YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Confidence Man : THE CREATION OF DR. B.: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim. By Richard Pollak . Simon & Schuster: 478 pp., $27.50

January 19, 1997|HOWARD GARDNER | Howard Gardner is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His newest book, "Extraordinary Minds," will be published by Basic Books this spring. Among his previous books are "Frames of Mind" (1983), "Creating Minds" (1993) and "Leading Minds" (1995)

Arrayed in my study is a shelf of books, written at mid-century, by the distinguished Austrian American psychologist and educator Bruno Bettelheim. Like countless other readers of the time, I was enlightened by Bettelheim's brilliant and provocative account of the Orthogenic School for disturbed children, which he directed for 25 years; his exacting descriptions of the innovative "milieu" methods used to heal the autistic children under his care; his administration for group life in an Israeli kibbutz; his shocking argument that initiation rites represented men's desires to be women; his powerful brief on behalf of the importance of fairy tales in the lives of the young; and his unforgettable account of the psychological defenses that he evolved to survive in the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald in the late 1930s. During his lengthy life, Bettelheim became increasingly revered, and he was rarely criticized publicly.

In March 1990, the world was shocked to learn that the brilliant clinician had committed suicide by taking sleeping pills and suffocating himself with a plastic bag. Many, including me, assumed that Bettelheim was another "survivor" who could no longer bear memories of life in a concentration camp.

But hardly had Bettelheim been buried before a parade of his ex-students emerged to claim that, while at the Orthogenic School, they had been treated harshly and even beaten by Bettelheim. In addition to these widely reported charges, others claimed less publicly that Bettelheim had been cruel to his students at the University of Chicago, exaggerated his claims about the severity of illness and the extent of cures and even plagiarized sections of his most famous book, "The Uses of Enchantment." Last year, Nina Sutton published a substantial biography of Bettelheim, "Bettelheim: A Life and a Legacy" (Basic Books), in which she reviewed these charges but still portrayed the clinician in a sympathetic light.

Richard Pollak's "The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim" alters this sympathetic rendering forever. Starting from its caustic title, Pollak portrays Bettelheim as a ghastly figure with few redeeming features. Bettelheim led a complex life, which he seemed incapable of describing accurately. He lied about his family background, his education, his love life, his credentials, his experiences in the concentration camp. Nor did this reshaping of the truth end after he became renowned; if anything, his claims became more grandiose.

Compulsive lying was just one of Bettelheim's sins. Magnifying the charges that Sutton mentioned, Pollak's Bettelheim never allowed outsiders to observe what happened at his school; invented rates of cure out of thin air; was brutal to staff, children and students as well (hence the nickname "Dr. Brutalheim"); forced staff to undergo therapy with him; beat several students and fondled others; was a preoccupied spouse and a horrendous father who disinherited one of his children toward the end of his life and failed to mention her in his suicide note; was a clear anti-Semite who charged the Jews of the Nazi era with the very cowardice he himself displayed in the concentration camps; and, perhaps most damning for someone who sought immortality through his books, could not write well and resorted to plagiarism.

While Bettelheim advised against slapping or spanking children, several former residents of the Orthogenic School accused him of repeated episodes of frank physical abuse. According to their testimony, Bettelheim slapped youngsters with the hand or the fist, humiliated them in front of others, dragged them around, pulled them by the hair and whipped children with his belt with such severity that he left welts.

These informants spoke of living in constant fear, "in terror of his footsteps in the door--in abject, animal terror," as one put it. Two women testified that Bettelheim fondled their breasts and those of other female students. And while extolling the value of privacy at times, Bettelheim felt free to walk into any room and any bathroom at any time, even if teenage women were bathing.

From the beginning of his account, Pollak puts his cards on the table. Pollak's brother, Stephen, was a student who failed to improve at the Orthogenic School. According to Pollak and other observers, Stephen died in an accident when on summer holiday. After years of repressing this painful event, Pollak steeled himself to visit Bettelheim and to find out about his disturbed sibling. Bettelheim lit into Pollak's parents and topped off his tirade by announcing unequivocally that Stephen had committed suicide. Pollak was shocked and bewildered by what he considered a complete and cruel invention; he determined to get to the bottom of the now-detested Bettelheim and to expose him to the world.

Los Angeles Times Articles