The autistic child was baffling because he or she had “islands” of ability not compatible with ordinary learning difficulties. There were also specific mannerisms: a list was drawn up that defined the syndrome. But in the psychological field a syndrome is seldom as definite as a case of measles, though it is easier to imagine that it is. Authorities in the field would probably not deny now that autism shades over into other diagnoses, and that there is generally (often? always?) an organic basis involved. No definitive progress has been made in identifying such a basis, though the concept of some faulty filtering system makes sense—too thin a protective barrier against the world. The difficulty with a purely organic explanation, though, is that cases are described where a child developing normally has retreated into autistic behavior after trauma; and the difficulty with the environmental explanation is that parents of autistic children may have other children who are normal.

Bettelheim has been accused of slandering mothers of these children by blaming them for the condition. In fact it was Leo Kanner, one of its discoverers, who coined the phrase “refrigerator mother” in this context.3 And all the writers of the time that Bettelheim quotes in The Empty Fortress were assuming that environmental damage was involved; he was expressing an accepted view. What Bettelheim himself said (though he could be contradictory) was that

fortunately, psychoanalysts are beginning to decry the haunting image of the rejecting mother. [He proceeds to quote Anna Freud to this effect.]…The child’s initial autistic reaction can be brought about by a variety of conditions…. Both the original reaction and the later autistic behavior are spontaneous and autonomous responses on the part of the child.

The talented British boy Stephen Wiltshire, for instance, as described by Oliver Sacks in An Anthropologist on Mars, may have retreated into autism because of the early loss of his father. In his case even an exceptionally supportive background seems not to have completely reversed the condition. It is the child’s extreme reaction to trauma that is abnormal. Bettelheim’s feeling, however, was that simply to point to a neurological fault was to dismiss any hope of therapy.

Having seen how, under unbearably traumatizing conditions, certain concentration camp prisoners withdrew into a state something like living death, Bettelheim was drawn to the similarity between this and severe childhood disturbance. In the camps, he wrote,

I witnessed with utter disbelief the nonreacting of certain prisoners to their most cruel experience. I did not know and would not have believed that I would observe similar behavior in the most benign of therapeutic environments….

What was startling about the experience in the camps was that though the overpowering conditions were the same for many prisoners, not all succumbed. Only those showed schizophrenic-like reactions who felt they were not only helpless to deal with the new situation, but that this was their inescapable fate…. Such men were called “moslems”4 in the camps and other prisoners avoided them as if in fear of contagion.

In the autistic, or schizophrenic, child (Bettelheim does not always distinguish the terms), what, similarly, happens is that

efforts to master some aspects of reality, and to come to terms with others through defense, are given up. Then the mental apparatus is made to serve only one goal: to protect sheer life by doing nothing about outside reality. All energy goes into protection and none is available for building personality.

The child withdraws to an inner fortress.

But no inner fortress has ever allowed for survival without help from the outside. The concentration-camp prisoner who did not get help from others, or could not use it, was doomed.

Now that books have been written by people who have emerged from childhood autism to describe it,5 it can be seen that what they felt—whatever the cause of the condition—was indeed much as Bettelheim imagined it. Extreme terror, desperate frustration. And signs of autistic retreat are not confined to prisoners and disturbed children; something like it can be seen in geriatric wards if one cares to look. (Perhaps the young Bettelheim first glimpsed it while watching his father’s slow decline.) Indeed, the fascination with this condition around the 1960s and after could be due to the fact that the ordinary person, at a deep and unexplored level, has known this terra incognita during states of shock or grief.


When Bettelheim is eventually set within the context of the thought of his time, he may be seen, quite apart from his Orthogenic School, as one of many writers converging on the theme of constructing a self. The subject is so difficult that it has no acceptable vocabulary, and the vagueness of the very word and all its compounds (self-worth, self-esteem, self-help, and so on) makes it difficult to use intelligently. Yet the subject can be traced back beyond Sartre and Existentialism, beyond Kierkegaard’s lucubrations on “willing to be a self,” “losing a self,” the self becoming “a sort of blind door in the background of the soul behind which there is nothing”; at least as far back as Hume’s failure to discover in his self more than a bundle of sensations. R.D. Laing, though out of fashion because of the cult figure he became, opened up a frontier in The Divided Self; the English analyst D.W. Winnicott wrote of the false or caretaker self, versus the true self which alone can feel real. Piaget inexhaustibly documented how babies develop the boundary between self and other. Sacks, considering the autistic boy he had spent time with, was driven to wonder just what kind of real identity he possessed.

