David James Fisher, Ph.D.
Bettelheim: Living and Dying. Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies Series, Jon Mills, editor (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2008), 190 pages,
Anyone who writes a biography is committed to lies, concealments, hypocrisy, flattery
and even to hiding his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth does not exist, and if it did we could not use it..
Freud to Arnold Zweig
31 May 1936
Seventeen years have now passed since the death by suicide in 1990 of Bruno Bettelheim at age 86. For the most part it has been a shattering period for his reputation, despite the appearance of no fewer than three major biographies1 and a spate of memoirs and studies assessing his life and impact.2 Bettelheim began publishing in 1943; the last thirty years of his life, he had occupied a privileged position in American letters, commanding a wide audience for his opinions and perspectives, unlike most other contemporary psychoanalysts, with the possible exception of Erik Erikson in America and Jacques Lacan in France, and, of course, Freud. He operated as a public intellectual whose writings and pronouncements were eagerly awaited, widely disseminated, and published in distinguished, large circulation magazines and journals, in addition to a prestigious, commercial publishing house. This meant that his ideas and opinions had a huge impact on a large reading audience.
Bettelheim took on an astonishing range of topics and seemed to possess an encyclopedic knowledge and authoritative voice on diverse themes ranging from the psychological effects of the Holocaust and concentration camp experience, to the understanding and treatment of severely disturbed children, the intricacies of child-rearing, the emotional components of life on the Kibbutz, the significance of fairy tales, as well as the proper attitudes and spirit of reading Freud's texts. Moreover, his ideas were deliberately controversial; the author's utterances could be abrasive, omnipotent, and intolerant. He wrote and spoke against the currents of established opinion, taking on sacred cows, relishing his ability to unmask moral shams, to undermine shallow or naïve psychological
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positions, and to provoke his audience to reconsider established pieties. Undisputedly, however, his distinct voice became part of the contemporary discussion, orienting an educated lay public to many of the seminal issues of the day. Along the way, Bettelheim offended many individuals and constituencies. Along the way, he made enemies. Some of this erupted after his suicide. Gradually, a coherent portrait of the man can be drawn, a portrait of a highly flawed individual, an individual of many contradictions with an excess of strengths and weaknesses. He was a creatively depressed man who had vast supplies of vitality, a prodigious appetite for work, an astonishing curiosity, and a unique capacity to focus both on the large picture and on details.
His life was dramatically altered by the sudden and ill-prepared for National Socialist seizure of power in Austria and by his incarceration in two Nazi concentration camps for eleven months in 1938-1939. Before the camps Bettelheim had been a rather typical member of the assimilated Jewish upper middle classes of Vienna, a member of an extremely well educated bourgeois social class, which was cosmopolitan, sophisticated, secular, modernist in sensibility, and progressive in politics. He had earned a doctorate in aesthetics from the University of Vienna. He was highly cultivated and had broad cultural, artistic, and political knowledge and interests. His earliest rebelliousness took the form of membership in the Socialist Youth movement (Wangervogel), where as an adolescent he expressed anti-war sentiments during the First World War, vague socialist principles, a questioning of parental and institutional authority, a preoccupation with sexuality and how it trenched on aspects of the personality, and above all, a fundamental fascination about forms of subjective experience.
From his early childhood into adulthood, Bettelheim suffered from bouts of depression, severe problems of self-doubt about his looks (believing that he was ugly), wavering self-regard about his intelligence and his writing skills, ambivalence about his Jewishness, and ultimately an uncertainty about finding a deeper meaning to his life. Bettelheim was a man of quintessential paradox: he could be irritable, unpleasant, rude, angry, impatient, harsh, judgmental, intrusive, critical and raging; at other times he was exquisitively sensitive, kind, caring, courteous, attuned, and aware of the delicate vulnerability of other individuals. In his public persona he could be charming, funny, witty, entertaining, self-deprecating, dramatic, even self-disclosing to those around him. In his private persona, and particularly in the last years of his life when I came to know him, he could relentlessly honest, tactless in his candor, self-lacerating and cruel toward others, and chronically suicidal.
