Bruno Bettelheim (August 28, 1903 – March 13, 1990) was an Austrian-born American developmental psychologist, widely known for his studies with autistic and emotionally disturbed children. His "refrigerator mother" theory of autism, now largely disfavored, enjoyed considerable attention and influence while Bettelheim was alive, with unfortunate consequences for the mothers of autistic children. His "milieu therapy," however, is still widely used in the treatment of emotionally disturbed children. Bettelheim's own life is an example of the very process he described—the devastating effects of inhumane treatment on the psychological health of human beings. After his death, much of Bettelheim's work was discredited, although his recognition that the social environment plays a significant role in healthy psychological development remains a valuable contribution to the understanding of human nature.
Bruno Bettelheim was born in Vienna, Austria, the son of a wood merchant from a middle class Jewish family. He entered the University of Vienna, but in order to take care of his family business, he was forced to leave the university when his father became ill. He was twenty-three when his father died of syphilis, a shameful experience that marked Bettelheim’s entire life. In 1930, he married a schoolteacher who was a disciple of Anna Freud.
During the 1930s, Bruno and his wife, Gina, took care of an autistic child who lived at their home in Vienna for seven years. After ten years, Bettelheim returned to his education, earning a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1938. He was among the last Jews awarded a doctorate degree before the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. His dissertation, on the history of art, was entitled The Problem of Beauty in Nature and Modern Aesthetics.
In the late 1930s, Bettelheim traveled across Nazi state hospitals in Germany during the infamous "T-4" euthanasia program, the start of his research in mental patients. He became an accredited psychiatrist and returned to Austria.
Being a Jew, Bettelheim was arrested in 1939 by the Gestapo and put into a concentration camp. He spent ten and a half months incarcerated, first in Dachau and then in Buchenwald. Records of his internment show Bettelheim was hired as the camp doctor to overview camp prisoners' mental health. His release from internment was purchased, which was possible prior to the commencement of hostilities in World War II.
He lost everything however, and even his wife left him.
He remarried in 1941, to Gertrude Weinfeld, with whom he had two daughters and one son. After his release, Bettelheim moved to Australia in 1939, and later to the United States in 1943, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1944. He earned money by teaching art history, German literature, and psychology. He published his experiences from the concentration camps in his 1943 Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations.
He eventually became a professor of psychology, teaching at the University of Chicago from 1944 until his retirement in 1973.
The most significant part of Bettelheim's professional life was spent serving as director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, a home for emotionally disturbed children. He wrote books on both normal and abnormal child psychology and was well respected during his lifetime. His work at the Orthogenic School became world famous, and his therapy, called "milieu therapy," widely used. His book The Uses of Enchantment recast fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychology. It was awarded the U.S. Critic's Choice Prize for criticism in 1976 and the National Book Award in the category of Contemporary Thought in 1977.
Bettelheim suffered from depression at the end of his life, especially after the death of his wife in 1984. In 1987 he suffered a stroke. In 1990, he committed suicide, on the same night when, fifty-two years earlier, the Nazis had entered Austria. He died in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Bruno Bettelheim’s work must be analyzed in the context of the time he lived in. He was a witness of great social change, from the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I, to Nazism and World War II. He was greatly influenced by the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, and studied the work of his followers, including Carl Jung and Anna Freud. Bettelheim chose psychoanalysis as the main paradigm in his studies, but was also interested in the effect of social systems on individuals.
One of the first works Bettelheim published was his Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations, in which he analyzed inmates’ behavior in concentration camps. Bettelheim spent more than ten months in Nazi camps, during which time he studied the effects of the extreme environment on the fellow prisoners, the prison guards, and himself. In the article, Bettelheim used psychoanalytic principles, especially Anna Freud's concept of “identification with the aggressor,” to explain why many Jews took on the values of the aggressor in order to survive. He saw many Jews falling prey to “victim’s guilt”—the feeling that they “deserved such destiny”—and called it the “ghetto mentality.” In 1945, General Eisenhower asked all his officers in Europe to read the article, as a remedy for the shock of witnessing concentration camp survivors.
