Richard Pollak, the New York-based journalist who has just published a biography of the late Bruno Bettelheim, only met his subject once. Pollak’s “backward” little brother, Stephen, had attended the University of Chicago’s Orthogenic School under Bettelheim before falling to his death from a barn loft while the brothers were playing hide-and-seek in 1948. Twenty-one years later, on a mission to learn more about the brother he barely knew, Pollak paid Bettelheim a visit.
By that time, Bettelheim had established himself as a leading child psychologist and an expert on childhood autism, written several well-received books about his work with emotionally distressed children, and been touted as “one of Freud’s few genuine heirs.” But instead of answering Pollak’s questions or trying to find his brother’s records, Bettelheim flew into a rage, attacking the character of Pollak’s father and mother and insisting that Stephen’s death was no accident at all but a suicide.
Two more decades passed before Pollak would speak to Bettelheim again, but the initial encounter stayed with him. “I was astonished,” Pollak recalls. “He exhibited a tremendous anger at my parents that baffled me. This man was an internationally renowned healer–why was he so furious? It was a stunning encounter, and it clearly left a deep impression on me.”
Pollak was actually drafting a memoir of his brother when an editor suggested he write a biography of Bettelheim instead. But when Pollak called, Bettelheim politely refused to cooperate, saying he was too weak and, besides, “no fit subject for a book.” It wasn’t until 1990, after Bettelheim himself committed suicide, that Pollak began work on The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim.
What the former Nation editor found was surprising: almost everything on which Bettelheim’s reputation rested was trumped up. His academic credentials, the amount of time he’d spent in concentration camps (which played an important role in his theories about human behavior under stress), the success rate of the Orthogenic School–all falsified. In addition, Pollak found evidence that Bettelheim was a plagiarist, and his interviews turned up three women who say they were fondled by the director while living at the school.
Bettelheim emigrated to the U.S. from Vienna in 1939, after spending nearly a year in Dachau and Buchenwald. While the Nazis were expunging his real records at the University of Vienna, Pollak writes, he was making up new ones that claimed, among other things, that he’d spent 14 years there, that he’d passed doctoral examinations summa cum laude in philosophy, art history, and psychology, and that he’d already published two books. In reality, he had one doctorate, in philosophy, which he earned between stints running the family lumber business, and he was unpublished. In 1944, after a short teaching tenure at Rockford College, he was asked to take over the Orthogenic School, which at the time housed kids with mental and physical problems, including encephalitis and epilepsy.
“It was unlikely that the University of Chicago would dial up the University of Vienna when Austria was under German occupation to check his credentials,” Pollak says. “That’s how we generally deal with one another. Nobody would have been inclined to, even if they could have.”
Bettelheim quickly narrowed the school’s focus to normal and gifted children suffering from “severe emotional disturbances that have proved (or are expected to prove) beyond the reach of the common therapeutic techniques.” Bettelheim’s uncommon technique was to immerse the child in a “therapeutic milieu”–a sort of camplike atmosphere in which the child “faces the realistic consequences of his acting out and is protected at the same time from the self-destructive implications of his behavior.” In Bettelheim’s mind, this included getting the children away from their mothers, who he saw as the likely cause of their traumas–not an unpopular view in postwar America.
Pollak’s book separates the facts from the myths of Bettelheim’s life and paints him as an ambitious and depressed man who grew up in a household made dysfunctional by his own parents’ battle with his father’s syphilis. It also examines how and why he managed to maintain his deceptions for so long. “The media played along from the start,” says Pollak. “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.”
Pollak says he believes that kids at the Orthogenic School did often get better, but he thinks it probably had more to do with the work of specific counselors than with any of Bettelheim’s methods. “If someone was at the school from ages 12 to 16, how do we know that if he had stayed with his parents he mightn’t have gotten better?” he says. “You just don’t know.”
Pollak says he “worked very hard not to let my personal history interfere with the elemental fairness of the book. I tried to say what was good about the man as well as what was difficult and negative, and I tried to back it up in a way he never did.
“If a man establishes a big enough reputation, it’s very hard for that reputation to be redressed in a way that comes more in line with reality. And I think he did a lot of damage in certain areas, especially in blaming the parents–especially the mother–for causing autism in children.”
Pollak will discuss The Creation of Dr. B Thursday, January 23, at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5757 S. University. It’s free; call 773-752-4381 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Richard Pollack photo by Joanne Savio / Dr. Bettelheim photo.