His father's death made him the patriarch of his family at age twenty-three, forcing him to take over the lumber business he despised, interrupting both his educational pursuits and his wishes to become trained as a psychoanalyst.
Psychoanalysis became for Bettelheim an integral part of his quest for meaning in life. Even in the worst of existential situations, he insisted on the
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explanatory value of the analytic instrument, its use in elucidating the self's relationship to itself and to the environment. Psychoanalysis assisted him in his life-long search for autonomy, wholeness, and authenticity. Through psychoanalysis, he learned to be useful to others, to employ his intuitive abilities and his brilliant mind, his easy access to the unconscious, toward the compassionate understanding of other fragile human beings, without degrading or demeaning them. His version of psychoanalysis underscored the humanistic capacity of the individual to engage in conflict to achieve genuineness, to overcome self-deception, to confront dark and often humiliating feelings about the self, ultimately to embrace a full and realistic sense of self-mastery and responsibility about oneself and one's place in the world.
Above all, Bettelheim understood that the paths to self-liberation and self clarification were through the emotions. Before affect attunement and the empathic-introspective method became slogans of the contemporary psychoanalytic movement, he knew from lived experience that emotional expressiveness was the most genuine form of self-exploration and psychological honesty. Though well-versed in classical Freudian theory and a life-long student of Freud's work, Bettelheim tended to distrust theoretical and abstract approaches to the mind; too much theory resulted in the creation of an estranging distance, diminishing the vital interpersonal link between analyst and patient that was at the heart of the analytic inquiry. The soul - a term he preferred to the mind - was better approached through the creation and sustaining of a safe, trusting, respectful, warm, caring, but not too close relationship between the therapist and patient. This was his model of the ideal psychoanalytic situation, the establishment of an island of serenity between the patient and therapist where dialogue, self-discovery, and affective exploration could occur unimpeded.
Bettelheim learned about psychoanalysis in Vienna during the later years of World War I and throughout the twenties and thirties; he moved in social circles that included classically trained analysts such as Wilhelm and Annie Reich, Otto Fenichel, Grete Bibring, and he was the cousin of the analyst, Edith Buxbaum. He entered analysis with Richard Sterba sometime in 1936-1937, largely because of marital difficulties with Gina Weinmann (whom he had married in 1930) and dissatisfaction with his work as head of the family's lumber company.
It is now abundantly clear that Bettelheim never received formal psychoanalytic training at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society or anywhere else. When I asked Bettelheim about his training in Vienna, he replied: "I don't really have any memories of this Society, but rather of those who attended itI got reports of what happenedI had just started the training analysis before the Nazis marched inAs I told you my training was interrupted very early at the beginning by the invasion of Austria by Hitler." When I asked about how many seminars he had attended, he answered candidly that he had not attended any of them, "No, I had just started." 3
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In brief, Bettelheim's credentials as a psychoanalyst were largely self-created. He became an analyst through a process of self-authorization. He learned about psychoanalysis through his analysis with Richard Sterba, through studying and contemplating the clinical literature, and largely from his work with disturbed patients, drawing on his exceptional capacities to listen, to feel himself into the inner world and intense struggles of others. Above all, it was his patients who taught and supervised him. He made the notion that "the patient is always right" into an irreducible principle of therapeutic technique, making empathic understanding and care for the other the foundation of his clinical style, a style closer to an art than a science.