In 1960, Bettelheim published The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age, in which he explained his theory of the relationship between the external environment and mental disorder. He drew inspiration for the theory from his experience in the concentration camps, where he witnessed normal people going insane, under the influence of the dehumanizing environment. Bettelheim concluded that the environment greatly influences one’s sanity, and thus assumed that the process could be reversed—that a positive environment could act as a remedy for mental disorder.
Bettelheim developed his "milieu therapy" at the University of Chicago's Orthogenic School. There he created a therapeutic environment that supported the needs of severely disturbed children. The rooms were clean and orderly, and the children were free to move from place to place. The staff was instructed to unconditionally accept all children’s behavior.
In The Informed Heart, Bettelheim was critical of modern society. He compared his experiences from the concentration camps—his attempts to preserve a sense of autonomy, integrity, and personal freedom—with life in modern, mass society. He viewed mass society, like that of United States or Western Europe, as dehumanizing and depersonalizing, forcing people to behave in a certain way. He noted that people have to struggle to maintain their sanity, much like inmates in the camps.
The idea of the “refrigerator mother,” recognizing the association between the lack of parental warmth and attachment and autistic disorder, had been proposed by Leo Kanner in 1943, and further developed to attribute autism to a “genuine lack of maternal warmth.” Bettelheim took over Kanner’s idea and developed it into his famous theory. He claimed that unemotional and cold mothering was the very cause of childhood autism.
Bettelheim was convinced that autism had no organic basis, but that instead it was mainly the result of upbringing by mothers who did not want their children to live, either consciously or unconsciously, which in turn caused them to restrain contact with them and fail to establish an emotional connection. Absent fathers were also blamed. Bettelheim presented a complex and detailed explanation in psychoanalytical and psychological terms, derived from the qualitative investigation of clinical cases in one of his most famous books, The Empty Fortress (1967).
Bettelheim believed that children with autism and schizophrenia behave much like helpless concentration camp inmates. He argued that the main reason was the negative parental interaction with infants during critical early stages in their psychological development. Such children learned to blame themselves for the negative atmosphere in their families, and withdrew into fantasy worlds to prevent further problems.
Bettelheim traveled a lot, delivering public speeches and doing field research. In The Children of the Dream, (1969), he analyzed the life of children in Israeli kibbutzim. He compared the style of child rearing in the United States with that in Israel, claiming that cultural differences play a significant role in how Israeli and U.S. parents raised their children. Thus, he argued that it is meaningless to talk about “better” parenting styles in either country in general, but rather about appropriate parenting styles in particular cases.
Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976) became his best selling book. In it, he analyzed the effects of fairy tales on the development of children’s psyche, and claimed that reading fantasies and fairy tales were part of a healthy child's psychological development.
Other Freudian analysts, as well as other practitioners, followed Bettelheim's lead and created their own theories and methodologies regarding the onset of autism, often confusing and over-simplifying Bettelheim’s ideas. This led some to accuse the mother for the child's autism, and others to claim that victims are to be blamed for their own misfortune. Controversy arose surrounding Bettelheim’s work, with his defenders and critics widely debating the validity of his work.
Beyond Bettelheim's psychological theories, controversy has also arisen surrounding his history and personality. After Bettelheim's suicide in 1990, his detractors claimed that he had a dark side. He was known for exploding in screaming anger at students. Three ex-patients questioned his work, characterizing him as a “cruel tyrant” (Finn 1997). Critics have also claimed that he spanked his patients despite publicly rejecting spanking as "brutal." His defenders, however, claimed that despite externally looking cruel, such methods actually worked. On the other hand, his treatments, some reporting rates of cure around 85 percent, were also questioned, with critics stating that his patients were not actually suffering from autism (Finn 1997).
Critics also contend that Bettelheim plagiarized others' work and falsified his credentials. In particular, much of his celebrated psychoanalytical treatise on fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales is alleged to have been plagiarized (Finn 1997). It is also said that he fabricated his academic records to step into academic life (Goldberg 1997).
Despite the controversy surrounding his life and work, and his theories on autism having been long dismissed, Bettelheim made significant contributions to the treatment of children. The Orthogenic School where Bettelheim was director became a model for applying psychoanalytic principles in the residential treatment of emotionally disturbed children. His version of milieu therapy introduced some new elements, as well as generally humanizing the treatment of troubled children. Through his lectures and books, Bettelheim stimulated numerous generations of new parents to apply principles of psychology into their child rearing.
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