|Citizenship United States|
Name Bruno Bettelheim
Education University of Vienna
|Born August 28, 1903
Vienna, Austria-Hungary (1903-08-28) |
Known for Contributions to child psychology; The Uses of Enchantment
Spouse Regina Alstadt (1930–?; divorced) Gertrude Weinfeld (1941–1984; her death; 3 children)
Died March 13, 1990, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States
Awards National Book Award for Contemporary Thought, National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism
Books The Uses of Enchant, The empty fortress, Freud and man's soul, A good enough parent, The informed heart
Similar People Charles Perrault, Viktor Frankl, William Fielding Ogburn, David Albahari, Benjamin Drake Wright
Doctoral students Benjamin Drake Wright
Bruno bettelheim attacks refrigerator mothers and autism
Bruno Bettelheim (August 28, 1903 – March 13, 1990) was an Austrian-born self-educated psychoanalyst who spent the bulk of his academic career from 1944 to 1973, as a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and director of the Orthogenic School for Disturbed Children.
- Bruno bettelheim attacks refrigerator mothers and autism
- 239 bruno bettelheim documentary horizon 1986 part 1 of 2
- Life and career in the United States
- Misrepresented credentials
- Plagiarism regarding
- Questionable treatment of students
- Nonresponse of psychiatric community
- Autism controversy
- Political controversy
- In popular culture
He is perhaps best known for his essay The Uses of Enchantment (1976), which applied Freudian psychology to fairy tales and won the 1976 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and the 1977 National Book Award in category Contemporary Thought. Bettelheim wrote a number of articles and books on psychology for more than 40 years and had an international reputation on such topics as Sigmund Freud and emotionally disturbed children. However, his theories on autism, for which he blamed parents and primarily mothers in The Empty Fortress (1967), raised controversy in his lifetime and are now considered to be discredited. In addition, his suicide in 1990 led to several revelations of fake credentials, plagiarism for The Uses of Enchantment, and student abuse at the Orthogenic School.
As a Jew and an advocate of Austrian independence, Bettelheim was imprisoned in 1938 in the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald for ten and a half months. He emigrated to the United States in 1939 and drawing upon his experience, he published a highly regarded paper in 1943 entitled "Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations". He was appointed as a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago the following year. Biographical researches after his death revealed that he substantially misrepresented his background and academic credentials, which were not checked because of the disruption of World War II. His one doctorate at the University of Vienna was either in art history or philosophy (aesthetics) and he had in fact only taken three introductory classes in psychology.
Reports also revealed that Bettelheim suffered from depression and frequently hit students, although he spoke and wrote against corporal punishments. Counselors at the Orthogenic School tended to perceive only corporal punishment, whereas students perceived rage and out-of-control violence on Bettelheim's part. The University of Chicago has been criticized for not providing the oversight during Bettelheim's tenure which it normally provided, nor did Chicago-area psychiatrists speak up while having some knowledge of what was happening.
239 bruno bettelheim documentary horizon 1986 part 1 of 2
Bruno Bettelheim was born in Vienna, Austria, on August 28, 1903. When his father died, Bettelheim left his studies at the University of Vienna to look after his family's sawmill. Bettelheim's first wife, Gina, took care of a troubled American child, Patsy, who lived in their home in Vienna for seven years. Although Bettelheim later claimed he himself had taken care of the child, there is general agreement that his wife actually provided most of the child care. There is disagreement, however, among sources regarding whether or not Patsy was autistic. Bettelheim later embellished the story claiming there had been two or even several autistic children. Having discharged his obligations to his family's business, Bettelheim returned as a mature student in his 30s to the University of Vienna. He earned a degree in philosophy, producing a dissertation on Immanuel Kant and on the history of art.
In the Austrian academic culture of Bettelheim's time, one could not study the history of art without mastering aspects of psychology. Candidates for the doctoral dissertation in the History of Art in 1938 at Vienna University had to fulfill prerequisites in the formal study of the role of Jungian archetypes in art, and in art as an expression of the Freudian subconscious.
