The Relationship and Debates Between Bruno Bettelheim and Rudolf Ekstein

The relationship between Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990) and Rudolf Ekstein (1912-2005) evolved initially from a shared professional commitment to the understanding and treatment of severely disturbed children and adolescents. On an even deeper level, both were European intellectuals, strongly identified with lay analysis, who were profoundly invested in ideas and in the transmission of psychoanalytic forms of knowledge. The two had a joint fascination with the psychology of fairy tales. They had distinct itineraries in the psychoanalytic movement, starting in Vienna and continuing in America. Both were assimilated Viennese Jewish intellectuals who graduated from the University of Vienna with their doctorates in 1937. Their social origins were divergent. Bettelheim came from a cultivated upper bourgeois background, his father owned a lumber factory. Ekstein’s class origins were petty bourgeois, his father was employed as a bookkeeper…

Von David James Fisher (Los Angeles)

What I cherish most are the remarks which reflect your friendship, which means a great deal more to me than all the rest.
(Bruno Bettelheim, 1969)

I am grateful for your candor. Friendship is worthless without it.
(Rudolf Ekstein, 1984)

Bettelheim’s formal psychoanalytic education never actually began; it was interrupted by Anschluss (Austrian union with Germany) and by his arrest and incarceration in German concentration camps for eleven months in 1938-1939. He completed his analysis with Richard Sterba, a distinguished analyst affiliated with the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Ekstein’s clinical psychoanalytic training came out of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society’s program of psychoanalytic pedagogy. His earliest professional aspirations were to become a teacher. Ekstein began his analysis in Vienna sometime in 1937 with Dr. Eduard Kronengold, a Polish Jew, referred by Anna Freud; it was a very brief and incomplete analysis, interrupted in March, 1938 by the Nazi takeover of Austria and both their needs to escape. When Kronengold emigrated to America, he shortened his name to Kronold. Ekstein was later analyzed by Edward Hitschmann in Cambridge, Mass., who was himself an early member of Freud’s circle, a former analysand of Freud. Both Kronengold and Hitschmann were Socialist in their political orientation, openly sympathetic to Austrian Social Democracy.

Both Bettelheim and Ekstein, as third generation psychoanalysts in training, remained intimately identified with the writings and methodology of Freud, although neither had very much direct contact with the founder of the movement in the l930’s, primarily because of Freud’s age and illness and his relative withdrawal from the activities of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Bettelheim said that he met Freud while being interviewed by Anna Freud and Paul Federn as a candidate for admission. Ekstein never met Freud, but was electrified seeing him from across the street of Freud’s apartment: “Freud did not teach anymore. He had his own private seminar, you could sort of see him through the window. I had a friend with whom I studied philosophy at Berggasse 20 opposite Berggasse 19 and for a moment you could see Freud go to the window. He was a fantastically dominant figure even for those who had never seen him.”

Both Bettelheim and Ekstein shared the insults, injuries, and promise of exile; both were forced traumatically to emigrate to the United Sates because of the rise of National Socialism in Austria in March, 1938. Bettelheim was arrested and subsequently deported to German concentration camps, spending a total of eleven months in Dachau and Buchenwald. Ekstein escaped in 1938 because of his own dangerous involvement as a socialist militant, member of the Social Democratic Party, and activist in the anti-fascist underground movement. He had been arrested a number of times for distributing illegal, that is, pro-parliamentary leaflets and served brief sentences in jail. He was triply tainted by the Nazis as a Marxist, Jew, and psychoanalyst. Both refugees made successful even brilliant careers in America, contributing a vast number of papers and books to the psychoanalytic literature, in addition to having high profiles as teachers, lecturers, and educators.

They had distinctly different positions regarding the official psychoanalytic establishment in America. Bettelheim remained outside the American Psychoanalytic Association and never joined the faculty at the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute, occasionally teaching extension courses. He was an academic and tenured professor at the University of Chicago; he directed the Orthogenic School, which was affiliated with the university, but which afforded him a great deal of administrative and clinical autonomy. Bettelheim functioned as an articulate scholar and informed authority on mainstream psychoanalysis, distinguished by his acerbic critiques of psychoanalytic pretense and reliance on mystifying jargon. From the 1950’s until his death, he was one of a handful of public intellectuals who spoke to a wide, literate public on a variety of social, educational, historical, and mental health issues. While Ekstein never commanded the same level of recognition as did Bettelheim, despite his publication by commercial presses, he remained a significant local and national presence, writing for a specialized audience of clinicians, as well as a figure of some significance in Vienna from 1974 until the mid 1990’s.

Ekstein, for his part, endured but never quite overcame the opposition of the American Psychoanalytic Association toward lay analysis. Beginning with his ten-year stint in Topeka, Kansas at the Menninger Foundation from 1947-1957, where he was the training analyst of the lay analysts (medical analysts were not permitted to be analyzed by him because he was non-medical), continuing in Los Angeles, both at the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute, from 1958 until the mid 1990’s, Ekstein conducted training analyses, supervised candidates, and lead seminars both within and without the institutes. By the later 1990’s his health required him to curtail his professional activities. Despite his background as a lay analyst, despite the overwhelming power of the medical-psychiatric orientation during his career in America, Ekstein never became a mere functionary or spokesman for orthodox psychoanalysis. He never felt the need to leave the institute and to form a new institute under his leadership; he remained suspicious of the pattern of splits in the history of psychoanalysis, thinking that such splits turned more on questions of personal power than on the persuasiveness of ideas, or the clinical efficacy of new methods.

When Ekstein was asked he would speak at institutes not affiliated with the American Psychoanalytic Association. He refused to be parochial or dogmatic. He had no use for psychoanalytic bureaucracies or bureaucrats. When new institutes were formed, he often agreed to join. This became true in Los Angeles when he became affiliated as a training analyst at the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies (L.A.I.S.P.S.), founded by clinical psychologists and social workers with a dynamic orientation who were prevented from being trained at institutes connected to the American. Likewise, he joined the California Graduate Institute (C.G.I.) in the 1980’s; he affiliated with the Psychoanalytic Center of California (P.C.C.), itself a split from C.G.I. in the 1990’s, which had a predominantly Kleinian and object relations point of view. In answering a question about how he felt about his relationship to the institute, he expressed his ambivalence about bureaucracies and his desire to remain independent and critical of the larger organization, a member of the loyal opposition:

I am half outside, half inside. It’s a little bit like a love affair, you know. You have a person in your arms and it feels suddenly the two of you are one. But how often does that happen? How often does it happen that we suddenly feel alone? The same is with the institutes. Sometimes one feels it’s a lovely love affair and sometimes one thinks, ‘Oh heck, I got screwed again!’ I never spoke this way in Vienna. I learned this in America.

Regarding personality, Bettelheim and Ekstein were distinctly different creative narcissists. Despite his enormous vitality, prodigious capacity for work, and intense focus, Bettelheim was a depressive. He was a highly serious man with a spirit of gravity about him. He did not suffer fools easily. Impatient, tough-minded, authoritarian, easy to anger, Bettelheim had a need to unmask sentimentality, to cut through phoniness, and demolish soft thinking. He was a proponent of the reality principle and was unwilling to tolerate idealistic or romantic conceptions of the personality, of cultural artifacts, or of history. He displayed an ironic sense of humor and he could often be self-deprecating. He intensely disliked pretense and he could be brutally honest, often picking up on an individual’s vulnerabilities and inner conflicts, offering searing interpretations. He had an uncanny ability to make one feel understood and, on the other hand, to make one feel exposed, precipitating feelings of shame and guilt.

Ekstein, on the other hand, was significantly lighter in mood and affectivity than was Bettelheim, despite a life history that was saturated by hardship, loss, and trauma. Ekstein had a wonderful knack for interacting well with others. He was likeable, outspoken, but almost always tactful. Though erudite, bookish and a lover and collector of books, he was playful, witty, earthy, irreverent, avuncular, and childlike. He possessed a ready access to his own broad spectrum of emotions and his own rich fantasy life; he could easily laugh as well as easily shed tears. His affectivity was linked integrally to his method of clinical empathy, often speaking of the need of the clinician to feel himself into the world, mind, and soul of the patient. His guiding clinical principle was: tell me in what language I need to speak with you. He was unashamed to be moved by people. Many of his own memories evoked a strong, emotional response. He was a gentle soul. Ekstein preferred to mediate, to build bridges, rather than to criticize or polemicize as did Bettelheim, once joking during a period of institute strife that he would rather “make love, not war.” Charming, intuitive, inventive, sensitive, intellectually curious, with a gift for communicating through metaphor and simile, Ekstein was a distinctly kind and original man who maintained a sense of wonder about individuals, their potential for growth and reflection, a sense of astonishment about the world.

