Turbulent dreams of a damaged saint

Holmes's creator was a suffragette and a devotee of fairies. Martin Booth reports; Conan Doyle by Michael Coren Bloomsbury, pounds 18.99 He was a survivor of Dachau, a brilliant child psychologist - and a suicide. Nicholas Tucker considers Bruno Bettelheim; Bruno Bettelheim: The Other Side of Madness, by Nina Sutton, Duckworth, pounds 25
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Brilliant mavericks have always been drawn to psychoanalysis but few have ever been so consistently contradictory as the great educator Bruno Bettelheim, who died in 1990. Well known in Freudian circles, he always hid the fact that he never completed a psychoanalytic training and, despite claims to the contrary, possessed no psychology qualifications of any sort.

Famed as a leading therapist for taking on children others had rejected, Bettelheim could also be irascible and violent within the fiercely protected privacy of his own establishment. While bringing out his book A Good Enough Parent, he disinherited the daughter with whom he was then bitterly quarrelling. As someone whose mission was to help others stand upon their own feet, he took his life after months of planning - plans in which even a four- year-old grandchild was not spared some of the grisly details.

It is tempting to crow over those self-advertised gurus who turn out to be less than perfect. After Bettelheim's suicide, many accusations were made against him, most notably by former pupils from his famous Orthogenic School (taking its cumbersome name from the Greek orthos (straight) and genos (origin). It's a predictable response to round on a father figure who arbitrarily abandons his surrogate children, but there were other ex-pupils who continued to insist that, for them, Dr B remained a revered figure. He was also shown to have exaggerated the concentration camp experiences memorably recorded in his book The Informed Heart. But blaming anyone who survived such appalling circumstances for being slightly selective with their memories seems exceptionally harsh. As it was, the recollection of his pre-war year in Dachau and Buchenwald always haunted Bettelheim. He was not the only survivor to end his life in deep depression terminated by suicide.

Like Bettelheim, Nina Sutton, the author of this biography, sees early family tensions as the fundamental determinants of personality. The fact that Bettelheim's mother found him an ugly baby weighs more here that the effects upon him of living in fear of death or torture 35 years later in Dachau. Bettelheim's encounters with anti-Semitism as a child, plus the experience of living in a family racked by the effects of a father suffering from syphilis, are also given prominence in explaining the later bouts of depression and self-hatred he knew so well. Sutton argues her case persuasively. Others might prefer to conclude that Bettelheim was also one of those individuals born with a generally discontented personality whatever their subsequent family history.

Bettelheim saved his life at Dachau by working on latrine duty, which ensured a warm shower in the evening and the absence of close attention from brutal guards. Brought out by foreign supporters in April 1939, just in time to escape penniless to America, he used his experiences as a basis for believing that, whatever the odds, all human beings can make it if only they are given the chance. This conviction led him, in typically paradoxical style, to claim that his period of imprisonment actually did him some good.

It was certainly the only time he never had thoughts about suicide of the type that shadowed the rest of his life, so great was his determination to survive. In America once, faced by pupils thought to be autistic, Bettelheim insisted that, however crazy their behaviour seemed, it still made sense if only its particular personal meaning could be discovered. This injection of confidence had a most positive effect upon pupils and staff. Undrugged, surrounded by good food, lavishly rewarded with presents on their birthdays, even the most troubled children sometimes gained a new sense of self-respect.

Had Bettelheim left it at that, he could have been closer in his own life to the near-omniscient saint that he appears in his writings. But there was always the desire to impress the rest of the world at all costs, a desire that led to the various falsifications of results that were gleefully picked up on after his death. If he did not cure as many pupils as he claimed, and if severe autism turned out to be more resistant to therapy than he had thought, there was still much to admire in his achievements. Working with disturbed children is very hard and Bettelhim worked harder than most. If just one pupil ultimately triumphed, it was just cause for pride. In fact many of his charges were eventually able to lead contented, productive adult lives; a fine epitaph for a supremely gifted, if flawed, practitioner who, as a fellow Viennese once observed, "had all the trappings of a genius without being one".

Even so, there were many occasions when Bettelheim's views were ahead of his time. Unafraid of controversy, he quarrelled with the kibbutz movement in Israel, urging the return to a model of family life that was later to happen anyway. He committed the ultimate act of defiance against received opinion by attacking Anne Frank's father in print for not doing more to help his family escape from the Nazis. Not for the first time, Bettelheim was shown to be over-hasty in his judgments, but the points he raised about Jewish passivity in their terrible fate helped lead to a necessary debate. His wholesale endorsement of fairy tales as essential reading for children (in his The Uses of Enchantment) was a mighty blow in the war against the inspid reading books once so popular in schools.

Challenging current orthodoxies is always stimulating, and although he was a supporter of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Bettelheim remained a challenging figure in the field of human relations. The long-stuffering staff at his school could never be assured of his automatic support when reporting back about their dealings with a particularly disruptive pupil. Bettelheim might instead suggest that the child was reacting against something a counsellor had unconsciously intimated themselves. This could be dismaying, but by insisting there was always more to learn for both teacher and pupil, Bettelheim invested even the most humdrum reality with its own dynamic possibilities. Nothing ever appeared dull or obvious in the counselling sessions he held with staff, often late into the night after pupils had eventually gone to sleep.

Nina Sutton describes his turbulent life with clarity and fairness. Written in French and well translated, it is an intriguing story. Whether it warrants over 500 pages is another matter. (Perhaps we need a Society for Promoting Shorter Biographies, to lobby writers who cannot bear to jettison any of the facts they have so laboriously gathered about their subject.) To make matters worse, the index here is a disgrace: a bare list of proper nouns stripped of any helpful ancillary information. But those are my only criticisms of an intelligent study of one of this century's most celebrated writers on child psychology: an awkward angel for some who knew him, a pain in the neck for others, a beguiling enigma for the rest of us.