In his selection of candidates to be counselors at the Orthogenic School, Bettelheim tended to care less about academic credentials than about a sincere motivation to learn and work with the children and an ability to access their own emotions; lacking the legitimacy and credentials of one who had graduated from a psychoanalytic institute, he preferred amateurs who were emotionally responsive and intellectually curious to well-schooled mental health professionals, who may have lacked sensitivity and insight into the inner world of the child. Many psychoanalytic pioneers of Bettelheim's generation received their analytic imprimatur from either an analysis with Freud or one of his leading disciples; many went on to become distinguished contributors to the field as well as outstanding clinicians. Historically, we need to remember that psychoanalysis was a new discipline where formal training was not the only pathway to a successful or distinguished career. To be sure, the absence of formal psychoanalytic training and the absence of a medical pedigree made Bettelheim a target of suspicion and a life-long outsider to the American psychoanalytic mainstream, which was opposed to lay analysis and unwelcoming toward innovators, tending to view these individuals as rebels, or worse still, as "wild analysts."
Bettelheim the public intellectual has occupied a somewhat special terrain in American cultural life. Though he was a tenured professor at the University of Chicago, he eschewed research or publication in narrow areas of academic specialization. He contested disciplinary boundaries. He tried never to be scholastic or to write erudite but narrowly focused monographs. Instead he wrote controversial, best-selling, and at times prize winning books that reached a non-specialized public. He had a knack for taking on issues that really mattered to his audience. As he wrote to me of his intentions in writing Freud and Man's Soul, "what pleased me was that I got so many spontaneous reactions from a wide variety of intellectuals who wrote me that for the first time Freud made sense to them. They ranged from a Nobel Prize winner in economics to the greatest living mathematician, to high-school juniors. This gladdens me, because this is the group I tried to reach."4 Not surprisingly, his writings have aroused the criticism of specialists and resentment of academic scholars, who questioned his methodology and his tendency to generalize, who enjoyed unearthing factual errors, and who envied his intellectual reach,
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confidence, and authority. Most recently, he has been accused of scholarly deception and plagiarism.5
The public intellectual, likewise, was alienated from the American psychoanalytic establishment. He presented a coherent and often subversive Freudian psychoanalytic perspective while operating outside of and in opposition to organized mainstream psychoanalysis in America; he never taught courses or seminars at psychoanalytic institutes (though he did occasionally offer a course at the extension division of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute), and rarely published in psychoanalytic journals. His seminal books were often ignored or reviewed dismissively by mainstream analytic periodicals. Progression in his career or self-esteem owed nothing to official psychoanalysis; he became celebrated for being an articulate critic of the insiders. As a famous outsider, Bettelheim's writings were omitted or severely criticized by the psychoanalytic establishment, leaving him feeling both contemptuous and hurt, longing for their recognition, yet hardened to their harsh repudiation of him. Analysts, for their part, may have considered Bettelheim too much a renegade, too free and too iconoclastic to ever be accepted as a card-carrying member of the guild; many must have regarded him as too independent and free thinking, unwilling to abide by the clinical, ethical, and institutional guidelines of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
As he wrote to me about his book on Freud, "I did not expect to make a dent among the psychoanalysts" He wanted to preserve and make relevant a Freudian point of view in order to stimulate reflection and to evoke emotional resonances on the part of his audience. He had no wish to function as a custodian of orthodoxy or someone who protected a naïve but idealized view of Freud. He contrasted ironically his own role to that of Anna Freud, the founder's daughter, who performed "the role of guardian of psychoanalysis. In regard to her the official psychoanalytic attitude is that everybody has ambivalence about his parents, with the one exception of Anna Freud."6
As a maverick who spoke with both a human and abrasive voice, Bettelheim preferred to function as a psychoanalytic gadfly, someone who cajoled others to examine their received opinions, who demystified pieties, and who punctured dogma and shibboleths. He was extremely skeptical of psychoanalytic theories that emphasized adaptation rather than conflict, social adjustment rather than ideas more anchored to the creative, playful, and unique, spontaneous aliveness of individuals living in alienating, mass societies. Mass cultures engendered conformity, mindless materialism, and consumption, while penalizing independence of the mind and authentic expressions of the heart; they profoundly endangered the individual's healthy sense of self and of vitality.
Unlike most members of official psychoanalysis, Bettelheim consciously chose to write in a direct, accessible, readable, emotionally laden prose form without recourse to scientific or to unnecessarily erudite language.