Though Jewish by birth, Bettelheim grew up in a secular family. After the Nazi invasion and Anschluss (political annexation) of Austria in March 1938, the Nazi authorities sent Bettelheim, other Austrian Jews and political opponents to the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps where they were brutally treated, and tortured or killed. In Buchenwald, he met and befriended the social psychologist Ernst Federn. Bettelheim was imprisoned in the camps for ten and half months from May 28, 1938, to April 14, 1939. As a result of an amnesty declared for Hitler's birthday (April 20, 1939), Bettelheim and hundreds of other prisoners regained their liberty. Bettelheim drew on the experience of the concentration camps for some of his later work.
Life and career in the United States
Bettelheim arrived by ship as a refugee in New York City in late 1939 to join his wife Gina, who had already emigrated. They divorced because she had become involved with someone else during their separation. He soon moved to Chicago, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1944, and married an American woman.
In 1943, he published the paper "Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations" about his experiences in the concentration camps, a paper which was highly regarded by Dwight Eisenhower among others. Bettelheim claimed he had interviewed 1,500 fellow prisoners, although this was unlikely.
The University of Chicago appointed Bettelheim as a professor of psychology, and he taught there from 1944 until his retirement in 1973. He wrote a number of books on psychology and, for a time, had an international reputation for his work on Sigmund Freud, psychoanalysis, and emotionally disturbed children. He stated that the Viennese psychoanalyst Richard Sterba had analyzed him, as well as implying in several of his writings that he had written a PhD dissertation in the philosophy of education. His actual PhD was in art history, and he had only taken three introductory courses in psychology.
During the same time period, Bettelheim also served as Director of the University of Chicago's Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, a home that treats emotionally disturbed children. He made changes and set up an environment for milieu therapy, in which children could form strong attachments with adults within a structured but caring environment. He claimed considerable success in treating some of the emotionally disturbed children. He wrote books on both normal and abnormal child psychology, and became a major influence in the field, widely respected during his lifetime. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971.
Bettelheim analyzed fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychology in The Uses of Enchantment (1976). He discussed the emotional and symbolic importance of fairy tales for children, including traditional tales at one time considered too dark, such as those collected and published by the Brothers Grimm. Bettelheim suggested that traditional fairy tales, with the darkness of abandonment, death, witches, and injuries, allowed children to grapple with their fears in remote, symbolic terms. If they could read and interpret these fairy tales in their own way, he believed, they would get a greater sense of meaning and purpose. Bettelheim thought that by engaging with these socially-evolved stories, children would go through emotional growth that would better prepare them for their own futures. In the United States, Bettelheim won two major awards for The Uses of Enchantment: the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and the National Book Award in category Contemporary Thought. However, a 1991 article in The Journal of American Folklore charged that Bettelheim had engaged in plagiarism by unacknowledged borrowing from a number of sources, primarily Julius Heuscher's A Psychiatric Study of Fairy Tales (1963), although Heuscher himself stated he was not bothered.
His writings covered a wide range of topics, beginning shortly after he arrived in the United States with an essay on concentration camps and their dynamics. He long had a reputation as an authority on these topics.
At the end of his life, Bettelheim suffered from depression. He appeared to have had difficulties with depression for much of his life. In 1990, widowed, in failing physical health, and suffering from the effects of a stroke which impaired his mental abilities and paralyzed part of his body, he committed suicide as a result of self-induced asphyxiation by placing a plastic bag over his head. He died on March 13, 1990, in Maryland.
Currently, many of Bettelheim's theories in which he attributes autism spectrum conditions to parenting style are considered to be discredited, not least because of the controversies relating to his academic and professional qualifications.
Even as early as a November 1990 Chicago Tribune article, questions were noted about Bettelheim's credentials. Different people seemed to believe different things about his background and credentials. Bertram Cohler and Jacquelyn Sanders at the Orthogenic School believed Bettelheim had a PhD in art history. Ralph Tyler, who had brought Bettelheim to the University of Chicago first to teach art history, and then, in 1944, to become director of the Orthogenic School, assumed Bettelheim had two PhDs, one in art history and the other in psychology. In some of his writings, Bettelheim implied that he had written a dissertation on the philosophy of education.