Rudi Ekstein (li), seine Frau Ruth, Bruno Bettelheim, Foto: (c) R. Kaufhold


Because the personal history of Bettelheim is so well documented, no fewer than three full-length biographies having recently appeared, this chapter will focus more on the lesser known Ekstein in order to situate their relationship and debates and in order to provide a biographical and historical context for their correspondence.

Ekstein’s life history was one of severe loss and trauma and of the continuous process of overcoming serious obstacles to his life and professional pursuits. He was born in 1912 in Vienna, the only child of Charlotte and Ernst Ekstein (1883-1970). He described his father lovingly as “a very simple bookkeeper” who never acquired much money in his life. When Ekstein senior arrived in America in 1939 as a refugee, he brought with him ten dollars, all else had been confiscated by the Nazi government.

Ekstein lost his mother very early in life, possibly between the age of three or four. He claimed to have no specific memories of Charlotte.

I lost my mother, very, very early. I was a little boy…I lost a mother that early…It was an early loss and my father was… there was still the war going on…he could not even be at home and he had to turn me over to a stranger…I lost her as a very, very young person…That is so long ago. I grew up a person who has no strong living concept about her.

Regarding how his mother died, he answered somewhat vaguely: “The way people died. Of that I have almost no knowledge.”

At the memorial for Ekstein in May, 2005, Robert Wallerstein presented a more poignant version of Charlotte’s fate. Ernst Ekstein had once asked him if his son had ever spoken of his biological mother. Though they had been friends and colleagues for over fifty years, Wallerstein stated that he had not. Ernst Ekstein then narrated what actually happened to Charlotte. She had not died at the outbreak of World War I. Rather, she became psychologically disabled on a permanent basis, no longer able to function, requiring full-time hospitalization or institutionalization. She perished sometime during the 1940’s during the period of Nazi domination of Austria.

Ernst Ekstein, for his part, was a kind and caring man, who did all he could do to raise, nurture, and educate his only son. They lived on Hunzpasse in the Ninth District in Vienna. His father left Vienna to fight in World War I, resulting in a long separation between them. He was probably stationed in Slovakia, fighting with the armed forces of the Austrian Emperor. The child Ekstein, already distressed by the loss of his mother, now had to face a long separation from his compassionate father. Ernst Ekstein left the child under the loving care of a housekeeper, Emilie Neudorfer, whom Ekstein described in glowing terms as a reliable caretaker and surrogate mother: “She was a wonderful, faithful Catholic lady who took me sometimes to church to pray with me and taught me prayers for Papa. She taught me he would come back from the war, and I was utterly convinced he would.”

Ekstein had to be hospitalized for several months sometime between the age of ten and twelve because of chronic ear problems. He never recovered some hearing in one of his ears, always burdened by this physical defect. How ironic that this future psychoanalyst who specialized in subtle forms of listening came into his profession with a significant impairment in hearing. The hospitalization deeply shocked the young man, not only because of the insensitivity and brutality of the hospital staff, but also because of his witnessing the “innocent sadism” of the treatment of other patients and because he was prematurely exposed to terminally ill and dying patients.

His own hospitalization severely set him back in terms of his performance at school; he began to fail; his self-esteem plummeted; he was filled with feelings of shame and unworthiness. A number of teachers recommended that he go to trade school, thinking him incapable of handling the rigors of academic work. Ekstein had to repeat a year because of bad grades, the pressure of competition, and lost time because of the hospitalization. His father interceded on his behalf against the advice of the school authorities, saying at a school conference that he wanted his son to continue on an academic track, not to be sent to a trade school. His father hoped that he would pursue a more practical career, something like engineering or law.

What helped Ekstein turn things around for himself educationally became emblematic for his entire life. In an autobiographical essay written in the third person singular, blending objectivity and a slightly distancing tone, he remembered: “He had taken hold of himself and within a few months moved toward the top of the class.” In addition to his father’s support and encouragement to continue in school, an empathic teacher took a liking to him, requesting that he read aloud to the class an essay the young Ekstein had written. This same affirming teacher asked him to tutor students in his own class and to take on younger struggling students. He identified with learning disabled children and children in trouble. Yet, he did so with a rebellious edge. He wanted to teach them in ways that far surpassed his own teachers. He would reach them by empathizing and understanding the subjective struggles of the learning child.

Much of his desire to teach grew out of a rebellious spirit which required that he teach better than his teachers and that he understand the children better. He identified particularly with the troubled child except that he wanted the troubled child not to accept his fate. It was a strange double identification. He accepted the goals of the teachers, but struggled against their methods.


Ekstein came of age in Vienna in a historical context in which Austrian Socialism and the Austrian Social Democratic Party had reached its highest point of influence in the First Austrian Republic, 1918-1935. Austrian Social Democracy appealed simultaneously to workers, union members, and to intellectuals. Austro-Marxism, the ideology and platform of the Austrian Social Democrats, was more of a radical mass movement than the reformist and bureaucratic German Social Democratic Party, and more democratic than Leninist Bolshevism in the 1920’s and 1930’s in the Soviet Union. Austro-Marxism can be thought of as a middle road between revolutionary socialism and Soviet Communism in the period between the wars. The party had distinguished intellectuals in leadership positions, including Max Adler, Friedrich Adler, Rudolf Hilferding, Otto Bauer, and Karl Renner. It published a party daily newspaper, the Arbeiter-Zeitung. One of its members, Karl Seitz, became the Mayor of Vienna from 1923 to 1934, the period of “Red Vienna.”

If Austrian Social Democracy possessed competent, sincere, and somewhat anguished and indecisive leadership, it also produced a respectable and original form of Marxism, a democratic Marxism taken very seriously by its membership and by members of the Socialist youth movement. The Social Democrats viewed themselves as revolutionaries who would be willing to take to the streets. They were capable of armed struggle. They acted as integral anti-fascists. On two such occasions—the spontaneous Vienna insurrection of 1927 and the insurrection of February, 1934—the resistance to fascism was rapidly and brutally defeated. Nonetheless, there was a willingness to take arms against fascism, not just make speeches and offer empty rhetoric.

The cultural politics of Austro-Marxism were exceptionally significant and highly resonant in Viennese intellectual circles. Vienna in the later 1920’s and early and middle 1930’s became a socialist bastion against Catholic and conservative political forces, as well as forms of Austrian fascism which enjoyed increasingly wide appeal in the provinces. Austro-Marxism developed into a socialist experiment referred to as Red Vienna, becoming an increasingly isolated enclave in a context where Austria was moving toward reaction and tyranny. They insisted that the principles of socialism, including class struggle, were fully compatible with democratic forms of government and with the commitment to self-government. Arguing that the social movement ought to be democratically structured, not based on an authoritarian model, they embraced the French revolutionary principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Austro-Marxism was more indebted to Kant than to Hegel. Kantian Marxism posited an idea of ethical socialism, a socialism of humane values, and a socialism that emanated from the intellectual and moral universality of Marxism. For Kantian Marxists the individual was seen always as an end, never a means. If all human beings were ends in themselves, workers could not be treated as commodities; no individual could be objectified. Furthermore, the free development of the individual had to take place in voluntary associations, the goal of which was to create a human brotherhood, with community feeling and community responsibility. Kantian socialism moved in the direction of a psychological theory, one that was opposed to metaphysics and which placed an emphasis on a theory and practice of ethical values. Man was a social being, who through the mediating vehicle of a transcendental consciousness, might strive toward the unity of human beings and strengthen the ties between them. Under a socialist form of society, then, man might ultimately be free to realize his potential and restore himself to his own fully human nature, while building social organizations that were free, rational, and self-determining. Social democracy became the agency for individuals to create economic and cultural equality while curing class antagonisms.

The Austrian Social Democrats produced a specific, distinguished, and highly effective program of social welfare and social improvement in Vienna during these years. The experiment of “socialism in one city” included important innovations in health care, including dental and childcare, and youth clinics. They attended to leisure activities, for instance, constructing and operating sports facilities and public swimming pools. There was a radical housing policy and a municipal building project to house workers and the unemployed. The housing projects were financed by property and luxury taxes on the wealthy. Austro-Marxists also successfully implemented major social reforms such as the eight-hour day, paid vacations for workers, the recognition of collective bargaining for unions, regulations of children’s, women’s, and night labor. As part of their commitment to the creation of a “new man,” Austro-Marxists implemented youth organizations, adult education, libraries, bookshops, theaters, festivals, and lecture series for its membership.

