Boxer, Sarah. "The Man He Always Wanted To Be," a review of The Creation of Dr. B.: A
Biography of Bruno Bettelheim by Richard Pollack (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), The
New York Times Book Review, 26 January 1997, pp. 14-15.
Bruno Bettleheim's new biographer lays his cards on the table right away: he thinks Bettelheim
was a pathological liar. Richard Pollak, the former executive editor and literary editor of The
Nation, got interested in the famous psychotherapist and author in order to learn more about his
own younger brother, who died on a family vacation in 1948 when he slipped through a hayloft
chute during a game of hide-and-seek. The boy had been at the Orthogenic School for
emotionally disturbed children at the University of Chicago for five years before he died, so, in
1969, Mr. Pollak figured Bettelheim, the director of the school, could tell him about his dead
Instead, Bettelheim called Mr. Pollak's father a simple-minded "schlemiel" and his mother a
false martyr. Then he bluntly announced that the child had committed suicide. And, he added,
Mr. Pollak's mother was largely to blame, because she had rejected him at birth. "What is it
about these Jewish mothers?" Bettelheim fumed.
Mr. Pollak left reeling. On reflection, though, something seemed fishy. He recalled that the
hayloft his brother died in was so treacherous that he himself had almost fallen, too. And his
mother, whatever her quirks, was not the harpy Bettelheim described. Mr. Pollak began exploring
other options. What if the great Dr. Bettelheim, the champion of emotionally disturbed children
and the author of "The Uses of Enchantment," "Freud Man's Soul" and "The Empty Fortress,"
was in fact a bitter, sadistic, anti-Semitic, mother-hating liar?
That is the hypothesis Mr. Pollak follows in "The Creation of Dr. B." Although he declined to be
interviewed for the book, Mr. Pollak interviewed two of his three children, his first wife a slew of
colleagues, editors, students and friends. And many of them agreed that, in the words of
Jacquelyn Sanders, Bettelheim's successor the Orthogenic School, "You couldn't believe
anything he said."
The trouble with the book is that Mr. Pollak seems to think he must dig up malice and lies at
every turn. The result a shocking but curiously unnuanced biography of a psychologically
complex man. Here is a man who comes out of a concentration camp with the idea that prisoners
are like children, and later ms the idea on its head to suggest children are like prisoners. And here
is a biographer who pursues this disturbed man's fibs like an accountant.
According to Mr. Pollak, Bettelheim's alter ego, the self he invented, did everything the real
Bettelheim wished he had done: he met Freud, took autistic children into his home, earned three
degrees from the University of Vienna, was part of an underground movement to rid Vienna of
fascism, stood up to the Nazi guards in Buchenwald and Dachau, was rescued from the camps by
Eleanor Roosevelt and never spanked children.
The real Bettelheim felt that "people regarded him as ugly, small and Jewish." He grew up in a
bourgeois Viennese family; his father played cards with him and his mother read him Grimms'
fairy tales. He wanted to be part of the intelligentsia. So he studied art history at the University of
Vienna and read Freud backward and forward.
But when his father died of syphilis, Bettelheim suspended his intellectual aspirations and took
over the family's lumber business. He married a teacher named Gina Altstadt. Then, came the
Anschluss. In June 1938, Bettelheim was taken by train to Dachau, then to Buchenwald. That
seems to have been the dividing line between the real Bettelheim and the false one.
One of Bettelheim's lies, according to Mr. Pollak, was an anecdote about his heroic,
uncomplaining survival in Buchenwald that Mr. Pollak calls "the Frostbite Story." Bettelheim
said he persuaded a guard to admit him to the camp clinic by asking him first to cut away dead
frost bitten flesh, thereby avoiding "pleading, deference or arrogance." Vivid as the story is, Mr.
Pollak suggests it is probably false. In real life, he reports, Bettelheim had a comparatively
softjob in Buchenwald, mending socks indoors. And, he says, Bettelheim's freedom was
probably bought by a bribe to the Nazis in 1939, before the war began.
Whether it was survivor guilt, shame, anger or the chance to start over, once Bettelheim was
freed, Mr. Pollak says, he began creating Dr. B. He sailed to New York, was reunited with his
wife for a day, then after a few weeks went on to Chicago, where he eventually married Trude
Weinfeld, whom he had fallen in love with before the Anschluss.