A lot of information came out following the publication of two biographies, the first by Nina Sutton originally in French in 1995 and a second more critical biography by Richard Pollak in 1997. These somewhat competing biographies seemed to motivate journalists to look into the matter in more depth. A review in the Chicago Tribune states that Bettelheim reinvented himself "right out of the proverbial whole cloth." A review in the New York Times frankly accuses Bettelheim of "concocting a new formula for snake oil and selling it to the public with flummery."
Nina Sutton's biography was originally published as Bruno Bettelheim, une vie (1995) and translated into English as Bruno Bettelheim: A Life and a Legacy. A book review published by The Independent (UK) stated that Bettelheim "despite claims to the contrary, possessed no psychology qualifications of any sort."
Richard Pollak's The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim (1997) begins with a personal account, for his brother was a resident at Bettelheim's school. While home one summer and playing hide-and-go-seek in a hay loft, the brother fell through a chute covered with hay, hit the concrete floor on the level below and died. Years later Pollak, hoping to get some information about his brother's life, sought out Bettelheim. As Pollak recounts, "Bettelheim immediately launched into an attack. The boys' father, he said, was a simple-minded 'schlemiel.' Their mother, he insisted, had rejected Stephen at birth forcing him to develop 'pseudo-feeble-mindedness' to cope." Bettelheim angrily asked, "What is it about these Jewish mothers, Mr. Pollak?" And he insisted the brother had committed suicide and made it look like an accident.
A January 1997 book review in the Baltimore Sun states, "The stance of infallibility over matters Pollak knew to be untrue prompted him to wonder about the foundation of Bettelheim's commanding reputation." Pollak, in fact, would go on to work as a journalist and magazine editor for close to two decades, before attempting a biography of Bettelheim.
When Bettelheim applied for a position at Rockford College in Illinois, he claimed in a résumé that he had earned summa cum laude doctorates in philosophy, art history, and psychology, that he had done original work under the leading artists at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule, and that he had published two books in the field. When he went on to apply at the University of Chicago, he further claimed that he had training in psychology, experience raising autistic children, and personal encouragement from Sigmund Freud. In a 1997 Weekly Standard article Peter Kramer, clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University, summarized: "There were snatches of truth in the tall tale, but not many. Bettelheim had earned a non-honors degree in philosophy, he had made acquaintances in the psychoanalytic community, and his first wife had helped raise a troubled child. But, from 1926 to 1938, -- the bulk of the '14 years' at university -- Bettelheim had worked as a lumber dealer in the family business."
Sources disagree whether Bettelheim's one PhD was in art history or in philosophy (aesthetics). He claimed he had met Freud and that Freud that stated he (Bettelheim) was "just [or, "exactly"] the person we need for psychoanalysis to grow and develop." Bettelheim had never met Freud., nor had he been accepted as a candidate for membership in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. A posthumous review of his transcript showed that Bettelheim had only taken three introductory classes in psychology.
Bettelheim stated that, while still living in pre-war Austria, he had taken care of a troubled child who he labelled as autistic. This child, Patsy, did live in the Bettelheim household for seven years, although she was primarily taken care of by Bettelheim's first wife.
In his 1997 review of Pollak's book in the Baltimore Sun, Paul McHugh, then director of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins, stated "Bettelheim – with boldness, energy and luck – exploited American deference to Freudo-Nietzschean mind-sets and interpretation, especially when intoned in accents Viennese."
In his book Unstrange Minds (2007), Roy Richard Grinker wrote that Bettelheim was "simply too good a writer, and with his Viennese accent—the sign of an authentic expert in psychology—too good a self promoter."