These impressive cultural achievements were designed to create decent living situations for poor people and workers, an educational sphere oriented to teach and uplift proletarian children. Most historians agree with that the “politics of pedagogy” of Austro-Marxism were far more successful than its political record. Devoted to Bildung, the education and cultivation of individuals with moral character, the Austro-Marxists were committed to and achieved a vast program of social democratic innovation. Given the widespread dissemination of anti-Semitic prejudice in Austria, Austrian Social Democracy was less contaminated by anti-Semitism than any other party in Austria; yet, there were unflattering and anti-Semitic stereotypes in the Social Democratic movement, even among leaders of Jewish origin.

Ekstein’s involvement with the Viennese Socialist youth movement decisively shaped not only his consciousness but also his political orientation and personal ideals in this period. Socialism became a key component in the formation of his sense of self. He was drawn both to the ideological as well as to the utopian facets of Austro-Marxism. First of all, socialism appealed to him because he wanted to change the world, to rid the world of social classes and those socio-economic forces that promoted nationalism and world wars. He found compelling the mixture of individualism and social responsibility in the Socialist ethic. He was enthusiastic about the educational and cultural efforts of Austro-Marxism, loving to quote a Socialist slogan: “We Socialists have led the Viennese workers from the gin bottle to the workers’ symphony concert.” Ekstein himself, attended lectures at the workers’ school, organized under the auspices of the Social Democratic Party, finding them often more illuminating than those at the University of Vienna. He recalled vividly the memory of Edgar Zilsel lecturing on Spinoza as an example of the quality of the intellectual fare offered up to the workers in this era. Combining a model educational and social welfare system, Ekstein quoted the words of Julius Tandler, who was a Welfare Minister in Vienna, to capture the core humanism of the Socialist project: “He who builds palaces for children tears down the walls of prisons.”

As an adolescent, he embraced the utopian side of Socialism because he was convinced that without it one could not be a sensitive and compassionate man. With the increasing polarization of Austrian society between left and right, between Social Democracy and fascism, the utopian aspects of Austro-Marxism helped him to hold on to his ideals. “He [Ekstein] spoke about his feelings that the utopias, unreachable goals, eternal longings never to be fulfilled, only approximated, nevertheless had to be a guide for him who wanted to be a decent person.” Socialism for Ekstein meant moving young people toward a better world, where everyone could strive for “self-realization.” He became a leader in the youth movement, with a command of theory, but also a fine oratorical style. He conceived of leadership morally; he opposed more radical leaders who tended to indoctrinate rather than educate followers, who saw youth “as more tools of the state or of the party apparatus.” Even in his most radical phase as Marxist, Ekstein was suspicious of propagandistic and bureaucratic aspects of his own ideology and social movement.

As Ekstein became aware of pressing social issues, such as hunger, poverty, unemployment, and the ominous rise of fascism, he became politicized. Marxism appealed to him because of its debunking stance toward the existing social system, because it resonated with his rebellious and critical attitudes, and because he shared its moral dimension, its opposition to inequality, its commitment to the socially oppressed, and its belief in social justice. Yet he was always drawn to members of the Socialist movement who had some understanding of themselves. Already interested in the study of psychology, recognizing that the knowledge of psychology would be crucial in all teaching and learning activities, Ekstein gravitated to Alfred Alder and attended Adler’s lectures for several years before going over to the Freudians. Adler, of course, was known as a Socialist and he lectured five minutes away from the university. “Before I went to the analysts, I went to Alfred Adler’s lectures. So for a while I was in danger of becoming an Adlerian! Adler was a Socialist, a Social Democrat, so that’s where I had to go.”

While on a summer holiday in his early twenties, Ekstein was told by friends about a book by Siegfried Bernfeld, Sisyphus ,or the Limits of Education (1925) that significantly changed his life. Bernfeld attempted to combine Marxist sociology with Freudian psychology in a manner that intellectually and emotionally excited Ekstein. He asked his friends where he could learn more about these teachings. He was told about the program led by Anna Freud and August Aichhorn to train psychoanalytic pedagogues. It was a “movement” which opened up psychoanalytic perspectives to kindergarten, elementary and high school teachers: It [Sisyphus, or The Limits of Education] was an early attempt to synthesize Marxian understanding of the social world and Freudian understanding of the inner world. The social world, Bernfeld suggested, sets the outer limits of education, while the inner world of the child, his unconscious, sets the inner limits for the influence of the educator. It was this book which made the young man look for places where he would learn more about Freud than was possible through the reading of his work in the university library. The university was critical of Freud. Where was there a source of direct learning?

In a very real sense, Ekstein never moved beyond his early experiences as an Austro-Marxist. His experiences with Socialism, his participation in the anti-fascist resistance, his involvement with workers’ education all stayed with him, marking his personality and his value system, helping him to become the man he became: “The youth movement’s search for truth, for genuine purpose, that search for an ideal world and the perfect social system, was carried out most of the time outside the academic institutions. While he attended course after course, he found the greatest personal meaning in that youth movement.”

Ekstein summed up his experiences of Austrian socialism by underscoring its impact on his him as an ethics of compassion and kindness and simultaneously an exhilarating sense of social solidarity, of belonging to a social movement:

Red Vienna is an example of not merely a political party, a program of promises, but was a movement. I still have the songs of that time in my mind, which were the background of a new ethics. It was an ethics of sharing, of caring, and to use the words of Alfred Adler, growing Gemeinschaftsgefühl [community feeling].


Ekstein’s specialized study in philosophy and psychology at the University of Vienna drew him to the seminars of Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), who was the founder of the Wiener Kreis, or Vienna Circle of logical positivism, established in 1928. Schlick, himself, was a count from an old Protestant aristocratic family from Czechoslovakia. Building on the heritage of Ernst Mach, placing an emphasis on the primacy of experience and direct observation, the Vienna Circle was adamantly scientistic, engaging in a fierce polemic against all philosophical systems that were metaphysical. Surrounded by philosophers of science and mathematicians, such as Rudolf Carnap, Friedrich Waismann, and Herbert Feigl, Schlick’s circle waged a dogmatic battle against all philosophers who searched for values; their disgust with most of the official state of European philosophy moved them toward a critical analysis derived from exact sciences, specifically mathematics, theoretical physics, and chemistry. Although Schlick remained in close contact with Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein never formally joined his group. For many years Schlick thought that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (1921) might become the epistemological foundation for their theories.

Schlick’s Vienna Circle provided a new inspiration for a sophisticated positivism, grounded in empiricism and derived from inductive disciplines. He and his followers carefully focused on the relations of language to the world. If knowledge of the world could be rendered in clear, functional language, if the world could be described in scientific language, philosophy would jettison its muddle-headedness. Philosophical thinkers would finally be able to differentiate between meaningful and nonsensical propositions. The truth or falsity of a statement resided in verification. A proposition only made sense through its means of verification. Clearly, Schlick and the logical positivists were attempting to construct a theory of meaning. Many of their formulations were rigidly dogmatic, eventually leading to a philosophical conviction that transformed philosophy exclusively into the analysis of language. All claims to higher truth, all theological or metaphysical arguments, were rejected as unscientific and meaningless, unable to be verified or falsified. The direction taken by the logical positivists meant that philosophy would be less accessible to an educated public of ordinary cultivation and intelligence.

Ekstein’s study with Schlick, culminating in the writing of his dissertation on The Philosophy of Psychology (1937) placed him in direct contact with leading thinkers of the logical positivist school. In two of his earliest philosophical papers published in America, Ekstein’s debt to Schlick is explicit in his terminology. In his 1941 paper, “The Philosophical Refutation,” he asserted that “The statement that a statement makes sense if and only if it is definitely verifiable does not refer to the actual usage of the language but only to the usage of certain key terms within a language.” His 1942 paper “The Language of Psychotherapy and of Everyday Life,” perpetuated the logical positivist antipathy toward metaphysics, with only a slight degree more tolerance: “However, we do think that metaphysics solves problems or answers questions. Only in a metaphorical sense may we say that music, art, or metaphysics solves ‘problems.’ These ‘problems’ cannot be answered like questions.”

