Arrayed in my study is a shelf of books, written at mid-century, by the distinguished Austrian American psychologist and educator Bruno Bettelheim. Like countless other readers of the time, I was enlightened by Bettelheim’s brilliant and provocative account of the Orthogenic School for disturbed children, which he directed for 25 years; his exacting descriptions of the innovative “milieu” methods used to heal the autistic children under his care; his administration for group life in an Israeli kibbutz; his shocking argument that initiation rites represented men’s desires to be women; his powerful brief on behalf of the importance of fairy tales in the lives of the young; and his unforgettable account of the psychological defenses that he evolved to survive in the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald in the late 1930s. During his lengthy life, Bettelheim became increasingly revered, and he was rarely criticized publicly.
In March 1990, the world was shocked to learn that the brilliant clinician had committed suicide by taking sleeping pills and suffocating himself with a plastic bag. Many, including me, assumed that Bettelheim was another “survivor” who could no longer bear memories of life in a concentration camp.
But hardly had Bettelheim been buried before a parade of his ex-students emerged to claim that, while at the Orthogenic School, they had been treated harshly and even beaten by Bettelheim. In addition to these widely reported charges, others claimed less publicly that Bettelheim had been cruel to his students at the University of Chicago, exaggerated his claims about the severity of illness and the extent of cures and even plagiarized sections of his most famous book, “The Uses of Enchantment.” Last year, Nina Sutton published a substantial biography of Bettelheim, “Bettelheim: A Life and a Legacy” (Basic Books), in which she reviewed these charges but still portrayed the clinician in a sympathetic light.
Richard Pollak’s “The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim” alters this sympathetic rendering forever. Starting from its caustic title, Pollak portrays Bettelheim as a ghastly figure with few redeeming features. Bettelheim led a complex life, which he seemed incapable of describing accurately. He lied about his family background, his education, his love life, his credentials, his experiences in the concentration camp. Nor did this reshaping of the truth end after he became renowned; if anything, his claims became more grandiose.
Compulsive lying was just one of Bettelheim’s sins. Magnifying the charges that Sutton mentioned, Pollak’s Bettelheim never allowed outsiders to observe what happened at his school; invented rates of cure out of thin air; was brutal to staff, children and students as well (hence the nickname “Dr. Brutalheim”); forced staff to undergo therapy with him; beat several students and fondled others; was a preoccupied spouse and a horrendous father who disinherited one of his children toward the end of his life and failed to mention her in his suicide note; was a clear anti-Semite who charged the Jews of the Nazi era with the very cowardice he himself displayed in the concentration camps; and, perhaps most damning for someone who sought immortality through his books, could not write well and resorted to plagiarism.
While Bettelheim advised against slapping or spanking children, several former residents of the Orthogenic School accused him of repeated episodes of frank physical abuse. According to their testimony, Bettelheim slapped youngsters with the hand or the fist, humiliated them in front of others, dragged them around, pulled them by the hair and whipped children with his belt with such severity that he left welts.
These informants spoke of living in constant fear, “in terror of his footsteps in the door--in abject, animal terror,” as one put it. Two women testified that Bettelheim fondled their breasts and those of other female students. And while extolling the value of privacy at times, Bettelheim felt free to walk into any room and any bathroom at any time, even if teenage women were bathing.
From the beginning of his account, Pollak puts his cards on the table. Pollak’s brother, Stephen, was a student who failed to improve at the Orthogenic School. According to Pollak and other observers, Stephen died in an accident when on summer holiday. After years of repressing this painful event, Pollak steeled himself to visit Bettelheim and to find out about his disturbed sibling. Bettelheim lit into Pollak’s parents and topped off his tirade by announcing unequivocally that Stephen had committed suicide. Pollak was shocked and bewildered by what he considered a complete and cruel invention; he determined to get to the bottom of the now-detested Bettelheim and to expose him to the world.
Pollak has succeeded in his avowed aim. His indictment of Bettelheim is sufficiently documented so as to be convincing. To be sure, one or another of the author’s bill-of-charges may be wrong or exaggerated, and he frequently interprets “lack of corroborative evidence” as a sign that Bettelheim was simply fantasizing.
Still, the general picture that emerges is sufficiently consistent and sufficiently damning to make it unlikely that subsequent biographers will be able to restore Bettelheim’s once fearsome reputation. Pollak makes little effort to be fair, to “see things from the other side.” His occasional words of praise are damning, his attempts to “understand” partial at best. This book is clearly an argument for the prosecution, not a balanced account like Sutton’s.
In this time of pathography, when individuals from Picasso to Einstein are being newly portrayed as monstrous, such a book is scarcely surprising. And perhaps Bettelheim deserves this harsh treatment, not only because he was clearly brutal to others, but also because such behaviors are notably reprehensible in a person who consistently offered advice on how others--be they inmates at a concentration camp or the mothers of autistic children--should have behaved.
Still, for readers who want to understand rather than condemn, Pollak’s account is unsatisfying. Pollak does not probe the roots of Bettelheim’s philosophy of human nature, his anxieties, his destructive (and ultimately self-destructive) behavior.
Did it lie in his clearly difficult childhood? What was it like for a sensitive and ugly young boy to grow up in anti-Semitic Vienna? How much was Bettelheim harmed by the fact that he had to go into his father’s business and could not pursue the academic career he craved? What mechanisms allow concentration camp victims to survive once they have left camps? What pressures did Bettelheim feel to misrepresent his credentials when, in middle age, he sought professional respectability in Chicago? Might he have deliberately shaded the truth because he felt that he had so little time in which to say so much? Granted, providing answers to such questions is not the job of the prosecuting attorney, but when anger has cooled, such questions linger.
Indeed, what emerges is the need to explain a far more complex individual, one in whom the good features were inextricably intertwined with the evil and the destructive. Bettelheim could be gracious and kind as well as mean and ruthless. This charismatic figure was venerated by many staff and students as well as hated and retrospectively attacked by others. His methods may have damaged some but helped others.
His own clearly argued works pointed in new directions and harbored brilliant insights about people and events, even as they were marred by misrepresentations and misguided attacks. He despised authority and authoritarianism yet could not operate in their absence. His evident self-loathing seems to have been the source of much of his power and effectiveness, even as it culminated in an end filled with pathos.
Bettelheim’s life throws into intriguing relief questions about goodness and evil in the life of an individual who committed few if any criminal behaviors but who offends our sense of decency. Should there be another full-length biography of Bettelheim, it is these paradoxes that need to be resolved.
A final issue: When I began to discuss this biography with clinicians, several of them said in effect, “Oh, we all knew this about Bettelheim. We did not believe his claims and figures; we knew he was a bastard.” I asked myself--and then I started to ask others--"Why did no one expose this fraud, this pretending saint who was tainted with evil? Did their silence encourage Bettelheim’s excesses?”
Answers varied from fear about Bettelheim’s legendary capacity for retribution to the solidarity needed among the guild of healers to a feeling that, on balance, Bettelheim’s positive attributes predominated and an unmasking would fuel more malevolent forces. Pollak’s book does not convict only Bettelheim, it indicts those of his time who knew the man but kept their reservations to themselves.