I am the mother of an autistic daughter and have considered Bettelheim a charlatan since , his celebrated study of autism, came out in 1967.I have nothing personal against Bettelheim, if it is not personal to resent being compared to a devouring witch, an infanticidal king, and an SS guard in a concentration camp, or to wonder what could be the basis of Bettelheim’s statement that the precipitating factor in infantile autism is the parent’s wish that his child should not exist. Like most parents of autistic children, I cherish my daughter.
The main features identified in Kanner’s description are a social impairment characterized by aloofness, lack of reciprocity, and absence of eye contact; an inability to use language effectively to communicate, including muteness, echolalia, odd intonations, reversal of pronouns, and inappropriate repetition of meaningless words; repetitious, stereotyped behavior such as rocking, hand flapping, or preoccupation with train schedules; an insistence on sameness, with strong resistance to changes in environment or routines.
Very few of the children Bettelheim treated displayed this syndrome.
The rise and decline of this remarkable reputation is now the subject of two major studies.
In a frank and moving prologue to his splendid biography, Richard Pollak gives an account of his one meeting with Bruno Bettelheim.
Later in his life, in one of the last pieces he wrote on Nazism, Bettelheim was to make an even more extreme judgment.
He quotes Most critics have interpreted black milk as clouds of smoke issuing from the crematoria.Former students accused him in print of having created an atmosphere of terror in the famous school.Scholars accused him of plagiarism, and stories of falsified credentials and shoddy research emerged from several sources.Shortly after Pollak began his research, Bettelheim committed suicide.The storm of accusations following his death convinced Pollak that that there was an interesting story beneath the surface, and before long he was embarked on a project of discovery that ultimately led to this definitive exposure of Bettelheim as a charlatan whose life was based on falsehood and self-aggrandizement.Autistic children have highly recognizable characteristics, even though they may not always be easy to describe.Infantile autism was first recognized as a syndrome and named by Leo Kanner, a child psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins, in 1943.During his encounter with Bettelheim, Pollak heard his father dismissed as a crude schlemiel, his mother vilified with astonishing anger, described as the cause of all his brother’s problems and scorned as a Jewish mother. He endured Bettelheim’s categorical insistence that Stephen had committed suicide despite Pollak’s assertion that he had been pres ent and knew the death to have been an accident.He was stunned by the ferocity of Bettelheim’s anger and antagonism and understood for the first time why his mother had complained that Bettelheim hated parents.Thus, in the course of this brief conversation, Pollak was confronted with several aspects of Bettelheim’s character and personality that he would later learn much more about: secrecy and concealment, angry and cruel accusation, anti-Semitism, and lying.Pollak went home from this interview and wrote a detailed account he has used almost thirty years later as an introduction to ., the biography he undertook shortly before Bettelheim’s death when he began reading and rereading Bettelheim’s books and discovered that Stephen’s suicide was not the only thing about which Bettelheim had lied.