Homage to Bettelheim (1903-1990)

I came to know Bruno Bettelheim in the waning years of his life. Many things separated us; many things united us. If I did not and could not share his mother tongue, his classical education at the University of Vienna, his age, his unique historical experiences, the Holocaust, his emigration to the United States, and his singular work with severely disturbed children, I could and did share with him a visceral antifascism, a commitment to lay analysis, a fascination with psychoanalytic hermeneutics, a concern with grasping contemporary history, and an interest in asking mordant questions…

Korczak knew well that despite his utter devotion to children, he himself was the product of a faulty upbringing and therefore not free of shortcomings; his character to some degree has been botched up by the way he was brought up, as is true for all of us.
Bruno Bettelheim, 1990

by David James Fisher

There was a spirit of gravity about him, an intellectual seriousness and an emotional depth, most of which stemmed from the force of his personality, much of which resulted from the tragic weight of his historical consciousness − above all his memory of German fascism and the concentration camps. I always found him to be courteous, formal in an European sense, a bit remote; yet there was always a compelling presence about him, a personal dignity, a twinkle in his eyes, an ironic sense of humor, an intolerance of the foolishness and stupidity of human beings, a capacity to be self-deprecating and self-critical. His toughness was legendary; he also directed that toughness on himself, as evidenced by his remarkable work discipline and by the prolific quality and quantity of his publications.

Bettelheim once confessed to me, poignantly, that he wished I could have known him ten years ago. Yet until the end of his life, he maintained a spark of intellectual vitality, focusing his vast storehouse of erudition on contemporaneous issues of real concern to his public. In our talks together, he frequently made a gesture of touching, almost massaging his head, when he spoke; this was a man who clearly had a narcissistic investment in the mind, and when he could no longer generate fresh and original ideas, he no longer wished to live.

In the years I knew him he was depressed, often suicidally depressed. He spoke candidly, almost clinically, about his suicidal intentions. It became clear to me that he had researched, thought through, and convinced himself that this was the only courageous way out, the only dignified path for him at his stage in life. He knew that he had completed his creative and scholarly work. He had grown despondent after the illness and death of his wife in 1984, his companion for over forty-three years. He was terribly bitter and resigned about the rupture of his relations with his daughter, his hopes shattered after living with her in Santa Monica. A mild stroke had disabled him to the extent that writing and typing became major chores for him; it was sad to watch him labor over autographing copies of his books when I asked him to lecture before my class on Freud’s Cultural Writings at UCLA. When I last saw him in January 1990, I observed how signing his recently published book, Freud’s Vienna and Other Essays (1990), required a major expenditure of effort.

Bettelheim was a philosopher of psychoanalysis who spoke a fluent, ordinary language that was not condescending to his audience. That language resonated with a large, influential, international public because it touched people in their profoundest depths; he targeted his writings to appeal to the heart and intellect simultaneously. Like a finely trained European intellectual, he knew how to raise elusive questions about history, ethics, psychoanalysis, children and parenting; he knew how to research, how to read texts, how to investigate and explicate the psychological and emotional nuances of things, often grasping the latent meaning of themes between the lines. He was determined not to get bogged down in highly technical or overly specialized questions, not to write in jargon. He developed a distinct style and a discernible voice in which he communicated on a visceral level with human beings, responding soul-to-soul, much of which emanated from a source of empathic sensitivity in his own psyche.

He produced a distinguished and varied body of writings that demands a radical distinction between authentic feeling and cheap sentimentality, between rigorous analysis and reciting established pieties, between realistic and responsible confrontations with difficult choices and an objection to positions flowing from denial, avoidance, or reaction-formation. Most of his texts abound with a sincere humanity, compassion, and care, especially those devoted to comprehending the inner lives of the severely disturbed child; yet his works also served to de-romanticize and demystify. In short, his humanism was not simple-minded, soft, overly optimistic, nor oblivious to reality considerations.

For Bettelheim the privilege of being a psychoanalyst and of practicing, teaching, transmitting, and modifying psychoanalytic theory and practice, consisted in a deeply ingrained respect for the human being, for his or her own privacy, his individual uniqueness, his struggles, his quest for truth, his aspirations toward personal forms of liberation, creativity, and playfulness. These values may reflect his identification with Freud and with the classical liberalism of the Viennese Jewish bourgeoisie of the interwar years. He was one of the last truly independent voices in the world of psychoanalysis, one of those irreverent iconoclasts who never concerned himself about establishment institutions or psychoanalytic institutes, having considerable disdain about regional, national, or international psychoanalytic doctrinal quarrels. He regarded these quarrels as beside the point.

As a self-assured, critical voice, he spoke his mind often in a combative, acerbic, intolerant way, but always thoughtfully, succinctly, pungently. I learned quickly that on certain issues it was futile to debate with him; more than once I found him to be opinionated, authoritarian, rather harsh and conservative in his judgments − on the politics of the antiwar movement in the 1960s, on the critique of American foreign policy, on the theoretical attempt to link Marxism with psychoanalysis. However, even in his decline, dialogue was possible with him; he could be astonishingly disarming and empathic about problems that he knew were existentially and psychologically pressing.

Bettelheim was a man full of stories. If one caught him in the right mood, he was ready to reminisce. For him psychoanalysis was not an impossible profession, it was a „spooky“ profession, practiced by a gallery of rogues, geniuses, shamans, priests, false prophets, narcissists, exhibitionists, functionaries, and occasionally spooks. However, when all was said and done, he maintained a pride about psychoanalysis, finding it intriguing, impossible to pin down, and endlessly evocative. Bettelheim himself could be a little spooky.

He had fond and extraordinarily favorable things to say about Wilhelm Reich, whom he knew in Vienna as a young man, regarding him as „the“ seminal psychoanalytic thinker and clinician of the century. Whenever he spoke of him, he always noted Reich’s vast vitality and unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I sensed that Bettelheim identified with Reich because he too, felt marginalized and ostracized by official psychoanalysis, at least in America. For Bettelheim, Reich’s Character Analysis (1933) represented the birth of modern psychoanalytic theory and practice. He had penetrating, if often biting anecdotes about other luminaries in the psychoanalytic movement, including Margaret Mahler, Anna Freud, Heinz Hartmann, Kurt Eissler, D.W. Winnicott, Melanie Klein, Franz Alexander, and Heinz Kohut.

On my last visit with Bettelheim, I asked him for his clinical advice on persistent problems I was having with several patients who were children of Holocaust survivors. Bettelheim generously urged me to be patient, kind, sensitive, calm, and to remain the master of my own anxieties; to learn to tolerate better the extended process of not knowing; to not rush into interpretations that reconstructed memories or fantasies of the Holocaust; to tough out the often ferocious negative transferences (which he considered the most difficult task to learn and to assimilate in psychoanalytic technique); and to consider and to reflect on the countertransference as an authentic way into the mind and soul of the patient. Then he paused and said with a shock of painful recognition: „You know, my children are children of a Holocaust survivor.“ This is the Bettelheim I remember: helpful, incisive, caring, yet always personal, affectively attuned to the emotional and historical interplay of all interpersonal encounters.

Foto: © Psychosozial-Verlag & Roland Kaufhold


Bettelheim, B. (1943): Individuelles und Massenverhalten in Extremsituationen. In: Erziehung zum Überleben. München (dtv), 1980.
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.
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.

David James Fisher is a practicing psychoanalyst and a European cultural historian. He is Senior Faculty Member, New Center for Psychoanalysis; Training and Supervising Analyst, 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. 155-158. 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. 173-177.

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

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