He recalled that Schlick’s method of teaching was not to have his students memorize or regurgitate the great thoughts of master thinkers in the history of philosophy. Rather, it was to pose the question: What did a given philosopher mean? How could one understand a philosopher’s language and engage in dialogue with that language? From Schlick, he slowly came to value having his own thoughts, how to play with ideas, how to philosophize. On one memorable occasion, Schlick refused to accept an Ekstein seminar paper, requiring that he rewrite it, emphasizing his own thoughts and analysis, not a paraphrase or restatement of the ideas of others: When I wrote a term paper for Schlick, he gave me the term paper back and he said to me, ‘You gave an excellent account of my thoughts, but if you want to be a doctor of philosophy, you must have thoughts of your own. Unaccepted!’ At first there was anger that he didn’t accept it. Then I got depressed. ‘I will never amount to anything. I must hurry to get the doctor degree. I will never get it!’ And suddenly the thought comes to my mind, ‘I can have thoughts of my own.’ And I wondered, ‘Can you write a dissertation that has thoughts of your own?’…But Schlick was a philosopher of a completely different sort. He said, ‘You must have thoughts of your own.’

Ekstein experienced Schlick as a kind but remote teacher. Although enormously admired, he also discovered a mentor whose self-esteem did not require discipleship; he would not have to become a blind follower of Schlick’s to remain in his favor. From Schlick he received affirmation of developing his own concepts, of formulating his own language, which would enable him to find his own pathways and his own voice in his mature years. Schlick’s distance also helped Ekstein develop an optimal clinical stance, one that stemmed from close, empathic understanding of the other, but simultaneously one which permitted enough space to generate a valuable perspective on the various meanings of the patient’s utterances.

The young man experienced those exciting years with his great teacher, deeply idealized, distant, not really allowing intimate contact, but nevertheless deeply touched him, as an inner revolution. He learned from and through his teacher how to think…That capacity for distance later became an important ingredient for the future therapist. It would enable him to listen to people, to their inner conflicts, without taking sides, to remain equidistant from the conflicting forces, in order to recognize their nature and to help develop a solution.

Ekstein’s divided loyalties between Schlick’s philosophical method and his growing commitment to Socialism and to psychoanalytic theory and practice became dramatized in Schlick’s seminar when his beloved Siegfried Bernfeld presented a paper on his attempts to measure libido. Bernfeld was preoccupied with finding a precise scientific grounding for instinctual drive theory, which ultimately required quantification. According to Ekstein, Bernfeld had an extremely difficult time demonstrating his thesis, with Schlick countering that libido was at best a relative concept that could not be measured or empirically verified.

I remember Bernfeld sitting in the seminar of Waismann and Schlick, and for me, at the time, it was a very difficult situation because I went two ways. I remember the inner struggle. Am I to believe in him to whom analysis is important along with Marxism and socialist thinking, or am I to believe in him who says ‘I will teach you how to have thoughts of your own and how to think!’

Schlick had finally accepted Ekstein’s doctoral thesis but shortly before his scheduled oral examination in 1936 was murdered on the steps of the University of Vienna. Although there were rumors that the shooting of Schlick was politically motivated, in all probability his assassination stemmed from a personal grudge by a deranged former student. The murderer later became a member of the Nazi Party and was pardoned for his crime two years later. Ekstein was examined at the oral by another professor, Robert Reininger, who had been friendly with Schlick, and despite his great anxiety and sorrow, he passed the exam and received his doctoral degree.

But it went fine, and no sooner did I have the doctoral degree then I knew the time had come to escape or go to prison. Freud escaped. He went to London and my escape also began in London. Freud was still alive—no more Schlick—and a little while later, in 1939, we lost Freud, too. It was now a life where one’s intellectual fathers belonged to the past. Fascism came and I had to gather together all that I had and to see what I could do, in another country and to have thoughts of my own.


Schlick’s method of analysis subverted philosophical systems by showing that they were meaningless because they overstepped the rules of language. Yet Ekstein began to perceive that Schlick’s philosophical method was lacking, discovering “that this new philosophy was also an incomplete instrument.” In reflections conducted by his teachers and in a developing self-reflection, Ekstein began to ponder the issue of “the meaning of meaning.” He soon grasped that “the whole system of human communication had areas of meaning far beyond the ones that the scientist had in mind when he immersed himself in his research.”

Having studied academic psychology with Karl and Charlotte Buhler, largely to realize an ambition to receive formal recognition for university achievement, he gravitated to the Freudian psychoanalytic institute to learn about the inner world of the individual. At age twenty-two in 1935, the young Ekstein met Dr. Willi Hoffer and inquired about the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute’s program for educators to become psychoanalytic pedagogues. Hoffer asked him how he became interested in psychoanalysis; Ekstein answered that he had read Bernfeld’s book, Sisyphus, or The Limits of Education. He began the program the very next week, subsequently finding out that Bernfeld and Hoffer were lifelong friends and early collaborators on work with orphaned Jewish refugee children from Poland after World War I. Ekstein’s life history and intellectual life shifted dramatically as he began his training as a psychoanalytic pedagogue. The program in psychoanalytic pedagogy was open to lay analysis and many of the instructors, including Anna Freud and August Aichhorn, were non-medical clinicians. Freud’s liberalism extended to the issue of lay analysis; he explicitly wished psychoanalysis not to be a medical specialty. Ekstein was ignited by Hoffer, who was a Socialist and a member of the Freudian left. He regarded his immersion in psychoanalytic pedagogy as membership in a new social movement, small in number, but potentially quite efficacious. “In Vienna in those days, when I began psychoanalytic training, I experienced psychoanalysis as a movement, as a promise of change, of methods of healing, of methods of education, and also of political insights.”

Prior to his entrance into the program of psychoanalytic pedagogy, Ekstein had been tutoring learning impaired children, beginning when he was twelve or thirteen years of age. He did it to earn money, which was scarce, but also because he was impassioned about education. He began to ponder the question of how children learn. Working with children and adolescents with learning difficulties exposed Ekstein to a vast variety of psychopathology. Once in the program, Hoffer began to supervise him on a number of children he was tutoring. “I was then trained to be a psychoanalytic pedagogue because I wanted to be a teacher who understands the soul of children and not just the subject to be taught…” Tutoring became the first step in Ekstein’s evolution toward becoming a clinician.

Exposed to a number of brilliant and intellectually exciting teachers, taking courses from figures like Bertha Bornstein, Edith Buxbaum, Heinz Hartmann, Kurt Eissler, Robert Waelder, Jenny Waelder, Ernst Kris, August Aichhorn, Willy Hoffer, and Anna Freud, Ekstein received a thorough grounding in Freudian psychoanalysis and the emerging paradigm of ego psychology. Psychoanalytic pedagogy was not differentiated from psychoanalytic psychotherapy in this first phase of its history; and in the context of his training, he moved from educational zeal to more therapeutic concerns. He began to imagine himself as a clinician.

Ekstein argued that the concept of adaptation, developed by Hartmann, must be understood dialectically, that is, that it was not a linear concept designed to foster conformism or social adjustment to the status quo. Rather adaptation meant that one could mobilize one’s intellect and energies to transform the social environment, making it more responsive to individual emotional needs: “…the task of psychoanalysis is not merely to adjust to the world, to adjust to environment, but also to prepare for it, that the adjusted one learns that the environment, the world, adjusts to his needs. Adaptation is a dynamic concept. Not only must I change myself, but I must contribute to change, to adapt the world.” It is quite possible that Ekstein was offering a Socialist interpretation of Hartmann’s concept of adaptation.

Ekstein saw Hoffer as a man of exceptional reliability, loyalty, and personal integrity. He viewed him as a friend, despite their difference in age. When he spoke of Hoffer in his later years, tears would come to his eyes. Hoffer supervised him individually, often took walks with him, and conducted seminars in coffee houses. At one point, Hoffer encouraged him to get his M.D. degree, thinking it would make his psychoanalytic career easier (Hoffer himself, though a Ph.D., went to medical school). Hoffer also played a key role in urging Ekstein to leave Vienna and helping secure for him a visa to England. Not only did Hoffer live up to his promise to help, but when Ekstein arrived in London he invited him once again to participate in the old seminar of psychoanalytic pedagogues.

Ekstein also had great affection and respect for August Aichhorn, author of Wayward Youth, a 1925 psychoanalytic study of delinquency. From Aichhorn, he learned how to deal with impulse ridden, acting out, and deceitful adolescents; his method consisted of winning their trust by being more deceitful than they were, despite a façade of friendliness and seductiveness.

His main talent was that he could out-do all these youngsters –he out- delinquented them. He had a way to present himself that they identified with and by identifying with him he helped them to find a way out of waywardness. They identified with him, saying ‘I go with him because he’s a bigger gangster than I am,’ and in this way they became Aichhornians!

Ekstein worked with Anna Freud in the period she was completing her book, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense.. His encounter with her resulted in a massive shift in his professional identity and his sense of self. After hearing Anna Freud lecture, he was so captivated that he decided to leave philosophy as a profession. “She came in, and she talked. And I said, ‘you know, this was such a strange experience. Such a strange experience. I’ve never heard anything like that. I think I’m going to give up the study of pure philosophy.’”

