Lies the Doctor Told Us

Unraveling the Bettelheim legend.

The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim
By Richard Pollak
Simon & Schuster; 478 pages; $28

“We must live by fictions–not just to find meaning in life but to make it bearable,” Bruno Bettelheim once wrote. That idea inspired his most famous book, The Uses of Enchantment (1976). In it, he celebrated the power of fairy tales to help children handle the “inner conflicts” that confront us all on the road to achieving a “unified personality.” Two biographies of Bettelheim have set out to prove that he practiced what he preached to a degree no one dreamed. First Nina Sutton and now Richard Pollak expose the renowned psychoanalyst as a compulsive teller of tall tales about his own life.

The tale of the untruthful therapist itself all but begs to be told as a didactic legend, and Sutton and Pollak have eagerly obliged. Sutton’s version is sympathetic. In Bettelheim: A Life and a Legacy (1996), she follows a resourceful Hansel figure as he struggles to escape a dark Viennese forest and find fame in America, “dropping little white pebbles along his path.” As Sutton carefully gathers up the pebbles, she explains how the trail of fabrications helped Bettelheim along his arduous way. Among the most important distortions she exposes are: an invented psychology degree from the University of Vienna; pretended acquaintance with Freud; guardianship of an autistic child whom his first wife in fact tended; unreliable accounts of his ordeals in Dachau and Buchenwald; and exaggerated claims of success as a benevolent savior of emotionally disturbed children at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago. None of these prevents Sutton from honoring Bettelheim as an unorthodox Freudian whose creative relationship to facts was inseparable from his intuitive genius and his great empathetic powers.

Richard Pollak’s tale is nastier, more brutish, and shorter. He was inspired to write his book by troubled curiosity about his brother’s experience under Bettelheim’s care at the Orthogenic School, an experience that came to an end when the boy died from a fall during summer vacation. Bettelheim claimed that it had been suicide–“What is it about these Jewish mothers, Mr. Pollak?” he asked Pollak years later–and a cloud hung over the family thereafter. Not surprisingly, Pollak has a Big Bad Wolf huffing and puffing from the moment The Creation of Dr. B begins. Pollak seizes on the same central fictions that Sutton does, and itemizes every other inaccuracy, or hint of one, that he is able to find–and he certainly looks hard. Dr. B’s slapping, punching, beating, and shaming of students receive especially thorough attention, and Pollak even accuses him of sexually abusing several girls at the school. (Where the brutality was overt, as it often was, the evidence supports the charges, but where Pollak relies on former students’ memories of being fondled under the covers, who knows what to think?) Interpretation is at a minimum throughout, and Pollak soon reduces his all-powerful beast to a broth of pernicious, self-serving lies.

Both Sutton’s and Pollak’s Bettelheim allegories–the renegade from the narrow Freudian path and the total fraud–have obvious iconic appeal for our post-psychoanalytic era. But both also miss his perplexing reality, the ambiguity of a man whose life and work refuse to add up to a simple object lesson. Again and again in his writings, Bettelheim insisted that the daunting task of “inner integration” was a developmental ordeal that could be mastered with great struggle, and with the support of good stories. Yet, a “unified personality,” whether admirable or despicable, is precisely what eluded him. As for his writings, D.W. Winnicott once commented in some exasperation that Bettelheim “is difficult to read simply because he says everything and there is nothing to be said that one could be certain has not been said by him.”

Bettelheim’s made-up stories seem more mysterious in their motivation than Pollak cares to acknowledge. He believes that each of Bettelheim’s enchantments had a self-aggrandizing public and private use–as indeed many of them did. But what’s puzzling is how often Bettelheim’s stories about his past and about the Orthogenic School look like subtle acts of self-sabotage. The wolf whom Pollak is so eager to cook had a curious way of landing himself in the soup.

Thus, for instance, Pollak views Bettelheim’s distorted Austrian credentials as a megalomaniac’s forceful bid for authority in his new country. But Bettelheim’s bogus psychology degree neither did much to ingratiate him with the established psychoanalytic community, nor was it meant to secure him the Orthogenic School directorship, which he at first refused. And the dubious account given by the newly arrived ex-prisoner about his concentration-camp experiences–the article that put him on the map in America–enmeshed him in controversy and self-contradiction.

