LOVE & DEATH : In His Final Interview, Just Before His Suicide, Bruno Bettelheim Explained Why He Wanted to Die
“THE PROBLEM IS finding a reason to live.”
The man talking was Bruno Bettelheim, legendary psychoanalyst and child psychologist. He was seated in his favorite chair, a 1960s vintage Danish Modern, in the living room of his fifth-floor Santa Monica condominium. The Pacific Ocean glittered blue and white through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors behind him. He was 86 years old, and although his mind was quicker than that of most 30-year-olds, his body was failing. When he conducted his guest to a chair, his gait was shuffling and labored, his shoulders permanently hunched. As he talked, the movements of his right hand--his writing hand--were jerky, inaccurate and obviously not completely within his conscious control.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Apr. 07, 1991 For the record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 7, 1991 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
The name of Bettelheim’s long-time literary agent, Theron Raines , was misspelled in “Love and Death.”
Although the calendar read late October, it was one of those flawless, forever-summer Southern California days--a disturbing contrast to the conversation at hand: Bruno Bettelheim was talking about whether or not he would kill himself.
For a moment his gaze traveled around the room, which was filled with a lifetime’s treasures: Greek and pre-Columbian artifacts from various trips abroad, a wall full of art books and operatic recordings, Rembrandt etchings and, centered over the couch, an eerily beautiful painting, of a woman walking down the side of a building, titled “The Dreamer.”
“Things I enjoyed are no longer available to me, you know,” he said. “I like to walk. I like to hike. Now when I read, I get tired. Dickens wrote: ‘It was the best of all times. It was the worst of all times.’ It all depends on how you look at it. At my age you can no longer look at it and say, ‘It is the best of all times.’ At least, I find it impossible.”
He paused. “However, if I could be sure that I would not be in pain or be a vegetable, then, like most everyone, I believe I would prefer to live.” And then he smiled. “But, of course,” he said, “there is no such guarantee. This is why the decision is so problematic.”
That was October, 1989. On March 13, 1990, Bruno Bettelheim was found dead on the floor of his new apartment in a Maryland nursing home, a plastic bag over his head and barbiturates in his bloodstream.
The news of his death stunned the psychological community. For 50 years, Bruno Bettelheim had been acknowledged as one of the most important thinkers and practitioners in the field of psychology and child development. If he had a genius, it was his uncanny ability to find healing and hope in circumstances in which others could see only despair. He used his own horrific experiences as a prisoner of the Nazis in Dachau and Buchenwald to draw conclusions about the nature of human suffering that would help him heal the psychic wounds of others. As director of the Orthogenic School in Chicago, he successfully treated children who were so emotionally withdrawn they had been written off as incurable. He wrote dozens of influential essays and books, among them the 1976 National Book Award winner “The Uses of Enchantment,” which explored how fairy tales help children wrestle with their most troublesome problems and fears.
“Bettelheim would often use what he called ‘The Man in the White Coat Theory,’ ” says Roger Pittman, a Los Angeles therapist who worked with Bettelheim in a case-study group as late as January, 1989. “He said that in addition to honesty there has to be a quality of ‘The Man in the White Coat’ in your professional presentation--the image of the magical ability to heal. Well, certainly ‘The Man in the White Coat’ doesn’t kill himself.
“In the therapeutic profession, when a client kills himself, it’s the most conspicuous failure you can have. When Bettelheim killed himself it was as if the profession itself had failed.”
“It’s devastating when anyone who is in a therapeutic role takes an action that is on the surface so despairing,” says an editor who worked with Bettelheim. “But it was 100 times worse because he was someone who saved so many people from despair.”
Why had Bruno Bettelheim, of all people, engineered his own death?
I discovered at least part of the answer by accident. Early in the fall of 1989, Bettelheim agreed to be interviewed on aspects of his life story that had never made their way into his published work: his marriage, his own analysis, his friendships with Wilhelm Reich and other notables of the century.
From the first interview, though Bettelheim was his usual articulate self on subjects from Reich (“Few people were as stubborn as he was”) to his favorite fairy tale (“Hansel and Gretel,” “because the boy and the girl needed each other”), he seemed preoccupied. It was as if asking him to talk about his life and ideas was equivalent to asking him to look through a scrapbook from a now-inconsequential journey. Finally frustrated by his disinterest, I asked him abruptly: “Are you afraid of dying?”
Suddenly I had his attention.
“No,” he said. “I fear suffering. The older one gets, the greater the likelihood that one will be kept alive without purpose.”
