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…

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