Ekstein’s early experiences with Anna Freud are described with almost Biblical analogies and with the metaphors of love.

And Anna Freud had a way about her. One sort of instantly fell in love with her. Where she goes, I go. But you know, if you understand the hint, she was really untouchable, because she was a true Freudian. She tried to develop what her father did and she never married. So that all of us had a fantasy—Anna, Anna, Anna. So while none of us got Anna, we all became Freudians—Anna Freudians!

Though he experienced her tough-minded criticisms, he emphasized that Anna Freud’s point-of-view was consistently objective, useful, and never ad hominem; he always learned something from her critical remarks, even if they initially troubled him. At bottom, he viewed her as a tolerant person, not wishing to impose her way of seeing the clinical material, allowing him to make his own choices. “It was only through Anna Freud that I could learn to think [clinically].”

When Anna Freud criticized Ekstein’s work with autistic and psychotic children later in his career, he reiterated that he could improve and clarify his work based on her insights. Internalizing her voice prompted Ekstein to be self-analytical, to develop ways to sharpen his thinking, to think against himself, and to avoid intellectual complacency and self-congratulation.

I wrote it in such a way that when Anna Freud listened to it, she could say ‘I never treated such children; I admire that work; it is not my way of working. Those are not the children that come to me.’ But I could see the point…I realized I could improve the paper because she identified with me and at the same time would not fully swallow it. I do the same myself. I don’t fully swallow what I wrote five years ago, what I wrote yesterday. The moment it is finished, I start to oppose it, because if I couldn’t oppose it, why should I write another paper, if I would say here’s the final word and in that sense I believe we need that dynamic struggle.

Although he dedicated two of his books to Anna Freud, celebrating her seminal contribution in his article on the history of psychoanalytic pedagogy, Ekstein never became a blind follower or apostle of Anna Freud’s.

Ekstein emerged out of the volcano of Red Vienna in the 1920’s and 1930’s, a tumultuous social era as Vienna turned fascist, with a composite ego ideal of the Socialist youth movement, Schlick, Anna Freud, and Freud. He studied with people who never wanted mere uncritical followers. He cherished the concept of independence of the mind. He retained from his Socialist origins a stance of compassion and care for people in need of help, a desire to be an active and participating part of a community and a society. In both his personal and professional life, he attempted to turn situations of hardship or misfortune into opportunities of hope. The once traumatized and overwhelmed boy would reverse the situation by caring for the traumatized, collaborating with them to seek creative solutions. Ekstein the Socialist militant, educator, psychoanalytic pedagogue, and philosopher always identified with the courageous and struggling underdog, aligning himself with Sisyphus and his ethic of perseverance, work, and quiet dignity, attempting to integrate the vast repository of knowledge bequeathed to him. His itinerary, he believed, describes the impossible tasks of the Jewish intellectual in anti-Semitic Vienna, who, while never entirely fitting in, never becomes an insider, but always tries to use his knowledge base and experience to alleviate needless misery, oppression, and ignorance.

As an educator and as an analyst, Ekstein was committed to a very specific form of emancipation both of the student and of the patient. He had no interest in manipulation, no investments in forming mirrors of himself, or of shaping students who idealized him. Recognizing the inevitability of generational revolt, appreciating the creative dynamic of rebellion of the sons and daughters against the parents, he functioned in ways that would permit others to become maximized version of themselves, distinct and different from him. Not threatened by an individual’s separation and individuation from himself, linking maturation to forms of differentiation, his writings and clinical work fostered that emergence of difference. To reach this goal, he did not become married to theory, or devote his life to the construction of a fully systematic, fully integrated theory. He preferred to embrace the vitality and diversity of life with all of its contradictions and conundrums. He liked to quote Goethe: “Grey, dear friend, is all theory, but green is life’s golden tree.”

Paradoxically, it was through a strong identification with Freud and with the still incomplete revolutionary nature of the psychoanalytic movement that grounded Ekstein, propelling him to serve as both an heir to that history and tradition and a distinct spokesman, with a unique voice in the present and the future:

Allow yourself to speak like a poet, like someone who’s not afraid of a metaphor. Many people in the beginning of learning must do exactly as they are taught before they become themselves. I think that the greatest thing that analysis can do is to let the patient that one has…to grow away from us and not become a follower. I am a Freudian; it’s all right, but I am not a follower of Freud. Because if you read what I write, you will see that much of it did not occupy him; other things occupied him. And much of the language that I use didn’t occupy him. It all goes back, not only to my education in philosophy, but to that early teacher. When you write, write so that its your story.


Though Bettelheim and Ekstein both attended the University of Vienna, shared a number of professors, and became involved with the psychoanalytic movement as lay analysts, they never met in pre-World War II Vienna. Ekstein knew Bettelheim’s second wife, Trude, who had some training as a psychoanalytic pedagogue. Both developed an early interest in working with severely disturbed children; both were influenced by Anna Freud; both were brutalized and dislocated by the rise of fascist anti-Semitism in Vienna; both suffered profoundly by the invasion of Austria by the Nazis in 1938. Here is how Ekstein remembered those early days in his obituary for Bettelheim:

…when we needed a new home in order to overcome the trauma of those days when we were driven out, or, driven as he was into a concentration camp. I had personally known of the Austrian Fascist police prisons, but I was lucky enough to escape only to hear that the day after my escape the SS came to take me to another prison from which there was no escape. For ten years from 1947 to 1957 Ekstein was the Director of the Child Psychotherapy Program at the Menninger Foundation, where he began to develop a psychotherapeutic method to treat psychotic and autistic children. Karl Menninger discovered Ekstein through reading a number of his published papers in the 1940’s, bringing him to Topeka, Kansas, where the former had gathered some of the best and brightest psychoanalytic thinkers and clinicians in the United States. One of the works culminating his stay at Menninger’s was the 1958 text, co-authored with Robert Wallerstein, on psychoanalytic forms of supervision. This much under-estimated book, blending erudition with practical advice, put forward the still very useful concept of “parallel process” in the supervisory situation. Ekstein and Wallerstein pointed out how frequently the therapist’s dynamic issues become integral aspects of the counter-transference/transference matrix and were replicated in the supervisory relationship.

As he continued to publish papers in various psychoanalytic journals, Bettelheim became aware of his work. Their paths crossed at a number of conferences and Ekstein was conscious of Bettelheim’s writings. They finally met in the middle 1950’s in Chicago at the home of the psychoanalyst, Maxwell Gitelson. Ekstein was taken aback by his first encounter with Bettelheim, finding him abrasive, dismissive, mixing praise and criticism, but above all, brutally honest. After their introduction, Bettelheim said: “Oh, you are Rudolf Ekstein. I recently read a paper of yours in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. It was a beautiful paper, well-written, and occupied with matters that are of great interest to me. But it was all wrong.” So jarred was he by his first meeting that he forgot his own reply.

Ekstein does not cite the work of Bettelheim in his 1966 work, Children of Time and Space, of Action and Impulse, a path-breaking volume that addressed both the diagnosis and treatment of borderline children, at that time a poorly understood clinical population; Ekstein also courageously opened up the discussion of countertransference issues in working with severely disordered patients, citing the works of Winnicott and Money-Kyrle. Without embracing a Kleinian point of view, he indicated his clinical awareness of early disturbances between child and mother, as well as a sensitivity to working with part objects and introjected body parts that have become almost a franchise for those with a Kleinian-Bionian perspective.

Bettelheim’s influential 1967 book, The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self cites five of Ekstein’s articles, but not his book. He admired but criticized Ekstein for his use of the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel in illustrating how the rejecting mother figure operates in the internal world of the psychotic child; Ekstein approached the paranoid projections of the suspicious child as an unconscious fantasy, externalized in the figure of the devouring witch. Bettelheim suggested that the destructive mother symbolized as a devouring witch was more than an unconscious fantasy, but rather represented the child’s internal picture of the actual destructive intent of the mothering person; that is to say, he argued that it was not a fantasy, but was “anchored in the reality of the child’s experience.”

In that same text, Bettelheim favorably cited three other papers by Ekstein, which described psychodynamically the psychotic mechanisms of distance regulation among children who had grave difficulties forming close and warm attachments. “I do not further discuss Joey’s using space to ward off dangerous closeness since this particular psychotic mechanism has been discussed much more fully than I can here by Ekstein [1954] and Ekstein and Wright [1952, 1954].”