Plagiarism regarding "Uses of Enchantment"
For Bettelheim's 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, a winter 1991 article in The Journal of American Folklore presented a case that he had engaged in plagiarism by borrowing without acknowledgement from a number of sources, including author Alan Dundes' 1967 paper on Cinderella, although primarily from Dr. Julius E. Heuscher's book A Psychiatric Study of Fairy Tales (1963, 1974 enlarged and rev. edition). A Los Angeles Times article stated, "Alan Dundes, a widely published expert on folklore and a 28-year veteran of Berkeley's anthropology department, details what he says is 'wholesale borrowing,' not only of 'random passages' but also of 'key ideas' in Bettelheim's 1976 book." Heuscher himself was gracious about the charges, stating "We all plagiarize. I plagiarize. Many times, I am not sure whether it came out of my own brain or if it came from somewhere else. . . . I'm only happy that I would have influenced Bruno Bettelheim. I did not always agree with him. But that does not matter. Poor Bruno Bettelheim. I would not want to disturb his eternal sleep with this" [ellipsis as it appeared in Los Angeles Times article].
Jacquelyn Sanders, who worked with Bettelheim and was the director of the Orthogenic School in 1991, states that she had read Dundes' article but did not believe many people would agree with his conclusions. She said, "I would not call that plagiarism. I think the article is a reasonable scholarly endeavor, and calling it scholarly etiquette is appropriate. It is appropriate that this man deserved to be acknowledged and Bettelheim didn't. . . . But I would not fail a student for doing that, and I don`t know anybody who would" [Ellipses in Chicago Tribune article].
Heuscher wrote in 1963: "While one must never 'explain' the fairy tales to the child, the narrator's understanding of their meaning is very important. It furthers the sensitivity for selecting those stories which are most appropriate in various phases of children's development and for stressing those themes which may be therapeutic for specific psychological difficulties."
Bettelheim wrote in 1976: "One must never 'explain' to the child the meaning of fairy tales. However, the narrator's understanding of the fairy tale's message to the child's preconscious mind is important. . . . It furthers the adult's sensitivity to selection of those stories which are most appropriate to the child's state of development and to the specific psychological difficulties he is confronted with at the moment" [ellipsis as it appeared in Los Angeles Times article].
In reviewing Richard Pollak's The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim (1997), Sarah Boxer of the New York Times wrote, "Mr. Pollak gives a damning passage-for-passage comparison of the two. [Heuscher's 1963 book and Bettelheim's 1976 book]"
Questionable treatment of students
After Bettelheim's suicide in 1990, some students claimed that Bettelheim exploded in screaming anger and hit students, although he preached against corporal punishment. A November 1990 Chicago Tribune article states: "Of the 19 alumni of the Orthogenic School interviewed for this story, some are still bitterly angry at Bettelheim, 20 or 30 years after leaving the institution. Others say their stays did them good, and they express gratitude for having had the opportunity to be at the school. All agree that Bettelheim frequently struck his young and vulnerable patients."
Later directors and some counselors at the Orthogenic School tended to see Bettelheim merely as using corporal punishment, while many but not all students saw rage and out-of-control violence on his part.
Alida Jatich, who lived at the school from 1966 to 1972 from ages twelve to eighteen, wrote in an initially anonymous April 1990 letter to the Chicago Reader, "Bettelheim told the children over and over how lucky they were to be at his school, and that if they didn't do as they were told, they would end up in a state mental asylum where they would be given drugs and shock treatments. . . . . I lived in fear of Bettelheim's unpredictable temper tantrums, public beatings, hair pulling, wild accusations and threats and abuse in front of classmates and staff. One minute he could be smiling and joking, the next minute he could be exploding." Ms. Alida Jatich publicly revealed her name and the time she was at the school in another letter a year later.
