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LOVE & DEATH : In His Final Interview, Just Before His Suicide, Bruno Bettelheim Explained Why He Wanted to Die

January 27, 1991|CELEST FREMON | Celeste Fremon is a free - lance writer.

"THE PROBLEM IS finding a reason to live."

The man talking was Bruno Bettelheim, legendary psychoanalyst and child psychologist. He was seated in his favorite chair, a 1960s vintage Danish Modern, in the living room of his fifth-floor Santa Monica condominium. The Pacific Ocean glittered blue and white through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors behind him. He was 86 years old, and although his mind was quicker than that of most 30-year-olds, his body was failing. When he conducted his guest to a chair, his gait was shuffling and labored, his shoulders permanently hunched. As he talked, the movements of his right hand--his writing hand--were jerky, inaccurate and obviously not completely within his conscious control.

Although the calendar read late October, it was one of those flawless, forever-summer Southern California days--a disturbing contrast to the conversation at hand: Bruno Bettelheim was talking about whether or not he would kill himself.

For a moment his gaze traveled around the room, which was filled with a lifetime's treasures: Greek and pre-Columbian artifacts from various trips abroad, a wall full of art books and operatic recordings, Rembrandt etchings and, centered over the couch, an eerily beautiful painting, of a woman walking down the side of a building, titled "The Dreamer."

For the record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 7, 1991 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
The name of Bettelheim's long-time literary agent, Theron Raines , was misspelled in "Love and Death."

"Things I enjoyed are no longer available to me, you know," he said. "I like to walk. I like to hike. Now when I read, I get tired. Dickens wrote: 'It was the best of all times. It was the worst of all times.' It all depends on how you look at it. At my age you can no longer look at it and say, 'It is the best of all times.' At least, I find it impossible."

He paused. "However, if I could be sure that I would not be in pain or be a vegetable, then, like most everyone, I believe I would prefer to live." And then he smiled. "But, of course," he said, "there is no such guarantee. This is why the decision is so problematic."

That was October, 1989. On March 13, 1990, Bruno Bettelheim was found dead on the floor of his new apartment in a Maryland nursing home, a plastic bag over his head and barbiturates in his bloodstream.

The news of his death stunned the psychological community. For 50 years, Bruno Bettelheim had been acknowledged as one of the most important thinkers and practitioners in the field of psychology and child development. If he had a genius, it was his uncanny ability to find healing and hope in circumstances in which others could see only despair. He used his own horrific experiences as a prisoner of the Nazis in Dachau and Buchenwald to draw conclusions about the nature of human suffering that would help him heal the psychic wounds of others. As director of the Orthogenic School in Chicago, he successfully treated children who were so emotionally withdrawn they had been written off as incurable. He wrote dozens of influential essays and books, among them the 1976 National Book Award winner "The Uses of Enchantment," which explored how fairy tales help children wrestle with their most troublesome problems and fears.

"Bettelheim would often use what he called 'The Man in the White Coat Theory,' " says Roger Pittman, a Los Angeles therapist who worked with Bettelheim in a case-study group as late as January, 1989. "He said that in addition to honesty there has to be a quality of 'The Man in the White Coat' in your professional presentation--the image of the magical ability to heal. Well, certainly 'The Man in the White Coat' doesn't kill himself.

"In the therapeutic profession, when a client kills himself, it's the most conspicuous failure you can have. When Bettelheim killed himself it was as if the profession itself had failed."

"It's devastating when anyone who is in a therapeutic role takes an action that is on the surface so despairing," says an editor who worked with Bettelheim. "But it was 100 times worse because he was someone who saved so many people from despair."

Why had Bruno Bettelheim, of all people, engineered his own death?

I discovered at least part of the answer by accident. Early in the fall of 1989, Bettelheim agreed to be interviewed on aspects of his life story that had never made their way into his published work: his marriage, his own analysis, his friendships with Wilhelm Reich and other notables of the century.

From the first interview, though Bettelheim was his usual articulate self on subjects from Reich ("Few people were as stubborn as he was") to his favorite fairy tale ("Hansel and Gretel," "because the boy and the girl needed each other"), he seemed preoccupied. It was as if asking him to talk about his life and ideas was equivalent to asking him to look through a scrapbook from a now-inconsequential journey. Finally frustrated by his disinterest, I asked him abruptly: "Are you afraid of dying?"

Suddenly I had his attention.

"No," he said. "I fear suffering. The older one gets, the greater the likelihood that one will be kept alive without purpose."

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