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The Abuses of Enchantment

Bruno Bettelheim’s Fairy-Tale Genius

ISSUE:  Fall 2019


Illustration by Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

“Once upon a time, in a faraway land across the big sea, there was a very old city,” the old man with the very thick glasses said in his very thick accent. “It bordered on some woods and there, in a little house close to them, many many years ago, a boy was born.” 

The boy, of course, was him. Now, all grown up, he was accepting a National Book Award for his latest book, The Uses of Enchantment. The book would be named by the New York Public Library as one of the Books of the Century, and over the ensuing decades would find its way into countless classrooms, including, eventually, my own. 

The Uses of Enchantment argues that fairy tales—not the sanitized Disney versions but the older, darker versions like the Grimm Brothers’—can help a child “make some coherent sense out of the turmoil of his feelings…to create order in his life.” Upon its release, the book had been favorably reviewed in the New York Times by John Updike, who called it both “charming” and “profound” and affectionately pronounced its author, the old man named Bruno Bettelheim, “a benignly paternal scholar of our hearts.”

Bettelheim certainly appeared grandfatherly—the thick glasses and thicker accent helped, but so did the bald head, the slight stoop, the constant half-smile. He poked fun at his less-than-Hollywood looks—his bulging eyes, the bulbous nose—with a self-deprecating anecdote for his audience. Thanks to the fairy tales his own mother had read to him as a child, “the boy never got the idea that an Ugly Duckling could turn into a beautiful Swan.” Also thanks to fairy tales, when the “dragon” of Nazi ideology invaded his land, he was able to persevere and escape the camps to a land across the big sea, where his “beloved soon joined him.” And they had their fairy-tale ending: “They married, had three children, and lived happily ever after.”

There is the story of the boy, though, and the story of his book, which might start in any number of other spots: 

Once upon a time, an old man took a bunch of barbiturates and put a bag over his head.

Once upon a time, a middle-aged man dragged a girl wet and screaming from the shower.

Or even: Once upon a time, a young man was desperately looking for work.

Once upon a time, a young man with a degree in art history was desperately looking for work, and the president of a small midwestern women’s college was looking for an adjunct to fill an opening in the art department. 

The man submitted a letter and CV. He wrote that he didn’t just have a background in art: He had “passed separate doctoral examinations summa cum laude in each of three major fields, namely: philosophy, history of art, and psychology.” If that did not make him enough of a unicorn, he had already published his dissertation, as well as another book. And he had additional hands-on experience in the art world, having “worked for two years as an assistant at the museum in Vienna…[and] participated for six months in archeological [sic] field work, excavating Roman antiquities.”

There was more. He had also studied music through “the society of modern music, where studies were conducted under the personal leadership of Schoenberg.” And more still—he had experience teaching classes in “all fields of human, and of social psychology…as well as in normal and abnormal psychology.”

The CV was impressive. Later it would even be called “outlandish.” But this was the summer of 1942, there was a war going on, and the candidate had recently emigrated from Nazi-occupied Austria, making it impossible to verify. However, it was completely plausible that a scholar of this stature would be willing to take on a few courses at a small liberal arts college, because all sorts of European intellectuals were flooding the job market, hollow-eyed and overqualified.

Of course, he was hired. And given his extensive credentials, when some of his colleagues were drafted, he was tapped to cover classes in philosophy, then German literature, and finally psychology. His position quickly became full-time, and he was elevated to associate professor.

With his new institutional affiliation, in October 1943 he had his first academic publication in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, titled “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations.” The young man, before his escape to the US, had spent ten months in Dachau and Buchenwald. He had been saved by wealthy and powerful friends who had intervened on his behalf, supposedly appealing to Eleanor Roosevelt herself. But while he was there, he had studied fellow prisoners and collected data on them as a “defense,” a way to prevent becoming like those he observed having complete breakdowns. After the war, Bettelheim would brag that “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations” had become required reading for all US military officers stationed in Europe.

Not only was he enjoying some recognition in academic circles, he was now surrounded by an admiring coterie of female students. But strangely, after just two years, he was not asked back. This was possibly because of a complaint about sexual misconduct—he had the habit of inviting students to his room to talk, and a rumor circulated about one particular instance—or simply because he had run afoul of campus politics and a conservative board of trustees. 

Little matter. He had other prospects. One of his contacts told him there was the strong possibility of a job opening up in art history at the University of Chicago, a job for which he would be ideally suited.

There was also another potential job, a bit different from the work he’d been doing—a position in the University of Chicago’s psychology department as director of their school for children with autism and emotional disturbances, the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, known as the O-School. 