Soon after, Mr. Pollak says, he began inventing degrees he never earned and even boasting that
when he trained to be an analyst (which he never did), Sigmund Freud (whom he never met) said
of him, "This is exactly the person we need for psychoanalysis to grow and develop." He ended
up claiming a classic Viennese academic record, Mr. Pollak says: "14 years it the University of
Vienna, studies with Arnold Schoenberg, summa cum laude in three disciplines, two books
published, training in all fields of psychology and membership in an organization that studied the
emotional problems of children and adolescents."
And why not create such a life? The Nazis, Mr. Pollak says, "expunged the real one" and no one
in America had the gall to doubt a man who had spent time in concentration camps. Soon,
Bettelheim was wowing students with his Viennese accent, his casual references to Freud and his
habit of psychoanalyzing students' dreams, memories and parents.
In 1943 he sealed his reputation with the publication of "Individual and Mass Behavior in
Extreme Situations," a paper in which he observed that the prisoners in concentration camps
were effectively turned into children. He said that rather than fighting their captors, they fought
with one another, daydreamed and admired, even emulated, the Nazis. Thus, they were "more or
less willing tools of the Gestapo." The paper caused a huge stir, catching the attention of Meyer
Schapiro, Dwight Macdonald, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.
Mr. Pollak, though, seems most impressed by Bettelheim's shoddy science. He points out that
although Bettelheim claimed his article was based on interviews with at least 1,500 prisoners in
five different barracks, this kind of research was impossible since he lived in only two barracks.
Then Mr. Pollak goes on to the fib he thinks was the foundation for Bettelheim's career:
Bettelheim claimed that Patsy, a troubled girl his first wife had taken in, was autistic and that it
was he who cared for her. Neither was true, Mr. Pollak suggests. Later, Bettelheim embellished
more, saying there had been two autistic children. Partly on the basis of this putative experience,
Mr. Pollak writes, the University of Chicago asked him to take over the Orthogenic School,
which he did in 1944.
There Bettelheim built a kingdom for children. With another Viennese immigrant, Emmy
Sylvester, he created the first formal "therapeutic milieu," which Mr. Pollak describes as a
permissive, all-encompassing healing atmosphere." The children painted their rooms whatever
colors they liked and ate from expensive china. Meanwhile, though, in books like "Love Is Not
Enough" and "Truants rom Life," Bettelheim exaggerated his successes and, Mr. PoIlak says,
lied about how gentle his methods really were.
Bettelheim "sought to shape Orthogenic School in the reverse image of the concentration
camps," Mr. Pollak writes, and in that new world, mothers were seen as villains, even Nazis.
Bettelheim ordered mothers not to visit their children at the school or take them home. He
praised the kibbutzim in Israel for removing parents from their children's lives. And in his 1967
book "The Empty Fortress," he attributed autism to bad mothering.
Mr. Pollak contends that despite Bettelheim's benign mission, he was often cruel. He bullied his
staff so much that one counselor called his training style the "Nazi-Socratic method." He made
some of his patients undress and shower in front of one another. And though Bettelheim said he
was against slapping "because it's a brutal and illogical method," he often spanked his patients.
Indeed, Mr. Pollack devotes an entire chapter to Bettelheim and punishment.
When Bettelheim retired from the Orthogenic School in 1973, he lost his strange kingdom and
moved to California. There he wrote the work for which he is best known, "The Uses of
Enchantment," in which he argued that such bloody tales as "Hansel and Gretel" and "Sleeping
Beauty" were a needed outlet for children's fears and anxieties. Mr. Pollak shows that this too
was based on a lie; large chunks of book, he maintains, were plagiarized from a 1963 volume, "A
Psychiatric Study of Fairy Tales: Their Origin, meaning and Usefulness," by Julius Heuscher.
Mr. Pollak gives a damning passage-for-passage comparison of the two.
On March 12, 1990, the very the Nazis had invaded Austria 52 years earlier, Bettelheim, who at
86 was suffering from circulatory problems his legs, heart trouble, dias, arthritis, an enlarged
prostate and a blockage in the esophagus, "swallowed some drugs and whisky and tied a plastic
bag over his head."
He once said, "We must live by fictions - not just to find meaning in life but to make it bearable."
What is striking in ‘Tbe Creation of Dr. B" is that most of the lies Richard Pollak scribes to him
seem so unnecssary. A counselor at the Orthogenic School, commenting one of Bettelheim's
inflated reports of success there, put it well: "I felt like saying: ‘You don't have to exaggerate,
Dr. B, it was dramatic enough.'" Mr. Pollak's book is a startling and account of a life of lies. A
less vengeful biographer might have paused to analyze psychic uses ‘of the elaborate fairy tale
Bettelheim constructed for himself.