I asked him to elaborate, and he dodged the question. Seeing that he was growing tired, I turned off the tape recorder and prepared to leave, when Bettelheim unexpectedly turned to me. “There is something you should know,” he said. “I am planning to take a trip to Europe from which I may or may not come back.” His intention, he said, was to meet with a doctor in Holland, an old friend of his, who was willing to give him a lethal, and in Holland a perfectly legal, injection.
In all, Bettelheim sat for some six hours of interviews on three separate occasions; at least half the time he spoke of death and dying. At times, he seemed to be explaining a decision he had already made; at other times it was clear he was still considering the pros and cons of choosing to die. But he came back, again and again, to certain inalterable facts--what he called the “ravages of age"--the death of his wife and the very fearful prospects of extreme disability and incapacity.
“If I can make it until my friend can see me in Holland,” he told me that first afternoon, “I will be safe.”
He could see the dismay in my face.
“The thing that is so frightening,” he continued patiently, “is that I could have a stroke the next minute. I’ve had two strokes already. Most of the arteries to my brain are blocked. Right now, I’m living on borrowed time.”
WHEN THE NEWS of Bettelheim’s suicide became public, there was a general attempt to quickly wrap up the reasons for his action in a tidy little package. Friends and colleagues were quoted in the media speaking about Bettelheim’s depression and his recent estrangement from his eldest daughter. There was talk of diminished mental capacity. The implication was the one easiest for everyone to accept when the taboo of suicide is broken: Bettelheim had apparently gone a bit round the bend.
But I think that nothing could have been further from the truth. That October, it was clear that he had squarely faced the multiplicity of issues brought on by old age and confronted the question: To be or not to be? Rationally, analytically, he was considering how to answer. He defined, it seems to me now, exactly what is meant by the phrase “sound mind.”
In the two weeks after we first met, Bettelheim’s dilemma was constantly in my thoughts. I had to fight the illogical and unjournalistic urge to bring him a dozen brightly colored balloons in the childish hope of cheering him up. When we sat down for our second interview, I asked him if he was still planning a trip to Holland, hoping that he had reconsidered.
“Let me answer,” he said, “by telling you a story of a really close friend of mine who was 15 years older than I and a cavalry officer in the Austrian army. A very elegant man, he was engaged to an heiress. Then came the collapse of the Austrian monarchy. This dashing imperial officer became an average private citizen, and the heiress lost interest in him. He was heartbroken. But, being an officer, he knew what to do. He dressed himself up in civilian clothing, rented a room in the best hotel in Vienna and put a bullet into his heart.
“The noise of the shot reverberated in the hotel and the maid rushed in. When she saw what had happened, she said, ‘Oh, my God! Your beautiful shirt all ruined!’ Then he lost consciousness. When he came to again, he thought, ‘If my effort to kill myself has this kind of a reaction, then I might as well live.’ ”
Bettelheim smiled. “And he continued to live with a bullet in his heart for another 25 or 30 years. He made his peace. He became a director of an iron foundry, then one day dropped dead of a heart attack.
“So, there you are. One might find life unbearable at a certain moment and, in an act of desperation, try to end it. Then it actually turns out that one is quite successful at continuing to live and enjoying life for many more years. As long as one has the energy and the strength, one should go on living.”
“But,” he added, “my friend was a young man. I am not.” He took a sip of water and said, “Sidney Hook wrote about the problem of old men who are thoughtful and sensitive, and their difficulty in finding reasons to go on living. For many people their reason to live is watching their grandchildren grow up. For me this is not the case. I have watched so many children grow up, that is not so much of an issue.” Bettelheim said he looked at death and suicide from the point of view of an “intellectual rationalist.” He was not, he said, a religious person, so those issues did not affect his thinking. “For me, death is the end of the road,” he said. “That’s it.”
He mentioned, almost in passing, that the German language afforded a distinction between two kinds of suicide. “It is interesting,” he said, “that in English you have no other word than suicide. But in German there’s another word, freitod , which means a free, willed death. And there are tribal societies in which at a certain moment one goes up in the mountains and lies down and dies. Theirs is certainly a more civilized way.”
If Bettelheim had any hero, it was Sigmund Freud. I wondered if the fact that Freud, during the latter stages of cancer, chose to have a lethal injection administered to him had influenced his thinking.
