- Bettelheim: Living and Dying
"Anyone who writes a biography," Freud insisted to Arnold Zweig in 1936, "is committed to lies, concealments, hypocrisy, flattery and even to hiding his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth does not exist, and if it did we could not use it." David James Fisher opens his study of the controversial psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim (1903–1990) with this famous pronouncement, throwing down the gauntlet to the prevailing largely unflattering treatments of his subject. Bettelheim: Living and Dying isn't a biography per se but rather a volume with biographical tendencies, a collection of pieces written primarily about Bettelheim but also about his friend and fellow analyst Rudolf Ekstein (1912–2005). The book functions as eulogy and in fact includes memorial essays on Ekstein (Chapter 6) and Bettelheim (Chapter 9). The Ekstein-Bettelheim relationship is the subject of the longest chapter, Chapter 5, which includes reprints of twenty-two letters exchanged between them over several decades. Bettelheim: Living and Dying is also a memoir of sorts, detailing Fisher's relationship with Ekstein, his analyst for a decade, and also with Bettelheim, whom he befriended during the latter's final years. The book emerged from various essays and reviews, and all but Chapters 5 and 6 appeared previously in a 2003 German-language volume, Psychoanalytische Kulturkritik und die Seele des Menschen (Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism and the Soul of Man). Perhaps thanks to its compositional history and its triangular energy, Bettelheim: Living and Dying is a curious book, engaging and often eloquent but not entirely persuasive as a rejoinder to Bettelheim's critics.
At the time of his suicide in 1990, Bettelheim was one of the most respected psychologists in the world, praised for his work at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School in Chicago and for his writings on the Holocaust, autism, child abuse, kibbutz life, and fairy tales. Since his death, a more troubling portrait of Bettelheim has emerged, culminating in Richard Pollak's The Creation of Dr. B (1997), the second and most critical of the three Bettelheim biographies that have appeared to date. Pollak follows Nina Sutton (1996) in exposing Bettelheim's [End Page 127] forged credentials, pretended acquaintance with Freud, plagiarized writings, and exaggerated claims of clinical success. For Sutton, such lies or distortions are merely unfortunate, evidence of the man's complexity; she maintains that, whatever his faults, Bettelheim was a gifted therapist. Pollak, on the other hand, presents Bettelheim as a liar and a tyrant, underscoring his sexist attitude and autocratic tendencies, even alleging the sexual abuse of girl patients. In the most recent biography (2002), Bettelheim's friend and literary agent Theron Raines defends Bettelheim as a humane practitioner of tough love. Fisher, an analyst and cultural historian, likewise mounts a defense of Bettelheim, through a series of essays both personal and scholarly.
Fisher clearly wants to set the record straight about Bettelheim, which suggests at least a little faith in biographical truth. In the introduction, he outlines an alternative view of Bettelheim, describing him as a self-made analyst who functioned outside the psychoanalytic establishment by choice as well as by situation. Bettelheim, he asserts, was a maverick, even a "psychoanalytic gadfly, someone who cajoled others to examine their received opinions, who demystified pieties, and who punctured dogma and shibboleths" (5). At the Sonia Shankman School in Chicago, which Bettelheim ran for almost thirty years, he preferred to hire "amateurs who were emotionally responsive and intellectually curious" (4) rather than clinically trained professionals with less obvious levels of empathy and curiosity. Here and throughout the book, Fisher presents Bettelheim as a passionate lay analyst who championed and practiced cultural criticism, hence the wide array of topics on which he wrote. Fisher sees Bettelheim as Freud's heir in this regard. As for the charges that Bettelheim was tyrannical and even abusive toward others at the Shankman School, Fisher concedes Bettelheim's darker impulses but insists that the School's "hothouse atmosphere" makes impossible any easy understanding of such. "It will take more time," he writes, "to sort out the nature of...