In “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations,” published in The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1943, Bettelheim suggested that his fellow camp prisoners were soon reduced to “types of behavior which are characteristic of infancy or early youth,” playing into the hands of the SS rather than standing up to them. It was a sweeping generalization, based on much less scientific observation than he claimed to have done. (Pollak questions whether Bettelheim could have sampled as many prisoners as he said he had, and judges his anecdotes to be selective and willfully misinterpreted.) Yet, even before the factual distortions were suggested, Bettelheim’s argument was disconcerting on other grounds. His grim message about a regressive human impulse to act childlike seemed to undermine his simultaneous call for resistance–especially since he emphasized that any struggle by the victims of the Nazis was pointless without outside help. As debate about the Holocaust unfolded, Bettelheim’s initial renown as a heroic witness gave way to cloudier repute as a blamer of victims.

When Pollak turns to Bettelheim’s career at the Orthogenic School, he indicts the psychoanalyst for wholesale abuse of power and implies a facile symmetry: This camp victim identified with the aggressors, and went on to become a Gestapo figure in his own well-barricaded fortress. Bettelheim had quite a different parallel in mind, which he outlined in “Schizophrenia as a Reaction to Extreme Situations” (1956). Severely disturbed children were like prisoners, he proposed, echoing his earlier article; they were immured in “mortal anxiety” and overwhelmed by hostile circumstances, above all by their rejecting mothers. He then assumed the mantle of the children’s savior. In Love Is NotEnough (1950), Truants From Life (1955), The Empty Fortress (1967), and A Home forthe Heart (1974), he painted a portrait of an intense therapeutic milieu in which superhumanly dedicated counselors used compassion and empathy to help such children rejoin the world. He announced remarkable rates of success with autistic patients. But, as Pollak proves on the basis of school records, reality didn’t measure up. There were far fewer demonstrably autistic children–or cures–than Bettelheim advertised.

Bettelheim’s penchant for heroic narrative certainly did bolster his popular image, though Pollak gives ample evidence that his insistence on blaming mothers and claiming miracles also invited skepticism from parents and psychiatrists. As one of the counselors at the school commented, “I felt like saying, ‘You don’t have to exaggerate, Dr. B, it was dramatic enough.’ ” Inside the walls of the Orthogenic School, the effect of Bettelheim’s mythomania was clearly destructive. His fantasy of omnipotence seems to have contributed to a loss of control. The man who had been the charismatically firm “superego” of the school (as he called himself) during its early years could be–and often was–a brutal id by the end. The outside world got a bewildering glimpse of the two-sided Bettelheim, too. At the very moment The Empty Fortress was clinching his reputation as a nonauthoritarian liberator of autistic children–in other words, during the Vietnam era–a ranting Bettelheim seized the podium as an authoritarian castigator of rebellious youth. His finger-wagging surprised many, especially his numerous left-leaning admirers in the academy.

Bettelheim committed suicide in 1990, evidently having found life unbearable, despite (or because of) his fictions. But making sense of his active, prolific career as a therapist and thinker was difficult, as Winnicott pointed out, even before his career as a liar was uncovered. Bettelheim was criticized for reductive psychoanalytic thinking and applauded for his resistance to psychoanalytic dogma. He was accused of lacking “a social psychology that recognized the powerful influence of the social environment in changing the individual,” as Paul Marcus and Alan Rosenberg put it in an issue of Psychoanalytic Review devoted to him; and he was celebrated for introducing just such a perspective. He was attacked for being uniquely unsystematic in his methods; but he was praised for his one-of-a-kind clinical powers. He was hailed for his “life-affirming” approach to the traumas of the 20th century; he was condemned and commended for his emphasis on mankind’s destructive impulses. In his insistent quest for “meaning in life,” Bettelheim was nearly impossible to pin down, and the addition of so many slippery stories certainly doesn’t help.

“But one must read him because he can be exactly right, or more nearly right than other writers,” Winnicott persisted, and this lack of definitiveness seems fitting in summing up a man whose own most interesting verdicts resisted definitiveness about human dilemmas. Bettelheim had no overarching theory, but he had an abiding preoccupation: authority and the ambivalence it inspires. His humanistic intuitions about the difficulties and possibilities inherent in therapists’ struggles with their patients, parents’ struggles with their children, a mass society’s struggle with its citizens, and the self’s struggle with itself were perhaps not profoundly original. But they spoke to widespread social concerns, and during an era marked by its unthinking reliance on experts, he made a point of speaking neither as an obfuscating specialist nor as a simplifying self-help guru. Bettelheim believed grandiosely in being a guide, but he had fundamentally humble guidance to offer: that in the end, as in the beginning (one of his favorite phrases), one can hope to grow only by endeavoring to be one’s own guide. He evidently found no well-marked route to follow himself.