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Those who taught and wrote in jargon were trafficking in a language familiar only to a select elite of analysts functioning, according to Bettelheim, as a sect or secret society of initiates, speaking a private and arcane discourse.
In effect, Freudian psychoanalysis was too important to be left to the custodianship of the Freudians. It became his mission to broaden the clinical scope of analytic theory and practice to include the treatment of primitively disordered children and adolescents, including autistics, and other diagnostic groups who were considered incurable or impossible to treat by conventional analytic assessments. Simultaneously, he would demonstrate the intellectual and emotional power of the method to reveal how Freud's project applied to education, parenting, the deciphering of cultural artifacts, the reading of texts, and the decoding of films and works of art. Bettelheim the clinician, then, also became someone who illustrated how psychoanalysis could be used to provide humanistic insights into various forms of cultural life. In this he became an heir to Freud, particularly to Freud's late cultural writings, to Freud the cultural historian and cultural critic.
Likewise, in his writings on the Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps, he wrote with the moral authority, gravity, and credibility of someone who had been an inmate in Dachau and Buchenwald, that is, someone who wrote from his own observations and lived experience. His earliest and most influential essay on the concentration camps was summarily rejected for publication by psychoanalytic journals on the clearly preposterous grounds that they were hateful toward the Germans, full of paranoid ideation, and that his article did not provide verifiable data. Bettelheim was angered and depressed by these rejections.
Yet he could often take positions that were insensitive and cruel to Jewish survivors of the concentration camps, particularly his insistence on Jewish complicity, psychologically and ideologically, with their own mass slaughter. Bettelheim sometimes engaged in a discourse of blaming the victim. He did not seem consciously aware of his extreme ambivalence toward his Jewishness, as reflected in his ruminations about the dangers of ghetto-style thinking. Bettelheim did not always make historically significant distinctions in his writings on the camps; he failed to differentiate detention and work camps from death camps; he tended to blur specific periods of Nazi terror; he often romanticized the futile acts of resistance on the part of Jewish inmates. His writings on the concentration camps, then, often aroused violent polemics and emotional accusations against him. Although he took the tough position of not needing to be loved and not needing to be popular, these attacks hurt him, and impinged upon older sources of pain, trauma, and the torment of being rejected.
Bettelheim had a strong emotional need to be understood. This was one of the reasons for his tendency to repeat himself in his writings. He was wounded when he was misunderstood, wounded in the face of misrecognition. As he mentioned in his interview with me, he despaired of transmitting the fragmenting experience of life in the concentration camps to generations who
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did not live through the Holocaust. They might never have the proper frame of reference, the historical context, for life at an extreme limit of existence.
It's an experience that is so overwhelming, so full of contradictions really that it's very hard to cope with. I think that anybody who spent time in a German concentration camp - it does not necessarily have to be extermination camp - never gets rid of the feeling of guilt and shame. It is such a degrading experience that you feel obliged not to suffer it, but to fight back your guilt. You have to suppress your normal reactions in a life threatening situation. The problem is that you feel no one really understands what you went through. Some people repress it, some try to go on with life as usual as if nothing had ever happened. That's a very empty way to deal with it.7
The center piece of Bettelheim's professional career was his twenty-nine years (1944 to 1973) as director of the Sonia Shenkman Orthogenic School, affiliated with the University of Chicago. Here too, the portrait of Bettelheim is quite mixed; he brought his personal paradoxes into his various roles and responsibilities as the School's head. The Orthogenic School was designed to construct a safe, pleasant, comfortable environment for severely disturbed children in a residential center. It would be a therapeutic ambience and a school for the children, while serving simultaneously as a training center for the counselors. In one of the earliest, most rigorous, ambitious, and experimental approaches to the creation of a total therapeutic milieu for the sick child, Bettelheim was operating once again as a forerunner, functioning outside of existing paradigms.