In an August 1990 letter to the Washington Post, Charles Pekow wrote, "Bettelheim had standard lines he gave us all: we were considered hopelessly 'crazy' by the outside world and only he could save us from lives in mental institutions or jail. 'You get better here or you go to a nut house,' I heard him routinely tell school-aged children. . . . . Once, after a boy returned from a visit home, Bettelheim spent five minutes slapping him in the face, hitting him in the sides with fists and pulling his hair. Midway through, he revealed why: The lad had told his brother to 'do well in school.' He had no right to 'push' his brother around. To be sure, the blows he struck, though often painful and humiliating, did not physically damage people. But I often saw Bettleheim drag children across the floor by their hair and kick them. He even hit autistic children who couldn't speak clearly."
As an example of a counselor viewing Bettelheim's behavior as more legitimate corporal punishment, David Zwerdling, who was a counselor at the school for one year in 1969-70, wrote a Sept. 1990 response to the Washington Post in which he stated: "I witnessed one occasion when an adolescent boy cursed at a female counselor. Incensed upon learning of this, Dr. Bettelheim proceeded to slap the boy two or three times across the face, while telling him sternly never to speak that way to a woman again. This was the only such incident I observed or heard of during my year at the school, and it should be noted that until fairly recently, the near-consensus against corporal punishment in schools did not obtain." However, Zwerdling also noted, "He also was a man who, for whatever reasons, was capable of intense anger on occasion."
In an October 1990 essay in Commentary magazine, former student Ronald Angres wrote, "For all of those years, they [my parents] too endured his insulting and intimidating theatrics. But from his behavior they never drew the obvious conclusion about his character, nor did they ever pause to consider how he must be treating those whom he had totally in his power. It did not seem to occur to them that in his 'total therapeutic milieu,' the professional distance they sought had been delegated to people who raised us, educated us, disciplined us, and controlled us far more completely than any parent—and kept our real parents in the dark. Indeed, Bettelheim's constant verbal abuse of the parents with whom he dealt, and whom he refused to allow past the visitors' area—combined with his well-publicized assertion that it was parents who caused mental illness in their children—systematically destroyed their will to stand up for themselves or their children."
Roberta Carly Redford, who was a student at the Orthogenic School from age 16 to 23 (1967 to 1974), stated in a 1990 letter to the New York Times: "Unlike most of the other kids there, I was beaten only once. Bettelheim knew how to find people's Achilles' heels. Alida Jatich, whom you quote, he beat up often, knowing that her parents had done so and that was what would cause her the most grief. He also did to me what my parents had done -- stripped me of my self-esteem, caused me constantly to doubt myself and verbally abused me. He told me I was a slut, I was a failure at life, and only by abiding by his rules would I ever be fit to live in society again."
In a July 1990 letter to the Chicago Reader, a former counselor at the school writing anonymously stated, "At that time, in the late forties, I probably had more experience upon which to assess the adjustment of the children than most of the counselors at the school. By age 22, when I worked there, I had spent fully a third of my life in group living with a variety of youngsters under stress; four years in an orphan home followed by three and a half years in the wartime army. I understood that the stream of human normality was very wide, and that time healed many wounds without human intervention. It amazed me that Bettelheim, a man from another culture, could look at the same child as I and see a 'schizophrenic' while I saw another rambunctious American kid. What did a forty year old Viennese intellectual really know about the inner (or outer for that matter) life of a ten-year-old West Side, Chicago Irish kid who had no one to care for him?"
Richard Pollak's 1997 biography states that two separate women reported that Bettelheim fondled their breasts and those of other female students at the school while he was ostensibly apologizing to each for beating her.
The above Nov. 1990 Chicago Tribune article listed accounts of abusive treatment of child patients at the 'Orthogenic School,' including:
• "[Ronald Angres] recently wrote in Commentary magazine, 'I lived for years in terror of his beatings, in terror of his footsteps in the dorms-in abject, animal terror.'"