“Well,” Bettelheim said, “it’s obvious he felt that he really couldn’t go on with his life and still write and be productive and so on. He wanted to die with his boots on, with his mind unimpaired by his sickness and old age. I think that it was a rational decision. And well-taken.”
“What keeps you from choosing your death now?” I asked.
“But here you are, still alive, still vibrant, still able to enlighten others, still full of ideas.”
There was a long pause. “Yes,” he said. “At great risk to myself.”
BRUNO BETTELHEIM WAS born in Vienna in 1903 to wealthy Jewish parents. As a teen-ager he became fascinated with the radical new field of psychoanalysis and its founder, Sigmund Freud; while earning his doctorate in psychology at the University of Vienna, he studied under his idol. It was Freud’s daughter, Anna, who encouraged Bettelheim to work with autistic children, suggesting in the early 1930s that he bring a supposedly incurable autistic girl into his home, where the child improved.
His work was interrupted in March, 1938, when Hitler invaded Austria. The Nazis confiscated Bettelheim’s writings, and he and other Jews were loaded onto a train for Dachau. Months later he was transferred to Buchenwald. Only the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt saved him; having heard of his work with disturbed children, she had him plucked out of the camps in April, 1939, and brought, with his wife, Gertrud, to the United States.
Penniless on his arrival, Bettelheim was asked to resume his work at the University of Chicago. He accepted, and he and Gertrud moved to the city where they would raise their two daughters and son.
In 1944, he was appointed director of the university’s Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School for emotionally disturbed children. Bettelheim had by then fashioned a theory of healing based on his experiences in the camps. If the dehumanizing treatment that the prisoners were subjected to resulted in personality disintegration, he reasoned, shouldn’t the reverse be true? He transformed the traditional mental institution: Locks were taken off the outside of doors and reinstalled on the inside, meaning that visitors needed permission to enter but the children could leave at will. Plastic dishes and knifeless place settings were replaced by bone china and full sets of silver. Bars were removed from the windows. Art was commissioned for the walls.
The strategy was successful. According to Bettelheim and his counselors, in Bettelheim’s 30 years at the Orthogenic School, more than 85% of the “hopeless” patients treated returned to active participation in the outside world.
In 1973, at age 70, Bettelheim retired from the Orthogenic School and moved with Gertrud to Palo Alto. He continued to lecture and write. Through “The Uses of Enchantment” and another bestseller, “A Good Enough Parent,” he gained a widely popular following and even wrote a parenting column in Ladies Home Journal.
“He was that very rare animal, a public intellectual,” says Los Angeles psychoanalyst David James Fisher. “His writing could be read by both the literate public and by specialists.”
Often, however, Bettelheim was as controversial as he was influential. His essays on subjects ranging from the American educational system (counterproductive, he said) to the anti-war movement of the 1960s (a “destructive” attempt by youth to express its feelings of uselessness) were hardly greeted with open arms in all quarters. His main critics often came from the psychoanalytic community itself. His assertion that autism was primarily environmentally produced has since been disproved. Even as late as 1983, Bettelheim unleashed a storm of criticism when he published “Freud and Man’s Soul,” in which he stated that central aspects of the English translations of Freud’s theories are incorrect, implying that the tenets on which the American psychoanalytic community is founded are deeply flawed. And even after his death, controversy arose about his use of corporal punishment to discipline patients at the Orthogenic School.
“His audience seemed to separate into fans and people who couldn’t stand him,” says Theran Raines, Bettelheim’s long-time literary agent.
Into his 80s, Bettelheim could fill lecture halls across the country. However, the death of his wife of 43 years in 1984 slowed him considerably. Bettelheim tried to live with Ruth, his eldest daughter, in a house they purchased together. The arrangement ended acrimoniously, and he moved to the seaside condominium.
“Once my mother died,” says Naomi, his younger daughter, “my father couldn’t really find a way to live at peace. I think he wanted Ruth to be in my mother’s place, but that was impossible.”
In 1987, Bettelheim had a stroke, partially paralyzing the right side of his body. For several months, his work ground to a halt.
“The stroke impaired his ability to do everything,” says Jacquelyn Sanders, current director of the Orthogenic School. “I remember when we went to lunch, it took him forever to get the money out to pay the bill. That was very difficult for a man like him.”
IT WAS DURING our second interview that Bettelheim began to talk concretely about old age.
“Part of the problem,” he said, “is that our society doesn’t know what to do with old people. We want to put them away. There are societies where the old are venerated, like in China. The Israeli kibbutzim make very special arrangements so that their old people remain active according to their abilities. They are not relegated to some old people’s home or some retirement home, as is done here. It is very hard to go on living if you no longer feel useful or very important.
