A Final Conversation With Bruno Bettelheim

Bruno Bettelheim committed suicide on March 13, 1990. He left behind a distinguished and original body of work, consisting of seventeen books and copious other writings. He was one of the world’s foremost psychoanalytic humanists…

by David James Fisher

He [the author] wondered all the time whether man can endure so much without committing suicide or going insane.
Bruno Bettelheim, 1943

The transcript of this conversation with Bettelheim is taken from two discussions I had with him, the first on July 27, 1988, and the second on November 28, 1988. Bettelheim requested that I not publish the interview until after his death due to the confidential nature of some of the material, particularly the section on suicide.

The text covers a good deal of ground, including his ideas on old age, his children, Los Angeles, the concentration camps, suicide, his experience in the 1930’s around the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, his reflections on lay analysis, Freud, his memories of his analysis with Richard Sterba, and the treatment of severely disturbed children. I have selected and edited the material to allow Bettelheim to speak in his own voice.

A poignancy and sadness pervade the text; it is as if Bettelheim was continually wrestling with the idea of suicide and of ways to defend against taking his life. Here is the late Bettelheim summing up and reflecting on the themes that mattered most to him. It may be his last in-depth interview.

D.J.F. Let me begin with a question taken from Simone de Beauvoir’s book Old Age (1972). She says old age exposes the failure of our entire civilization, and she advocates a more generous old age policy,
including higher pensions for the elderly, decent housing, medical care, and organized leisure. Tell me your particular thoughts about old age.

B.B. Don’t reach it! I think that what de Beauvoir suggests is perfectly reasonable. Although, in my opinion, these do not go to the heart of the matter, at least not from my perspective. What I have experienced is a deterioration of physical strength and energy, which I find very hard to take. It is depressing. I see no compensation for it, unless one wishes or desires to see one’s grandchildren grow up because I am curious about them. I know that I am too old to see them grow up, so I will not know what they are going to do. I wish them well, naturally. But what will happen to them in the future is not going to be of interest to me. My children no longer need me. I feel that I have done my life’s work, and I am fairly satisfied with it. But I feel a weakness that makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for me to go on in ways in which I was
accustomed to go on. And that is the great narcissistic hurt which I find very difficult to cope with. It’s nothing unusual or unexpected. It’s nothing that doesn’t come with the course of old age, but I don’t like it.

D.J.F. There have been significant personal changes in your life recently, including the death of a spouse, a move to Los Angeles, a minor stroke, difficulties in swallowing, anxieties about an incapacitating illness, and fears of death.

B.B. No, not fear of death. Only of a painful death. Fear of a prolonged death. What I really wish for is a fast and easy death. That’s easy to wish for. (…)

D.J.F. What does interest you?

B.B. As one grows older, the areas of interest shrink, at least in my case this is so. Now, of course, there are some people who have been able to retain that ability to be creative and hold interests. When I compare today to four years ago during the national elections, I was very interested in seeing one of the candidates win. Today, this topic really doesn’t interest me.

D.J.F. Are you alluding to a physical sense of exhaustion?

B.B. It’s very hard to say. It is a deterioration of interests in life. To be very personal, I have essentially two interests in life. One is to see my younger daughter who is pregnant give birth, and the other is to try to finish another book of mine on ethics. I hope to finish at least the introduction to this book. So, you see, when one is young, one desires many things for the future. But when one becomes as old as I am, one desires only to finish a few things.

D.J.F. I want to turn to Buchenwald and Dachau and the concentration camp experience. We were talking about Primo Levi’s sense of the poignant burden of the survivors. He says that the experience of the concentration camps cannot be understood historically or psychologically by those who did not live it, that it is impossible to convey that experience. There is a paradox for the survivors of the camps, that is, the need to make that incomprehensible experience remembered. Can you comment on that?

B.B. It’s an experience that is so overwhelming, so full of contradictions really that it’s very hard to cope with. I think that anybody who spent time in a German concentration camp − it does not necessarily have to be an extermination camp − never gets rid of the feeling of guilt and shame. It is such a degrading experience that you feel obliged not to suffer it, but to fight back your guilt. You have to suppress your normal reactions in a life-threatening situation. The problem is that you feel no one really understands what you went through. Some people repress it, some try to go on with life as usual as if nothing had ever happened. That’s a very empty way to deal with it.

