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The Man in the White Coat

RISING TO THE LIGHT: A Portrait of Bruno Bettelheim, By Theron Raines, Alfred A. Knopf: 520 pp., $35

September 15, 2002|CELESTE FREMON | Celeste Fremon is the author of "Father Greg & the Homeboys: The Extraordinary Journey of Father Greg Boyle and His Work With the Latino Gangs of East L.A."

When the famed psychologist and writer Bruno Bettelheim was found dead on the floor of his new apartment in a Maryland nursing home on March 13, 1990, a plastic bag over his head and barbiturates in his bloodstream, the psychological community reeled.

"Bettelheim would often use what he called 'The Man in the White Coat Theory,' " commented a distressed colleague. "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."

At the time of his death at 86, Bettelheim was considered that rarest of creatures: a populist intellectual. He had published 18 books, including the National Book Award winner "The Uses of Enchantment," and written scores of magazine articles. In addition, for more than 25 years, he had run the University of Chicago's Orthogenic School and, in so doing, pioneered a new type of enlightened and humane residential therapy to treat emotionally disturbed children, most of whom had previously been little more than warehoused.

Bettelheim had the intellectual heft to argue that Freud's central concepts had been grossly mistranslated (most notably in "Freud and Man's Soul") while writing a monthly column on parenting for Ladies' Home Journal. A survivor of two Nazi concentration camps (Dachau and Buchenwald), he became a noted theorist on Holocaust issues, and his published ideas about women presaged Betty Friedan's. By 1983, Bettelheim was so recognizable a figure that he played himself in Woody Allen's film "Zelig."

Yet, within a few months of his suicide, Bettelheim's white coat was in tatters and his previously stellar reputation was plummeting at neck-snapping speed as former students from the Orthogenic School came forward with accusations that the saintly Dr. B was in reality an autocratic tyrant who hit and otherwise terrified patients and staff.

These unpleasant revelations were followed by news that, when Bettelheim arrived in the United States after his release from the camps, he fabricated much of his curriculum vitae. There were also grim mentions in academic journals suggesting that he'd cribbed certain ideas in his much lauded "The Uses of Enchantment." A thinly disguised Bettelheim was even featured as a fictional archvillain by psychologist-turned-crime writer Jonathan Kellerman in his 1994 whodunit, "Bad Love."

"Hero or Humbug?" shouted the headline of a Bettelheim-related article in a 1997 issue of Time magazine. That same year, two major biographies of Bettelheim appeared in stores, each strenuously researched, each purporting to set the record straight. The first, "Bettelheim: A Life and a Legacy" by Anglo-French journalist Nina Sutton, was essentially approving; the second, "The Creation of Dr. B," by former Nation editor Richard Pollak (whose brother had attended the Orthogenic School), was an excoriating j'accuse. Now there is a third book, "Rising to the Light: A Portrait of Bruno Bettelheim," by his longtime agent and friend Theron Raines.

I approached the Raines book with some trepidation because I had interviewed Bettelheim on three occasions before his death, at which times he talked extensively, even obsessively, about whether he intended to kill himself. Because of the unusual nature of our conversations, I was contacted by his three would-be biographers, and they all tipped their hands about the slants they intended to take.

At the time, Raines sounded the most muddled. He admitted he was close to Bettelheim and felt for the man a deep, almost reverent, affection, thus was unwilling to give succor to his critics. Yet, he also understood that an admiring apologia for a man whose reputation was so grime-spattered as Bettelheim's would not be viewed charitably by readers or reviewers. After a decade-long wrestling match with his material, Raines settled on a third route. The result is likely to be categorized as yet another Bettelheim biography. But it isn't.

While Sutton and Pollak aimed to assess Bettelheim's life and work (albeit from radically opposed positions), Raines attempts to give a picture of what it was like to be Bettelheim. The project was conceived in 1983 as a long magazine article written largely in Bettelheim's own voice, with Raines acting as a sort of midwife. (Evidently, despite Raines' pleading, Bettelheim had for years declined to write an autobiography.) To give the piece some balance, Raines began talking to friends and colleagues; soon the material overflowed its bounds and Raines realized he was writing a book, not an article.

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