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The Strange Case of Dr. B.

1.

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.

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?

2.

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.

3.

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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