He tended to accept children into the school who were unwanted elsewhere, or who were diagnosed by mental health professionals and parents as extremely pathological, anti-social, delinquent, violent, suicidal, autistic, and who had multiple difficulties in forming stable relationships with other children and adults. Bettelheim had hoped to create a milieu which functioned for the well-being and growth of the child. He would use psychoanalytic concepts in this residential setting. Every behavior, feeling, fantasy was to be seen from the child's point of view; every action and thought had unconscious meanings that required understanding from the perspective of the child. Empathy, intuition, and clinical knowledge were tools to grasp the suffering and anguish of the child. In short, Bettelheim hoped that his School and therapeutic method would constitute a bridge between the world of "insanity" and the world of reason.
As head of the Orthogenic School, Bettelheim brought all of his talents and all of his personality idiosyncrasies to the task at hand. The School allowed him to be a healer and a teacher, a researcher and writer, a mentor, supervisor, and therapist to members of his staff, an indefatigable administrator who oversaw any detail of the School's operation. It has now become apparent that Bettelheim exaggerated some of the clinical results and
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presented too optimistic a picture of his successes, particularly with the autistic patients, where his results were partial at best. He did this mainly in a series of books that provided case studies and extended explanations about the School's structure, organization, and clinical orientation. Bettelheim could be incredibly encouraging and kind to counselors, generous with his time, supportive of their personal and clinical maturation. Yet, he blurred many boundaries with his staff, generating confusion and rivalries. He tended to take some of his counselors into analytic therapy with him; he clearly had favorites. This exacerbated resentments within the School, increasing competitiveness and paranoia within the hothouse atmosphere of the School, fostering both idealizations and envy.
Bettelheim ran the School first as a teacher and administrator who desired to apply his clinical and pedagogical knowledge; he evolved into an autocrat with no ambiguity about his own power and authority. As he grew older, crankier and more famous, he functioned with a demeanor of arrogance, aggressiveness, and harshness toward staff and children; he became someone who needed always to be right, who went indiscreetly to the point, who jumped to conclusions, who could make both counselors and children feel intruded upon, hurt and humiliated. He could be verbally abusive and hostile; he justified his actions in the name of keeping order in a closed environment where chaos and violence could spontaneously erupt. Borrowing from Freud's structural model, he conceptualized his role at the School as that of the super-ego, with the children being the id and the counselors the ego. Dr. B., as he was called, was formidable and the object of interminable rumor, gossip, and transferential fantasy. Like the super-ego, he was a source of moral authority and mastery over anti-social impulses; he could be harsh, punitive, and cruel.
Though he radiated charisma, energy, magnetism, and talent, Bettelheim could also behave in an irascible, unpredictable, sadistic, and intimidating fashion. Although he never admitted to it in print, Bettelheim had recourse to slapping and hitting students in order to restore order in situations of crisis at the School. To be sure, his use of corporal punishment has damaged his posthumous reputation, generating a demonology that he was abusive toward patients. He could also behave toward the children in a charming, sensitive, compassionate, and kind manner. He did not permit much personal intimacy, discouraged mutuality, and did not have a natural ease or love for children, as do many child analysts.
Without having lived or worked at the Orthogenic School, one can only imagine the transference and counter-transference dynamics unleashed there. As a remarkable and inspiring man at the head, as someone who functioned as a guru in a small, self-contained, pressure-packed institution, Bettelheim was intensely admired and had passionate supporters and disciples; his acts of unkindness, his loss of control, would produce resentment and rage against him by former counselors and students after his death. It will take more time to sort out the nature of the projections and counter-projections of the former patients and counselors as well as how Bettelheim's anxieties and
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unresolved feelings about himself, particularly his depressive affects, his sense of fraudulence, and his easily injured narcissism, played out in the running of the School. Above all, his books presented an idealized image of the School.