• "would pull an adolescent girl out of a shower, then hit and berate her in front of dormitory mates. Yet Alida Jatich says he did just that"
• "another former student, Roberta Redford, recalls being summoned from a toilet stall for a similar thrashing,"
• "Orthogenic School patient Charles Pekow had allergies, but was not allowed to take medication, even when overcome by asthmatic attacks. Bettelheim thought allergies were psychologically induced—a theory largely laid to rest by subsequent medical research,"
• "Richard Younker, a photojournalist in Chicago, remembers how he and a dormitory mate, both Cub Scouts, decorated their wall with a plaque illustrating how to tie knots. 'Dr. B said to the whole dorm: "Look, the two boys who are so twisted up inside show the whole world by putting knots on the wall,"' Younker says."
On the other hand, Karen Zelan, who worked at the school from 1956 to 1964 recalls Bettelheim taking personal responsibility for a badly dehydrated five-year-old girl and nursing her back to health when the other staff couldn`t get her to take nourishment.
Jacquelyn Sanders, who started as a counselor, left to pursue her PhD, and later became director of the Orthogenic School, thinks it may have been a case of too much success coming too soon. She said, ``Dr. B got worse once he started getting acclaim. He was less able to have any insight into his effect on these kids.``
Richard Younker said, "I think these things happened to me the way I describe them. If you made the most innocent joke to the man, he exploded. He was out of control."
In her April 1991 letter to the Chicago Reader, Alida Jatich wrote, "I suspect that the main reason why it's so hard to talk about the Bettelheim tragedy is this: in one way or another, he induced all of us to act in ways that we feel sick to think about now. This includes kids, parents, staff members, students and faculty at the University of Chicago, colleagues, and so forth."
Three former students have written books about their experiences at the school:
•Tom Lyon's The Pelican and After: A Novel about Emotional Disturbance, a roman à clef novel in which the head of the school is a "Dr. V," published in 1983.
• Stephen Eliot's memoir Not the Thing I Was: Thirteen Years at Bruno Bettelheim's Orthogenics School, published in 2003.
•Roberta Carly Redford memoir Crazy: My Seven Years at Bruno Bettelheim's Orthogeneic School, published in 2010.
Nonresponse of psychiatric community
A September 10, 1990 Newsweek article stated: "Patients were not the only ones who knew of Bettelheim's explosive temper. There are indications that at least the local psychiatric community knew exactly what was going on, and did nothing. Chicago analysts scathingly referred to the doctor as 'Beno Brutalheim.'"
In an April 4, 1991 letter to the Chicago Reader, former student Alida Jatich asked, "Who are these analysts? Why didn't they warn the university and our parents? Why are they still keeping silent?"
A November 1990 article in the Chicago Tribune reported that the University of Chicago's official biographical sketch of Bettelheim listed him as having a doctorate degree (Ph.D.) but did not specify the field.
In a January 1997 Los Angeles Times review of Richard Pollak's biography The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim, Howard Gardner wrote, "When I began to discuss this biography with clinicians, several of them said in effect, 'Oh, we all knew this about Bettelheim. We did not believe his claims and figures; we knew he was a bastard.' I asked myself--and then I started to ask others--'Why did no one expose this fraud, this pretending saint who was tainted with evil? Did their silence encourage Bettelheim's excesses?' Answers varied from fear about Bettelheim's legendary capacity for retribution to the solidarity needed among the guild of healers to a feeling that, on balance, Bettelheim's positive attributes predominated and an unmasking would fuel more malevolent forces." Howard Gardner is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who is perhaps best known for his theory of multiple intelligences.
In a June/July 1997 article in First Things, Molly Finn wrote, "it is deplorable that the institution [University of Chicago] supported Bettelheim's work without ever setting up the oversight committee or board of visitors it usually appointed."
Richard Pollak, author of The Creation of Dr. B (1997), states that popular media played along from the start. He said, "They never asked the questions, never asked to see any kind of support for the claims he was making. He'd appear on Dick Cavett and the Today Show, and they all sat there slack-jawed and threw softball questions."
Autism spectrum conditions are now currently regarded as perhaps having multiple forms with a variety of genetic, epigenetic, and brain development causes influenced by such environmental factors as complications during pregnancy, viral infections, and perhaps even air pollution.
