Bruno Bettelheim (August 28, 1903 - March 13, 1990) was a writer and child psychologist. When his father died, he had to leave university to take care of the family lumber business. After ten years, he did go back, however, and earned a degree in philosophy, writing a dissertation relating to the history of art. He was interested in psychology for much of his life but never studied it formally.
As a Jew in Austria, he spent time in the concentration camps, but his way was bought out, as was possible before the war started, and he went to the United States. Here he eventually set himself up as a professor of psychology. He was able to claim that he had the relevant training because the Nazis were destroying the records.
He spent the most significant part of his life as director of the Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, a home for emotionally disturbed children. He wrote books on both normal and abnormal child psychology, and was well respected by many during his lifetime. His book, The Uses of Enchantment, recast fairy tales in terms of the strictest Freudian psychology, sometimes to unintentionally hilarious effect.
He suffered from depression throughout his life, and committed suicide in 1990, six years after his wife died of cancer.
After his suicide, evidence of Bettelheim's dark side began to emerge. Although many of his counsellors at the Orthogenic School considered him brilliant and admirable, others began to openly question his work and to call him a cruel tyrant. Although untrained in analysis, Bettelheim was a Freudian fundamentalist. Bettelheim was convinced, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that autism had no organic basis but was caused entirely by cold mothers, who he dubbed "refrigerator mothers," and absent fathers. "All my life," he wrote, "I have been working with children whose lives have been destroyed because their mothers hated them." Other Freudian analysts, as well as scientists who were not psychiatrists, followed Bettelheim in blaming mothers for their child's autism. This view is now regarded as erroneous, and Bettelheim's work is discredited.
Bettelheim wrote a book about this entitled The Empty Fortress.
In his Lexikon der Fälschungen (Dictionary of Fraud), German author Werner Fuld claims that Mr. Bettelheim's biographical data is for a large part sheer fiction.