Brutal Bruno Bettelheim

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle in September 8, 2002.

Bruno Bettelheim came to New York City in May 1939 in a condition of physical and emotional devastation. An assimilated Viennese Jew, he had been captured by Nazis after the Anschluss and had spent 11 months in Dachau and Buchenwald, where SS guards beat and intimidated him. When he arrived in the United States, only weeks after his release, the money from his family timber business was nearly gone. His doctorate in philosophy could not land him a job. And his wife wanted a divorce. He was 35 years old.

Bettelheim remarried and set out to create a new life for himself. In 1943, he published a pioneering study of behavior in the concentration camps. The analysis impressed everyone from leftist Dwight Macdonald, who reprinted it in his anti-war magazine Politics, to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who circulated it to American military officers stationed in Germany.

Bettelheim’s big career break came the next year, when officials at the University of Chicago asked him to take over the Orthogenic School, then a dilapidated residential center for emotionally troubled children. In his 25-year reign as director, Bettelheim transformed it into an internationally recognized school. He published many popular books based on his experiences there, including The Empty Fortress (1967), which advanced an explanation for infantile autism, and The Uses of Enchantment (1976), a study of fairy tales that won a National Book Award.

But soon after Bettelheim committed suicide in 1990, the story of his life came undone. Former staffers at the Orthogenic School alleged that Bettelheim used physical force on the children and terrorized his colleagues. Biographer Richard Pollack and other scholars showed that Bettelheim plagiarized his books and lied brazenly about his past. He falsely claimed, for instance, that no less an authority than Freud sanctioned his early training. The rise of “Dr. B” to a pre-eminent position in American culture now seemed not a classical tale of immigrant success of American mythology but instead a darker tale of fraud, cruelty and betrayal.

Theron Raines’ new biography, Rising to the Light: A Portrait of Bruno Bettelheim, aims to restore the mythological status Bettelheim once enjoyed. Bettelheim’s friend and literary agent for 20 years, Raines sees in his life a story of inspiration and uplift. His Bettelheim dashes through history as a dutiful son, a stoic and intelligent prisoner, a scholar driven by love of truth, a teacher with the gift of omniscience, a virtuoso healer and a powerful personality arrayed around classical virtues.

Did Bettelheim bark at his research assistants? Raines says he was expressing urgency about his ideas. Did he humiliate new counselors at the Orthogenic School? He was just trying to toughen them up for the job ahead. Did he raise his fists against the children? Well, yes, but when Bettelheim kicked and slapped the children, he compares favorably with lifeguards and firefighters. “When a slap worked, it put out the behavioral fire, brought back the child back to the milieu, and left him ready for the little steps of love and therapy.” But when a slap did not work, it left the child with a welt and Bettelheim with a nickname, “Brutalheim.”

To Raines, the staffers who quit misunderstood Bettelheim, and the children who grew to hate him proved too feeble to accept his lessons. “He was an autocrat with a difference—one who wanted to teach by stimulating others.”

It is possible that Bettelheim’s violently antipathetic personality concealed aspects of his humanity. Former associates whom Raines interviews portray Bettelheim as a benevolent tyrant, not a monster. Not until they ended their association with him, they say, did they understand that he really did care for them.

But the book fails to generate a compelling argument, mostly because Raines seeks converts, not readers. The first clue comes at the opening. He agrees to correct in future editions any factual errors. “However, I do not expect to rectify my opinions even though they may be mistaken in some respects, because I have tried them out endlessly in my own mind until they have at last taken on the status of essential truths—for me.” This spirit of evasion guides the rest of the book.

Raines approaches Bettelheim not as a subject but as a quasi-deity. In contrast to his staff, Raines writes, Bettelheim “moved in a more distant realm. He was a force protecting (or threatening) everyone in the school, like Jehovah brooding upon the face of the earth; and in this guise he could appear on a scene with a thunderclap of authority that sometimes worked wonders.”

So understood, Rising to the Light drains Bettelheim’s work of public significance. Who dares to criticize a miracle? Nor does it seek to understand Bettelheim as a man, for genuine understanding requires moral curiosity as well as sympathy. It best resembles a devotional exercise in which the key task is the demonstration of piety. Raines uses the phrase “I believe” to begin many important arguments, insulating them from scrutiny.

This habit might have won the stamp of public credibility in the conventional manner of a memoir. The authority of a book so conceived would rise or fall with Raines’ attempt to craft from his intimate relationship with Bettelheim a recognizable character, to link, that is, the “essential truths” afforded by his perspective to the general experiences of readers. Or it might have used the more distant tools of biography, presenting and interpreting evidence from Bettelheim’s life in pursuit of a broader argument.

Even a hybrid, a biographical memoir, might have worked. In this year’s The Fly Swatter, Nicholas Dawidoff gives such a portrait of his grandfather, the economist Alexander Gerschenkron, who, like Bettelheim, survived Nazi terror and achieved success in the American intellectual culture.

Raines, by contrast, has written a fairy tale that raises questions of responsibility on the part of biographers. Did Bettelheim really meet Freud? In the text, Raines repeats verbatim Bettelheim’s account, which two biographers have disputed. In an end note, Raines confesses that Bettelheim probably fabricated the story. Passing off a known falsehood in the narrative moves the book dangerously close to dishonesty. Raines tries to escape the problem by speculating that Bettelheim suffered from “false memory.”

But this explanation only leads to greater trouble. Large portions of Rising to the Light rely exclusively on Bettelheim’s memories. If Raines thinks they are not reliable, why should readers trust them?