Yet, moving beyond those accounts that either glorify or denounce the School, beyond idealization and devaluation, the Orthogenic School must be seen historically and critically as an audacious and imaginative experiment in residential treatment. It yielded intriguing data about such environments and very sick children living away from their parents. It produced a number of remarkable and durable successes. Many graduates of the School claim that Bettelheim saved their lives. Many went on to live rich and productive lives. In his recent memoir, Stephen Eliot presented the most detailed and moving account of his stay at the Orthogenic School. He remembers Bettelheim with mixed emotions, but mostly with affection and gratitude. "He was not only my greatest teacher, which I could acknowledge, but also a friend, although it has taken almost forty years to see it. Like other geniuses, he was complex, mercurial, and not always appreciated."8
My book of essays on Bettelheim is organized into five overlapping sections: an overview of his life and the impact of his work; an analysis of his texts on the Holocaust and on parenting; a section on his relationship and debates with Rudolf Ekstein; multiple perspectives on his death and suicide; and a polemical concluding section in which I answer a number of vicious and debunking attacks on Bettelheim after his death.
The second essay of the volume, "Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism and the Soul," provides an interpretation of the critical insights of Bettelheim's life and work, seen as an integral whole, paying close attention to his writings on the concentration camps. It argues that his history as an inmate of the camps and émigré to America, in addition to aspects of his personality, came together in the creation of his clinical methodology and his search for meaning in dealing with very troubled children. The essay offers a detailed discussion of Freud and Man's Soul. This evocative text, ostensibly an analysis of the mistranslations of Freud into English, actually became the platform for Bettelheim to articulate his own synthetic view of psychoanalysis as a means to translate into consciousness the individual's most prized possession, his affective subjectivity; psychoanalytic forms of deciphering, then, enable the exploration of the various dimensions of the soul, a non-religious term used to designate the most significant facets of the individual's inner world, his being, his source of aliveness and distinctness.
Chapter Three compares and contrasts Bettelheim's psychoanalytic and social understanding of fascism and anti-Semitism, particularly with reference to texts of the 1940's, to the writings of a cohort of four other analysts, Erik H. Erikson, Otto Fenichel, Ernst Simmel, and Rudolf Loewenstein. All of these analysts were forced to leave Central and Western Europe because of the rise of National Socialism; all suffered from the policies of racial anti-Semitism. I argue that there is a dialectic in these works between an unrelenting moral and political anti-fascism and a marked ambivalence in
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these authors about their own identities as Jews. Both psychoanalytic theory and an understanding of personality dynamics allowed them to develop penetrating insights into fascist rhetoric, an understanding of the psychodynamics of the fascist and anti-Semitic personality and its defensive strategies, but not into their own confused identities as cosmopolitan Jews and intellectuals, persecuted for beliefs and associations that they no longer shared.
The chapter "On Parenting and Playing" is a critical analysis of Bettelheim's A Good Enough Parent of 1987, his most synthetic work on the complexities of contemporary parenting. Here the Winnicottian Bettelheim reverses course, allowing himself to be less harsh toward mothers and permitting his empathic attunement to be offered both to the inner world of the child and to the wrenching dilemmas of parents. The book is also a sustained argument in favor of playfulness.
Chapter Five provides the historical, cultural, and clinical context for the relationship between Bruno Bettelheim and Rudolf Ekstein (1912-2005). Both were Viennese born and trained intellectuals who received doctorates in the human sciences from the University of Vienna in 1937. Both were deeply identified with lay analysis, emphasizing that for psychoanalysis to perpetuate itself it needed to promote serious and rigorous forms of research. Because Bettelheim is the better known of the two, I focus on Ekstein's family history, with special emphasis on his experience of loss and trauma and his capacity to recover from personal and educational obstacles. I argue that Ekstein was a representative product of Austro-Marxism in the period between the wars, embracing the ethical brand of democratic socialism and group solidarity that was integral to the theory and practice of Austrian Social Democracy. I discuss Ekstein's training with Moritz Schlick in philosophy and his immersion in the Vienna Circle of logical positivism. From Schlick, Ekstein evolved into a philosophical thinker who learned how to think his own thoughts. Ekstein joined the circle of psychoanalytic pedagogues who clustered around the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, under the tutelage of Willi Hoffer, August Aichhorn, and above all, Anna Freud. The clinical component of psychoanalysis emanated from his commitment to understanding the inner world of the child. Bettelheim and Ekstein first became aware of each other from reading the analytic literature and finally met in America in the 1950's. They shared a professional interest in conducting research and doing clinical work on severely disturbed children and adolescents, including those with psychotic, borderline, and autistic diagnoses. They debated the value of milieu therapy versus psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy on such children.
