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The Strange Case of Dr. B.

Since Bettelheim did not write or speak publicly about striking the children in his care, we can be grateful to Theron Raines for eliciting his views on the subject:

…Sometimes one [child] would get so out of control, so out of bounds, that some radical measure was needed as a shortcut. It’s an undesirable shortcut. It was against all my principles to hit the children, but I learned that sometimes it’s a shortcut that is important for the person—to feel that they can be controlled, because the anxiety of their getting completely out of control is very great.

Bettelheim also told Raines that restoring order in the school during a crisis was a secondary consideration, and that “the first order he wanted to reestablish was in the child’s inner world….”

It is hard to overcome one’s revulsion at defenseless—in fact, damaged—children being struck, but although at times Bettelheim may just have lost his temper and was rationalizing his behavior in his talks with Raines, he did believe that hitting was necessary in certain circumstances. Also, of course, he came from a world and a time in which corporal punishment was an acceptable, indeed normal, aspect of child-raising.

Accusations of sexual abuse are cited by Pollak, to whom three young women, former patients, complained that Bettelheim had fondled them and performed other inappropriate acts. The sincerity and anguish with which these women spoke to Pollak, he says, “invite[s] belief. Nonetheless,” he goes on,

it is possible that they imagined he touched their breasts, or exaggerated his actions. His acts, if they did take place, had no witnesses, or none who spoke to me. Of the twenty-seven other former Orthogenic School residents I interviewed, none even hinted that Bettelheim indulged in such behavior, including several whose continuing antipathy to him is such that they would not have hesitated to reveal his sexual abuse had they known of it. No former staff member suggested that Dr. B had lost control in this way.

Pollak then remarks, “I enter these caveats in an effort to be fair, but also with a certain reluctance.” Does he, then, hope these accusations are true?


It isn’t difficult to understand why the attacks on Bettelheim after his death took hold with such persistence and left his admirers on the defensive. He was a man who created large constituencies of enemies: psychoanalysts who resented his fame and authority, while distrusting his credentials; Jews who fulminated at his provocative suggestions that the “ghetto thinking” of many European Jews was a decisive factor in making the Holocaust possible—people were especially enraged by his questioning the world’s reverence for Otto Frank; Israelis who resented his suggesting that the communal child-rearing practiced in the kibbutz was creating a somewhat homogenized and bland generation; liberals and radicals who despised him for his increasing conservatism—his scorn for the student rebels of the Sixties (he compared them to the Hitler Youth), his support for Nixon and the Vietnam War. Perhaps most of all, he has been vilified by women for his suggestions, expressed most forcefully in Love Is Not Enough, that coldness and unconscious hostility on the part of mothers are the likely cause of their children’s autism. Yet except in politics, Bettelheim’s positions were more nuanced than his critics stopped to discover (he wrote, for instance, that “fortunately, psychoanalysts are beginning to decry the haunting image of the rejecting mother”), but that did not protect him when he was no longer alive.

The antagonism of certain of his former followers was fueled by the manner of his dying. When he felt he was in danger of losing control over his body—unable to work, his wife dead, estranged from at least one of his three children—he took pills and placed a plastic bag over his head to hasten his death. No one should have been surprised—this was an act completely in line with his lifelong determination to assert control over his own fate. As Nina Sutton reminds us, almost all of those who first attacked him belonged to the last generation of Orthogenic School children with whom Bettelheim had worked: “Most important, it was the generation that he had abandoned by retiring.” And by choosing to die.

Sutton sees Bettelheim as a flawed great man. Consider his history. To begin with, he felt a lifelong inferiority over his looks. (A traumatic event in his life was his mother’s early remark, “Thank God he’s a boy,” which he took as a comment on his physical ugliness. At the end of his life he could say to a close friend, “I’m nothing but an ugly old Jew.”) His father died after a long, debilitating, and (to Bruno) mysterious disease—it turned out to have been syphilis, a shattering discovery for the young man, who then had to abandon his advanced studies in psychology and philosophy and take up the life of a Viennese businessman, running the successful lumber business his father had co-owned. During this period, he fell in love with and married a woman who didn’t love him.

In 1938, he was deported by the Germans first to Dachau, then to Buchenwald. Surviving through his determination and strong sense of self, he was rescued through the efforts of his family and friends. When he arrived in America in the spring of 1939—only four months before the outbreak of World War II—he found that his wife, Gina, who had preceded him to New York, had fallen in love with another man and wanted a divorce. Scrambling for work, he managed to find teaching jobs at second-rate women’s colleges in the Midwest, then so impressed authorities at the University of Chicago that he was invited to take charge of the Orthogenic School. By that time, he had begun writing about the camps, beginning with an immensely influential paper, “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations,” published in 1943, probably the earliest firsthand testimony of the horrors being committed in Germany.

