The Strange Case of Dr. B.

Bruno Bettelheim
Bruno Bettelheim; drawing by David Levine

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…


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