Bettelheim saw great, dreadful strippings-away of self in prisoners, and in some children, and saw a similarity: “What was external reality for the prisoner is for the autistic child his inner reality.” And, as he relates in the section “Decline of the Self” in The Empty Fortress, retreat from contact with the terrifying outside world impoverishes the self and empties it. “Both the external world inviting action, and the internal world that might react, are denied at the same time. The height of such deterioration of the self, the extreme forms of nonaction and of interest withdrawn from the world, these are reached when all communication is given up.” When nobody out there is contacted, nobody lives inside your head any more. As Laing puts it in The Divided Self (published a few years before The Empty Fortress):

A self is liable to develop which feels it is outside all experience and activity. It becomes a vacuum. Everything is there, outside; nothing is here, inside…. Yet the self may at the same time long more than anything for participation in the world. Thus, its greatest longing is felt as its greatest weakness and giving in to this weakness is its greatest dread.

This is indeed what Bettelheim describes in his case histories. And in Oliver Sacks’s moving account of Temple Grandin, the ex-autistic child who has grown up to live as best she can in the real world shows him the “squeeze machine” she has had constructed for her. She always longed to be held as a child, she says, but feared this would obliterate her self; so as an adult she climbs into the machine to be held. It is reminiscent of Bettelheim’s extraordinary section in The Empty Fortress on Joey, the “mechanical boy” who translated the world into homemade machines fixed around his bed (nowadays, almost an emblem of technological man adjusting his “virtual reality” set).

When Bettelheim wrote about kibbutz children in The Children of the Dream (1969), he was in a sense probing into the same area—the way that identity is constructed, what holds it together and what inhabits it. This is not to say, of course, that he in any way equated the kibbutzniks with disturbed children, though the book greatly offended his Israeli hosts. When he was invited there in 1964 it must have come as a welcome break from the cares of the school. He spent some months in Israel and on that basis wrote his study of the kibbutz system of communal upbringing. In it we see the Bettelheim of cultured, neurotic, highly individualistic Jewish Vienna struggling to come to terms with the disciplined second- and third-generation kibbutz youngsters. Something, he clearly felt, was missing there, something of the complex emotional patterns nurtured in the close nuclear family. Instead of the traditionally rich and fertile Jewish individualism, he found in the kibbutz a bland loyalty to the peer group, as though within a short time the pioneers had produced a generation of cheerful peasants. And yet, ambivalent, he returns again and again to the havoc the traditional European home causes when it goes wrong; and, in a review in this journal of proceedings of a conference on kibbutz child care,6 he accuses most contributors to it of being grossly insensitive to anything outside their own Western ideal of child rearing.

Bettelheim as he grew older clearly lost all timidity about offending people whenever he felt it right to speak out, without regard for liberal pieties. But an earlier book, Symbolic Wounds of 1955, had surprisingly been not so much controversial as ignored. It was before its time, but should surely, now, be taken on by feminism (was this the first time that “patriarchal” was used disapprovingly by a male American writer?). Certainly it is not an easy read, and stands far from pop psychology. It is an anthropologically based study of male circumcision, on the lines of Freud’s Totem and Taboo, and its thesis is men’s intense envy of women. He hopes, Bettelheim says, that

if we could give greater recognition to boys’ desire to bear children, to the desire of male adolescents and adult men for the more passive and leisurely enjoyment of life, instead of having always to “fight and to strut,” our boys and men might feel less envy and anxious hostility toward girls and women.

Observing behavior among boys at the Orthogenic School, and comparing it to anthropologists’ accounts of male initiation rites in many cultures, he sees them all as symbolizing masculine efforts to equal female creativity. To his disappointment, the book flopped. Anthropologists naturally criticized it as amateurish, and psychoanalysts as too “vaginocentric”—a dreadful thought.

It was his writings on survivorship and the Holocaust that caused the most controversy. Bettelheim never took the easy or the obvious view. As early as 1948 he was querying American-Jewish support for anti-British terrorism in Palestine. “I doubt that many American Jews who insist on the Jews’ right to Palestine would be willing to give America back to the Indians,” he wrote; and even more controversially:”I cannot help feeling that this anger against the British was a projection of the anger of American Jews against themselves for not doing their duty towards the Jews in Europe.” He never believed that the whole German nation should be castigated for the crimes of their regime, nor did he feel that the Nuremberg trials had any validity. He even found similarities between the mass societies evolving under democracy and the Nazi state: “When life activities are not selected on the basis of internalization of the values of cherished persons, but solely on the basis of the wish or need to earn a livelihood in a convenient fashion, doubts, insecurity and inability to integrate are the consequence.”