The school, together with a loving second marriage, changed his life. It gave him the opportunity to develop and implement his ideas about curing emotionally damaged children, or at least relieving their anguish. And it gave him the opportunity, which he badly needed, to become a figure of authority. Totally absorbed in the school, he was an indefatigable worker—home for dinner every night but then back to the school until midnight or later, making certain the children were settled in properly, then holding intense staff meetings, conducting counseling sessions with his aides, and writing.

The range of his literary output is extraordinary: in addition to his most famous books—on the school, on au-tistic children, on the Holocaust, on the children of the kibbutz, and his controversial Freudian reading of fairy tales—he wrote convincingly about the failings of James Strachey’s standard English translation of Freud, mounted a scathing attack in The New Yorker on Lina Wertmuller’s popular movie about the Holocaust, Seven Beauties, produced a long-running popular column in the Ladies Home Journal, and published a series of reflections on parenting (The Good-Enough Parent) as well as an original examination of circumcision (Symbolic Wounds), which explores men’s deep envy of, and hostility toward, women, a book that might surprise Bettelheim’s feminist critics.

Throughout these years, Bettelheim was also teaching regularly at the University of Chicago, attracting a large body of students who were both fascinated by him and terrified. (Theron Raines recorded his impressions of a seminar run by Dr. B.: “Sometimes he leads, sometimes he follows; his mind darts in circles like Robin Goodfellow, but he is not playing tricks. He is teaching by courting the intelligence of the young person who has come to learn from him.”) Yet despite this almost obsessive expenditure of positive energy, he suffered from lifelong depression.

As he grew closer to retirement, Bettelheim seemed to become more domineering, more angry. When he left the school, he tried to stay active, particularly through writing, but his move to California was not a happy one for him, and after his wife’s death, an attempt to live with their older daughter was a disaster. At his death at the age of eighty-six, he was living alone in a semi-retirement community in Maryland.

Sutton’s account of Bettelheim’s life is both sympathetic and clear-eyed. But Raines has something to offer that neither she nor Pollak had: direct testimony. The interviews he conducted help us to catch Bettelheim’s voice and follow the subtleties of his thinking. And it’s impossible not to be moved by his account of Bettelheim’s last days. (Raines was with him on the Saturday before he died.) I only wish that his empathy for his subject hadn’t led him to imagine for us, step by step, Bettelheim’s last minutes on earth.

Nothing better demonstrates Bettelheim’s vulnerability and sardonic self-awareness toward the end of his life than an anecdote Raines tells of a phone call he received from his client/ friend one night at home. Raines’s wife, Joan, answered the phone and explained to Bettelheim that “it would take a moment for me to come to the phone because Buck [the Raines’ English bulldog] was on my lap. Bruno had met Buck and could visualize this highly domestic scene, and he said to Joan, ‘Ohhhh, to be Buck!’”

It was through Theron Raines that, in the Seventies, Bettelheim came to Knopf, where I edited a number of his books. I found him to be a man of great charm; of a very European courtesy, almost courtliness. As a writer, he was unsure of himself. Pollak cites a letter of mine to Bettelheim about The Uses of Enchantment, a letter “recommending a number of specific changes and in general urging him to curb his repetitiveness and his tendency to give the fairy tales simplistic, dogmatic Freudian interpretations….” He finds Bettelheim’s response “abject”: “You are so very right with all you point out, that I am worried you did not find more to criticize.” And I am urged to feel free “to rewrite it in any other and better way to meet your most justified objections…. Please remember my reputation was not made as a writer, but as a therapist. I need your help badly as an author.” To me, this suggests a realistic modesty about his prose: even with all the help he received from outside collaborators before delivering manuscripts to his publishers, his English could be awkward and unclear. I don’t recall this correspondence, but I do remember feeling at the time that Bettelheim held an inflated respect for “literary” people. By the mid-Eighties Bettelheim’s work seemed to me to be growing less well developed and more cranky, and his courtesy somewhat eroded as my editorial comments grew more intense. Even so, I never ceased liking and admiring him.


I’ve recently read two extended first-hand accounts of the Orthogenic School by former students/patients there. One is a novel, The Pelican and After, by Tom Wallace Lyons, published almost twenty years ago. The other is a memoir, Not the Thing I Was, by Stephen Eliot, to be published in March. Both gain credibility from the fact that they describe almost parallel experiences, as well as from the intense sincerity that informs each of them.

The Pelican and After barely bothers to disguise the school or Dr. B.—he’s called Dr. V.—and indeed the book is partly dedicated to Bettelheim, who read it and congratulated Lyons on it, despite the obvious ambivalence Lyons expresses toward him. Certainly, Bettelheim’s recourse to physical violence is not downplayed. Early in the book, Lyons recounts a scene in which Dr. V. confronts a youngster named Ronny who had earlier in the day accidentally hit a girl in the eye. That evening Dr. V. appears in the dorm room and stands over Ronny. “Since ven do ve hit people in zhe eye?”

