Who, Really, Was Bruno Bettelheim?
When a famous man dies and is eulogized, those who knew him often feel a shock of non-recognition. Such was the case for me last March in reading the notices on the death by suicide, at age eighty-six, of the renowned psychoanalyst, author, and educator Bruno Bettelheim. In these notices and elsewhere Bettelheim, who was born in Vienna and came to the United States in 1939, has been widely mourned as a paragon both of insight and of compassion; but to me, in the twelve years I spent as his student/patient, he was a bully, a tormentor, and a liar.
I was seven years old when my parents brought me to the Orthogenic School in Chicago, the residential center Bettelheim founded in 1944 as a “total therapeutic milieu” for the treatment of “between 30 and 50 autistic, withdrawn, anorexic, severely neurotic or suicidal children” (as the Washington Post obituary put it). My father, a psychoanalyst, considered me imbalanced, morbid, “disturbed.” For one thing, I paced up and down a great deal. (I still do.) Sometimes I paced with my hands clasped behind my back, “like an old man” (surely in imitation of my foreign-born father). I also twiddled my fingers in what looked like a nervous tic. Sometimes I skipped while I paced. I had other unacceptable mannerisms, too: I sometimes talked to myself, lips moving, when lost in thought.
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