This position was not entirely out of his wheelhouse, given his doctoral work in psychology, his extensive experience teaching psychology back in Vienna, and his recent publication. And, he had boasted of one more thing that sealed the deal: Back in Austria, he said, he had taken in a girl with autism and cared for her for seven years. 

This boast might not have mattered, except the offer to teach art history was delayed. He had a new wife and infant daughter to support, and the University of Chicago was pressing him for an answer. 

Yes, the young man said. And so, in 1944, he accepted a one-year contract to head up the O-School.

Bruno Bettelheim came in and cleaned house—new staff, new décor, and, most importantly, a new guiding philosophy. His design of the school, he said, was linked to his past experiences—he was going to “recreate the reverse image of the camps.” As he saw some of the same behaviors in autistic and schizophrenic patients as he had in his fellow concentration-camp prisoners—disassociation, delusions, apathy—he assumed the behaviors stemmed from the same causes. It was an attractive idea—if the concentration camps could be used to dehumanize, their inverse could be used to restore humanity. Bettelheim announced that these new methods had an 80 percent success rate in totally “curing” his charges. 

On the basis of that, he became a bit of a celebrity. He published several books on treating autism and emotional disturbances and numerous articles in popular magazines such as Harper’s, Playboy, Scientific American, and Ladies Home Journal. He appeared on Dick Cavett’s daytime TV show and had numerous speaking engagements, explaining to parents how to raise their children properly.

He would head up the O-School for almost thirty years. After his retirement, he split his time between California and Illinois, having joined the faculty at Stanford while still teaching in the spring at the University of Chicago. He then took up reading, and criticizing, children’s literature. And he wrote The Uses of Enchantment, which was published in 1976 to great acclaim.

Forty years later, The Uses of Enchantment was listed on a sample syllabus I was given when Growing Up in Literature, a course that looked at coming-of-age stories, became part of my regular rotation in my teaching load at my last academic position. 

I was teaching against the backdrop of a pop-culture fairy-tale boom. There were movies—Snow White and the Huntsman; Mirror, Mirror; Red Riding Hood; Into the Woods; and Maleficent—TV shows such as ABC’s Once Upon a Time and NBC’s Grimm, and even commercials, like one for Pepsi featuring Kim Cattrell as Little Red Riding Hood. This pop-culture resurgence was matched by a rise in articles in academic and literary journals. There were blogs by Harvard’s Mary Tatar, journals such as the Fairy Tale Review, and podcasts like Amy Kraft and Sophie Bushwick’s Tabled Fables, along with publicly accessible online databases that archived and organized TV and film adaptations and research tools that digitally annotate fairy tales (SurLaLune Fairy Tales, e.g.). 

In light of this fairy tale boom, it is understandable there would be renewed interest in the book that was credited with repopularizing fairy tales a generation ago, a book cited in Norton’s Annotated Classic Fairy Tales as a “landmark study.” And I was, apparently, not the only one teaching this work. The Uses of Enchantment could be found on dozens of syllabi across a range of departments, levels, and institutions, from community colleges to state schools such as Duke, Kansas State, and Rutgers; to private ones likes Bates, Hunter, New York University, and Swarthmore.

Most instructors were only teaching short excerpts from the introduction and first few chapters, and I was no exception. From these sections, the statement I would always find my own students reacting to most strongly was: “Many parents believe that only conscious reality or pleasant and wish-fulfilling images should be presented to the child—that he should be exposed only to the sunny side of things.” 

Yes, they would agree, and discussion would always ensue about times when parents or other authority figures had tried, unsuccessfully, to hide some bleak truth from them, whether it was 9/11 or an impending divorce.

They also seemed to identify with his description of the challenges they had faced as children—the “deep inner conflicts”; the “desperate feelings of loneliness and isolation”; the near constant “mortal anxiety.” Their world was fractured—they “no longer grow up within the security of an extended family, or of a well-integrated community.” Yes, yes, nearly all my students would agree.

Many more would express their appreciation of Bettelheim’s criticism of the Disney-fied fairy tales that they had grown up with: “Most children now meet fairy tales only in prettified and simplified versions which subdue their meaning and rob them of all deeper significance.” And I found myself wanting to agree, as a former child, a professor, and now, a mother, with what Bettelheim said was the underlying message transmitted by the older, purer fairy tales: “that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence—but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.” 

Bettelheim had survived the Nazi invasion and the camps, and, according to the end of his acceptance speech, emerged victorious—happily ever after.

And yet, in a nursing home in Maryland, on March 13, 1990, the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Austria, Bettelheim took a bunch of barbiturates and put a bag over his head. He was eighty-six.

At the time of his death, his CV could be said to be even more “outlandish” than its previous iterations. He had been the subject of a BBC documentary and had a cameo in a Woody Allen film. In addition to Uses of Enchantment, he had written twelve other books and coauthored another four. His obituary in the Chicago Tribune relayed how he had “studied under Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.” As a professor at the University of Chicago and at Stanford, numerous other psychiatrists and psychologists had studied under him. His front-page obituary in the New York Times lauded him as a “psychoanalyst of vast impact,” and praised his “deep empathy for children.”

But then, three weeks later, a letter appeared in a Chicago weekly, titled “Brutal Bettelheim” and signed “Name Withheld.” It would later be credited to Alida Jatich, a former student at the O-School, who called Bettelheim “evil” and detailed emotional abuse and “public beatings.” One time, she shared, “he dragged me out of the shower with no clothes on and beat me in front of a roomful of people.” 

In August, a piece by former student Charles Pekow appeared in the Washington Post. “The Other Dr. Bettelheim: The Revered Psychologist Had a Dark, Violent Side,” which would be reprinted by the Guardian and the International Herald  Tribune, described the regular assaults and vicious insults he endured and witnessed over a ten-year period. Pekow relied not just on his own recollections and those of Jatich, but also on those of former counselors and even Bettelheim’s successor.

In October, another former student, Ronald Angres, went public in Commentary, describing how he “lived for years in terror of his beatings, in terror of his footsteps in the dorms—in abject, animal terror.” 

Those who actually knew Bettelheim offered only lukewarm defenses. They either “never saw any of [that] kind of behavior” or they, through some curious flaw in empathy, simply could not imagine any abuse taking place. Fourteen former staff members and colleagues who issued a half-hearted defense in the Washington Post mainly invoked the prestige of “one of the world’s great research universities.” “Is the public to believe,” they asked, “that Bettelheim perpetrated child abuse for more than 25 years in a laboratory school at the University of Chicago?”

It seems that indeed he had. 

And then in November of that year, Bettelheim’s reputation took another hit. An article by Ron Grossman in the Chicago Tribune not only backed up the claims of abuse with interviews of nineteen former students, it also questioned Bettelheim’s background and his credentials: Bettelheim had not been an intellectual back in Vienna, it seemed, but rather a bourgeoisie “playboy.” Bettelheim’s successor at the O-School revealed for the first time that the celebrated doctor “had no psychoanalytic or psychiatric training.” 

That impressive CV? 

Bettelheim had taken only three psychology courses in his whole life, and two of those as an undergraduate. He had not studied under Freud or taught psychology in Vienna.

He was the son of a lumber dealer who had left school to take over the family business when his father died of syphilis. He possessed a business diploma from a trade school, and while he did return to school to earn a doctorate, he earned just one—a doctor of philosophy granted without any special honors in February 1938 in the “general study of humanities.”

The other two doctorates, the two books, were invented. As was the work at the museum, the archaeological field work, the music study under Schoenberg.

His relationship with the psychoanalytic community in Vienna was restricted to the relationships his first wife, Gina, had cultivated, as she worked at a school run by Anna Freud. He even took credit for his wife’s work, as she was the one who had cared for the little girl for seven years, an American from a wealthy and influential family who did have some difficulties but did not have autism. It was this family’s intervention that had saved him from the camps.

And even his article about his experiences in the camps was falsified. Bettelheim not only claimed to have interviewed a mathematically impossible number of his fellow prisoners, he argued that they regressed to childlike behavior. This generalization ignored documented instances of defiance and bravery and was termed “nonsense” by one of the prisoners who had supposedly helped Bettelheim with his research. In addition, the article had not been designated as required reading for US military officers, as Bettelheim had claimed.

In one of his later works, Bettelheim would write: “We must live by fictions—not just to find meaning in life but to make it bearable.” 

Based on the number of his fictions, Bettelheim must have found his own life intolerable.

How, exactly, had he gotten away with it?

Bettelheim picked his accomplices carefully. Upon his arrival at the O-School, he had purged the old staff and hired all new counselors who were “almost all young women…with little or no experience.” These women lived on campus, worked around the clock, were isolated from their other support networks, and were often subjected to Bettelheim’s rages themselves. The staff were also Bettelheim’s patients, sharing the most intimate details of their lives with their boss: “The senior counselors also regularly laid down on Bettelheim’s couch to be analyzed, with Bettelheim sharing the results with the rest of the staff,” according to Ron Grossman’s reporting in the Chicago Tribune. This led to “two types of employees: near-saints and adults almost as troubled as the children they were hired to help.” 

