After death, what’s learned: Fisher on Bettelheim (and Ekstein)

Dropped on:February 3, 2014
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Jimmy Fisher wrote a poignant study of Bettelheim, interviewing him as he lay dying, and including correspondence with Rudi Ekstein, Bettelheim’s close friend.  Here is my review of Fisher’s book.  We can read such books for various motivations — some constructive, some not. In this case, I recommend the book as a humane, sensitive study to understand Bettelheim, an astute thinker, a man who cautioned us about biographies and autobiographies in his Freud and Man’s Soul. With such caution in mind, let’s see what we can learn.  We reprint this with the permission of ”Psychoananalysis and History”.
 Nathan Szajnberg, MD, Managing Editor

Fisher’s Bettelheim: Living and Dying, a meditation on dying, is filled with intelligence, deep insight and a tender love without being hagiographic for both Rudy Ekstein and Bruno Bettelheim. This writing takes a certain self-confidence and maturity to be able to express affection that is both critical and admiring; Fisher does this with enviable ease. The writing is both elegant and elegiac.

The Bettelheim he describes is pretty much as I remember him when I was a student at the University of Chicago in the 1970’s. He didn’t lead a class, he hunted it, bearing a Socratic method tipped with a Samurai’s sword. Yet, I never found his attacks meant to harm; rather, he wanted people to think and to argue with him. Those who did found him great fun.

I was pleased with Fisher’s defense Bettelheim’s post-mortem attackers; these critics are forms of Zombies, trying to rouse the dead to attack them; or perhaps waiting for the living to die so that they can attack them more safely. Bettelheim was not perfect , but he was no ogre. I couldn’t wait to go to his class, or see him in our biweekly private sessions. They were the highlights of my week.

I’d like to offer some comments, anecdotes.

–Bettelheim never gave grades in class. It was only pass/fail. Pass if you showed up; fail if you didn’t it. (But, he didn’t announce that until after the final essay exam.)

–I sat in the back of Bettelheim’s large class on psychoanalysis, though I participated actively in the discussions. I remember once when I caught Bettelheim in an apparent contradiction he immediately attacked me, saying, “I know why you sit in the back there, you actually hate your brother.” (In fact, this was true). Then, a women in the front of the class (the wife of the Rockefeller Chapel minister) stood up, and screamed at Bettelheim, “How dare you attack that boy that way!”: Bettelheim smiled, looked at me, then at her and said, “I attack him because I really like him.”

–In Bettelheim’s large class he devoted one of the periods to an explanation of the Oedipus Complex. At the end, the audience stood and applauded. I had never seen that before. I have never seen it since. He was brilliant.

–There was a mural on the wall in the parlor of the Orthogenic School where Bettelheim held his seminar on psychoanalysis; it was a painting of someone on the outside looking in at the Orthogenic School. I asked Bettelheim about it. He said he wanted to give the patients there a sense that not only were they in the school but that they could also be outside it, looking in. And that was what freedom was all about.

–I noticed that Bettelheim was always more abrasive in large settings. Most abrasive in the large class, less so in the small seminar, not very abrasive at all in one-on-one meetings. I think he liked the “show business” aspect associated with large groups and in those settings wanted to show up as the “nasty” Bettelheim, to meet peoples’ expectations.

–Bettelheim’s suicide reminds me a bit of how Freud went. Freud had an agreement with his physician that when the pain got too great, then he wanted out. It was a rational decision. Bettelheim did it himself, without the help of an attending physician.

Barry Gale, Ph. D.

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