Bruno Bettelheim Essay - Critical Essays

Bettelheim, Bruno


Bruno Bettelheim 1903-1990

Austrian-born American nonfiction writer and essayist.

The following entry provides criticism on Bettelheim's works from 1990 through 1999. For criticism prior to 1990, see CLC, Volume 79.

A renowned child psychologist, Bettelheim is best known for writing about emotionally disturbed children, the therapeutic value of fairy tales, and the experiences of Nazi concentration camp survivors. While many of his theories—which incorporate the work of Sigmund Freud—are considered outdated, critics concur that Bettelheim brought to the field of psychoanalysis an important humanistic element often missing from a clinical approach.

Biographical Information

Born in Vienna, Bettelheim became interested in psychology after undergoing psychoanalysis as a teenager. He went on to study with Freud in Vienna, establishing himself in the late 1930s as an authority on childhood autism. In 1938 he was incarcerated in concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald but was freed the following year due to international pressure for his release. Bettelheim moved to the United States, where he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1944 and was appointed head of its Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School. Under Bettelheim's supervision the institution gained a reputation for helping the most severely autistic and emotionally challenged children. Many of Bettelheim's publications during this period chart the progress and setbacks he encountered with his students. In 1973 Bettelheim retired from the school, devoting his time to researching and writing. After suffering a long illness, he died of self-inflicted suffocation in 1990.

Major Works

“Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations,” one of Bettelheim's earliest works written after his release from Nazi Germany, incorporates his own experiences of the concentration camps and describes how the Nazi leaders tried to rob Jewish prisoners of their identities and self-respect. Because the Nazi atrocities were generally unreported during the war, Bettelheim's descriptions were deemed unreliable and publishers were generally unwilling to print the article. When the piece was finally published in 1943, the essay garnered worldwide attention and became required reading for all United States military officers serving in Europe. Continuing with this subject in The Informed Heart (1960), Bettelheim outlined his survivor philosophy, asserting that an individual's psychological well-being and determination dictated his ability to endure the Holocaust and that most survivors felt guilty about surviving the experience. Although this theory was widely accepted in the scientific community, Bettelheim was attacked for suggesting that the historical passivity of European Jews made them partially responsible for Nazi antagonism.

Bettelheim's views on child development and parenting, like his theories on survivors, are also drawn from personal experience and observation. His brief stay in an Israeli kibbutz in 1964, for example, resulted in a study of communal life entitled The Children of the Dream (1969), and the majority of his writings describe his work at the Orthogenic School. In these works Bettelheim details the attempts of his staff to treat individual patients by creating a nurturing environment and recognizing their basic needs through a process of empathetic identification. Bettelheim's work at the Orthogenic School, however, has proven to be a source of controversy: after his death former patients accused Bettelheim and his staff of brutality and abuse. The Uses of Enchantment (1976) is often regarded as one of Bettelheim's more literary works. In this volume Bettelheim provides Freudian analyses of fairy tales, arguing that these stories act as therapeutic tools that help children—frequently subconsciously—to define and accept their desires and fears.

Critical Reception

Upon their publication, Bettelheim's works on the Nazi concentration camps and child development were generally well received. Most critics note the autobiographical nature of his writings and speculate on how Bettelheim's experience in the camps impacted his later work with autistic children. Freud's influence on Bettelheim's philosophy and career has been a recurring interest for reviewers. Soon after his suicide, Bettelheim's reputation declined precipitously when allegations were made that he had falsified many of his credentials. Also, some former patients charged that he had physically abused them and other children in his care at the Orthogenic School. After a close examination of his writings, some detractors asserted that his research and anecdotal material was often exaggerated, invented, or plagiarized. Despite his many detractors and the controversy surrounding his life and work, Bettelheim remains an important figure in the field of psychology and child development.

Principal Works

“Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations” (essay) 1943; published in Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology

Dynamics of Prejudice: A Psychological and Sociological Study of Veterans [with Morris Janowitz] (nonfiction) 1950

Love Is Not Enough: The Treatment of Emotionally Disturbed Children (nonfiction) 1950

Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male (nonfiction) 1954; revised edition, 1962

Truants from Life: The Rehabilitation of Emotionally Disturbed Children (nonfiction) 1955

The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age (nonfiction) 1960

Dialogues with Mothers (nonfiction) 1962

The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self (nonfiction) 1967

The Children of the Dream (nonfiction) 1969; also published as The Children of the Dream: Communal Childrearing and American Education, 1970, and as The Children of the Dream: Communal Childrearing and Its Implications for Society, 1971

A Home for the Heart (nonfiction) 1974

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (nonfiction) 1976

Surviving and Other Essays (essays) 1979; also published as Surviving the Holocaust, 1986

Freud and Man's Soul (nonfiction) 1982

On Learning to Read: The Child's Fascination with Meaning [with Karen Zelan] (nonfiction) 1982

A Good Enough Parent: A Book on Childrearing (nonfiction) 1987

Freud's Vienna, and Other Essays (essays) 1989

Recollections and Reflections (essays) 1990


Anthony Storr (review date 24 March 1990)

SOURCE: Storr, Anthony. “Suffering of the Little Children.” Spectator (24 March 1990): 29-30.

