Empty Fortress, The

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The saga of The Empty Fortress began in 1952. Two years earlier, in his book Love Is Not Enough, Bruno Bettelheim had reported his first findings concerning the disturbed children in the school he had directed in Chicago since 1944. That book had captured the interest of thousands of Americans. The popularization of psychoanalysis was in full bloom in the United States, and psychiatric research was very much in fashion. High hopes seemed in order: Americans had defeated Hitler; surely they could overcome madness. There was no shortage of research funding, and in 1956, ahead of Anna Freud's Hampstead Nurseries, Bettelheim received a five-year Ford Foundation grant of $342,500 to finance his study of autism. The Empty Fortress is based in part on the reports that Bettelheim submitted to the Ford Foundation each year.

It was hardly automatic that autistic children were referred to Bettelheim's Orthogenic School, which was run like a family home and where diagnostic labels and psychiatric drugs were forbidden. "If you give them drugs," Bettelheim wrote, the children "cannot believe that you really want them to be the way they would like to be. If you manipulate their bodies like that, how could they fail to think that you also want to manipulate their minds?" (personal communication, 1980). After a great deal of discussion with his colleagues, in 1950-1951 Bettelheim finally received a few "children who don't speak" (as their playmates would call them), children whose pathology Margaret Mahler distinguished from other forms of infantile psychosis at the 1951 Congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association in Amsterdam.

The first sentence of Bettelheim's book sums up his credo: "Much of modern psychology seeks to know about others; too much of it, in my opinion, without an equal commitment to knowing the self. But I believe that knowing the otherwhich is different from knowing about the othercan only be a function of knowing oneself" (p. 3). This was the foundation on which he trained (sometimes very roughly) the educators in his school. The sentiment also illustrates the secret of Bettelheim's remarkable clinical intuition.

While observing the wolf-child-like behavior of little Anna, Bettelheim writes, he was struck by the parallel between his own experience of concentration camps and his therapeutic work (pp. 7-8). Anna had been born in Poland during the Second World War to Jewish parents who did not get along but were obliged to live together, holed up in an earthen cellar and afraid to make the slightest sound. By the age of ten, the little girl, now mute, had almost killed her young brother several times. No treatment facility would keep her more than a few hours; even a psychiatric hospital had been unable to cope with her for more than a month. In her eyes Bettelheim recognized a terror that he himself could never forgetthe terror of someone placed in an environment that seeks to destroy him without his knowing why or whether he will ever escape. Bettelheim had been evoking this "extreme situation" since his article on Buchenwald (1943). In The Empty Fortress he defined it, for the first time, as a situation "when we ourselves respond to an external dangerreal or imaginedwith inner maneuvers that actually debilitate us further" (p. 77). Later he added that in the face of an extreme situation, the individual rejects his normal personality because his ordinary reactions are now liable to place his life in danger (1980, pp. 11, 116). Convinced that, however senseless little Anna's actions might seem, they in fact had meaning, Bettelheim studied her symptoms closely enough to be able to make the striking claim that he was describing autism as if from the subject's point of view.

Traditionally, autistic subjects are characterized in terms of their shortcomings. In The Empty Fortress, by contrast, the children are alive and active, and each of their gestures is understood as an attempt to reduce their suffering. The three case histories that Bettelheim recounted in detail, those of Laurie, Marcia, and Joey (the "boy-machine" who could not move or even say hello without first "plugging himself in" with an imaginary cord to an equally imaginary wall-socket), make such a powerful impression on readers that they often forget the first part of the book, "The world of encounter," in which Bettelheim gives an account of the birth and decline of the self.

The first hundred or so pages of the book, permeated with notions of the "self psychology" then being developed by Heinz Kohut, are nevertheless the strongest ever written by Bettelheim on mental illness. They even prompted Donald Winnicott to make the following somewhat ruffled remark: "I find him difficult to read simply because he says everything and there is nothing to be said that one could be certain has not been said by him. But I must read him because he can be exactly right, or more nearly right than other writers. This applies especially to his opening chapters in The Empty Fortress " (1989, p. 246n).

This book made Bettelheim famous worldwide; it also defined him narrowly as a specialist of autism. He was partly responsible for this, for he inflated his success rate to help quiet his behaviorist opponents. His overriding priority was to give voice to the mental suffering of his patients and remind the medical world of the respect it owed to such suffering. The Empty Fortress was in effect a clinical sourcebook, and it had a decisive effect on the evolution of institutional attitudes towards autism.

Nina Sutton

See also: Autism; Bettelheim, Bruno; Infantile schizophrenia; Technique with children, psychoanalytic.

Source Citation

Bettelheim, Bruno. (1967). The empty fortress: Infantile autism and the birth of the self. New York: Free Press.


Bettelheim, Bruno. (1943). Individual and mass behavior in extreme situations. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 38, 417-452.

. (1950). Love is not enough. New York: Free Press.

. (1980). Surviving and other essays. New York: Vintage.

Lyons, Tom Wallace. (1979). The pelican and after: A novel about emotional disturbance. Richmond, VA: Prescott, Durrell and Co.

Mahler, Margaret S. (1952). On child psychosis and schizophrenia: Autistic and symbiotic infantile psychoses. In R. Eissler et al. (Eds.), Psychoanalytic study of the child (Vol. 7). New York: International Universities Press.

Winnicott, Donald W. (1989). Psycho-analytic explorations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.