D.J.F. Can you make it a little more specific? Do you agree with Primo Levi who says that the drowned and the saved are the same? He points out a degree of rage and shame among the Holocaust survivors. He insists on the need not to sentimentalize or idealize the past. In talking about this question, you mention that very revealing story of your cousin in Dachau. Would you talk about him again?

B.B. He was already in Dachau when I arrived there. He gave me some good advice. The advice is whenever you have a chance to sleep, sleep; whenever you have a chance to eat, eat. I found this to be very good advice because some of the prisoners, particularly Jewish prisoners, were very spoiled; they couldn’t eat the kind of junk they presented us with. If you didn’t eat it, you lost all power to survive. You had to force yourself to eat this junk in order to survive. You also needed only short sleep, so whenever you had ten or fifteen minutes to rest, you tried to sleep. Now the interesting thing are the dreams. In the concentration camp, I rarely dreamt about imprisonment or captivity. I dreamt of happy occasions, about…

D.J.F. Wish-fulfilling dreams?

B.B. Yes, and they were very helpful. On the other hand, when you were liberated, you dreamt that you didn’t get out. These were anxiety dreams. So the interesting thing was that in the camp, you didn’t have these anxiety dreams because you wouldn’t be able to cope.

D.J.F. You had enough realistic anxiety.

B.B. That’s right.

D.J.F. Now tell the story – I know this is painful – of the lineup and when your cousin was assaulted.

B.B. As for my cousin, he wasn’t assaulted; he just collapsed. He became unconscious and fell down. And then he was, of course, kicked by the S.S. and so on, and I couldn’t come to his rescue.

D.J.F. No one could have come to his rescue.

B.B. One has to restrain oneself from doing what is so tempting to do. It is a very difficult experience. Very shameful. It goes with the feeling that so many people who were as good as you, maybe better, were murdered. It gives rise to deep feelings of guilt and shame.

D.J.F. To have helped him out would have put your own life in jeopardy.

B.B. That’s right. Very much so. Without really helping him.

D.J.F. And that particular episode comes back as an example of the ambiguity of the morality in the camps?

B.B. Yes, well, in order to survive in the camps, you needed to be a good comrade because you always needed someone to help you. People wouldn’t help you unless you had done the same. There is one experience which becomes very troublesome for me − the „Muslims.“ They were the living corpses, unable to act on their own behalf; they all died very soon. What I’ve seen in some of the old age nursing homes is so much like the camps, the same psychological conditions.

D.J.F. Let me ask you about your views on the chapter in Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved called „The Intellectual in Auschwitz.“ It’s basically about the philosopher Jean Amery. Levi talks about the morality of returning the blow, how the concentration camp experience pushed an individual to the limits of the spirit, into the realm of the unimaginable. We know that Levi himself had an inability to trade punches, to respond to violence with violent forms of self-defense. Is that a particular legacy of the intellectual who survived the camps, or is that something that is universal?

B.B. Yes, I would like to talk about the intellectual. The important thing was that you demonstrated to yourself that your mind was still working. It meant a great deal, it provided some self-reassurance, and it allowed one to hold onto certain ideas and to certain hopes. The main thing was not to lose hope.

D.J.F. Would an intellectual have a different kind of relationship to the issue of hope than a nonintellectual?

B.B. That is hard to say. I had to act so if I wanted to survive. Although I knew the odds against it were very high. But if you adopted hope that you would survive, you wouldn’t suffer all the regulations. You could finish your life. It was very easy − all you had to do was run into the electric wire. (…)

D.J.F. You had to live a kind of split-off existence?

B .B. That’s right, a split in the ego. (…)

D.J.F. I want to get your speculations on the burden and the shame the survivors of concentration camps have, specifically, the potentiality of suicide. I’m thinking again of Prime Levi and of his apparent suicide. And I’m wondering about the existential and psychological proximity to death that survivors of the camps have as a legacy.

B.B. I don’t want to reflect theoretically. The experience in the camp plays havoc with the ego because the ego can no longer protect one. One’s ego becomes deficient. To every sensitive person, there was a very serious weakening of the ego, or, shall we say, it becomes difficult to contain the death drive. One no longer trusted the ego to be able to function.

D.J.F. Why would that experience continue to have, especially amongst people who have written about it, who have borne witness, and who have attempted to perpetuate a memory of it, such power even after thirty or forty years of working it through?

B.B. That’s right. After all, to write about it, to think about it, is to remember it. One remembers how deficient one’s ego was; it is a painful and disturbing experience to study and remember this. I am re-experiencing this now as I read about the fantasies of the Free Corps, for an essay I am preparing for The Times Literary Supplement. My point is that when one was in this experience with so many murderous fantasies, somehow or another the death drive was so overwhelmingly hostile. It was a destructive experience.

D.J.F. Even as a victim?

B.B. That’s right. Even as a victim. Studying it causes one to be exposed and to see how overwhelming the death drive is and how weak the defenses are against it.

D.J.F. To the extent that it could lead to suicidal inclination?

B.B. That’s right. That’s right.

D.J.F. I want you to speculate on the burden and the shame of the survivors of the camps, and in particular, the inclination to commit suicide. Is there an inevitable loss of a defense against death?

B.B. This is always a very personal thing: the propensity to think of suicide in a realistic sense. In the past, I had something very important to live for. But now, with age, particularly since the loss of my wife, there is this wish or the idea of suicide. I don’t want to publicize it.

D.J.F. You have written about the limits of the psychoanalytic perspective in an extreme environment, one of physical, mental, and material deprivation. Yet, you have also talked about, in The Informed Heart, the strength of psychoanalysis as an instrument of understanding, even in impossible situations. Do you still hold to that?

B.B. Yes, the explanatory value of psychoanalysis is beyond question, always. Other aspects of psychoanalysis, the introspection, the self-criticism, are not very useful in an extreme situation. The explanatory value is always there. (…)

D.J.F. I want to ask you about your earliest memories of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. I know it was like a second family to you.

B.B. I don’t really have any memories of this Society, but rather of those who attended it. Because, you see, I was not yet a member. I was very friendly with Wilhelm Reich and, I’ve already mentioned Fenichel, who also became a good friend, and others. I got reports of what happened.

D.J.F. Let me ask you about the period when you were a candidate and your memories about how the candidates were treated: were they infantilized, were they nurtured, were they treated as loyal apprentices? What was the general climate there in terms of the general training period?

B.B. I can only speak from my own experience. It was a very friendly and encouraging experience because I was interviewed, as all candidates at the time were, by Anna Freud and [Paul] Federn. I forgot who the third interviewer was; there were three. And when I was interviewed with Anna Freud, her father entered the room and she introduced me to him, to which he replied, „A Bettelheim does not need any introduction to me!“ He had, as a student, frequently come to the house of my grandfather, and he became friendly with an uncle of mine who shared military service with him. He knew the family. And then he asked about my background. I told him I studied art history, literature, and philosophy. Freud said. „that’s exactly the kind of person we need in this Society to counterbalance the dominance of the medical people who do not have broad culture and interests.“ So that was very encouraging to me; everyone was very encouraging to me.

D.J.F. Do you have memories of whether there was toleration in Vienna for critical debates where there could be challenges to orthodoxy, and was research and independent kind of thinking promoted?

B .B. I know that Freud permitted deviation.

D.J.F. Tell me about it.

B.B. Freud was a very skeptical man who could be very kind, but who could also be very cutting because he did not suffer fools easily. I can tell you one thing that happened. It was described to me by Willie Reich, who at that time was one of the leading members of the Viennese School. During a discussion held at the Society, someone suggested that it might be of benefit for all of humankind if all leading statesmen would be analyzed. There was a lively debate. Freud didn’t talk much then; he was sick. Finally, they turned to him. He said he was pleased that his students had such a high opinion of psychoanalysis. He stopped for a while and looked around the room. And he said, „when I look around this room and think that all of you were analyzed, I cannot help but be skeptical.“ This was typical.

D.J.F. There was an atmosphere that was pervaded with Freud’s skepticism. But that did not get in the way of certain forms of research and of critical thinking as long as one did not deviate too far from Freud’s own theoretical model?

B.B. I don’t know. I always had the suspicion that Freud would never have accepted child psychoanalysis if it had not been started by his daughter. You know, obviously with children, you can’t put them on the couch and just analyze them. You have to play with them and be active, something that Freud didn’t think was very appropriate for analysis. There were personal reasons that he permitted deviations from the classical model.

D.J.F. I’m curious to know what your own perception was of lay analysis in Vienna. Your story of Freud is revealing, but I want to know if there was a particular kind of receptiveness to it. Was there a camaraderie amongst the lay analysts?

B.B. Yes, there was a camaraderie between all of us. It was a beleaguered group that had to stick together and support each other. I think that the question of lay analysis was not a strong issue because there were many lay analysts, and I just told you how Freud responded to my training. (…)

D.J.F. You’ve mentioned a number of times that Wilhelm Reich was your friend; you call him Willie. You’ve often commented on his originality and creativity, especially in the period from the twenties into the early thirties until about 1933, the period of Character Analysis and The Mass Psychology of Fascism. What were the features of Reich’s psychoanalytic mind that made him a very crucial figure in the history of psychoanalysis?

B.B. What impressed me most was his vitality. He was full of spirit. He got excited about things, and he was a very vital guy.

D.J.F. And the people around him also were vitalized by him?

B.B. Yes.

D.J.F. Tell me of your own views of the impact of Anna Freud on the Vienna group in the early and mid-1930s, after Reich was excluded. Was it known that she had been analyzed by her father?

B.B. It was known, but it was kept a secret. Although it was known, it was very much kept a secret that she was analyzed by her father. But, on the other hand, in those early days, children of analysts were often analyzed by their parents; it was not that uncommon.

D.J.F. And her impact? Did she grow in stature when Reich was excluded? And as she began to move toward the publication of The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense?

B.B. The trouble is, I don’t think The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense could have been written if Reich had not published his Character Analysis before. Although it has never been acknowledged.

D.J.F. Do you feel that in some way it is her answer, her more moderate version, of Character Analysis?

B.B. No, it’s not a moderate version, but the whole idea of the analysis of resistance in her book were alleys opened up by the seminars where Willie Reich talked and where she was a student.

D.J.F. The clinical seminars?

B.B. That’s right.

D.J.F. What is your own sense of the comparisons and contrasts of the status of lay analysts in Vienna, and then the period you spent in Chicago?

B.B. As I told you, my training was interrupted very early at the beginning by the invasion of Austria by Hitler. When I came to Chicago, I talked to [Franz] Alexander, who was Director of the Institute, about my background and so on. He said, “You just ought to become a member of our Chicago society; you know more than our candidates know.”

D.J.F. The candidates or the faculty?

B.B. I know. I meant the faculty. He did the same with Gerhard Piers who also did not complete his analysis in Vienna.

D.J.F. In Vienna, how many years of seminars did you finish? Did you have formal seminar training as well?

B .B. No, I had just started.

D.J.F. You had just started and then 1938 ruptured it?

B.B. Yes. I had just completed my own analysis in ’36 and was asked to wait a while before applying so that it was sure that it was not transference that resulted in my desire to be an analyst. The requirement was to wait more or less two years.

D.J.F. What about those Americans who came to Chicago who didn’t have European connections? How were they treated?

B.B. I think that there were very few lay analysts who were in Chicago. What was clear was that Alexander and the Institute preferred medical candidates, and I can’t remember any lay person besides the Europeans. There were very few lay analysts. But, on the other hand, I didn’t feel that there was any animosity against me. I was well accepted.

D.J.F. Did you actually teach on the faculty of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute?

B.B. I taught some courses for teachers and extension courses.

D.J.F. You never joined the faculty?

B.B. No.

D.J.F. Back to Vienna for one second. In the thirties, classical meant Freudian, not ego psychology. I know that you have a certain critique of Hartmann and still consider yourself to be a classical Freudian. What’s the distinction?

B.B. Well, I can only say what Freud said about Heinz Hartmann. He said Heinz has to put on his glasses which change all clinical experience into adaptive statements. In some way, Freud was critical.

D.J.F. Hartmann was also his analysand, wasn’t he?

B.B. That’s right.

D.J.F. In sum, you object to it because it is too theoretical and too distant from clinical experience?

B.B. It seems to me, that’s right. I like to stick closely to the clinical experience.

D.J.F. Is there something objectionable about the idea of neutralization and adaptation? You never entirely subscribed to ego psychology.

B.B. I have no reservations about ego psychology, only that I feel that psychoanalysis is an art and not a science. I am critical of the efforts to make it an objective science when it is an art.

D.J.F. Which is what Hartmann tried to do?

B.B. Right.

D.J.F. Based on your experience, would you say that the future of psychoanalysis ought not to be in the hands of clinicians alone, but rather in the hands of independently minded researchers and intellectuals?

B.B. Well [laughs] after all, I would have to speak against me and my own experience. I felt that the university is a very important place for freedom of thought and generosity in the acceptance of deviant opinions, which I think is a very significant element in the future development of any discipline. But psychoanalysis as such doesn’t lend itself too well to the academic career. On the other hand, I think that the humanistic trends that you can find at a great university are very advantageous to psychoanalysis.

D.J.F. If psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic associations remain dominated by private practice clinicians, by people who are not committed to thinking, or to contributing to the literature and conducting serious research, is the discipline in danger?

B.B. I think that development in psychoanalysis has to be based on clinical experience. Whether one is a medical doctor or not doesn’t determine whether one learns from one’s own clinical experience. I always felt that to be a full-time practitioner of psychoanalysis is a difficult task because one gets caught up too much in one’s patients. One spends all one’s time with the patient hours and it leaves no time to do one’s own thinking. Freud could do that; to see patients all day and then at night write these papers; but there are very few Freuds around. Progress in psychoanalysis will come from people who have time to cogitate on their experience.

D.J.F. You have described your years in Chicago as the happiest and most creative in your life. Yet the assignment you took on was one of the most difficult, if not impossible, namely the understanding of the inner world and the psychological processes of autistic and severely disturbed children. What was your inner need to work with the most elusive of cases?

B.B. [laughs] That’s a complicated story. It really began in Vienna where Anna Freud saw an autistic American child, a mute American child. She thought it would be interesting to find out what psychoanalysis could do for such an abnormal child. But, in order to be effective, the child would have to live in a home that is completely psychoanalytically organized. One hour a week, six hours a week wouldn’t do it; it would have to be day and night. Through a complicated configuration of circumstances, this mother then came to us, my [first] wife and I. We took this child into our house as an experiment for a few months; this experiment lasted for seven years ‘til the Anschluss. It was a fascinating experience to live and work with this child. I tried to help her to begin to talk and to learn in school. It was a fascinating experience.

D.J.F. What was your motivation? Why did you want to take on therapeutic work with the incurable?

B.B. It was one way for me to cope with the experience of the concentration camp. It was the opposite of that experience in the concentration camp, which was deliberately personality destroying to learn to rehabilitate personalities.

D.J.F. With this particular population of patients, how does one evaluate what is a clinical success, a cure?

B.B. When you start out with hopeless cases, you can never cure them; you can only rehabilitate them so they can function in society. They retain certain odd characteristics. (…)

D.J.F. At the Orthogenic School no one could get in without permission and anyone could leave at any time. Some people have called that a noble experiment with a utopian concept, not used in a denigrating but rather in the descriptive sense. Would you agree with that description?

B.B. No, I think that what we did is what the patients required. I don’t think that it is utopian to do right by the patient. It seems to be the only thing that is appropriate.