“But,” I said, “many people seek you out for advice.”
“People do seek me out,” he admitted. “Perhaps not as much as I would like. But there are some to whom I am important and to whom I feel I make a contribution. That certainly is what is attractive about life.”
It sounded as though he was leaning toward letting his life take its natural course.
“I’m ambivalent,” he replied quickly. “I’m ambivalent.”
“What pulls you in the direction of life now?” I asked.
“That I might still be of use to somebody--the hope that some things might still be enjoyable. There are some old people that are full of this joie de vivre . I am not. That is my misfortune, if you want to call it that. I’ve had some disappointments in my private life. There was the death of my wife, to whom I was deeply attached and whom I miss very much. While my wife lived I was well contented with my life and managed it very well. But since her death I find it more and more difficult to manage. I envy those people who believe that in an afterlife you will be reunited with your loved ones. That’s a very comfortable thought, but I can’t believe it.”
I wondered if his yearlong estrangement from Ruth was another of those disappointments. When I began to ask him about that, he listed instead his physical disappointments. “I have only so much energy left. I have, I think, accepted that I have to slow down a great deal, that I can do relatively little, and that things I used to do without thinking are problematic.”
For instance, he said, “because of my stroke, I can no longer write. I always found that I understood a problem much better after I began to write about it. I can no longer do that. This is one of the things one has to accept about old age.”
Bettelheim sighed deeply. “I think I have made my peace with that aspect of old age--not that it is a happy peace.”
FOR ALL HIS physical difficulties after the 1987 stroke, Bettelheim maintained a moderately active schedule. He spoke in September, 1989, before an appreciative crowd at the Phoenix Bookstore in Santa Monica. He found the energy to collaborate on a book--"In the Shoes of a Stranger.” And every Thursday night for his last 2 1/2 years he supervised six local therapists in a case-study group.
“Despite the condition of his body, his outlook was always vibrant,” says the group’s organizer, therapist Barbara Waldman. “No matter how he was feeling, when he worked, he would come alive. The work was always from the gut with him.”
But by 1989, it was evident to many that Bettelheim’s energy was dwindling. In May, he was made an honorary member of the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Society. At the gathering in his honor, he accepted the membership with a long and entertaining speech recounting stories about friends ranging from Wilhelm Reich to Woody Allen (Bettelheim played himself in Allen’s film “Zelig”). It was a bravura performance and convinced most of those assembled that, despite his age, Bettelheim was in decent shape. But afterward, as he was being helped to his car, he looked spent, dazed. He failed to recognize a member of his case-study group who had come up to congratulate him. It was clear Bettelheim could still rise to the occasion, but it cost him dearly.
“I noticed there was a certain point where even his interest in the group started to wane,” says Waldman. “Looking back I think he was becoming more and more preoccupied with how he was going to end his life.”
WHEN I MET WITH Bettelheim for the final time, his mood was vastly improved. Even in the midst of the most somber parts of our discussions he was never above a joke. He particularly enjoyed California jokes. “It seems in California, among the middle class, everyone is either a patient or a therapist,” he said, with a barking laugh and a sidelong glance.
That day he seemed full of such humor. He laughed when I said so. “Maybe it’s some new drug I’m taking,” he said. “But let’s not talk about depression. It’s depressing.” He laughed again.
We talked instead about his writings and ideas. The conversation came around to the Holocaust and, like so many of our conversations, back to questions of living and dying.
“How did you get past the sorrow of such an experience?” I asked.
“I don’t think that one ever really fully masters this experience of having been a prisoner in a German concentration camp,” he said. “It’s very damaging. I think this is the reason why some who tried to understand their own experience in the concentration camp have committed suicide. The ones who come first to mind are Primo Levi and Paul Celan, the German poet.
“The damage is obviously done also in the second generation. My son told me just a few years ago that he felt that there was always a high level of anxiety in his home because of his parents’ experience under the Nazis. I think there are experiences so damaging, so traumatic, that one never fully recovers.”
“So, how does one live with them?”
“The best one can,” Bettelheim said. “Now, I will not say that psychoanalysis doesn’t help in many ways. After all, if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be a psychoanalyst. But it doesn’t solve all the problems of life. And what is more unbearable to one person can be less unbearable to another. But in general I believe that the concentration camp experience, particularly to sensitive people, is a very difficult experience to be mastered.” “At what point are you now in the mastery of this experience?”
