Magazine article Tikkun

Bruno Bettelheim-Blaming the Victim

Magazine article Tikkun

Bruno Bettelheim-Blaming the Victim

Article excerpt

Bettelheim: Life and Legacy, by Nina Sutton. Basic Books, 1996.

The Creation of Dr B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim, by Richard Pollak. Simon & Schuster, 1997.

On May 12, 1938 Bruno Bettelheim stood silent as around him crowds greeted the Nazi troops marching into Vienna with shouts of "Death to the Jews." On that day, exactly fifty-two years later, he took his own life. Within weeks of his suicide, disturbing accounts of the man who had come to represent psychoanalysis itself in America began to surface. Accusations and controversy followed.

This year two new biographies begin to unravel the truth beneath the facade: Nina Sutton, Bettelheim: Life and Legacy and Richard Pollak, The Creation of Dr B. Both authors begin with an admission of their bias. Sutton makes a valiant though ultimately inadequate attempt to defend Bettelheim's reputation, while Pollak opens his book with an explanation of the personal harm his family suffered at the hands of Bruno Bettelheim. Pollak's younger brother was in treatment at Bettelheim's Orthogenic School (a treatment center for disturbed children) when the child fell to his death while on vacation with his family. Bettelheim insisted to Pollak that the accident was in reality a suicide and blamed Pollak's mother for the family tragedy (as Bettelheim had blamed all mothers for causing childhood autism). Pollak is definitely a biographer with an ax to grind, and yet he is a skilled reporter and determined researcher. With no regret, Pollak lays open the unflattering truth about the esteemed Dr. B.

It is telling that although the authors begin with quite disparate aims, their conclusions are much the same: that Bettelheim was an inveterate liar, a fraud, and an arrogant brute. Sutton struggles hard to salvage Bettelheim's reputation by lauding his accomplishments, but her appeals falter in the face of his rampant deceit. In the end, her portrait is no less damning than Pollak's, though neither as robust nor as well researched. Both biographers dog the trail of inconsistencies between the history Bettelheim claimed for himself and the actual evidence, but Pollak shows the greater facility and tenacity for the job. Where Sutton is often stymied by dead ends and lost records, Pollak pushes ahead to get the interviews and expose the lies. Though Pollak was digging for muck, his excavations were thorough and he hit pay dirt. But, regardless of their original biases, both biographies portray Bettelheim as a damaged human being who constructed his life on a foundation of lies: a life riddled with profound dishonesty, cruelty, and bigotry.

There is no longer much doubt that when Bettelheim arrived in America in the early forties he fabricated a dossier of credentials that allowed him to step into an academic life he could only covet in Vienna. Pollak shows convincingly that almost none of what Bettelheim claimed on his curriculum vitae was true. Bettelheim had no training or connections to the Psychoanalytic Institute in Vienna, no degree in psychology (let alone Summa cum Laude). He had not been active in the resistance to Hitler, nor was he rescued from the Nazis by Eleanor Roosevelt herself. Before he came to America, Bruno Bettelheim was an upper middle-class lumber merchant; he had no direct experience teaching autistic children; and he used his wife's connections and his own wealth to bribe his way out of Buchenwald.

These deceptions would be of only passing significance if Bettelheim had not parlayed his false credentials into a position of extraordinary influence in the academic and intellectual circles of the United States, and if his questionable assertions about the psychology of holocaust victims had not lent substance to some of the most regressive political ideas of our time.

Capitalizing on America's growing disinclination for empathy toward the helpless in the 1950s, Bettelheim introduced and popularized a perversion of the psychoanalytic method that pathologizes the victim and confounds suffering with the oppression that causes it. …

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