Legacy of Bettelheim's 'obvious art' recalled

March 01, 1993|By Ron Grossman | Ron Grossman,Chicago Tribune

This book is a good antidote for anyone with a lump in his throat or a bad taste in his mouth left over from the Bettelheim affair.

At the time of his death two years ago, Bruno Bettelheim was hailed as one of the founding fathers of child psychiatry. Dr. B., as colleagues and patients knew him, achieved a celebrity far beyond that usually won by even the most important scientists or physicians. "The Informed Heart," "Love Is Not Enough" and his other books were household manuals for thousands of families whose children were free of the terrible maladies he treated in his famed therapeutic school at the University of Chicago.

But after his death, some of Bettelheim's alumni spoke up, describing life in the Orthogenic School as far different from the idyllic picture Bettelheim gave his readers. Coming on top of the news that he had taken his life, those revelations of physical and verbal abuse stripped the halo from Bettelheim for many fans.

"The Art of the Obvious" reminds us that, even if he wasn't a saint, Bettelheim knew a lot about the workings of the human heart.

He was, in fact, one of our last links to the heroic age of psychoanalysis, the decades immediately on either side of World War II, when Freud's discoveries were still new and exciting. By now, they seem old hat to a younger generation of psychiatrists, which is how Bettelheim's final book came to be.

Upon retiring from the University of Chicago, Bettelheim moved to California, where Stanford University accorded him the honor of a visiting professorship but otherwise ignored his presence. But Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, a psychiatrist in charge of a training program for child therapists at Stanford, believed that Bettelheim's mind was too good to waste.

In 1977 he invited Bettelheim to co-host his weekly seminars. Many of Dr. Rosenfeld's students had been trained in behavior therapy or in pharmacological psychiatry, and he guessed they might benefit from sharing their case reports with someone like Bettelheim, who realized the human psyche is too complicated to be controlled by manipulative tricks or chemical cure-alls.

"The Art of the Obvious," which is largely transcripts of those seminar sessions, shows how correct Dr. Rosenfeld's hunch was. Bettelheim often told the seminar's participants that psychoanalysis is "the art of the obvious." He also noted how hard it is for even trained professionals to translate that motto into clinical practice.

"Some child therapists want to start treatment by saying, 'I want to be your friend,' " Bettelheim noted. "That doesn't make sense to me. If I were a 7-year-old and you said, 'I want to be your friend,' I'd say, 'I would prefer a kitten.' "

Other psychotherapists have the advantage of sharing a common, adult view of life with their patients, Bettelheim noted. But child psychiatry works only if a therapist is willing to see things from a child's perspective.

"When I was starting out at the Orthogenic School, I spent time walking on my knees," Bettelheim recalled. "I figured that crouching down to a child's height and observing what the world looks like to him would be invaluable preparation for entering a child's world."

"The Art of the Obvious" is filled with similar examples of Bettelheim's common-sense wisdom. For preserving the master's final lessons, future generations of parents and professionals will always owe a debt of gratitude to Alvin Rosenfeld.


Title: "The Art of the Obvious."

Authors: Bruno Bettelheim and Alvin Rosenfeld.

Publisher: Knopf.

Length, price: 236 pages, $23.

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