Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Success and Scandal in Life of Bettelheim

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Success and Scandal in Life of Bettelheim

Article excerpt


A Life and a Legacy

A biography by Nina Sutton

Translated from the French by David Sharp

606 pages, BasicBooks, $35

THE DETAILS are familiar to many of us. On March 13, 1990, he was found dead of asphyxiation, a plastic bag over his head. Shocked by his suicide, admirers were further dismayed when former students and colleagues of Bruno Bettelheim began to come forward with allegations that his life and work were, in essence, a fraud.

Nina Sutton, a Paris-based journalist who had always admired Bettelheim, decided shortly after his death to write his biography. After several years she has produced a massively researched, closely written book that pleads to be seen as the definitive biography: and that it is, for the time being. But it is a book which, in its determination to include everything, while neither lionizing nor vilifying its subject, grows hollow and uninvolving.

Sutton begins with the story of the scandal that erupted shortly after Bettelheim's death. This she calls "unprecedented in its suddenness, violence, and excess" - a hyperbole that is belied by the fact that it is relatively easy to find people unaware of the scandal. Bettelheim did not have the academic credentials to hold the positions he held in America. He, who wrote so eloquently against physically disciplining children, lost his temper and beat children on numerous occasions. Not a trained psychoanalyst, he nevertheless conducted regular analyses of his women employees at the Orthogenic School. A further accusation was that his books were plagiarized, especially his most famous, "The Uses of Enchantment." Serious accusations, but hardly the crime of the century. To say that this was all just another hurly-burly in academia may be understating it; but not by the margin Sutton overstates it.

The book then skips back to Vienna in the late 19th century to tell of Bettelheim's grandparents, parents and his early years. Sutton's narrative skill shines in these early chapters, when there is so much happening in Vienna, especially in the community of Viennese Jews in which Bettelheim was raised.

After the Anschluss, Bettelheim is imprisoned first in Dachau and then in Buchenwald. Sutton's description of his harrowing year as a Nazi prisoner is very effective, carefully introducing episodes of psychological despair and resolution that were seminal in the formation of Bettelheim's views on relieving mental suffering.

Upon his release by the Nazis, Bettelheim comes to America. Sutton was once the Washington correspondent for Paris-Match, and her analyses of American society are the stuff of a popular weekly. For instance, she writes that "in the United States, even more than elsewhere, a loser is always in the wrong." This is fine if she is writing an easy analysis of social trends. …

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