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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.

  1. 1

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

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