The two biographies by Sutton (1995) and Pollak (1997) awakened interest and focus on Bettelheim's actual methods as distinct from his public persona. Bettelheim's theories on the causes of autism have been largely discredited, and his reporting rates of cure have been questioned, with critics stating that his patients were not actually suffering from autism. In a favorable review of Pollak's biography, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times wrote, "What scanty evidence remains suggests that his patients were not even autistic in the first place."
Bettelheim believed that autism did not have an organic basis, but resulted when mothers withheld appropriate affection from their children and failed to make a good connection with them. Bettelheim also blamed absent or weak fathers. One of his most famous books, The Empty Fortress (1967), contains a complex and detailed explanation of this dynamic in psychoanalytical and psychological terms. These views were disputed at the time by mothers of autistic children and by researchers. He derived his thinking from the qualitative investigation of clinical cases. He also related the world of autistic children to conditions in concentration camps.
In A Good Enough Parent, published in 1987, he had come to the view that children had considerable resilience and that most parents could be "good enough" to help their children make a good start.
Prior to this, Bettelheim subscribed to and became an early prominent proponent of the "refrigerator mother" theory of autism: the theory that autistic behaviors stem from the emotional frigidity of the children's mothers. He adapted and transformed the Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago as a residential treatment milieu for such children, who he felt would benefit from a "parentectomy". This marked the apex of autism viewed as a disorder of parenting.
A 2002 book on autism spectrum stated, "At the time, few people knew that Bettelheim had faked his credentials and was using fictional data to support his research." Michael Rutter has observed, "Many people made a mistake in going from a statement which is undoubtedly true—that there is no evidence that autism has been caused by poor parenting—to the statement that it has been disproven. It has not actually been disproven. It has faded away simply because, on the one hand, of a lack of convincing evidence and on the other hand, an awareness that autism was a neurodevelopmental disorder of some kind."
In a 1997 review of two books on Bettelheim, Molly Finn wrote "I am the mother of an autistic daughter, and have considered Bettelheim a charlatan since The Empty Fortress, his celebrated study of autism, came out in 1967. I have nothing personal against Bettelheim, if it is not personal to resent being compared to a devouring witch, an infanticidal king, and an SS guard in a concentration camp, or to wonder what could be the basis of Bettelheim's statement that 'the precipitating factor in infantile autism is the parent's wish that his child should not exist.'"
Although Bettelheim foreshadowed the modern interest in the causal influence of genetics in the section Parental Background, he consistently emphasised nurture over nature. For example: "When at last the once totally frozen affects begin to emerge, and a much richer human personality to evolve, then convictions about the psychogenic nature of the disturbance become stronger still."; On Treatability, p. 412.
The rates of recovery claimed for the Orthogenic School are set out in Follow-up Data, with a recovery good enough to be considered a 'cure' of 43%., ps. 414–415.
Subsequently, medical research has provided greater understanding of the biological basis of autism and other illnesses. Scientists such as Bernard Rimland challenged Bettelheim's view of autism by arguing that autism is a neurodevelopmental issue. As late as 2009, the "refrigerator mother" theory retained some prominent supporters, including the prominent Irish psychologist Tony Humphreys. His theory still enjoys widespread support in France.
Bettelheim became one of the most prominent defenders of Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem. He wrote a positive review for The New Republic. This review prompted a letter from a writer, Harry Golden, who alleged that both Bettelheim and Arendt suffered from "an essentially Jewish phenomenon … self-hatred". Richard Pollak's biography, The Creation of Dr. B, portrays Bettelheim as a clear anti-Semite even though he was raised in a secular Jewish household, and asserts that Bettelheim criticized in others the same cowardice he himself had displayed in the concentration camps.
In popular culture
In 1974, a four-part series featuring Bruno Bettelheim and directed by Daniel Carlin appeared on French television — Portrait de Bruno Bettelheim.
Woody Allen included Bettelheim as himself in a cameo in the film Zelig (1983).
A BBC Horizon documentary about Bettelheim was televised in 1986.