There was a long pause.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “At certain periods of one’s life one finds it easier to cope than at others. I now have to cope not only with this past experience, I have to cope with the ravages of old age. And anyway, I think all my life I have not been a great optimist. And considering the state of human affairs it is very difficult to be optimistic--unless one is born in California,” he added with another sidelong glance.
“But I am still puzzling about what it is that makes this an experience that is so difficult to live with--even in my own case. Because there are other miserable experiences, and we manage to live with them quite well--or relatively well. As far as I can figure out, it is an experience that makes one lose one’s belief in mankind. When I think of those individuals who committed suicide in the camps--of which there were quite a few--I would say that they not only had lost their belief in meaning in life, they had also detached themselves from their libidinal objects--from their love objects. Why they detached themselves I do not know. But as long as we are in love with somebody, we try to stay alive to be reunited with them. It is as simple as that.”
Bettelheim spoke repeatedly of the necessity of believing that there is meaning in one’s life, but he also maintained that that belief was a fiction. Hoping to get him to clarify that contradiction, I read to him from the introduction to “The Uses of Enchantment”: “If we hope to live not just from moment to moment, but in true consciousness of our existence, then our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives. It is well-known how many have lost the will to live, and have stopped trying because such meaning has evaded them. . . . The most important and also the most difficult task in raising a child is helping him find meaning in life.”
“It is a paradox,” he responded. “In order to live one has to believe that there is some meaning to life. On the other hand, science tells us that we are the chance product of evolution and there is no purpose to life. With this idea one cannot manage to live well.
“Let me put it another way. I believe that Freud is right that we have both a life drive (Eros) and also a death drive (Thanatos). As long as the life drive, or the libido, is in ascendancy--certainly as long as we are sexually active and we want to procreate--we are going to live. But it can also reach a point in old age where one must accept that one withdraws the libido from the world because otherwise one couldn’t face death. So for me it’s a case of the balance between Thanatos and libido, or Eros . As long as Eros is winning the battle, we are happy in living.”
The words he used--Eros, libido and Thanatos--are formal, psychoanalytic terms, but I came to see that Bettelheim experienced Eros and Thanatos not as metaphorical jargon but rather as genuine internal forces.
“In your opinion, love is an important key to the question of living or dying,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied. “Yes. Most important. We called it libido. Call it love. Call it sex. Libido is, after all, to a large degree sex. But in old age one doesn’t have sex any more.”
“I hear there are those who do.”
“At my age? I’ll tell you a story about that. There’s a man who goes to his doctor and says, ‘I can’t have intercourse any more.’ And his doctor says, ‘Well, you know, you’re in your 70s. What do you expect?’ And the man says, ‘Yes, but my friend Sammy, who is a year older, says he has it every week.” And the doctor says, ‘You can say it, too.’ ” Bettelheim laughed raucously.
“Some people manage to fall in love at all ages,” he added, more seriously. “I think they’re the happy ones. I have watched in myself the withdrawal of my libido from those things in which it was vested in the past.”
“Then is the waning of the libido, the waning of life, a consequence of the loss of love?”
“Loving and being loved,” Bettelheim said. “The two work together.” Emotion suddenly flooded his face. “Maybe,” he said, turning his gaze away, “we could talk about some other topic.”
AS SIGNIFICANT as Bettelheim’s death was for those who knew him or his work, he was also just another statistic in the growing number of elder suicides. Suicide rates for those over 65 have risen 25% since 1980; while this group makes up only 11% of the population, it accounts for 25% of reported suicides.
The question, of course, is why?
“Part of it is economic,” answers Nancy Osgood, an associate professor of gerontology at the Medical College of Virginia and author of “Suicide in the Elderly.” “Another thing we have to consider is the social isolation of the elderly in this society. And our medical technology is a two-edged sword. Too often it extends the quantity of life but not the quality.”
“There are certain intense losses that lead elderly people to suicide,” concurs John McIntosh, associate professor of psychology at Indiana University and the author of several studies on elder suicide. “The threat of losing more physical or mental functions, the death of a spouse, institutionalization, loss of ability to work.”
Paul Torrance, famous for his research on creativity, believes that his colleague’s decision fit those parameters. “Bettelheim was a creative person with a lot of ideas,” says Torrance, author of the Torrance Test for Creative Thinking. “When a creative person can no longer produce, he feels like he is spiritually dead. The body is there, but the spirit seems to leave.”
