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March 13: Bruno Bettelheim

March 13, 2016

Bettelheim2Bruno Bettelheim, a Viennese Freudian psychologist who survived nearly two years in Buchenwald and Dachau and went on to become a worldwide authority on autism and the emotional lives of children — although his theories were incorrect and venal towards mothers — died a suicide at age 86 on this date in 1990. (His suicide was provoked by a paralyzing stroke.) Bettelheim, who began working with autistic children in the early 1930s, psychologized the condition as a product of withholding mothers and weak fathers. He taught at the University of Chicago from 1944, and became director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, which he turned into a residential treatment center for disturbed children, many of them autistic. He claimed considerable success in their treatment, wrote influential books on child psychology (and on the interpretation of fairytales in The Uses of Enchantment, a National Book Award-winner). After his death, Bettelheim was shown to have faked statistics, beaten and humiliated children at his school, and lied about his background. He also contributed to the “sheep-to-slaughter” sense of the Holocaust in his writings: “He boasted of having been imprisoned because he was a member of the anti-Nazi resistance in Austria (no evidence),” wrote Molly Finn, while accusing other Jews of submitting to their fate and even provoking it with their passivity. “Bettelheim never acknowledged or referred to the work of other survivors whose observations and conclusions differed from his own, and as the years went by he increasingly revealed himself as an angry anti-Semite.”

“One must concentrate as much on the study of the Jew as on the study of the anti-Semite. The complementary character of their respective roles makes it apparent that the phenomenon is an interlocking of pathological interpersonal strivings.” —Bruno Bettelheim