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The Strange Case of Dr. B.


Within months of his death in 1990, the reputation of Bruno Bettelheim—the revered survivor of the camps, head of the famous Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School for troubled children at the University of Chicago, formidable educator, and author of the acclaimed The Informed Heart, The Empty Fortress, Love Is Not Enough, The Children of the Dream, and The Uses of Enchantment—appeared to be in shreds. Certain former students from the school and several of his former associates were accusing him of everything from plagiarism and lying about his past to brutality and child abuse. He was even bitterly condemned for having taken his own life. So radical and abrupt a shift in perception about a famous and admired man suggests an overpowering personality whom others had feared and resented and only now felt safe to attack.

Indeed, Bettelheim was such a personality—inspiring, seductive, aggressive, irascible, dismissive of fools or perceived enemies, and capable of both great kindness and great unkindness. Like other remarkable men who have been leaders, even gurus, within small, intense, contained institutions—Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, William Shawn at The New Yorker—he attracted passionate loyalty and affection but also built up suppressed (or open) resentment in certain of his disciples.

This is clearly what happened with one of Bettelheim’s closest associates, Jacquelyn Sanders, who had worked side by side with him for thirteen years, left to marry, and then returned when he chose her to replace him as head of the school on his retirement. She told Bettelheim’s relentlessly negative biographer, Richard Pollak, that, having begun in therapy “to realize the degree to which she had allowed herself to be manipulated and exploited,” she grew “so angry that she not only stopped calling Bettelheim about school matters but ceased speaking to him for several years.” That a serious educator/therapist could break from her former leader only by—temporarily, at least—forgetting both her professional debt to him and the sympathy due an old man who, like Lear, has surrendered his kingdom is less an indictment of Sanders than an indication of just how powerful his hold was on those around him.

Pollak’s The Creation of Dr. B, published in 1997, is one of three extended accounts of Bettelheim’s life to have appeared in the past half-dozen years. (Bettelheim steadfastly refused to write his memoirs, and throughout his writings was sparing with details of his personal life.) Pollak makes it clear at the start why he hates—not too strong a word—his subject: when he was fourteen years old, his disturbed, possibly autistic younger brother, Stephen, then eleven and home for a visit from the Orthogenic School, died in a freak accident; Pollak had been alone with him at the time. When, twenty-five years later, Pollak approached Bettelheim about his brother, Bettelheim heaped contumely on the Pollak parents, particularly the mother; insisted that young Stephen had committed suicide; and told Pollak that the school had warned the family that a visit home might lead to Stephen’s harming himself, and that “despite our objection the visit took place…[and] the child died in a carefully contrived accident.” As an older brother present at the scene of the fatal accident, Pollak might well have been left with some unacknowledged—and no doubt undeserved—guilt, but there is no hint in his account of anger at himself. Instead, his anger is directed at Bettelheim, who clearly deserves at least some of it for his callousness.

Pollak claims that “I have tried to keep my personal experience of Bruno Bettelheim from unfairly darkening my portrait”; but his book, despite some pro forma appreciation of Bettelheim’s achievements, reads like a shout of rage. Which is unfortunate, because the clear bias Pollak demonstrates undercuts the reliability of the charges he makes, and for which, in some cases, he offers convincing evidence.

A new book by Theron Raines, Rising to the Light: A Portrait of Bruno Bettelheim, is uncannily opposite to Pol- lak’s. Just as Pollak had personal reasons for attacking Bettelheim, Raines has personal reasons for protecting him: he was Bettelheim’s literary agent for decades, and not only admired but loved him. Sometime before Bettelheim’s death, Raines began interviewing him for what was at first to be a magazine profile and after a dozen years became this book. Rising to the Light is a slow, earnest attempt to grasp Bettelheim’s conflicted nature; to reconcile the nobility Raines found in the man with the ugly accusations that followed his death.

One biographer hates Bettelheim, the other loves him. Again we sense how powerful a psychic presence this complicated man was in the minds of those he was connected to. Bettelheim’s view of the school, expressed frequently, was that the children represented the id, the counselors stood for the ego, and he was the super-ego. As such, he played both the Big Bad Wolf and Santa Claus, and as the Wolf he was there to impose order. He certainly succeeded in doing that. Every account of the school stresses the respect, awe, and fear in which he was held, partly through his authority, partly through his uncanny intuitions, partly through his absolute belief in his own rightness and his unswerving determination. Certainly, these are the qualities that made the school the success it became. When the University of Chicago prevailed on Bettelheim to take it over, it was floundering—if “not quite an orphan in 1944,” says Raines, “it was surely an unwanted child.”