By the 1960s he was, with Hannah Arendt and other writers, beginning to look at an almost forbidden subject: the puzzle of Jewish passivity in the face of the extermination machine. His article “The Ignored Lesson of Anne Frank,” arguing that the Frank family had underestimated Nazi barbarity and chosen the wrong survival plan, aroused considerable anger. When in 1962 he came up with the concept of “ghetto thinking,” even Arendt felt obliged to distance herself. By this time there were, in the US, survivors with worse camp experiences behind them than Bettelheim’s, and they resented his role as official Holocaust spokesman. Sutton points out that his lifelong struggle to interpret the Nazi experience now meant facing a further dimension of horror in which the lessons of courage and clarity stressed in The Informed Heart had no relevance. As she puts it:

If, as I believe, it was at Buchenwald that this chronic depressive discovered the strength of his own will to live, if he owed his survival to that discovery, and if it was what led him to devote himself to helping others, then his first encounter with the death camp survivors must have been quite simply unbearable. For their experiences meant the absolute negation of all the positive conclusions he had drawn from his Buchenwald sojourn, and thus the negation, at a critical juncture, of his life’s work, notably at the school.

He moved on to the philosophy embodied in his finest paper. In “The Holocaust—One Generation Later,” (1977) he quotes Celan and reaches the conclusion that, ultimately, the Jews of Europe let themselves be murdered because the world did not care about them. “The most extreme agony is to feel that one has been utterly forsaken.” We can all understand that.

Bettelheim’s suicide has been seen by some as a betrayal of his principles and his writings, and in fact Sutton argues that the sudden vilification that followed it, after the equally inappropriate sanctification of the man, embodied something of the anger people feel when they are deserted through a deliberate death. (How dare he leave us?) His last years—losing his wife, his occupation, everything that had given life meaning—must have been the time when he did feel utterly forsaken, and the carefully thought-out deed was in fact a continuation of his thinking rather than a negation of it. If his role was, as Sutton says, to be a bridge-builder between the everyday world and the one beyond it of madness and destruction, he preferred to die (like Macaulay’s Horatius) on the bridge.7 He knew what was on the other side. His emphasis always was on knowing about that other world, not glossing it over or denying it.

Summing up the meaning of the Holocaust, Bettelheim wrote:

That we ought to care for the other, that with our concern we ought to counteract the death-like and death-provoking desperation that there is nobody who cares for one, has been taught since the beginning of time. But in each generation, one event more than any other makes this lesson especially pertinent, giving it a character specific to that age. For this century I believe this event is the extermination of the European Jews in the gas chambers.

The abyss of the death camps is the destructive potentialities in man enacted,” he writes, and quotes Celan:

Oh you dig and I dig, and Idig myself towards you,
and on our finger the ring awakes us.

The digging toward the dead cannot now help them, he continues, but can waken us to a more significant life. It is in this spirit that we should look at his death, when he joined the other suicide, Celan, and be enlightened by this outstanding piece of biographical digging.

  1. 1

    See Alan Dundes, “Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment and Abuses of Scholarship,” Journal of American Folklore (Winter 1991), pp. 74-83.

  2. 2

    In a different key, something of the “Bettelheim effect”—sanctification followed by denigration—took place in the case of Benjamin Spock. Charismatic in a very different way, he wrote on child care with sense and sympathy but was later accused of producing a generation of spoiled adults. It is a pity he took the blame on himself; though my copy of Baby and Child Care has fallen apart with use, I never read into it any recommendations to indulge and spoil.

  3. 3

    While Kanner was putting forward this explanation, his “co-discoverer” Hans Asperger was arguing for a biological basis to the condition; so from the start there have been these conflicting views.

  4. 4

    Presumably through some confused idea about Oriental “submission to Allah.”

  5. 5

    Temple Grandin and Margaret Scariano, Emergence: Labelled Autistic (Arena Press, 1986). Donna Williams, Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic (Random House, 1992).

  6. 6

    The New York Review, October 6, 1966.

  7. 7

    And how can man die better

    Than facing fearful odds,

    For the ashes of his fathers,

    And the temples of his Gods?

    Assimilated Jew, descendant of incinerated millions, might Bettelheim have been amused by the comparison with the Roman hero?