As their relationship evolved, the two collaborated and began a fascinating correspondence that gradually evolved into an intimate friendship. They both engaged in a polemic with Bernard Rimland, who was massively critical of their clinical work and a hostile opponent of psychoanalytic approaches to the treatment of disturbed children. Rimland advocated a neurological approach to mental illness, with an emphasis on biology and psychopharmacology.
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The twenty-two letters that constitute the Bettelheim-Ekstein exchange began with clinical concerns, including the varieties of solitude, isolation, and countertransference disruptions that may trouble the psychoanalytic researcher and clinician in dealing with primitively disordered children. It moves to other issues, including mutual support during the Rimland Affair. As the two became friendlier, a pattern of good-natured competition and envy appeared. The two engaged in a heated exchange on the question of whether contemporary Vienna remained as anti-Semitic as it had been in their respective youths: Bettelheim, the concentration camp survivor, argued that nothing had changed and that most Austrians were viscerally anti-Semitic; Ekstein, the Austo-Marxist, contended that one could not blame a generation born after World War II, holding that in his experience many Austrians had examined their consciences and held distinctly different opinions than their parents or grandparents. Toward the end of their correspondence, we encounter Ekstein's tender sensitivity into Bettelheim's decent into depression as a result of the death of his wife, Trude, leading eventually to recurrent episodes of suicidal ideation and plans for his own suicide. The letters testify to a unique friendship with a somewhat old-world quality.
Chapter Six is an obituary I wrote after the death of my training analyst, Rudolf Ekstein. In it I reconstruct from a distance of over fifteen years the most impacting and enduring emotional aspects of that relationship, including the actions, words, attitudes, and spirit that he imparted to me in the ten-year period that I was his analysand. As part of my work of grieving, the memorial to Ekstein also addresses a number of issues raised by Bettelheim's life and work: the importance of furthering research in psychoanalytic forms of inquiry, the often heroic history of lay analysis both in Europe and in America, the role of the analyst as an analyzing instrument, and the healing function of kindness and decency rather than the flashing insights and brilliant interpretations offered in the course of a long character analysis. This personal piece of writing attempts to capture and bring alive the relational aspects of our dialogue and in that way to continue the discussion.
In Chapter Seven, Bettelheim speaks in his own voice. I call it "A Final Conversation with Bruno Bettelheim." Here I tried to provide him with a safe and intimate arena to share his most pressing concerns at the very end of his life, including his poignant remarks about suicide. In this interview, I took up with Bettelheim historical questions about his formal psychoanalytic training, his views of other figures in the analytic movement, his thoughts on age, infirmity, illness, the death of his wife, the break with his daughter, and the ubiquitous sense of uselessness he felt as his health deteriorated and he was unable to work. In "The Suicide of a Survivor," I mourn and try to come to terms with Bettelheim's suicide by placing the event into the context of his life during his last years, years when I knew him in Los Angeles and when he confided in me. I relate his suicide to the unbearable legacy of shame and guilt after surviving in two concentration camps. The ninth chapter, "Homage
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to Bettelheim," is a memorial written shortly after his death in 1990, part of my own work of mourning, my own need to make sense of his violent departure, even though we had discussed this issue previously.