Raines is particularly strong on the early years of the school. Although there had been modest attempts at “milieu therapy” before, there had been nothing remotely as concentrated and organized as what the Orthogenic School became. Central to the plan was the relationship each child was to develop with one or more loving and omnipresent caretakers. And the caretakers had to internalize one of Bettelheim’s most important insights: that a disturbed child’s symptoms are his way of expressing his sense of the world and of himself. “You have to understand,” Bettelheim said, “that this behavior is the child’s greatest achievement. To him, it is saving his life.” With this understood, it was possible that—insulated from the pressures of the nuclear family, in an environment that provided structure, love, therapy, education, understanding, and discipline—a disturbed child might slowly, very slowly, abandon his symbolic behavior and achieve a more realistic relationship to the world.

That Bettelheim failed to make real headway with seriously autistic children now appears certain, but that he healed many emotionally disturbed children is equally certain. It’s unfortunate that in any discussion of him today, thirteen years after his death, it seems necessary to begin by weighing the posthumous charges against him rather than by assessing his achievements and failures.

The accusations against Bettelheim fall into several categories. First, he lied; that is, he both exaggerated his successes at the school and falsified aspects of his background, claiming a more elaborate academic and psychoanalytic history in Vienna than he had actually had. There is conclusive evidence to support both charges. But is stretching the truth a defining quality, or are his lies isolated lapses that can be explained and to some extent even justified? Bettelheim began to exaggerate his professional qualifications when he first arrived in America, immediately after his release from Buchenwald. He was without a job—without, really, a profession—and desperate to gain a foothold in a new world. I suspect he said what he thought it was necessary to say, and was then stuck with these claims later on, when he could neither confirm them (since they were false) nor, given his pride, acknowledge that he had lied. This may be one reason why he chose to remain so private about his life.

As for his exaggerations about the rate of success at the Orthogenic School, they would have served both to attract essential financial support and to fortify his sense of self. As Nina Sutton, the most balanced and persuasive of Bettelheim’s biographers, puts it in Bettelheim: A Life and a Legacy: “Bettelheim never saw anything wrong with being economical with the truth in order to promote a good cause.” In any case, “success” in this ambiguous territory is hard to gauge. There were spectacular success stories—former students who went on to do well in the outside world, proclaiming their gratitude to Bettelheim and the school. (One remark repeated frequently is “He saved my life.”) But there were also severely damaged children who were quietly dismissed from the school and placed in institutions for the incurable.

The plagiarism accusation concerns a passage in The Uses of Enchantment which closely echoes a passage in a more academic book on fairy tales by a clinical psychiatrist named Julius Heuscher. Undeniably, there are direct correspondences between these passages. The issue is whether they are the result of conscious plagiarism. Heuscher told Raines,

Bruno Bettelheim was a very busy gentleman, I assume, and he had, probably, some people collect material for him when he wrote. And probably somebody collected this, and he was not even aware that he was taking it from somewhere…. I’m sure it was not done deliberately, and I think it’s ridiculous to make a thing about this.

When the issue was first raised, Heuscher had said, “We all plagiarize…. I am only happy that I would have influenced Bruno Bettelheim.”

Far more serious, and more damaging to Bettelheim’s reputation, is the charge that on occasion he slapped or even beat the children in his care. While Bettelheim was alive, no word of corporal punishment leaked from the Orthogenic School, yet we know now from the testimony of many former counselors and patients that often he did strike children. The question is, for what reason? To his detractors he did so because he was a brute (“Bruno Brutalheim”). Others of his former associates and patients explain that he did so because he sensed that sometimes physical intervention was helpful therapeutically. There was a crucial difference, he insisted, between punishment, which he deplored, and discipline, which he thought essential.

For her book Nina Sutton talked with Bert Cohler, who had been a patient at the school and went on to succeed so markedly in the world that at one point Bettelheim brought him back to run it. Cohler, she tells us,

clearly remembers the slaps he got from Dr. B one day when he returned from class with an excellent grade for a German essay…. When I asked him about it, [he] burst out laughing. “Dr B knew exactly what he was doing: In my essay I attacked Arthur Schnitzler. And I knew Schnitzler was one of his favorite authors.”

Sutton is shocked by the incident, and remarks that it took her a long time to understand it:

Cohler had lived, until his arrival at the Orthogenic School, in constant terror of expressing even the slightest amount of anger, for he had been led to believe that if he dared to show the aggressiveness he felt toward one of his relatives, he would be killed…. By acknowledging the aggression im- plicit in Cohler’s act [criticism of Schnitzler], by showing that he knew it was aimed at him, and by responding with overt violence, Dr. B was playing his role as a lightning rod, ensuring that the dangerous charge was mortal neither for its originator nor for its recipient.

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