24 MARCH 1990, Page 29

Suffering of the little children

Anthony Storr


Thames & Hudson, £14.95, pp.285 runo Bettelheim, who died last week in his 87th year, was the best-known child psychologist in the USA. This is his 16th book. Most of the essays have been pub- lished before, but many have been revised, and some are appearing in English for the first time.

Bettelheim was born in Vienna in 1903. As an adolescent, he became interested in psychoanalysis because Otto Fenichel, later to become the author of a standard textbook of psychoanalysis, appeared to be appropriating his girl friend by filling her head full of Freud's teachings. Not to be outdone, Bettelheim bought all the Freud- ian writings he could find, and promptly became fascinated.

Two main themes derived from his personal experience pervade all Bettel- heim's writings: the psychosocial milieu of the concentration camps and the treatment of psychologically disturbed children. Bet- telheim himself was, for a year, confined in Dachau and then Buchenwald. After his release, in 1939, he emigrated to the US 'I'm afraid that's our new London dialling code, not our Poll Tax charge.' where he founded and became Director of the Orthogenic School in Chicago for the treatment of mentally ill children. His experience in concentration camps led to his recognition that a malignantly control- led environment can have disastrous effects upon the mental health of its inmates. He concluded that a properly constructed benign environment would have positive effects. So, instead of confin- ing the psychological treatment of severely mentally ill children to psychoanalytic ses- sions, he designed what he called a 'total therapeutic milieu' in which those treating the children were expected to offer un- equivocal emotional security by making their relationship with the children part of their lives. This demanding technique re- quired great dedication from the staff, but achieved some extraordinary therapeutic successes with psychotic children whom many would have deemed incurable.

Bettelheim's experience in Dachau and Buchenwald led to one of the classics of concentration camp literature, The In- formed Heart (1960). It also helped him understand the destructive, self-punitive behaviour of disturbed children. If the therapist assumed that such children were living in a hell of misery which was comparable with living in a concentration camp, he could enter into their world and appreciate that 'mad' behaviour was often an understandable reaction to an emo- tionally extreme situation. Bettelheim was sometimes regarded as autocratic by his staff, but he was always ready to learn from his child patients.

There is an essay on Freud's Vienna, and an interesting adverse comment on Ernest Jones's three-volume biography of Freud, which most critics have regarded as indis- pensable, even if partisan. Bettelheim is especially critical of Jones's failure to set Freud within the context of his society and date, a fault which has been remedied by Gay's more recent biography. And he is rightly intolerant of Jones's dismissal of all Freudian rebels as psychotic or neurotic.

Bettelheim himself regarded Freud as a pioneering genius, but he was by no means an uncritical disciple. In one essay, he accurately pin-points one of Freud's major failings. 'Freud believed that feelings and emotions were irrational and therefore suspect . . . . Like many philosophers of the Enlightenment, Freud could not see that if man's thinking is split off from his feeling, both become distorted.'

An essay on Lionel Trilling claims that his writings 'accurately interpreted Freud's work for American intellectuals'. It is curious that one reason for his approval of Trilling is that he shares Bettelheim's own acceptance of Freud's 'death instinct' or `death drive': a concept which has long been rejected by most biologically-minded theorists, but which crops up again in Bettelheim's final essay. This addresses the still unsolved problem of how and why so many Jews in the extermination camps appeared to acquiesce in their own destruc- tion. Bettelheim attributes this fatal passiv- I ity to what he calls 'ghetto thinking': In the ghetto, one complied and waited for the tempest to subside, The Jews had not troubled to learn that things had changed, so they could not know that this tempest was of a wholly new order.

Bettelheim thought that, although Jews were capable of fierce resistance when ordered to fight by an authority, the majority were incapable of acting in self- defence when without an official leader. Passivity and resignation are aspects of human behaviour which are not often studied, although such attitudes have been held responsible for the British working- class lack of interest in education and opportunities of betterment; 'it's not for the likes of us'.

Bettelheim's many admirers will not be disappointed by this final volume.