Bruno Bettelheim: The Other Side of Madness

Nina Sutton

reviewed by Mira de Vries

Bruno Bettelheim’s name is infamous among parents of autistic children. Presumably he coined the term “refrigerator mothers,” blaming autism on the cold behavior of the autistic child’s mother. (To this day, it is widely assumed that only children are autistic. I don’t know what people think happens to autistics when they turn into adults.) It took a doctor named Rimland, who had an autistic son, to famously challenge this view. Not that mothers had not protested such injustice before, but doctors are simply taken more seriously by other doctors. Rimland himself turned into a quack peddling megavitamins for the supposed cure of autism. As for Bettelheim, according to Sutton, his biographer, when he realized he could not cure autism, he stopped accepting autistic “patients” for treatment at his “school.”

In spite of his being famous for it, the term “refrigerator mother” appears nowhere in the biography. Rimland is mentioned briefly as an opponent of Bettelheim’s methods. Ironically, although Bettelheim mis-identified the cause of autism, his proposed “cure” was no doubt indeed the best way to care for autistic children, as well as all other children. If Sutton’s description is correct, then during the three decades that Bettelheim directed the “Orthogenic School” in Chicago, the care involved lots of individual attention, acceptance of children the way they were, and no psychoactive drugs. Ironically Bettelheim himself spent the last years of his life taking antidepressants.

Sutton seems to have researched Bettelheim’s life thoroughly. Yet the inclusion of remarks about Bettelheim’s thoughts, feelings, motives, and moods, as though she were psychoanalyzing him, constantly raises the question, “Is this true?”

She claims that although Bettelheim achieved great success and respect in the field of psychoanalysis, he himself was obsessed with guilt over being a fraud, because he didn’t have an appropriate diploma. Sutton seems to think that Bettelheim had a natural talent for psychoanalysis, and therefore did not need the diploma, so he shouldn’t have felt guilty about that. In fact, his successes were based on common sense, such as advising a mother not to nag her daughter to practice her music lessons, but to allow the child to stop the lessons if the child so wished. Sutton does not entertain the idea that perhaps the entire field of psychoanalysis is either common sense or psychobabble, and that any diploma anyone achieves in it is irrelevant. She does, however, acknowledge that inflating one’s experience and successes is a normal part of professional behavior.

Reading this biography, I found myself liking Bettelheim more than I had intended. His individualism appealed to me, in spite of my general resentment of anyone who claims to have special understanding of the human mind. I was also surprised to learn how close I once came to meeting Bettelheim. When I lived on Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan in Israel, I had often heard about the famous doctor who had lived on the kibbutz (for only six weeks) and written a book about the way children were raised there, “Children of the Dream.” The title was a source of pride to the kibbutzniks, independently of the contents, which were never mentioned. Thirty years later I learned that the famous “doctor” was the now infamous Bruno Bettelheim.

According to Sutton, Bettelheim had what today would be called “suicidal ideation” throughout most of his life, with the remarkable exception of his strong drive to survive during the year he was incarcerated in a nazi concentration camp. Towards the end of his life, when he was in poor physical health and missed his wife who had passed away, he contemplated coming to the Netherlands, laboring under the mistaken impression that he could obtain legal euthanasia here. Sutton fails to point out that that is not so. In the end, Bettelheim took matters into his own hands.

It’s a thick book, 524 pages, not a waste of time.

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