BETTELHEIM by Nina Sutton

BETTELHEIM

A Life and a Legacy
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 A deeply sympathetic psychobiography of Bruno Bettelheim, the much honored yet controversial therapist who for nearly three decades directed the University of Chicago's Orthogenic School, a Freudian-based residential treatment center for disturbed children. When Sutton, Paris correspondent for National Public Radio and the London Daily News, began work on this biography in mid- 1990, Bettelheim had, she says, ``all the trappings of a saint.'' However, within weeks of his suicide that year, former patients began accusing him of brutality and sadism, creating a scandal that left even his close associates confused. To understand this complex man, Sutton begins by looking at his family--a syphilitic father, a mother who regarded him as ugly--and finds in his childhood the seeds of lifelong anger, shame, and self-contempt. In 1938 Bettelheim, a prosperous Viennese merchant becoming deeply involved in psychoanalysis, was arrested by the Nazis and spent ten months in concentration camps. At Buchenwald, says Sutton, Bettelheim, a chronic depressive, discovered the strength of his will to survive, a discovery that prompted him to devote his life to working with troubled children. His observations of human behavior at Buchenwald led to writings that established his reputation in the US, where he fled after his release in 1939. By the 1940s Bettelheim had become a new man, with a new profession, a new family, and even a new, self-invented past. Sutton concentrates on his years at the Orthogenic School, where ``his talent as a clinician sprang from his personality, his history, and his wounds.'' According to Sutton, his inner child took over at times, making him ``grandiose, demanding, provocative.'' That he exaggerated his success in treating autism and that he invented his professional background Sutton acknowledges. Whether he ever brutalized children in his care is less clear. A revealing study that nevertheless leaves Bettelheim as controversial as ever.

Pub Date: May 22nd, 1996
ISBN: 0-465-00635-3
Page count: 624pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1996