Bruno Bettelheim: a cautionary life


"The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim," by Richard Pollak. Simon &Schuster.; 480 pages. $30.

Walter Bagehot noted that self-taught men tend to be "dogmatic, decisive and detestable." Bruno Bettelheim, portrayed in this thoroughly researched biography by Richard Pollak, fits the mold. Bettelheim had no qualifications as a child psychiatrist or psychologist, having been a businessman with an art history doctorate in 1930s Vienna. And yet after escaping from Nazi Austria, he won - by means of glibness with Freudian theory and a set of influential friends - the office of director of the Orthogenic School for disturbed children at the University of Chicago, a post he held from 1944 to 1973.

From that position he boldly instructed the American public about such matters as childhood mental disorders, sinister mothers, the cowardice of Jews under Hitler's heel, and the meaning of fairy tales. As it turns out, Bettelheim was a habitual liar, thankless friend, vicious bully and brazen plagiarist. He died 1990. Why not just forget him?

Pollak found reasons to remember from a visit to Bettelheim some years after his brother, a patient at the Orthogenic School, died in an accident. During the visit, Bettleheim spewed venom over Pollak's mother, blaming her for his brother's mental disorder and suggesting that the death was suicide contrived to look like an accident.

The stance of infallibility over matters Pollak knew to be untrue prompted him to wonder about the foundation of Bettelheim's commanding reputation. Hence, this searing investigative biography demonstrating that, as he says, "truth was clearly a problematic issue for Bettelheim."

Pollak provides a cautionary tale of a character adept at self-promotion. Opinion leaders, who should have known better, praised Bettelheim's work, showered him with honors and provided him with platforms such as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books to promote his prejudices and his platforms (both massive in his book on fairy tales, "The Uses of Enchantment").

Bettelheim - with boldness, energy and luck - exploited American deference to Freudo-Nietzschean mind-sets and interpretations, especially when intoned in accents Viennese.

At the Orthogenic School he whipped children in his charge, although publicly sermonizing against corporal punishment. He sneered at mothers who sought treatment for their disturbed children, considering them culprits and dismissing their misery. He lectured local Jewish groups, accusing the Jews of occupied Europe - including the father of Anne Frank - of cowardice and complicity in their own destruction, never mentioning that he wheedled his way into comforts during his own brief imprisonment in 1938 and braved no Nazi on his exit from Austria, running out ahead of his mother and sister.

This is a well-written, engrossing chronicle of a scoundrel who took advantage of a time when vituperation against parents substituted for careful efforts to study and differentiate the mental disorders of children - a time when the intellectual elite presumed that most parents, unless guided by specialists, mistreated their offspring.

Pollak documents how many of our academic and publishing trend-setters abandoned elementary critical standards, allowing Bettelheim to deceive, defame and denigrate honest people for over 40 years. Read this book and learn about the great harm self-designated "experts" in psychology do when we swallow the bunkum they hawk.

Paul R. McHugh is the director of the department of psychiatr and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins Hospital. His book "The Perspectives of Psychiatry" (with P.R. Slavney) is a widely used text published in five languages.

Pub Date: 1/19/97

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad