Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990) was a Viennese-born, American-based psychoanalyst best known for his work on autism, although it was not without controversy. He was born in Vienna and initially studied philosophy and art history at the University of Vienna, which included a compulsory psychology component. His studies were interrupted twice. Firstly, he had to take over the family business following his father’s death. Secondly, the Anschluss of Austria with Nazi Germany in 1938 led to his second interruption. Despite being raised in a secular family, Bettelheim’s Jewish ancestry resulted in his incarceration by the Nazis in concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald. Fortunately, he was amnestied after eleven months in April 1939 and sought refuge in the United States.
Bettelheim wrote a moving and bestselling memoir about his experiences during this time, titled “The Informed Heart” (1960). In it, he used psychoanalysis to try to understand the behavior of both the guards and inmates. Upon settling in Chicago, he was appointed a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and became the director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School. It was during his tenure as the director of this school that Bettelheim made his mark. The school initially established as a treatment facility for psychologically disturbed children, provided him with a practical setting to develop his theories.
In 1967, he published a series of case studies of autistic children, all of whom were residents in his facility. The resulting book, “The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self,” was highly influential and sold well. However, it presented the controversial thesis that bad parenting was to blame for autism, a notion that has since been disproved and criticized for its negative impact on parents raising autistic children.
One of his most enduring and significant works is “The Uses of Enchantment” (1976), where he applied psychoanalysis to analyze fairy tales. In this book, Bettelheim criticized Disney’s adaptations of fairy tales like Snow White and Cinderella for omitting the violence present in the original stories. He argued that exposure to such violence was crucial for children to learn about the realities of life and prepare themselves psychologically for the inevitable traumas they would face as they grew older.