Bruno Bettelheim

Most of us have heard, and many may have even read, some of Bruno Bettelheim’s ideas and work.  For those of you unfamiliar – Bruno Bettelheim, born in Austria, came to some prominence when he became director of the Orthogenic School, in connection with the University of Chicago for children with a variety of emotional and neurological issues.  His book, The Empty Fortress was published in 1967; read by many and touted as the final word on autism and its cause – the aloof and emotionally withholding mother.  At the time, his views on the subject became widely known and the treatment for autism was to put the mother in psychoanalysis.  The belief that the mother, in her lack of love for her child, caused the child to withdraw from the world was adopted by many.  Bettelheim claimed a high success rate of children with autism in his school.  It was only until after his suicide that many of his former students came forward with harrowing tales of abuse.  Much of Bruno Bettelheim’s work and ideas have since fallen into question.  The concept of the “refrigerator mom,” something he was an advocate of, has proven to have no validity.

Last week I had a piece published in the Huffington Post – – a woman, now in her nineties wrote to me about her experience of being the mother of a child with autism, diagnosed in 1961.  Rather than examine her child when she sought help, she was put into analysis and blamed for her child’s neurological issues.  She wrote a book, A Few Impertinent Questions, http://301­45.myautho­, that tells of her painful journey.  It is a powerful story.

As I read her book, I reflected on what we think we know now about autism and what will come to light in the future.  Fifty years from now how will we view what we think we know?  What ideas will seem almost comical because we will have learned so much more.  What therapies will have fallen out of favor?  What new therapies will have taken their place?  What will be proven and seem obvious in fifty or sixty years from now, but are not obvious to us now?  I, most likely, will not be around in another fifty years to know the answers to these questions, but I am sure much will be revealed.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.Emma’s Hope

4 responses to “Bruno Bettelheim

  1. Thank you, Ariane. Your email mysteriously disappeared from my screen, so I am answering you here. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to buy my book. It is obsolete, because I work on it constantly. Read it on my website.

    What happened to mothers of autistic children couldn’t take place today. Doctors know about many illnesses, knowledge that takes years to acquire. However with the Internet, a patient can, if they choose, become an authority on their own particular illness. I’m not sure all doctors are happy about that.
    Berthajane Vandegrift

  2. Bruno Bettelheim was born exactly one year after Mother, Aug. 1903. The ideas of that generation especially in medicine, family and love, have largely disappeared. Fortunately we can see that much more will be learned about all of the above in the future as they have already in three generations. Bruno Bettelheim must have been filled with hate after his father died of syphilis and he was interred in Dachau.

    Remember when we visited that dreadful place? And the people of Munich whom we spoke to said they were totally unaware that it existed???

    The world has changed, but only in some ways. For autistic children there will be much more, perhaps even in just a few years. One can only hope and go on loving, as I do for you, Richard, Emma and Nic, all of whose lives have been changed irrevocably.


  3. Yes, it’s interesting that Bettelheim applied his experience in the concentration camps to his views of autism. He claimed that he saw “autistic” traits in the prisoners held there and then made the mental leap in assuming therefore these children were being raised by mothers who were similar to the Nazi prison guards – and more amazingly – people went along with his thinking and even supported it. He was, evidently, incredibly charismatic and persuasive. Sadly many peoples lives were damaged as a result.

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