The legendary child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who before his suicide last year at age 86 had written some of the world’s most influential books on children’s development, plagiarized ideas and words in his award-winning book on fairy tales, according to a leading UC Berkeley scholar.
Writing in the latest issue of the Journal of American Folklore, Alan Dundes, a widely published expert on folklore and a 28-year veteran of Berkeley’s anthropology department, details what he says is “wholesale borrowing,” not only of “random passages” but also of “key ideas” in Bettelheim’s 1976 book, “The Uses of Enchantment.”
Widely read by teachers and parents, Bettelheim’s book, which won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, includes detailed analyses of some of the world’s best-known fairly tales, and contains the Austrian-born psychologist’s passionate plea for retelling these stories to young children if they are to grow up to be emotionally healthy adults.
The disclosure that many of the ideas in the book may have been lifted from other sources--particularly the work of Dr. Julius E. Heuscher, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University’s medical center--is causing a storm of controversy among scholars, although Heuscher said in an interview Wednesday that he personally is not bothered by the disclosure.
The attack on Bettelheim’s scholarly integrity is also likely to have an impact on the public, especially in the wake of last November’s announcement that another icon of American culture, Martin Luther King Jr., plagiarized or inadequately credited other authors’ works in his doctoral dissertation.
“I cannot for the life of me imagine that this man (Bettelheim) would steal from other people,” said Dr. Rudolph Ekstein, a longtime Bettelheim admirer who, like Bettelheim, was born in Vienna, the home of Freud and psychoanalysis.
“I knew him for over 30 years,” said Ekstein, who practices and teaches at the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Institute. In recent years when he was living in Los Angeles, “I spent every Saturday night with him. He was unusually careful.”
Theron Raines, Bettelheim’s longtime literary agent, said, “What I want to know is why this article would be written now,” after Bettelheim is dead and cannot answer the charges against him.
“Reading this does not change my opinion of Bruno as an honest and honorable man,” Raines said.
For others, however, the article only confirms what they long suspected.
“I certainly wouldn’t put it past Bettelheim,” said Jeffrey M. Masson, former director of the Freud Archives and a well-known critic of Freudian analysis who lives in Berkeley. “He was not an honest man. . . . Furthermore, he was very rude to people. He was incredibly arrogant.”
Whether he stole his ideas intentionally or inadvertently, “it is clear he didn’t do his homework” or that in some cases he did it selectively, said Robert A. Georges, a professor of folklore at UCLA.
What Dundes’ article makes clear is that when Bettelheim wanted to make a point--in this case, that fairy tales are good for children--he selectively chose fairy tales and certain forms of fairly tales that proved his thesis.
Not all experts agree that fairy tales are as benign or helpful as Bettelheim argued. Furthermore, Bettelheim’s ideas were not in any way original, Dundes said.
Many of the ideas, according to Dundes, are borrowed without attribution from scholars dating back nearly half a century. But the most obvious “borrowing” comes from “A Psychiatric Study of Fairy Tales,” written by Heuscher in 1963.
As an example, Dundes noted that in his book, Bettelheim wrote: “One must never ‘explain’ to the child the meaning of fairy tales. However, the narrator’s understanding of the fairy tale’s message to the child’s preconscious mind is important. . . . It furthers the adult’s sensitivity to selection of those stories which are most appropriate to the child’s state of development and to the specific psychological difficulties he is confronted with at the moment.”
Compare that to Heuscher: “While one must never ‘explain’ the fairy tales to the child, the narrator’s understanding of their meaning is very important. It furthers the sensitivity for selecting those stories which are most appropriate in various phases of children’s development and for stressing those themes which may be therapeutic for specific psychological difficulties.”
Dundes is quick to note that he was not the first to notice Bettelheim’s “borrowing of material,” but this is the most detailed analysis to date.
“If an undergraduate were to turn in a research paper with this sort of borrowing without any attribution,” Dundes wrote, “he or she would almost certainly be accused of plagiarism.”
Whether this will alter the public’s opinion of Bettelheim is unclear, however.
There have been so many revelations against Bettelheim recently that is hard to know what to make of them all, said Dr. Louis Jolyon West, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA.
The great child psychologist was estranged from one of his daughters before he died. He was a man who supposedly had deep empathy for children, yet his patients have come forth since his death and accused him publicly of physically abusing them when they were mentally ill inmates of the University of Chicago’s Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, where Bettelheim was director for nearly 30 years until 1973.
Heuscher says he is not bothered at all. In fact, when he read Bettelheim’s book years ago, he remembered feeling no sense of violation.
“We all plagiarize. I plagiarize. Many times, I am not sure whether it came out of my own brain or if it came from somewhere else. . . . I’m only happy that I would have influenced Bruno Bettelheim. I did not always agree with him. But that does not matter. Poor Bruno Bettelheim. I would not want to disturb his enternal sleep with this.”