A friendly competition grew between Bettelheim and Ekstein, centered on Bettelheim’s impressive record of publications, as well as his influence in academic, psychoanalytic circles, and amid the literate public. Ekstein, ten years younger, always felt four books behind, admiring and envying his older colleague.

There was a serious disagreement with Bettelheim that became quite acrimonious. It concerned the question of what constituted the necessary structure for change with regard to the treatment of severely disturbed children. Bettelheim stressed the construction and maintenance of a total therapeutic milieu, an environment which would facilitate the change and growth of the individual patient. Ekstein asserted that it was individual, analytically oriented therapy, ultimately the acquisition of insight that was mutative for the disturbed child. “I had a rough time with Bruno, because occasionally I came to Chicago to teach there and he believed it’s the environment that changes the child while I believe it’s the psychotherapy that changes the child. We had a long friendly battle.” Ekstein felt that Bettelheim’s effort aimed at establishing a “living space” for his patients at the Orthogenic School, while he tried to introduce a “talking space,” in which play and self-understanding could be brought to bear on the inner workings of the abnormal mind. Ekstein also worked closely with a hospital setting at the Menninger Foundation, but found himself relatively powerless to influence the workings of the psychiatric hospital and its staff.

Ekstein’s 1968 review of The Empty Fortress in The Psychoanalytic Quarterly climaxed this stage in his relationship with Bettelheim. This sympathetic but critical analysis of Bettelheim’s masterpiece cogently deciphered the latter’s problematic place in the psychoanalytic world. Ekstein’s review was exceptional if we remember that the mainstream psychoanalytic periodicals of the day had totally ignored Bettelheim’s publication. In finding Bettelheim’s case studies “insightful and compassionate,” he also complimented him for a balanced account of both successes and “insurmountable difficulties” with these cases.

Bettelheim so much privileged the healing effects of creating an environment that he failed to present detailed discussions of the techniques he used in working with these disturbed children. Just as he eschewed stating his own metapsychological theory, Bettelheim never elaborated a theory of technique, necessary to transmit his clinical methods to others in the filed. Lastly, Ekstein perceptively viewed Bettelheim’s role as an oracle, as a charismatic leader and moral crusader, with exalted powers and flashing intuitions both into his staff and the unconscious processes of the children he treated. Bettelheim evoked polarizing transferences, shifting between affectionate and hostile feelings. Likewise, Bettelheim’s brilliance, innovativeness, and toughness generated wildly divergent reactions, some idealizing, others devaluing. Bettelheim’s charisma and his emphasis on milieu obstructed the diffusion of his therapeutic techniques. Since Ekstein himself struggled to develop similar clinical perspectives, enabling them to be studied and debated, as well as be financially and institutionally supported, he urged Bettelheim to articulate his clinical method more specifically in subsequent publications. Otherwise, his work would remain elusive, diminishing the clinical and cultural influence it deserved:

Bettelheim might then think of his own place – his personal place in the clinical field as well as the institution he heads – as an embattled fortress, or an isolated island, if you please, tied to a unique personality and his positive and negative charismatic qualities. Being occupied for many years with concerns similar to Bettelheim’s, I have wondered how these great gains in the treatment of psychotic children can make their way into the professional and scientific community, and how a treatment philosophy inspired by a great pioneer can become accepted, supported, and a teachable treatment technique.

Only with historical retrospect did Ekstein realize that both he and Bettelheim had advocated extreme positions; over time, he sensed that some reciprocity was possible and necessary:

It took years for the two collaborators to appreciate the value of the other’s perspective, years before they would agree to the mutual value of milieu and individual therapy. But the years have taught me not to believe either that individual psychoanalytic treatment per se can be the method of cure. He who works with severely disturbed children must create a facilitating environment, must come to grips with issues as to how to work with parents, how to work with separations, and how to combine different agents of treatment.

At first, Ekstein experienced Bettelheim’s fervor for the total therapeutic milieu as one-sided, omniscient, and fanatical, as if he were expounding a new religion. He saw that Bettelheim used his horrific experiences in German concentration camps to construct a therapeutic community, potentially becoming a “home for the heart,” a full fortress, which would permit the slow and gradual restoration of the self to occur. He conceived of Bettelheim’s pioneering efforts at the Orthogenic School as the creation of “a concentration camp in reverse.” In other words, Bettelheim’s therapeutic milieu was organized to protect and provide safety for the vulnerable child without permitting outsiders, including parents, to disturb the environment. Children were not treated like prisoners, were not locked up, even though he designed the optimal therapeutic milieu in opposition to most psychiatric hospitals.

As the friendship evolved, as Ekstein visited the Orthogenic School in 1967 and other times, engaging in dialogue with Bettelheim and his staff, teaching and presenting his own work, he came to value Bettelheim’s underlying sensitivity and empathy that was often disguised beneath his forceful rhetoric and aggressive tone. To read Bettelheim, Ekstein advised, we ought to regard him as a social reformer, a crusader; we ought not to be dissuaded by his high-handedness nor his polemical style.

Bettelheim has his allies and his enemies. And while within the fortress he resembles the soft hearted sabra, when he comes out to challenge he has a veneer that is experienced by others as tough and authoritarian. This book [A Home for the Heart] contains some rather open and firm statements which attack the status quo to make us unhappy about existing mental health institutions. He leaves no stone unturned to bring out in the open, as he must, the inadequacies of the care for the mentally ill, children or adults. We might, then, read him defensively, by reacting to what appears to be provoking, opinionated attacks, or we might reflect on the provocative model that he and his dedicated staff offer us.

Ekstein moved to Los Angeles in 1957 and became a Director of the Reiss-Davis Child Study Center for twenty years. During these fertile decades, he continued his researches into borderline, psychotic, and autistic children, edited The Reiss-Davis Clinic Bulletin, collaborating with psychoanalysts and analytically oriented clinicians to conduct research on the severely disturbed child and adolescent. Simultaneously, Ekstein conducted training analyses at the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, supervised candidates, taught seminars, and led study groups both within and without the confines of the institute. During this period, he produced four books, building on his clinical experience and research: Children of Time and Space, of Action and Impulse (1966); From Learning for Love to Love of Learning (1969); The Challenge: Despair and Hope in the Conquest of Inner Space (1971); In Search of Love and Competence (1976); and Grenzfallkinder (1973).

Ekstein collaborated with Bettelheim in a 1969 issue of The Reiss-Davis Clinic Bulletin, publishing Bettelheim’s piece “The Education of Emotionally and Culturally Deprived Children.” This piece was later republished in the 1969 book by Ekstein and Motto on psychoanalysis and education. Also in 1969, The Reiss-Davis Clinic Bulletin ran a full page photo of Bettelheim, “On the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday.” In his “Introduction” to that issue, Ekstein extolled Bettelheim as a “pioneer in our field.” He went on to say: Bruno Bettelheim, whose unbelievable energy, whose dynamic leadership, whose passionate dedication to his work, whose constant contribution to the literature make it difficult to believe that he is celebrating with us his sixty-fifth birthday. As I once suggested to him, the Orthogenic School is not an empty but a full fortress, ready to defend and to attack in the interests of his patients.

Although Bettelheim and he had disagreed in emphasis, they were now prepared to learn from one another. Instead of total therapeutic milieu versus individual analytic treatment, Ekstein asserted that support systems were as vitally important for patients as was individual psychotherapy.


In turning to the Rimland Affair, an important series of confrontations between psychologist, Bernard Rimland, and both Bettelheim and Ekstein in the late 1960’s, we need to point out that Rimland’s 1964 study, Infantile Autism, was the first serious book length monograph on autism to be published. Rimland was himself the parent of an autistic child. His text was a panegyric against any and all psychological explanations for autism, sharply disputing that autism resulted from environmental factors or inadequate parenting. Not only did he eschew the hypothesis of a psychogenic etiology of autism, but he argued that assuming such causes was “not only unwarranted but actively pernicious.” He proposed that autism was a neurophysiological disorder, speculating that it arose from a dysfunction in the reticular formation in the brain stem. Rimland’s biological approach, buttressed by scientistic language, statistics, and empirical evidence, would become the dominant psychiatric paradigm of the diagnosis and treatment of autism from the 1970’s into the current era.

In response to a written request from Rimland, Bettelheim refused to share data or to collaborate on the genetic testing of autistic children with him, indicating his full opposition to Rimland’s method and conclusions:

I regret to inform you that I am very critical of the approach you are using to study infantile autism. In my opinion your book contains gross errors and misstatements. I therefore shall give you no help in a study of autistic children which I consider ill-conceived and based on erroneous and biased judgments.