[In the following favorable review of Recollections and Reflections, Storr maintains that “Bettelheim's many admirers will not be disappointed by this final volume.”]

Bruno Bettelheim, who died last week in his 87th year, was the best-known child psychologist in the USA. This [Recollections and Reflections] is his 16th book. Most of the essays have been published before, but many have been revised, and some are appearing in English for the first time.

Bettelheim was born in Vienna in 1903. As an adolescent, he became interested in psychoanalysis because Otto Fenichel, later to become the author of a standard textbook of psychoanalysis, appeared to be appropriating his girl friend by filling her head full of Freud's teachings. Not to be outdone, Bettelheim bought all the Freudian writings he could find, and promptly became fascinated.

Two main themes derived from his personal experience pervade all Bettelheim's writings: the psychosocial milieu of the concentration camps and the treatment of psychologically disturbed children. Bettelheim himself was, for a year, confined in Dachau and then Buchenwald. After his release, in 1939, he emigrated to the US where he founded and became Director of the Orthogenic School in Chicago for the treatment of mentally ill children. His experience in concentration camps led to his recognition that a malignantly controlled environment can have disastrous effects upon the mental health of its inmates. He concluded that a properly constructed benign environment would have positive effects. So, instead of confining the psychological treatment of severely mentally ill children to psychoanalytic sessions, he designed what he...

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Paul Roazen (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Roazen, Paul. “The Rise and Fall of Bruno Bettelheim.” Psychohistory Review: Studies of Motivation in History and Culture 20, no. 3 (spring 1992): 221-50.

[In the following essay, Roazen investigates the reasons for the decline of Bettelheim's reputation.]

Bruno Bettelheim's role in the history of psychoanalysis has long been known to be a special one, but now it appears that his place is bound to remain every bit as contentious as that of any other figure in the controversial story of the development of Freud's school. Perhaps the height of Bettelheim's stature, at which time he was probably the most famous psychoanalyst in the world, came when Woody Allen...

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Robert A. Paul (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Paul, Robert A. “Bettelheim's Contribution to Anthropology.” In Educating the Emotions: Bruno Bettelheim and Psychoanalytic Development, edited by Nathan M. Szajnberg, pp. 151-72. New York: Plenum Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Paul discusses Bettelheim's theory of womb envy and relates it to Freud's theory of penis envy.]

Bettelheim's unmasking of male's womb envy is as fundamentally profound to our society as Freud's presentation of female penis envy. Yet Bettelheim's discovery has met with resounding silence in our psychoanalytic community, and a few tut-tuts or titters in the anthropological community. Paul sets the intellectual record straight...

(The entire section is 9112 words.)

Christian Fleck and Albert Müller (essay date winter 1997)

SOURCE: Fleck, Christian, and Albert Müller. “Bruno Bettelheim and the Concentration Camps.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 33, no. 1 (winter 1997): 1-37.

[In the following essay, Fleck and Müller explore the central tenets of Bettelheim's analysis of the Nazi concentration camps and contrasts his theory with the interpretations of other authors who have written on the same subject.]

Just imagine, Wiesenthal, that you were arriving in New York, and the people asked you, “How was it in those German concentration camps? What did they do to you?” […] You would tell the truth to the people in America. That's right. And you...

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Paul Marcus (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Marcus, Paul. “Bettelheim's Analysis of the Mass Society.” In Autonomy in the Extreme Situation: Bruno Bettelheim, the Nazi Concentration Camps and the Mass Society, pp. 39-60. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999.

[In the following essay, Marcus delineates Bettelheim's theory of mass society and compares it to those of contemporary social theorists.]

In this [essay] I will elaborate on Bettelheim's analysis of how the mass society undermines the individual's autonomy and integration, including what I think is his novel conceptualization of there being a dangerous continuity between the mass society, the total mass state of Nazi Germany and the concentration...

(The entire section is 10674 words.)

Further Reading


Angres, Ronald. “Who Really, Was Bruno Bettelheim?” Commentary 90, no. 4 (October 1990): 26-30.

A former patient charges Bettelheim and his staff at the Orthogenic School with child abuse and neglect.


Bruner, Jerome. “Reading for Signs of Life.” New York Review of Books 29, no. 5 (1 April 1982): 19-20.

Commends On Learning to Read as an attempt to reform the way reading is taught in America but faults Bettelheim and Zelan for ignoring the “exquisite complexity involved in digging meaning out of what one reads.”

Burgess, Anthony....

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