“He didn’t commit suicide after the camps,” says Alvin Rosenfeld, a psychiatrist and one-time head of child psychiatry at Stanford University. “He didn’t commit suicide when he came to this country without a penny. He didn’t commit suicide after his wife’s death or even after two strokes. So the question you have to ask is, what’s the proper way for a man to end his existence? Do you believe that God or fate has to choose your day, or can you choose that day yourself?”
BETTELHEIM’S THREE children--Ruth, a psychotherapist; Naomi, a regional planner, and Eric, an international lawyer--were all crushed by his suicide. But all of them expected it. “I tried to talk him out of it,” Naomi says. “But I was not in my father’s shoes. So it’s not for me to judge or criticize what he did in any way.” She sighs. “There are many, many factors why my father did choose this route, going as far back as his upbringing in Vienna. There was quite a preoccupation with suicide in Austria when he was young. (It is well-documented that for decades suicide was nearly epidemic in Austria.) Another factor was that as a young man my father watched his own father become incapacitated. Then he watched the same thing happen with many of his close friends. Then finally there was my mother’s death. He had always hoped to predecease her. I can’t say that he wouldn’t have killed himself if my mother had been alive. But I seriously doubt it.”
Toward the end of our last meeting, I read to Bettelheim from Peter Gay’s biography of Freud, and we came to the passage in which Freud’s doctor described how Freud “faced death with dignity and without self-pity.” “What preparation can one make,” I asked, “to face death consciously, with dignity and without self-pity?”
“I think that you have to be satisfied with your own life,” he said. “To feel that you more or less did what you wanted to do. And I think also that you must have the conviction that you won’t miss very much. It’s a personal decision. There is no certainty about it. There’s never any certainty about anything in life. If I should die today or tomorrow, I don’t think I would miss much.”
“Do you feel you have accomplished what you set out to accomplish?”
“Yes, I think that I have,” he replied. “When I was young, I was politically active. But over the years I shifted from believing that one has to change society to create a better world to a feeling that one has to create better people to create a better world. That is what I tried to do.”
“What have you left undone?”
He smiled. “I guess many things. My German publisher wants me to bring out another book about my talks with mothers. But that will have to wait for another life. Probably there are many books that I wanted to have read. Why don’t I read them now? Obviously, it’s not important enough to me. It would be nice to study classical Greek; then I’d be able to read some of the Greek writers in the original. Well, obviously, it wasn’t important enough to me either.
“There’s so much to know. And so little time, really. And particularly so little time for me left. My goal was to say what I wanted to say as well as I could. And make it relatively easy to understand. I tried to write clearly. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I tried.”
“But is there anything else left undone?” I pushed. “Anything?”
“A good death,” he said softly. “That’s what is left undone.”
BETTELHEIM NEVER MADE it to Holland. “He didn’t want to go alone,” explains Naomi. And it seems he had to go alone or not at all; none of his children felt that they could in good conscience participate in his plan. So instead of going to Europe, shortly before Christmas, Bettelheim moved to a Silver Spring, Md., retirement home to be closer to Naomi.
It was on the evening of March 13 that I got a call from Barbara Waldman, one of the case-study group members. She had heard on the radio that Bettelheim had died. The word suicide was not mentioned. I sat down, possessed of wildly disparate emotions. On one hand, there was the realization that the thoughts of a unique mind had been silenced forever. And yet it looked like Bettelheim had gotten the “good death” that he had wished for.
Then I read the morning newspapers. A plastic bag. Holding the newspaper, I burst into tears in my driveway. It seemed so desperate.
“He committed suicide when the weather changed,” Naomi says. “It had been winter, and suddenly there was a warm spell. And the people at the retirement home told me that the very beginning of spring, when the weather changes, is the most common time for older people to kill themselves. They don’t know why.”
A few days later, in rereading some of his work, a passage from “Freud’s Vienna & Other Essays” caught my eye. “ ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his righteous ones,’ says the Psalmist,” Bettelheim wrote. “If one might ask why the deaths of the righteous ones rather than their lives are precious to the Lord, the answer is this: While the Lord is pleased with the righteous ones as long as they are living righteous lives, only at their deaths can there be certainty that they never deviated from the path of righteousness.”
Bettelheim was referring to the Polish martyr Janusz Korczak, but somehow the words seemed to have a hauntingly autobiographical echo. “Whosoever the righteous ones may have been in our lifetimes,” he continued, “it was their freely chosen death which finally made the utter righteousness of their lives apparent.”