Understanding Autism: Parents, Doctors, and the History of a Disorder

By Chloe Silverman | Go to book overview

2

Love Is Not Enough: Bruno Bettelheim, Infantile
Autism, and Psychoanalytic Childhoods

Bruno Bettelheim once rivaled Montessori, Piaget, and Anna Freud in popularity and influence in the fields of child psychology and development. He is probably best known among the general public for his 1975 study of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. Eight years earlier, he had written an enormously influential book on treating autistic children, The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self. Although both books captivated the public at the time of their publication and for years afterward, many readers have since focused on flaws in these works and Bettelheim’s questionable research methods. After Bettelheim’s suicide in 1990 at the age of eighty-six, his reputation plummeted. He was accused of substantially plagiarizing his groundbreaking work on fairy tales. Observers claimed that he had beaten and verbally abused both children and staff during his thirty-year tenure as director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic school at the University of Chicago. He had knowingly contributed to the cruel and damaging portrayal of the mothers of children with autism as “refrigerator mothers.”1 Most damning of all, he had refused to alter his position even as evidence accumulated against the psychogenic theory of autism. This was indeed a sharp decline in status for “a hero of our time,” the man who was daring and compassionate enough to work with children whom others considered “hopeless and worthless.”2

These controversies ought not to confuse us about the weight Bettelheim’s books, magazine articles, reviews, and public presence carried in the 1950s and 1960s. Bettelheim popularized psychotherapy in a postwar America hungry for the vision of humanity offered by psychoanalysis, with its humanistic emphasis on what Freud had called “a cure through love.”3

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