The Creation of Dr. B

Russ Baker reviews the book "The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim" by Richard Pollak.

Topics: Books,

In 1969, two decades after his brother’s death at age 11, Richard Pollak paid a visit to his sibling’s former psychologist, the eminent Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, at his acclaimed Chicago home for emotionally disturbed children. Bettelheim, a self-styled heir to Freud, told him that Stephen Pollak had committed suicide. Richard Pollak knew this to be untrue; he’d been present at the hayloft accident that took his brother’s life.

Bettelheim’s remarks, predictably enough, angered Pollak — and they got him thinking about the psychologist’s alleged genius. Years later, in 1990, Bettelheim took his own life. And Richard Pollak, a former literary editor for The Nation, launched an exhaustive search for the truth about this cult figure. The result is “The Creation of Dr. B,” a thorough, yet surprisingly even-handed, demolition of the man.

Bettelheim, Pollak asserts, was virtually a complete fraud. Among other misdeeds, he faked his psychology credentials, often rigged his research and preached gentleness while secretly abusing the disturbed kids in his care. Pollak even provides damning evidence that Bettelheim’s classic book “The Uses of Enchantment,” a psychoanalytic take on fairy tales that won a National Book Award, was enhanced by plagiarism.

The most disconcerting images here are of Pollak’s own encounters with Bettelheim, who savaged parents, usually mothers, for their children’s autism. “He leaned forward … My father he dismissed as crude and somewhat simple-minded … My mother was the villain … almost entirely responsible for my brother’s problems. With astonishing anger, he said she had rejected Stephen at birth and that to cope with this lockout he had developed ‘pseudo-feeble-mindedness.’”

Nearly as bad, Pollak argues, was the way the Vienna native exaggerated his own Holocaust experience while condemning his fellow Dachau and Buchenwald prisoners — who often showed heroic humanity and strength while Bettelheim bribed camp guards to pull sock repair duty. Bettelheim was released before the real slaughter began.

Assuming Pollak has got it right — and there is more documentation here than most of us would need — Bettelheim joins the ranks of notorious dissemblers like the billionaire art collector, Kremlinologist and presidential shoulder-rubber Armand Hammer, who, we recently learned, fabricated a bogus account of his own life. But the most apt comparison is really with Jerzy Kosinski, the lionized author of the “Painted Bird,” whose novelized wartime humiliations were treated as biographical fact until little holes in his story began to emerge. An assimilationist Jew who parlayed his suffering into a comfortable, polo-playing literary lifestyle, Kosinski ended up killing himself in a bathtub. Bettelheim, who lied about his own past, lived to a ripe old age before something — guilt? — finally prompted him to kill himself in 1990, not yet revealed as the charlatan he was.

Pollak, who is likely to be furiously attacked by those invested in the Bettelheim legacy, powerfully demonstrates the flaccidity of the doctor’s scholarship and the flimsy, if lofty-sounding, conclusions that the politics of fame allowed him to foist upon the world.

Russ Baker, an award-winning investigative journalist, is founder and editor-in-chief of

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