There’s no mincing words about it: I hated this week’s readings for Fairy Tales for the 21st Century. I didn’t like Bettelheim very much last week, but my hatred clicked together this week: The Uses of Enchantment revealed itself to be Freudian nonsense, following the worst impulses of the psychiatric industry. Bruno Bettelheim is a midcentury Freudian, the sort that gets psychiatry made fun in popular culture. As Freud himself would say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but midcentury Freudians like Bettelheim would overanalyze that dumb cigar long after Freud left it alone.
Last week, I thought I didn’t like Bettelheim because of his Eurocentric worldview and his overgeneralizations (ironically, he has the gall to chide other adults for not listening to children, but he seems to listen to children only as far as to prove a theory.) I didn’t realize how much more there was to dislike about this man! The reading made me so mad that I did extracurricular research on why Bettelheim is horrible. As an aside, I’ll note it here: Bettelheim lied about his credentials, never earning that PhD he claimed to have. He is a hypocrite and abusive, railing against corporal punishment while physically and verbally abusing his patients and his students. Also, significantly for this reading, he did not respect autistic people and believed autism was caused by neglectful mothers. In Enchantment, he uses the phrase “normal child” with great frequency. Knowing his background, you realize he means non-autistic when he says this, and often for no reason– there isn’t a reason to distinguish autistic children in his analysis, and he is just doing so out of lack of compassion and respect.
Really, I’d accept any other psychoanalytical reading about fairy tales: Freud himself? Fine. Lacan? Great. Klein? I’d love it. But Freudians are the goddamn worst. Freud himself has a lot to like, as he’s important from a critical standpoint and many of his ideas are important (such as the development of childhood.) But his followers are awful.
Here are some of the crimes that Bettelheim does in the selected reading:
- He makes a point about illustrations hampering understanding and claims many studies prove this, but he admits to not having an actual study to prove his point and only cites studies that claim illustrations hamper language learning. That’s totally different.
- He frequently refers to the Oedipal desires of having a child with your parents, which is not at all true. Furthermore, many feminist scholars believe that Freud’s theory was based on the sexual abuse of his patients by their fathers, so to believe this uncritically is gross. Also Freud never referred to wanting to have a child with your mom. That’s just Freudian extrapolation. He did say the sex thing, though, curiously omitted by Bettelheim. Attachment theory is fine and good, though. Just none of this literal child with your parent stuff.
- He tramautizes a class of children by point out that they were making a model, then uses this to prove that children should not be taught science.
- He claims adults who are never read fairy tales are stunted, which is absurd.
- He discounts the entire possibility that sometimes a story might be enjoyed as a story and nothing more. Freud would not be pleased.
- There’s tons of gender essentialism, but that goes with the territory.
- Id, ego, and superego are good metaphors but should not be taken as literal fact.
- He makes ridiculous assertions like 12 year olds believe that rivers are literally alive. That might be true of a few, but not the majority of 12 year olds I know.
Surely there must be a better resource on psychology and fairy tales than Bettelheim. Perhaps there is a Lacanian take somewhere that wouldn’t drive me crazy? Freud is important, but midcentury Freudians should be lost like the cult it is.
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