Bruno Bettelheim - Life and Career in The United States

Life and Career in The United States

Bettelheim arrived by ship as a refugee in New York City in the fall of 1939 to join his wife Gina, who had already emigrated. They divorced because she had become involved with someone else during their separation. He soon moved to Chicago and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1944 and remarried to an American.

The University of Chicago appointed Bettelheim as a professor of psychology and he taught there from 1944 until his retirement in 1973. He had trained in philosophy, but stated also that the Viennese psychoanalyst Richard Sterba had analyzed him.

Bettelheim also served as Director of the University of Chicago's Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, a home that treats emotionally disturbed children. He made changes and set up an environment for milieu therapy, in which children could form strong attachments with adults within a structured but caring environment. He claimed considerable success in treating some of the emotionally disturbed children. He wrote books on both normal and abnormal child psychology and became a major influence in the field, widely respected during his lifetime. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971.

Bettelheim analyzed fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychology in The Uses of Enchantment (1976). He discussed the emotional and symbolic importance of fairy tales for children, including traditional tales at one time considered too dark, such as those collected and published by the Brothers Grimm. Bettelheim suggested that traditional fairy tales, with the darkness of abandonment, death, witches, and injuries, allowed children to grapple with their fears in remote, symbolic terms. If they could read and interpret these fairy tales in their own way, he believed, they would get a greater sense of meaning and purpose. Bettelheim thought that by engaging with these socially-evolved stories, children would go through emotional growth that would better prepare them for their own futures. In the U.S., Bettelheim won two major awards for The Uses of Enchantment: the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and the National Book Award in category Contemporary Thought.

His writings covered a wide range of topics, beginning shortly after he arrived in the United States with an essay on concentration camps and their dynamics. He long had a reputation as an authority on these topics.

At the end of his life Bettelheim suffered from depression. He appeared to have had difficulties with depression for much of his life. In 1990, widowed, in failing physical health, and suffering from the effects of a stroke which impaired his mental abilities and paralyzed part of his body, he committed suicide as a result of self-induced asphyxiation by placing a plastic bag over his head.

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