When Ronny answers “I didn’t mean to,”

Dr. V.’s left hand caught Ronny on one side of the face, then returned with a swift backhand across the other. SMACK! SMACK! SMACK! SMACK! SMACK! Dr. V.’s left hand moved quickly, methodically back and forth across Ronny’s face. Then: SMACK! SMACK! SMACK! SMACK! with both hands on the back of the head as Ronny ducked forward. Dr. V. grabbed a small tuft of his hair and shook. And with both hands he caught Ronny by the shirt and hauled him halfway out of his chair.

Vhy did you hit her in zhe eye!”

When Ronny again claims it was an accident,

Dr. V. stepped back; he watched Ronny while the latter sniffled once or twice. Suddenly he extended his hands, palms up, in grandiose gesticulation, “I didn’t mean to! It vas an accident!” he shrilled mockingly. This made him appear less frightening. In his more normal, but still menacing voice, he asked, “Does zat make it feel any better?” Ronny shook his head. “All right, zhen, remember zat ven you have accidents, I vill have zem also. Is zat clear?”

Yes,” Ronny nodded.

It’s telling that here, as in Eliot’s memoir, the kids who are struck are scared but don’t seem to feel resentment. “Tony”—that is, Lyons—who portrays himself as filled with dangerous impulses when he came to the school, reports healing conversations with Dr. V. And Dr. V. is surprisingly open-minded and understanding when Tony, a rebel, decides in his mid-teens to leave the school, not because he feels brutalized but because he feels oppressed by being treated like a child. Perhaps one key to Bettelheim’s effectiveness lies in a remark one of Tony’s counselors makes to him: “Dr. V. makes you feel all the good in yourself.” And, writes Lyons, “Tony felt this was true.” Lyons himself went on to the Columbia School of Journalism and a career as a reporter.

Stephen Eliot’s Not the Thing I Was: Thirteen Years at Bruno Bettelheim’s Orthogenic School is the most detailed, moving, and persuasive account I have encountered about life at the school. It is also a completely believable and very touching account of the struggle of an intelligent yet seriously disturbed boy to conquer his problems and emerge into a full adult life—a struggle, Eliot tells us, that is not over yet, decades after he left the school. (A graduate of Yale and with an MBA from Columbia, he is now a successful investment banker.) Not the Thing I Was shows us what daily life at the school was actually like. On the one hand, it portrays the intense bonding between the students and their prime counselors, Dr. B.’s “reign of terror,” the different kinds of troubled children and how they interacted. On the other hand, it reveals the ordinariness—games, mischief-making, kids mimicking Dr. B. (he knew), the usual teenage rivalries and friendships, the first sexual impulses—Tom Lyons’s Tony is obsessed with prostitutes; the young Stephen Eliot slowly comes to terms with being gay. (He is still angry at the lack of support and understanding the Freudian-minded school provided him in this respect.)

We follow Eliot’s progress from a boastful, insecure little boy isolated within his very capable brain (“My world ended at my shoes”) and terrified of never having enough contact with others to make a real life possible, to a compassionate young man eagerly helping the younger children. His eventual capacity for love is suggested by his devotion as an adult to his school psychiatrist, Margaret Carey:

There was barely a month that went by that I didn’t speak with her until her death, talking with her from wherever I was in the world. She delighted in getting calls from me when I was in Tokyo or Hong Kong. The last three or four years of her life, she was in a nursing home, unable to walk and, finally, unable to talk. Then I would call and ask the nurses to put the phone next to her ear, so she could hear my voice and know I hadn’t forgotten her.

Eliot acknowledges that Bettelheim hit the children, but says that what he really feared and resented was Bettelheim’s verbal cruelty. Once, he tells us,

I complained I would rather be at home than in this prison. True to form, Dr. B. walked in just as I said it. He hauled me out in the hall for a private conversation, which consisted of him telling me “Do you know why you are here?’ I just looked down. “I’ll tell you why you are here. You are here because your parents can’t stand you, so don’t talk about how much you like being at home.”

Eliot goes on to say, “I could forgive Dr. B. much, but not that. Even now, as I write this, I remember all those years of terror—please don’t humiliate me, please don’t.” And yet, he understands that Dr. B. was a benign genius as well as a flawed, even destructive, ultimately tragic man:

Looking back…I now wonder whether his death was a final cry of desperation, for despite all he had done, his life’s work was fading as was his memory and one man can only do so much. In the final analysis, his work was not enough to change the world in the way he envisioned. It was, however, enough for me.

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