Bruno Bettelheim The Holocaust Essay

This knowledge informed my reading of , a biography by Nina Sutton published a few months earlier. She is a fervent Freudian and an accomplished practitioner of the “it seemed,” “it is easy to imagine,” “appeared to be,” “must have thought” school of biography.Like many who have defended Bettelheim over the years, she is so “understanding” that the question of truth becomes almost irrelevant.

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He had always thought his mother’s complaints hyperbolic; now he saw that she had understated Bettelheim’s hostility.

As a ground rule, Bettelheim demanded a promise that Pollak would not discuss the session with his parents, ensuring that Pollak could not compare notes with them or seek to verify or disprove any of his claims.

This did not prevent the Ford Foundation from making a large grant supporting Bettelheim’s work over five years, nor did they question any of the false claims he made in the annual progress reports they required of him.

, had begun to establish what has long been accepted in the medical and therapeutic communities: autism is a developmental disorder originating in genetic fault, brain injury, or brain disease.

When Bruno Bettelheim committed suicide in 1990 at the age of 86 he had a towering and broadly based reputation: as a wise and humane child psychiatrist in whose Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago hundreds of severely disturbed children had been restored to normal life, as an expert on child-rearing in the Israeli kibbutzim, as a survivor of Buchenwald and Dachau whose writings had established him as an authority on life in the concentration camps, and as a specialist in the treatment of autistic children.

Within weeks of his death, however, this reputation appeared to be in danger.Former students accused him in print of having created an atmosphere of terror in the famous school.Scholars accused him of plagiarism, and stories of falsified credentials and shoddy research emerged from several sources.The main features identified in Kanner’s description are a social impairment characterized by aloofness, lack of reciprocity, and absence of eye contact; an inability to use language effectively to communicate, including muteness, echolalia, odd intonations, reversal of pronouns, and inappropriate repetition of meaningless words; repetitious, stereotyped behavior such as rocking, hand flapping, or preoccupation with train schedules; an insistence on sameness, with strong resistance to changes in environment or routines.Very few of the children Bettelheim treated displayed this syndrome.The rise and decline of this remarkable reputation is now the subject of two major studies.In a frank and moving prologue to his splendid biography, Richard Pollak gives an account of his one meeting with Bruno Bettelheim.Pollak says he hopes to keep his personal experience with Bettelheim “from unfairly darkening my portrait.” I think his experience has, in fact, illuminated his perception and provides a sharp reminder that we must hold ourselves”and each other”accountable for our acts.My own experience provides, I hope, similar illumination.I am the mother of an autistic daughter and have considered Bettelheim a charlatan since , his celebrated study of autism, came out in 1967.I have nothing personal against Bettelheim, if it is not personal to resent being compared to a devouring witch, an infanticidal king, and an SS guard in a concentration camp, or to wonder what could be the basis of Bettelheim’s statement that “the precipitating factor in infantile autism is the parent’s wish that his child should not exist.” Like most parents of autistic children, I cherish my daughter.


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