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Bruno Bettelheim (August 28, 1903 - March 13, 1990) was an Austrian-born American writer and child psychologist. He is widely known for his studies of autism. His "refrigerator mother" theory of autism, now largely disfavored, enjoyed considerable currency and influence while Bettelheim was alive.

Background and career

Upon his father's death, Bettelheim was forced to leave university in order to care for his family lumber business. After ten years, he returned to his education, earning a degree in philosophy and authoring a dissertation on the history of art.

Although interested in psychology for much of his life, he never studied it formally.

Bettelheim traveled across Nazi state hospitals in Germany, during the infamous T-4 euthanasia program of the 1930s, the start of his research in mental patients. Bettelheim resumed his studies to become an accredited psychiatrist when he returned to Austria under the intense anti-Semitism of Nazi-era Germany.

By birth an Austrian Jew, Bettelheim was interned at Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps from 1938 to 1939. Records of his internment shown Bettelheim was hired as the camp doctor to overview camp prisoners' mental health. His release from internment was purchased, as remained possible prior to the commencement of hostilities in World War II.

He arrived in Australia in 1939 and later to the United States in 1943, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1944. Bettelheim eventually became a professor of psychology, teaching at the University of Chicago from 1944 until his retirement in 1973. He was trained in philosophy (Ph.D. in Aesthetics) and was analyzed by the Viennese psychoanalyst Richard Sterba.

The most significant part of Bettelheim's professional life was spent serving as director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, a home for emotionally disturbed children. He wrote books on both normal and abnormal child psychology and was respected by many during his lifetime. His book The Uses of Enchantment recast fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychology. It was awarded the U.S. Critic's Choice Prize for criticism in 1976 & the National Book Award in the category of Contemporary Thought in 1977.

Bettelheim suffered from depression at the end of his life, and in 1990 committed suicide.

A controversial figure

Bettelheim's career can be viewed as a classic example of the dangers of pseudoscientific methodology. Bettelheim's most significant theory claimed that unemotional and cold mothering was the cause of childhood autism. This theory, now repudiated, caused severe damage to thousands of families who believed his untested claims.

Bettelheim was convinced that autism had no organic basis but that it instead was mainly influenced by the upbringing of mothers who did not want their children to live, either consciously or unconsciously, which in turn caused them to restrain contact with them and fail to establish an emotional connection. Absent fathers were also blamed. A complex and detailed explanation in psychoanalytical and psychological terms, derived from the qualitative investigation of clinical cases can be found in one of his most famous books, The Empty Fortress.

Other Freudian analysts, as well as scientists and medics, followed Bettelheim's lead. They often confused and over-simplified. This led to some blaming the mother for the child's autism, a theory which Bettelheim was against. This is not understood by many of his detractors, who criticise a facile version of his work.

Beyond Bettelheim's psychological theories, controversy has existed regarding his history and personality. After Bettelheim's suicide in 1990, his detractors claimed that Bettelheim had a dark side. He was known for exploding in screaming anger at students. Three ex-patients questioned his work, characterizing him as a cruel tyrant. Critics also claim that he spanked his patients despite publicly rejecting spanking as "brutal". Treatments based on his autism theories to help children, some reporting rates of cure around 85%, were questioned.

A movie appearance

Bruno Bettelheim accepted Woody Allen's invitation to appear as himself in the film Zelig (1983).

See also



  • 1943 "Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations", Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 38: 417-452.
  • 1950 Love Is Not Enough: The Treatment of Emotionally Disturbed Children, Free Press, Glencoe, Ill.
  • 1954 Symbolic Wounds; Puberty Rites and the Envious Male, Free Press, Glencoe, Ill.
  • 1955 Truants From Life; The Rehabilitation of Emotionally Disturbed Children, Free Press, Glencoe, Ill.
  • 1959 "Joey: A 'Mechanical Boy'", Scientific American, 200, March 1959: 117-126. (About a boy who believes himself to be a robot.)
  • 1960 The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age, The Free Press, Glencoe, Ill.
  • 1962 Dialogues with Mothers, The Free Press, Glencoe, Ill.
  • 1967 The Empty Fortress: Infantile autism and the birth of the self, The Free Press, New York
  • 1969 The Children of the Dream, Macmillan, London & New York (About the raising of children in kibbutz.)
  • 1974 A Home for the Heart, Knopf, New York. (About Bettelheim's Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago for schizophrenic and autistic children.)
  • 1976 The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Knopf, New York
  • 1979 Surviving and Other Essays, Knopf, New York (Includes the essay "The Ignored Lesson of Anne Frank".)
  • 1982 On Learning to Read: The Child's Fascination with Meaning (with Karen Zelan), Knopf, New York
  • 1982 "Freud and Man's Soul: An Important Re-Interpretation of Freudian Theory" Publisher: Vintage; Vintage edition, 1983, ISBN 0-394-71036-3

Freud and Man's Soul, Knopf, New York

  • 1987 A Good Enough Parent: A book on Child-Rearing, Knopf, New York
  • 1990 Freud's Vienna and Other Essays, Knopf, New York

Chapters in books


Critical Review of Bettelheim (Works and Person)

  • Angres, Ronald: "Who, Really, Was Bruno Bettelheim?", Commentary, 90, (4), October 1990: 26-30.
  • Bersihand, Geneviève : Bettelheim, R. Jauze, Champigny-sur-Marne, 1977.
  • Eliot, Stephen: Not the Thing I Was: Thirteen Years at Bruno Bettelheim's Orthogenic School, St. Martin's Press, 2003.
  • Frattaroli, Elio: "Bruno Bettelheim's Unrecognized Contribution to Psychoanalytic Thought", Psychoanalytic Review, 81:379-409, 1994.
  • Heisig, James W.: "Bruno Bettelheim and the Fairy Tales", Children's Literature, 6, 1977: 93-115.
  • Krumenacker, Franz-Josef: Bettelheim: Grundpositionen seiner Theorie und Praxis, Reinhardt/UTB für Wissenschaft, München, 1998.
  • Marcus, Paul: Autonomy in the Extreme Situation. Bruno Bettelheim, the Nazi Concentration Camps and the Mass Society, Praeger, Westport, Conn., 1999.
  • Richard Pollak: The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997.
  • Raines, Theron: Rising to the Light: A Portrait of Bruno Bettelheim, Knopf, New York, 2002.
  • Sutton, Nina: Bruno Bettelheim: The Other Side of Madness, Duckworth Press, London, 1995. (Translated from the French by David Sharp in collaboration with the author. Subsequently published with the title Bruno Bettelheim, a Life and a Legacy.)
  • Zipes, Jack: "On the Use and Abuse of Folk and Fairy Tales with Children: Bruno Bettelheim's Moralistic Magic Wand", in Zipes, Jack: Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1979.
  • -Author unknown-: "Accusations of Abuse Haunt the Legacy of Dr. Bruno Bettelheim", New York Times, 4 November 1990: "The Week in Review" section.

Internal links

External links

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