Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bruno Bettelheim

Bruno Bettelheim is a very interesting figure whose work involves two of my passions-fairy tales and people with disabilities-specifically, autism. He spent part of his life in a concentration camp, but went on to become well known for his work in child psychology and Freudian psychology. His contributions to understandings of autism are less than helpful. He believed autism was the result of poor parenting. As part of the therapy, he had the children stomp on figures of their mothers and hurl insults at them.
His work in fairy tales was perhaps slightly more beneficial. His book The Uses of Enchantment was very popular at the time, so even if Freudian psychology grates on you after a while, it's worth a read just to see how it's influenced current thought in interpreting fairy tales. He was very pro-fairy tales, so he still gets quoted a lot. He believed fairy tales help children sort through their various stages of development. He lobbied for what he thought were the perfected versions of tales-such as the brothers Grimm-because oral tales told over and over again are shaped to nurture whatever the child's needs are. He must not have been aware that the Grimms' versions were hardly authoritative, and to call them "oral" tales is doubtful.

His characters sort through Oedipal difficulties. This isn't too hard a stretch for the abundance of fairy tales with female protagonists, evil mothers and absent fathers. He also interprets Hansel and Gretel as children who were stuck too long in their oral stage and had to move on. Their rushing to eat a house of candy has nothing to do with the fact that the children are starving to death-literally-and only their oral greed (intentional sarcasm here on my part). Beauty and the Beast is a tale of a young woman who transfers her Oedipal attatchments from her father to a mate in a healthy way. Donkeyskin is not a tale about the potential evil of fathers, but a young girl's fantasies that her father will become sexually obsessed with her, and so on.

However, there are many very interesting points he makes as well, so again, it's worth a read. According to his own theories, Bettelheim should have been the most self-actualized person ever, because of all his readings of fairy tales, but he suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1990.

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