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Bruno Bettelheim

(1903—1990)


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(1903–90)

Viennese-born, American-based psychoanalyst best known for his (not uncontroversial) work on autism. Born in Vienna, Bettelheim studied philosophy and art history (which included a compulsory psychology component) at the University of Vienna. His studies were twice interrupted, first because of his father's death and the necessity of taking over the family business, and second because of Austria's Anschluss with Nazi Germany in 1938. Although raised in a secular family, Bettelheim's Jewish ancestry meant that he was incarcerated by the Nazis in concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald. Fortunately, he was amnestied after eleven months in April 1939, and was able to make his way to the US as a refugee. He wrote a moving, bestselling memoir of this experience, The Informed Heart (1960), which used psychoanalysis to try to understand the behaviour of both guards and inmates. He eventually settled in Chicago where he was appointed professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and made the director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School. It was as director of the Orthogenic School that Bettelheim made his mark. Established as a treatment facility for psychologically disturbed children, it enabled him to develop his theories in a practical setting. In 1967 he published a series of case studies of autistic children, all of them residents in his facility, The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self, which sold very well and became a highly influential text. Unfortunately, its central thesis that bad parenting is to blame for autism (since disproved) had a terrible effect on parents struggling to raise autistic children. The same work has also been praised by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari for not reducing children's psychological problems to a failure to adequately deal with their Oedipal complex. Probably his most lastingly important book is The Uses of Enchantment (1976), which is a psychoanalytic reading of fairy tales. Interestingly, Bettelheim is highly critical of Disney's rendering of fairy tales like Snow White and Cinderella for the way they edit out the violence of the originals. Without exposure to that violence, Bettelheim argues, children do not learn about the realities of life and aren't given the opportunity to psychologically prepare themselves for the traumas of loss they inevitably must face as they grow older. Bettelheim's legacy is uneven because while some of his theories, particularly those relating to the genesis of autism, have now been discredited, many of his other insights remain as cogent as ever.

Further Reading:

D. Fisher Bettelheim: Living and Dying (2008).

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.


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