Bettelheim, B. (1943): Individuelles und Massenverhalten in Extremsituationen. In: Erziehung zum Überleben. München (dtv), 1980.
Bettelheim, B. & Ekstein, R. (1994): Grenzgänge zwischen den Kulturen. Das letzte Gespräch zwischen Bruno Bettelheim und Rudolf Ekstein. In: Kaufhold, R. (Hg.) (1994), S. 49–60.
Ekstein, R. (1994): Mein Freund Bruno (1903–1990). Wie ich mich an ihn erinnere. In: Kaufhold (Hg.) (1994): S. 87–94.
Fallend, K./Nitzscke, B. (Hg.) ((2002): Der „Fall“ Wilhelm Reich. Beiträge zum Verhältnis von Psychoanalyse und Politik. Gießen (Psychosozial-Verlag).
Fisher, D. J. (2003): Psychoanalytische Kulturkritik und die Seele des Menschen. Essays über Bruno Bettelheim unter Mitarbeit von Roland Kaufhold et. al., Gießen (Psychosozial-Verlag). http://www.psychosozial-verlag.de/psychosozial/details.php?p_id=281
Fisher, D. J. (2003a): Ein letztes Gespräch mit Bruno Bettelheim. In: Fisher (2003), S. 133-158.
Fisher, D. J. (2003b): Psychoanalytische Kulturkritik und die Seele. In: Fisher (2003), S. 73-98.
Fisher, D. J. (2003c): Zum psychoanalytischen Verständnis von Faschismus und Antisemitismus. In: Fisher (2003), S. 99-122.
Fisher, D. J. (2003d): Ermutigung zum Spiel. In: Fisher (2003), 123-132.
Fisher, D. J. (2003e): Hommage an Bruno Bettelheim (1903–1990). In: Fisher (2003), S. 173-177.
Kaufhold, R. (Hg.) (1994): Annäherung an Bruno Bettelheim, Grünewald, Mainz (nur noch beim Autor für 12 € erhältlich: Bestellung über: rolandkaufhold (at) netcologne.de).
Kaufhold, R. (2001): Bettelheim, Ekstein, Federn: Impulse für die psychoanalytisch-pädagogische Bewegung, Psychosozial-Verlag, Gießen. www.suesske.de/kaufhold-1.htm
Kaufhold, R. et. al. (2003) : Einleitung. In : Fisher (2003), S. 24-69.
Levi, P. (1990): Die Untergegangenen und die Geretteten. Hanser, München.
Wirth, H.-J. (2005): Narcissism and Power. Psychoanalysis of Mental Disorders in Politics. Gießen (Psychosozial-Verlag). http://www.psychosozial-verlag.de/psychosozial/details.php?p_id=480

David James Fisher is a practicing psychoanalyst and a European cultural historian. He is Senior Faculty Member, New Center for Psychoanalysis; Training and Supervising Analysr, Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis; and Clinical Instructor, Department of Psychiatry, UCLA School of Medicine. He is the author of Romain Rolland and the Politics of Intellectual Engagement (Transaction Publishers, 2004); Cultural Theory and Psychoanalytic Tradition (Transaction Publishers, 1991) and Psychoanalytische Kulturkritik und die Seele des Menschen. Essays über Bruno Bettelheim unter Mitarbeit von Roland Kaufhold et. al., Gießen (Psychosozial-Verlag).

David James Fisher ist Kulturhistoriker und praktizierender Psychoanalytiker in Los Angeles. Er ist Professor für klinische Psychiatrie an der UCLA School of Medicine, Senior Faculty Member des Psychoanalytischen Instituts in Los Angeles sowie Trainer und Supervisor am Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis.

Diese Studie wurde auf englisch publiziert in: David James Fisher: Bettelheim: Living and Dying, Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies 8, Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam – New York 2008, S. 127-144. Nachdruck mit freundlicher Genehmigung von David James Fisher, Los Angeles.
Die deutschsprachige Version dieser Studie ist erschienen in David James Fisher (2003): „Psychoanalytische Kulturkritik und die Seele des Menschen. Essays über Bruno Bettelheim“ unter Mitarbeit von Roland Kaufhold et. al., Gießen (Psychosozial-Verlag), S. 133-157.

Die Studie wurde von Roland Kaufhold für diese haGalil-Veröffentlichung durchgesehen und leicht gekürzt. Wir danken dem Psychosozial Verlag und seinem Inhaber Prof. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Wirth für die freundliche Abdruckgenehmigun

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