His victims were likewise isolated. Visitors were prohibited and parents were discouraged from calling or writing; visits home were kept to a minimum. Students were under constant surveillance— their mail was read and their personal belongings were regularly searched. Every comment, gesture, and minor action was dissected. Many of them, by contemporary standards, don’t even appear to have qualified for a diagnosis of autism or emotional disturbance, but rather, were physically awkward or had learning differences like dysgraphia or dyslexia, or any number of other more ordinary issues. Yet they were taunted and constantly told they were crazy. And as Pekow, one of Bettelheim’s first accusers, wrote to me in an email exchange, “Who are you going to believe: the greatest child psychologist in the world or an allegedly crazy kid?”

Pekow described how he had met resistance even from his own family: “Eventually, my parents came around to accepting that they were taken by a fraud but defended themselves because of his reputation. ‘Getting a kid into [the O-School] was like getting a kid into Harvard,’ my mother told me.”

It seems clear why parents, frantic to find help for their children, but reluctant to warehouse them in overcrowded state mental hospitals, would clamor to place their child in a prestigious school under a director who claimed an 80 percent success rate.

But Bettelheim was aided and abetted not just by inexperienced and naïve staff and desperate and status-conscious parents. He was assisted by grants from philanthropic foundations—the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations among them—by a great research university that never exercised oversight, and by established scholars and therapists eager to benefit from his success. 

He was peddling a seductive message—that developmental delays could be cured, that trauma could be reversed—to a public hungry to hear it. Why? Perhaps because of what was embedded in his theory and practice: contempt for the weak and the vulnerable—for children and for minorities and women. He successfully tapped into the anti-Semitism and misogyny that was already rampant in postwar America.

For any American feeling a twinge of guilt over their nation’s enabling of Hitler or refusal to take in Jewish refugees (even, in fact, turning Jews away at the border to send them to their deaths), Bettelheim represented reassurance that it was not their fault. Here was a Jew who had spent time in the camps telling them that the Jews had done it to themselves: “It may have been the Jews’ acceptance,” he wrote, “without fight, of ever harsher discrimination and degradation that first gave the SS the idea that they could be gotten to the point where they would walk to the gas chambers on their own.”

Furthermore, those moved to tears by the plight of Anne Frank could be reassured by Bettelheim that her fate was really her parents’ fault—after all, they had sent the family “passively into hiding” and, when captured, they had not had the foresight to be armed and fight back “instead of walking to their death.”

As his former student Ronald Angres astutely points out: “Structurally speaking, his implied attack on the behavior of European Jews during the Holocaust would resemble his later explicit attacks on parents for causing mental illness in children.” And not just parents, but mothers in particular. 

Like most postwar mental-health professionals, Bettelheim was completely blind to the ways that patriarchy may have warped family dynamics, or the ways that wartime losses and the PTSD of survivors might resonate in individual families, but he was ever vigilant to point out the most minor flaws of mothers, who might fleetingly resent a screaming infant, or wish to work outside the home. Bettelheim discounted nature entirely and blamed everything on nurture. He would assert in one letter: “All my life I have been working with children whose lives have been destroyed because their mothers hated them.” 

Bettelheim’s toxic ideas would influence autism research and treatment for decades. Leo Kanner, the medical doctor and psychiatrist who first coined the term “infantile autism,” had circulated his idea that the condition was caused by uncaring “refrigerator mothers,” but Bettelheim was able to spread “Kanner’s theories of toxic parenting even further into pop culture than Kanner himself could have,” according to Steve Silberman’s 2015 book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. And he was able to intensify these theories: “Where Kanner saw a refrigerator, Bettelheim saw a concentration camp, with the mother as Kommandant.”

After the abuse revelations and the fabricated CV came the charges of plagiarism. In the Journal of American Folklore, Dr. Alan Dundes, a respected professor at the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrated how Bettelheim’s best-selling book borrowed extensively from Dr. Julius E. Heuscher’s 1963 Psychiatric Study of Myths and Fairy Tales. This was not a case of sloppy attribution or missing quotation marks—the borrowing was of entire passages, and Heuscher wasn’t even listed in the bibliography.