Bettelheim’s polemic with Rimland spilled over into print when The Empty Fortress appeared in 1967. He admitted that too little was currently known about infantile autism to resolve the question of organicity versus a psychogenic approach. Both hypotheses had value; Bettelheim was not himself prepared to rule out the later appearance of some dysfunction in the central nervous system. More research needed to be conducted. Yet, he was unconvinced by the biological approach to autism, remaining committed to finding a cure based on psychological dynamics.

There were some areas of convergence between the two. Bettelheim found himself in agreement with Rimland that psychologists ought not to blame the parents of autistic children and that the study of autism was potentially of critical importance in terms of advancing the science of psychology, helping to provide more specific knowledge about the origins of the self.

Yet as a psychoanalytic researcher, Bettelheim insisted that the attitude and role of the parents were “precipitating factors” necessary but probably not sufficient in causing the disturbance of autism.

But even if it turned out one day that the parents’ contribution is indeed crucial, they did as they did because they could not help themselves to do otherwise. They suffer more than enough in having such a child. To make them guilty would only add to the misery of all and help no one.

Regarding treatment, Bettelheim found himself in total disagreement with Rimland who debunked psychotherapeutic efforts as useless. Bettelheim saw his entire volume of case studies and his life’s work as an answer to Rimland’s repudiation of psychotherapy and milieu therapy. He insisted that patient improvement could be observed and documented and, moreover, that such improvements could restore both affectivity and intellectual function to this population. Bettelheim opposed Rimland’s defense of a treatment built around psychopharmacology and other medical interventions; for him medication merely changed autism into feeble-mindedness, eliminated the selfhood of the patient, and further reduced the patient’s contact with the social world by substituting for it the tranquillized effects of a “drug world.”

By studying autistic children as “neurological structures” and not as people, as “a human being in his own right,” as Bettelheim put it, by not investigating autistic language and the messages embedded in that language as meaningful, Rimland was both dehumanizing the autistic patient and returning to a pre-Freudian view of the world, which radically circumscribed the pursuit of rational knowledge and curtailed the expression of freedom:

I believe that the royal road to the understanding of mental disease is the patient’s own uncovering of the hidden meaning of his overt behavior, and what caused it. To demonstrate that even autistic children can do this was in fact another main purpose of this volume. In their case, too, knowledge makes them free.

In his 1968 review of Ekstein’s Children of Time and Space, of Action and Impulse, Rimland delivered a series of broadsides against psychoanalysis, offering up a number of snide and condescending remarks about Ekstein’s methodology without ever once discussing the substance of the book. Rimland positioned himself as the defender of the parents of psychotic children crusading against guilt-inducing therapists. In this travesty of a book review, Rimland neither offered a summary nor a clear discussion of the central ideas of the text, having next to nothing to say about the case material, the methodology, the use of metaphor in the interpretive strategies, the call for further research, or the summary of the existing literature. From the vantage point of empirical science, he summarily rejected psychoanalysis for being without a solid theoretical foundation, finding its therapy totally lacking in efficacy. After alleging that Ekstein lived in a dream world and that his language was obscurantist, Rimland nastily accused him of offering “typical psychoanalytic explanations” as well as “dubious and far-fetched interpretations.” Rimland sarcastically lambasted analysts for the stupendous expense of psychoanalytic treatment for children, by implication caring more about making money than the well-being of families. Lastly, he attacked Ekstein (curiously employing psychoanalytic terminology) for ignoring thirty years of “empirical studies” that undermined the scientific validity of psychoanalysis:

At this point the reviewer must become a critic or a super-ego, or perhaps even a therapist, insisting that the writer face reality, or at least acknowledge it, rather then remain in their dream world where they pretend that the distasteful empirical research does not exist. Is not the facing of the sometimes unpleasant reality what psychoanalysis is supposed to be about? Therapist, heal thyself!

Though upset about the tone and content of Rimland’s review of his book, Ekstein replied tactfully and tactically several months later. He sought out Bettelheim’s advice on how to proceed in a now missing letter, which Bettelheim replied to in July, 1968. Having attempted to dismantle the psychological approach to autism in his 1964 book, Rimland was now attempting to discredit the entire psychoanalytic therapeutic approach to severely ill children in his blanket repudiation of Ekstein’s work with psychotic and borderline children. Ekstein sensed a sadness about Rimland’s review, speculating that it might have emanated from “a deep and personal resentment, perhaps a hurt.” He disliked being lumped into a catch all category of psychoanalysts, which eliminated individuality and specificity: “He has formed for himself a picture of psychoanalysis and psychoanalysts that forces him to put all of us in one category to which he reacts negatively rather than write a book review that is really concerned with the author and his independent work.”

He pointed out the many innovations, imaginative concepts, and metaphorical insights offered in the book, in addition to attempts at “untypical theorizing” in order to push insights to other levels of understanding. He rebutted the insinuation of psychoanalytic greed by stating that many of his cases were seen for free or for extremely low fees. Instead of admitting a significant divergence of opinion, he found Rimland’s piece representative of intolerance, of a “stage where we talk at each other instead of to each other.” Authentic bridge building between those who came from widely different fields was perhaps premature. Rimland’s writing worked against authentic unification of knowledge, against building a synthesis of the behavioral sciences. For now, Ekstein addressed his work to psychoanalytically oriented researchers and clinicians who were eager to learn more about severely disturbed children, in order to provide a more clinically grounded and humane approach to these children and their families:

My comments, then, are written in defense of many serious and devoted people who as psychoanalytic therapists and researchers have given their time and their compassion in order to help such children and parents. We know that compassion is not enough and that we must constantly think how we can combine it with new methods of research and training that will push the limits of our skill, of our capacity to endure the work and maintain it, and of our insights beyond the present boundaries…Readers, perhaps a little less involved in the work than I, may decide the question better. In the meantime, his book review must stand, and it will remain a reflection on my work as well as on his.

Rimland himself had the final published word, continuing his tone of abusive denunciation both of psychoanalysis in general and of Ekstein in particular. He evinced no interest at all in bridge building, once again using sarcasm, as well as the language of psychoanalysis to score points against the analytic enterprise:

I very specifically directed my remarks to his having completely ignored the massive research accumulated over four decades, that directly contradicts the assumptions on which psychoanalysis is founded, and that indicates psychoanalysis to be quite without therapeutic effect. I objected to his not even mentioning the almost uniformly negative empirical evidence, suggested that he had ‘repressed’ it, and urged that he (and other psychoanalysts) ‘confront reality.’ His reply, like his book, contains no sign of recognition that these empirical problems exist, despite my strenuous efforts to bring the issue to his conscious awareness. Instead of addressing the issue, he psychoanalyzed me from a distance (telepychoanalysis?) and described my review as expressing personal hurt and resentment. I find Ekstein’s nonresponsive reaction peculiar, interesting, but not surprising, in view of the substance of my criticism.


The Bettelheim-Ekstein correspondence consists of twenty-two letters written over an eighteen-year period, from 1967 to 1985; they cover the period from the publication of The Empty Fortress to the death of Trude Bettelheim in October, 1984 and Bettelheim’s plans to move to Los Angeles to live with his daughter Ruth, a practicing psychologist in Southern California. A German scholar, Roland Kaufhold, a specialist on the history of psychoanalytic pedagogy, has previously published eleven of these letters in English facsimile, along with an excellent introduction in German.

The letters cover a lot of ground. They deal with clinical concerns, particularly around the multiple issues of treating severely disturbed children, and the varieties of solitude, isolation, and countertransference disruptions that may trouble the researcher and clinician in dealing with such sick children on a daily basis. Ekstein clearly identified with Bettelheim’s style of presenting case histories, complimenting his older colleague on having his theoretical concepts emerge out of the clinical material, providing a method of presentation that highlighted clinical specificity. The letters also speak to shared professional and psychoanalytic concerns, collaboration and mutual support on the Rimland Affair in 1968-69, joint publications, mutual appearances at conferences, and exchanges of books and articles. The letters provide ample evidence of mutual affection and esteem between the two. They also illustrate a subtext of friendly competition and envy: on Ekstein’s side, of Bettelheim’s fame, productivity, and self-assurance; on Bettelheim’s side, of Ekstein’s youth, vitality, and optimism.

Bettelheim’s persona in these letters is one of graciousness and gratefulness. He appears a bit surprised by Ekstein’s warm acknowledgement of him and his work. He comes across as the more austere, reserved, and formal of the two, even as the dialogue deepens. Ekstein clearly seems more informal, engaging, and affective; he remains the Socialist internationalist, the cosmopolitan intellectual, approaching the somewhat volatile and opinionated Bettelheim with tact and understanding; he appears ready to reflect on Bettelheim’s perceptions even if they are offered in a blunt and authoritarian manner, even if they are expressed in an angry and critical tone. Bettelheim at times offers unsolicited advice, urging his colleague in 1968 to leave private practice to affiliate full-time with a research university, where at least some genuine intellectual discussion and serious research was being conducted.