The last section concludes on a polemical note, providing some insight into the climate of Bettelheim-bashing and the reactivity of those such as myself who aggressively offered a counter-attack that immediately followed his suicide. It opens with "An Open Letter to Newsweek," (cosigned by Rudolf Ekstein), where I reply to the factual and interpretive distortions of the piece they called "Beno Brutalheim."9 Newsweek, by the way, only published an abbreviated version of this letter, omitting any mention of factual errors or sloppy reporting on their part.10 The second piece, a letter published in Society,11 which had printed my interview with Bettelheim, replies to two of Bettelheim's former patients from the Orthogenic School, who waited until after his death to offer their scathing denunciation of him.12
The volume concludes with two unpublished letters from Bettelheim to me from the early 1980's. One deals with his reactions to an essay of mine on Civilization and its Discontents,13 and briefly condenses his hermeneutic approach to major texts. The other deals with his own Freud essay and my review of Freud and Man's Soul.14 They reveal Bettelheim as a witty, razor-edged, intellectual, highly opinionated yet courteous, responsive, and respectful toward those engaged in serious intellectual endeavors.
1. Nina Sutton, Bettelheim: A Life and a Legacy (New York, 1996); Richard Pollak, The Creation of
Dr. B.: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim (New York, 1997); Theron Raines, Rising to the Light: A
Portrait of Bruno Bettelheim (New York, 2002).
2. Letters to the Chicago Reader, April 6, May 4, May 25, June 8, July 6, July13, 1990; Charles Pekow,
"The Other Doctor Bettelheim," Washington Post, August 26, 1990; Ronald Angres, "Who, Really,
was Bruno Bettelheim?" Commentary, Vol. 90, No. 4 (October, 1990), p. 26; Paul Roazen, "The Rise
and Fall of Bruno Bettelheim," Psychohistory Review, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Spring, 1992), pp.
221-250; Edward Dolnick, Madness on the Couch (New York, 1998), pp. 180-184, 210-217. For
an eloquent defense of Bettelheim, see Elio Frattaroli, Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain (New
York, 2001) pp. 132-148.
3. David James Fisher, "A Final Conversation with Bruno Bettelheim," in Fisher, Cultural Theory and
Psychoanalytic Tradition ( New Brunswick, 1991), pp. 168-170.
4. Letter, Bruno Bettelheim to David James Fisher, June 24, 1983.
5. Alan Dundes, "Bruno Bettelheim's Uses of Enchantment and Abuses of Scholarship," Journal of the
American Folklore Society, Vol. 104 (Winter, 1991), pp. 74-83.
6. Letter, Bruno Bettelheim to David James Fisher, June 24, 1983.
7. Bettelheim, "A Final Interview with Bruno Bettelheim," op. cit., p. 163.
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8. Stephen Eliot, Not the Thing I Was: Thirteen Years at Bruno Bettelheim's Orthogenic School ( New
York, 2002), p. 5.
9. Nina Darnton, "'Bruno Brutalheim,' " Newsweek, September 10, 1990, pp. 59-60.
10. David James Fisher and Rudolf Ekstein, "Bettelheim Battle," Newsweek, October 8, 1990, p.11
11. David James Fisher, "Concerning Bruno Bettelheim," Society, Vol. 28, No. 5, July/August 1991, pp.
8-9; for the text of the interview, see David James Fisher, "Last Thoughts on Therapy," Society, Vol.
28, No. 3, March/April 1991, ibid., pp. 61-69.
12. Charles Pekow, "Concerning Bruno Bettelheim," Society, Vol. 28, No. 5, July/ August 1991, p. 6;
Alida M. Jatich, "Concerning Bruno Bettelheim," ibid., pp. 6-8.
13. David James Fisher, "Reading Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents," in Dominick La Capra and
Steven L. Kaplan, Modern European Intellectual History: Reappraisals and New Perspectives
(Ithaca, 1982), pp. 251-279.
14. David James Fisher, "Review of Bettelheim's Freud and Man's Soul," Los Angeles Psychoanalytic
Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 4, June, 1983, pp. 20-26.
David James Fisher, Ph.D.
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