Bruno Bettelheim Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 While many of his theories—which incorporate the work of Sigmund Freud—are considered outdated, critics concur that Bettelheim brought to the field of psychoanalysis an important humanistic element often missing from a clinical approach.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.