By the time of these exchanges in the late 1960’s, Bettelheim had evolved into a social conservative, albeit an iconoclastic one; he was intolerant of anti-Viet Nam War demonstrators, sharply critical of Marxist and left-wing forms of social and political analysis, concerned about preserving the autonomy of the university. As a Holocaust survivor, he adamantly wished to preserve an accurate memory of the historical and psychological dimensions of the Holocaust, with particular emphasis on the complicity of Austria and Germany in the systematic extermination of six million Jews. He never desired to or became part of the Jewish mainstream in America, who often found his writings on the concentration camps insensitive to the Jewish victims.

Ekstein, for his part, remained an Austro-Marxist, that is, a card-carrying Socialist, one who sustained his ethical commitment to social democracy. He continued to march proudly in the May Day parade in Vienna, remaining connected to and in agreement with the politics and programs of the Social Democrats in Vienna. “I am still a member. I go back and pay my dues every year. I just don’t tell it to the police in America.” In America, this translated as having politics somewhat to the left of the American Democratic Party. He claimed that he had given up his youthful radicalism as he matured, becoming more sympathetic to liberalism as a political philosophy; this coincided with his discovery that there did not exist a social movement or political party in America that could replace his early commitments to the Socialist youth movement. In short, he was a left-liberal, much more oriented toward social change through his activities as a clinician, teacher, lecturer, and writer. The social democratic Ekstein is much more forgiving of the generations of Austrians and Germany born after World War II and fascism than was Bettelheim; he did not attribute guilt by association to all Central Europeans.

To be sure, Bettelheim never entirely recovered from his devastating experience as an inmate in two Nazi concentration camps; that powerful imprint always remained a reference point for him. This became thematized in the correspondence with Ekstein in 1984 around their respective disagreement about contemporary Vienna, with Ekstein expressing, especially as he grew older, a more sentimental view of the city, an idealized view of its culture and history.

For Bettelheim, Vienna was at best an ambivalent site of memory. He reiterated that Vienna was fundamentally the city of Schonerer, Lueger, and Hitler, having given birth to modern, exterminating anti-Semitism; to see it as Ekstein did only as the city of Freud, Alfred Adler, Wittgenstein, and Herzl was a gross distortion. Bettelheim’s perception of Vienna and Austria was a darker one, based as it was on his concentration camp experience and his researches on the psychological dimensions of fascism both on Germans and Jews. He asserted that contemporary Vienna remained latently anti-Semitic; he found himself put off by the silence, denial, and refusal of Austrians to take responsibility for their embrace of Nazism. Without such a continuous reflection, he could not believe that anything attitudinally and intrapsychically had changed. This was true for the current generation of Austrians, as well as for their parents and grandparents. He reminded Ekstein of the historical fact that the Austrian SS was far crueler than the German SS in the concentration camps, adding for good measure that he had encountered a particularly vicious and insidious anti-Semitism among people on the left, including workers and members of the Social Democratic Party. Socialism, in short, was no antidote to racial anti-Semitism. As an aggressive conservative, Bettelheim matched his assaults on the American left and anti-war opposition by firing some critical shots at Alfred Adler and the Socialist, utopian perspective. He disputed the notion that one could change the human condition by changing society, root and branch. Radical changes of society would not change human nature, would not eradicate human aggression, nor make human beings more happy or fulfilled.

Ekstein, of course, was no stranger to anti-Semitism, having encountered it throughout his youth in Vienna, including confrontations with Nazi youth at the University of Vienna. Though he articulated a love of Vienna, expressing a nostalgia based on a gilded notion of the good old days, he also resented Bettelheim’s pontification, needing no object lessons on the evils of the Holocaust. He, too, believed that the dark memories of the Nazi era had to be maintained, that forgetting was ill-suited to those who suffered and died in the past, and that such amnesia ill-served the present generation. Ekstein, however, visited Vienna every year for eight or ten weeks as a guest professor at the University of Vienna from 1974 through the mid 1990’s; he saw himself somewhat romantically as a wanderer and mediator between progressive circles in Vienna and Los Angeles. He preferred bridge-building to virulent polemics and denunciations.

The young people he encountered in either his teaching or supervisory situations were often born after 1945, thus having had no direct participation in the Holocaust. For Ekstein, the doctoral dissertation of a young Catholic woman from Salzburg, Dorothea Oberlauter, Rudolf Ekstein: Life and Work  spoke to the possibilities of young Austrians from conservative and provincial backgrounds to grasp his life’s experience historically and critically. He was not prepared to condemn an entire generation for being ignorant of the death camps and the gas chambers.

Ekstein tried hard to have a dialogue with Bettelheim on these issues. He agreed with Bettelheim on Freud’s concept of thanatos, or the death drive. He responded to Bettelheim’s scolding language and his exhortations, by assuring his friend that he would make mention of the Holocaust in his public lectures, that, he too, was committed to keeping alive these dreadful but necessary reminiscences about the past.

As the letters grow more intimate in the later 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s, we read of reciprocal plans for visits, joint appearances at conferences in the States and abroad, and a shared interest in the lives of the families and children. Bettelheim’s final letters, documenting his shock and sadness at Trude’s eventual terminal illness are quite poignant. There is great pathos in these letters. One of the strongest and most intimate is a hand-written one, undated, probably written in October, 1984, bearing witness to his unbearable pain at Trude’s death. Here the powerful older brother, previously haughty and self-assured, becomes terribly vulnerable, barely able to pull himself together. Ekstein’s responses show his tender sensitivity to the psychological pain of profound mourning; he becomes aware of Bettelheim’s descent into depression which would eventually result (after the period during which these letters were written) in recurrent episodes of preoccupation with suicide and plans for his own suicide.

Bettelheim clearly looked on his friendship with Ekstein as a source of comfort and strength. Reversing the earlier tone of the letters, where Ekstein appeared to be courting the approval of the older and more illustrious man, the final years of the relationship display a different kind of fraternal dynamics, with the younger man offering consolation, sympathy, and presence, urging Bettelheim to persevere, despite his major losses, deteriorating health, the rupture of his filial relations with his daughter, and the pervasive sense that time was running out on him. In the years that Bettelheim lived in Los Angeles, Ekstein and he would speak frequently on the telephone, visit each other’s home at least once a week, and share a weekly lunch at a local delicatessen. At bottom, these letters testify to a unique friendship with a somewhat old world quality. Two serious men, widely different in temperaments and in sensibility, united over time in a shared experience of work in an attempt to keep alive the history of psychoanalysis, committed to the clinical, cultural and research efforts of lay analysis both within and without the university, and finally endeavoring to preserve and update the psychoanalytic project of finding a deeper and more penetrating understanding of both children and adults.

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 (Psychosozial-Verlag, 2003). (Pb: 978-90-420-2380-2) mit freundlicher Genehmigung des Autors entnommen. Der im Buch dokumentierte vollständige Wortlaut des Briefwechsels ist in dieser Studie nicht publiziert worden.

Themenschwerpunkt Rudolf Ekstein


Zur deutschsprachigen, etwas gekürzten Version dieses Buch:

David James Fisher (Hg.) (2003): Psychoanalytische Kulturkritik und die Seele des Menschen. Essays über Bruno Bettelheim. Gießen (Psychosozial-Verlag). Unter Mitarbeit von Roland Kaufhold et. al.

Eine von Thomas Aichhorn (Wien) verfasste Rezension des Buches von David James Fisher (Hg.) (2003): Psychoanalytische Kulturkritik und die Seele des Menschen. Essays über Bruno Bettelheim. Gießen (Psychosozial-Verlag). Unter Mitarbeit von Roland Kaufhold et. al. ist hier zu finden:

Ergänzend hingewiesen sei auf die deutschsprachige Publikation und Dokumentation zum Briefwechsel zwischen Rudolf Ekstein und Bruno Bettelheim:

Roland Kaufhold (1994): Zum Briefwechsel zwischen Bruno Bettelheim und Ernst/Paul Federn und zwischen Bettelheim und Ekstein. In: Roland Kaufhold (Hg.) (1994): Annäherung an Bruno Bettelheim, Mainz 1994, (S. 276-299). Nur noch über den Autor zum Preis von 12 Euro plus Porto erhältlich: Mail: roland.Kaufhold (at)