Remembering a Day with Bruno Bettelheim

Bettelheim took his own life on March 13, 1990. Some found that strange. I have my own ideas.

The famous psychologist Bruno Bettelheim died March 13, 1990, by his own hands. Some found it strange that the man who wrote so convincingly about “surviving,” who had himself survived internment in Dachau and Buchenwald, should have chosen this manner of death. Others have suggested that he never completely left behind the pain of being a prisoner, and that his wife’s death in 1984 (as well as his own debilitating stroke in 1987) explain much. I have my own ideas.

We went to lunch in 1982. In the car on the way to the restaurant and throughout the meal, we hotly argued our interpretations of the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” I insisted it dealt with “separation anxiety” but he was adamant that the subject was “oral greed,” and he pointed to the way the children ate their parents out of house and home and then were rapacious when they arrived at the Gingerbread House. When the waitress rolled the dessert cart by the table, Bettelheim took a piece of chocolate cake; after we had talked some more, he took a second; finally, a third. There’s a parable there.

Bettelheim was in town to deliver a lecture on fairy tales at my university, San Diego State University, but the first obligation was a press conference. There was a great gaggle of people when we arrived, television and newspaper reporters, several dozen of them, bristling with handy‑cams and microphones and notebooks. Bettelheim pushed them all aside and singled out the timid undergraduates from the student newspaper. He spoke to them. Outside their tight circle, the frustrated professionals had to be content, as they poked their microphones in his direction and took notes and waited their turn, rude and miffed.

Something unexpected happened when a dozen of us walked from there to the lecture site. A strange woman, a student I imagine, stepped out of the bushes and, with tears streaming down her face, confronted Bettelheim: “What can you do,” she sobbed and loudly insisted, “when your mother doesn’t love you and you feel there is no reason to go on living?” The threat of suicide seemed genuine.

The crowd around Bettelheim was stunned and silenced. It was one of those confrontations with the mentally ill that unnerves most people. Not Bettelheim. He looked at her squarely and told her forcefully, “You have to find the strength within yourself. You have to become your own mother.” Though it seems strange to say so now, as we moved on and I looked back over my shoulder, I could see in her face that she felt . . . well, answered.

The lecture, itself, was a tour de force, an examination of “Cinderella” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” with the same kind of brilliance evident in his famous book on the fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. The question‑and‑answer period did not go so well.

Bettelheim played the bête noire, deliberately taking provocative stances meant to stir up controversies. When asked, he didn’t offer the conventional view on the merits of books over television: he found nothing wrong with tv and remembered how, in a similar vein, his parents’ generation believed cheek‑to‑cheek dancing would corrupt young people’s morals. He took on feminists, saying their greatest silliness was the belief that women could only identify with characters of the same gender, “as if no woman could understand Hamlet.” He chided parents, saying their greatest fault was to encourage their children to be independent and, when disappointed, scold their offspring for not “doing what I told you to do.”

Bettelheim shouted his views. He castigated students whose questions were badly phrased or not well thought out. Few seemed to realize he thrived on heated discussion, and there were some moments of awkward silence when, instead of rising to his provocations, the crowd of some five hundred people was cowed by the bully pulpit. Mistaking him, many of my students said afterwards that he struck them simply as rude.

Later, I mentioned this misapprehension to a faculty colleague. He had also been at the University of Chicago and remembered Bettelheim’s reputation there as a tyrant in graduate seminars. “Still,” he added, “we felt that to be scolded by Bruno Bettelheim was an honor!”

After the lecture, we adjourned to a small meeting of graduate students and professors. What impressed me, as he bandied and answered sophisticated questions about folklore, was that Bettelheim knew his stuff. His ideas about fairy tales were written for everyday people, but that did not indicate any superficiality. Instead, he was, like Margaret Mead or Paul Goodman, a “public scholar.”

I was, however, an hour late getting him back to his hotel. He berated me the whole way about my irresponsibility, until the hair bristled on my neck and I looked forward to dumping this scold at his doorstep. Still, I think now, it was an honor to have met him.

A version of this essay originally appeared in “TALL: Teaching and Learning Literature with Children and Young Adults” (Nov./Dec. 1994). And click here for essays in “American Imago” by Kenneth Kidd on Bettelheim and Feral Children and Living and Dying (subscription required).


22. August 2016 by
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