1990: An Imperfect Psychoanalyst Commits Suicide

Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim won acclaim for his work with children, and his posthumously discrediting was only partly deserved.

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Bruno Bettelheim talked little about his past and it’s now known that much of what he did tell was embroidered. But that doesn't mean he was a complete fraud in his work with child psychiatry.
Bruno Bettelheim talked little about his past and it’s now known that much of what he did tell was embroidered. But that doesn't mean he was a complete fraud in his work with child psychiatry.Credit: Dreamstime.com

On March 13, 1990, Bruno Bettelheim, the acclaimed psychoanalyst whose vaunted reputation derived from both his work with severely disturbed children, and from the popular books he wrote about such subjects as autism, child-rearing on the kibbutz, and the psychological impact of fairy tales on children, killed himself. He was 86 and he had long suffered from variety of debilitating illnesses.

Within a few short years, with the publication of several biographies, and the testimony of former patients and colleagues who only felt free to speak about the imposing Viennese-born therapist when he was beyond the grave, Bettelheim’s reputation was largely in tatters. In the worst version of the charges, he was said to have misrepresented his academic credentials, to have been guilty of plagiarism, and, worst of all, of having abused children who had been patients at the residential school he directed for three decades.

Bettelheim was always reluctant to talk about his past (he never wrote a memoir), and it’s now known that much of what he did tell was embroidered. But that doesn't mean he was a complete fraud.

Refuge and lies in America

Bruno Bettelheim was born on August 28, 1903, into a well-off family: His father, Anton, owned and operated a saw mill. His mother was the former Paula Seidler.

He had a classical education through gymnasium, before beginning to study philosophy at the University of Vienna. When Bruno was 23, however, on his way to earning a doctorate, his father died, after a long bout, it turned out, with syphilis. Reluctantly, the son left his studies, and took over the family business. Only in 1937 was he able to return to school and complete his Ph.D., writing a thesis on Kant and aesthetics. 

In May 1938, two months after the Anschluss, Bettelheim was arrested and sent, first, to Dachau concentration camp, then to Buchenwald. All the while, his family worked on getting him released and acquiring a visa for him to emigrate to America. In April 1939, they succeeded, and he left for New York.

There, Bettelheim was reunited with Gina Alstadt -- whom he had married in 1930 and who had escaped Austria before him -- but only long enough for her to tell him she had met someone else and wanted a divorce.

When Bettelheim the refugee arrived in the United States, he told potential employers that he had finished three doctoral degrees, one of them in psychology. He also claimed to have trained with Sigmund Freud and to have belonged to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, neither of which was true, although Bettelheim had undergone training in psychoanalysis.

Controversial methods and success

Bettelheim may not have had the credentials he claimed to possess, but he was an enormously gifted therapist, and when he took over the directorship of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, as the residential facility for severely emotionally disturbed children – including autististics -- at the University of Chicago was called, he turned it into an innovative and leading institution. His philosophy called for creation of a therapeutic "milieu," where students and staff constituted a community based on shared responsibility.

He could be cruel, and he believed there was a place for corporal punishment in the therapeutic setting, something that wouldn't wash today. And there were students who emerged from the school emotionally scarred by Bettelheim's harsh treatment. But the "O School" under Bettelheim had a great many successes too, some of them with children who could not be helped elsewhere.

He married again, to Trude Weinberg, whom he had also known back in Vienna, and in addition to teaching and his professional writing, Bettelheim wrote a number of books for general audiences, including "The Children of the Dream," which examined the child-rearing methods of the kibbutz, and "The Empty Fortress," a very early book about autism (1967). Probably his best-known work was "The Uses of Enchantment," a psychoanalytic look at the meaning of fairy tales for young children. 

Bettelheim retired in 1973, lost his wife in 1984, had a stroke in 1987, and suffered depression for years. When he ended his life, on this day in 1990, it was the culmination of something he had been planning for well over a year.