Austrian-born American psychologist known for his treatment of emotionally disturbed children, particularly autistic children.
Bruno Bettelheim was born in Vienna in 1903. He was trained as a psychoanalyst, receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in 1938. In the same year, the Nazis conquered Austria, and Bettelheim was interned in the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. He was released in 1939 and emigrated to the United States, where he first became a research associate of the Progressive
Education Association at the University of Chicago, and then an associate professor at Rockford College from 1942 to 1944.
In 1943, Bettelheim gained widespread recognition for his article, "Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations," a study of human adaptability based on his concentration camp experiences. In 1944, he was granted a dual appointment by the University of Chicago as assistant professor and head of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, a residential treatment center for 6 to 14-year-old children with severe emotional problems. Here he successfully treated many children unresponsive to previous therapy, using the technique—which has been both lauded and criticized—of unconditionally accepting their behavior. Bettelheim was also concerned with the emotional lives and upbringing of normal children, and with applying psychoanalytic principles to social problems.
In three decades as an author of works for both scholarly and popular audiences, Bettelheim covered a broad range of topics. Love Is Not Enough (1950), Truants from Life (1954), and The Empty Fortress (1967) are based on his work at the Orthogenic School. The Informed Heart (1960) deals with Bettelheim's concentration camp experiences. Children of the Dream (1969) analyzes communal childrearing methods on an Israeli kibbutz and their implications for American family life. The Uses of Enchantment (1976) argues for the importance of fairy tales in a child's development. Bettelheim's later books include On Learning to Read: The Child's First Fascination with Meaning (1981) and Freud and Man's Soul (1982). A full professor at the University of Chicago from 1952, Bettelheim retired from both teaching and directorship of the Orthogenic School in 1973. Following the death of his wife in 1984 and after suffering a stroke in 1987, Bettelheim committed suicide in 1990.
See also Adaptation; Autism
Sutton, Nina. Bettelheim, A Life and a Legacy. New York: Basic Books, 1996.