Bruno Bettelheim

An Austrian-born Jew who studied in Vienna and after a period in a concentration camp emigrated to the United States. He was best known for his treatment of children with severe emotional disturbance as well as those with autism spectrum disorders.

Bruno Bettelheim was born in Vienna in 1903. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in 1938 in art history, though later in life in the United States he led people to believe his degree was in psychology. In 1938, the Nazis annexed Austria, and Bettelheim was interned in the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. With a few other prisoners he was released in 1939 on Hitler's birthday and managed to emigrate to the United States, where he first became a research associate of the Progressive Education Association at the University of Chicago. He then accepted a position as associate professor at Rockford College, where he taught from 1942 to 1944.

In 1943, Bettelheim gained widespread acclaim for his article, “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations,” a study of human adaptability based on his concentration camp experiences. In 1944 he was awarded a dual appointment by the University of Chicago as assistant professor and head of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, which was a residential treatment center for children 6 to 14 years of age who were diagnosed with severe emotional disturbance. He was said to have achieved considerable success working with many children who had been considered unresponsive to prior treatment efforts.

In three decades as an author of works for both scholarly and popular audiences, Bettelheim covered a broad range of topics. Love Is Not Enough (1950), Truants from Life (1954), and The Empty Fortress (1967) are based on his work at the Orthogenic School. The Informed Heart (1960) focuses on Bettelheim's concentration camp experiences. Children of the Dream (1969) analyzes communal childrearing methods on an Israeli kibbutz and their implications for American family life. The Uses of Enchantment (1976) argues for the importance of fairy tales in a child's development. Bettelheim's later books include On Learning to Read: The Child's First Fascination with Meaning (1981) and Freud and Man's Soul (1982). A full professor at the University of Chicago from 1952, Bettelheim retired from both teaching and directorship of the Orthogenic School in 1973. Following the death of his wife in 1984, Bettelheim battled with depression. He had a stroke in 1990, which caused significant physical and cognitive impairment, leading him to decide to take his own life. After his death, his reputation was tarnished by claims that he falsified his Viennese credentials and testimonials that he misdiagnosed and abused some children at the Orthogenic School. His belief that autism was caused by bad parenting, particularly unloving mothers, was totally disproved.

See also Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) ; Psychoanalysis ; Social psychology .

Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim in 1969.

Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim in 1969.
(© Santi Visalli/Getty Images)



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