Oddly, Heuscher went to great lengths to defend Bettelheim, even to the point of disparaging his own scholarship. Heuscher told the Washington Post that his own work “was not particularly original” to begin with. He acknowledged to the Chicago Tribune that Bettelheim “may have copied a few things, but it really doesn’t bother me.’’ It is bizarre to read a lifelong academic, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford, stating that proper attribution is merely a courtesy. Sure, “the polite thing is to quote,” but he also asserted to the Los Angeles Times, “We all plagiarize. I plagiarize.” And besides, he argued, “Bruno Bettelheim is brilliant.”

And brilliant men are allowed many things. To be, as the New York Times admitted in his otherwise glowing obituary, “provocative,” to be “gruff,” to be “prickly [and] belligerent.” 

As more accusations and accounts rolled in, it became clear that it was no secret that Bettelheim was prone to stealing, to lying, to raging. But, as Alida Jatich, the very first whistle-blower, wrote in a follow-up, “people somehow believed that his vile, pointless, and totally unpredictable outbursts were simply another facet of his supposed ‘genius.’”

In her Paris Review blog article, Claire Dederer asks “What do we do with the art of monstrous men?”, the men who “did or said something awful, and made something great.” Would Bettelheim qualify as one of her “monster geniuses”?

Some seem to think so. The psychiatrist and professor Peter Kramer placed Bettelheim within the tradition of the flawed “grand old men of psychoanalysis,” noting that “Jung takes a patient as a mistress, Freud ignores patients’ accounts of incest, Ferenczi cannot decide which patient to marry, the mother or the daughter.” 

But did Bettelheim actually make anything truly great (whether Jung or Freud or Ferenczi did is another matter altogether)? Should a plagiarized book by a man who had faked his credentials still be anthologized, and taught? Is The Uses of Enchantment great in the sense that it deserves to be studied and taught as anything other than a cultural artifact or historical curiosity? 

The very passages my students once responded to enthusiastically now seem more like a list of qualities a predator looks for in his prey—the fractured family, the “deep inner conflicts,” the “desperate feelings of loneliness and isolation,” the near constant “mortal anxiety.” 

And the Freudian readings of fairy tales that comprise half of the book seem trite and laughably outdated. 

Upon the book’s release in 1976, reviewers had bowed to Bettelheim’s authority. Diane Johnson in the Washington Post posited, “if Bettelheim is right, as he surely is,” and Updike echoed her deference: “Bettelheim’s interpretations never seem far-fetched.” He said of the analysis of individual fairy tales: “The drops of blood that figure in so many young heroine’s enchantments surely are the blood of menstruation and defloration; the resemblance between frogs or toads and male genitals needs only to be pointed out to be assented to” and, clearly, Cinderella “slips her penile foot into [the prince’s] vaginal slipper.” 

But not every reviewer was so enchanted. The celebrated folklorist Jack Zipes, who had panned the book as “banal,” also warned that “fundamentally, [Bettelheim’s] instructions on how to use the fairy tales can only lead to their abuse.”

Following the initial revelations, two comprehensive biographies of Bettelheim’s life (by Richard Pollak and Nina Sutton) detailed his many forgeries, and three books by former O-School students further recounted his abuses. An overview of Bettelheim’s con game can be easily gleaned from Wikipedia. Yet the O-School still advertises a smiling Bettelheim, refers to his discredited prisoner study, and even repeats a falsehood about Bettelheim having worked with Anna Freud in the 1940s. 

In 2010, Vintage reissued Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment, with its old biography and blurbs, with no foreword or note indicating any hint of controversy about the author’s credentials or plagiarism. Excerpts from the book continue to worm their way into course packs and anthologies, including, most recently, Broadview Press’s 2018 Folk and Fairy Tales

And a slew of recent articles reference Bettelheim as an expert on fairy tales and child psychology. He has been trotted out as an authority on fairy tales in a book review in the New York Times, hailed as a “pioneer” in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, as the author of an “iconic” work in the New Republic, and garnered recent nods and mentions in LitHub, NPR, the Paris Review, and the New Yorker

Once upon a time there was an expert. It hardly matters which one. And once upon a time, in a new land that lay across the big sea, there were many, many people who wanted to believe. 


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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous · 3 years ago

I'm confused. I just studied B.Bettelheim, and I have to write an essay about the educational meaning of fairy tales, I don't know what to think of him or his thought anymore. My book says nothing of his "dark side", there's something about the refrigerator mother theory, that nowdays has nosense. There's only the positive side of the meaning of fairy tale. Do you have any suggestion for me? To make what I write and think realistic ? Thank you, for your attention. 



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