Anna Freud: A Life Devoted to Children 
by Uwe Henrik Peters, translated by Beatrice Smedley.
Weidenfeld, 281 pp., £16.95, April 1985, 0 297 78175 8
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She burst into the history of psychoanalysis crying out in her sleep: ‘Anna Fweud, stwawbewwies, wild stwawbewwies, omblet, pudden!’ The calipers of theory were immediately applied: ‘At that time she was in the habit of using her own name to express the idea of taking possession of something. The menu included pretty well everything that must have seemed to her to make up a desirable meal.’ A strange father he must have been, ruminating into the night in his study on the meaning of his children’s half-heard cries in their sleep. Even here he paid attention to details other fathers would have thought beneath their notice. Why, he wondered, did she cry out for two kinds of strawberry: ‘The fact that strawberries appeared in it in two varieties was a demonstration against the domestic health regulations. It was based on the circumstances, which she had no doubt observed, that her nurse had attributed her indisposition to a surfeit of strawberries. She was thus retaliating in her dream against this unwelcome verdict.’

Between the 19-month-old child crying out in her sleep in rebellion against ‘the domestic health regulations’ and the austere and forbidding ascetic of 20 Maresfield Gardens fell a life under unremitting scrutiny, first her father’s, then everyone else’s, everyone who wanted to touch the hem of fame as it passed. Between the lines of this clumsy biography one can see the scrutiny pressing down upon her, shaping the child who cried out in its sleep into the dutiful daughter, nurse of her father’s final years, Cerberus at the gates of his reputation.

She was not his favorite daughter. That privilege had been Sophie’s: she won him with an effortless femininity Anna could admire but never emulate. The younger daughter had to learn reserve and self-abnegation, to reconcile herself to the elemental unfairness in a parent’s partiality. Her father even mocked her devotion, writing in 1919 to Max Eitingon in Berlin that Anna had opposed Eitingon’s offer of a gift of 3000 Swedish crowns: ‘my daughter ... evidently can’t stand the demolition of her father complex.’ In the hours of grief after Sophie’s sudden death in 1920, and in the years of sickness once the cancer came, she finally won him over. She became the only one whom Freud trusted to treat the wound in his jaw, the only one whose hands he could bear putting in the dreadful metal prosthesis. It does not occur to this biographer that the campaign for his affections must have encountered resistance from his often patronising attitude to women, his shame at being old and sick, his desire to keep some memories for himself. We get a glimpse of the ardent daughter and the wary father on their first visit to Rome together. Rome had always been a place of pilgrimage for him, and Anna seems to have sensed that she was trespassing on treasured terrain. She writes with nervous pleasure to Lou Andreas-Salomé, ‘Now after the second week, I feel that I quite belong,’ and Freud writes to Lou: ‘I realise here for the first time what good company my little daughter is.’ The battle for her father’s heart marked her personality. The happiness of youngest children was left behind: the oldest child’s carapace of duty was put on. With his capacity for self-dramatisation, he came to see her as his Antigone, following the old king into exile. She became an example of one of her own analytical inventions: her character ordered by the same logic of ‘altruistic surrender’ which she observed in nannies who replace wishes for themselves – for children, for a sexual life of their own – with wishes for others.

One wonders how the families of psychoanalysts live their emotional lives. Between the father and daughter there must have flowed a bafflingly complex dual signal: the deepening emotional bond at one level and the ironic, scientific awareness of themselves as subjects of their own science, as objects of the laws of Oedipus. How does one live at both levels at once? How can love be unstinting if it is always subject to such unremitting scrutiny? All one can say is that they managed it, perhaps by saying as little as possible. This was one cure between father and daughter which did not have to be talked through.

As his dependence on her deepened, the old man wondered aloud, in letters to Lou Andreas-Salomé, about the cost:

She is truly independent of me; at the most I serve as a catalyst. You will enjoy reading her most recent writings. Of course there are certain worries; she takes things too seriously. What will she do when she has lost me? Will she lead a life of ascetic austerity?

There may have been wish-fulfilment in the praise for her independence, but he was right about her ascetic austerity.

This biographer is incurious about both the costs of her devotion to her father, and the costs the rest of the family must have paid. What about the sons, never mentioned here, who were so close to their father’s thoughts during the war, and who now seemed to slip to the edge of his concerns? And what about Martha, mother and wife? Was there some hidden place in this placid woman’s heart which grieved for the days of her courtship as her husband sometimes appeared to grieve for the renunciation of his sexual life? How must she have felt as father and daughter grew closer together? First her sister, Minna Bernays, who shared his mind and participated in the gestation of The Interpretation of Dreams, then daughter Anna, who shared the decades of the metaphysical and cultural essays. One suspects Martha only ever possessed him once: in the 1880s, when they were still apart, and he was writing her those passionate letters.

Whatever the secrets of his relation with Martha, he had powerful gifts as a father. Given the number of sons and daughters permanently infantilised by powerful parents, the productiveness of Anna’s life before and after his death is a tribute to both of them: eight volumes of collected works, the Hampstead nurseries, guiding the international psycho-analytic movement to its new centre of gravity across the Atlantic. The one mercy in the cancer’s unmerciful progress through her father’s system was that it gave her time, nearly twenty years, to adjust to the shock of his loss. When it came, in September 1939, she seems, if we are to judge by the vigour of her wartime activity, to have been ready for the blow. If at the beginning of her life she was only her father’s daughter, by the end she had become a monument herself.

There are those who insist that Melanie Klein’s was the more inventive and influential mind. In this old quarrel, Peters wades in on Anna’s side, insisting at length that Melanie Klein’s data on the role of play therapy were anecdotal rather than scientific: given the whole discipline’s reliance on anecdote, on single case-histories, this charge hardly sticks to Klein alone. He also argues that she concealed the fact that evidence for her early theories was derived exclusively from observation of her own sons. This last charge is important because Klein argued, as early as a 1927 symposium in London, that Anna could not analyse the Oedipus complex in children because, having been analysed by her father, she was still caught in the toils of the complex herself. Yet this seems no more convincing an argument against Klein than Klein’s argument was against Anna.

A less bitchy area of dispute lay in the interpretation of children’s symbolism. Anna Freud argued that Klein took a gross and literal-minded approach to sexual symbolism in children’s fantasies. For Anna, as for her father, there were times when a handbag was just a handbag: ‘the child who opens the handbag of a lady is not necessarily expressing his curiosity whether his mother’s womb conceals another baby.’ True enough, but one still has to have a theory capable of indicating when for a child handbags are handbags and handbags are wombs. In this and other instances, Peters manages to flatten both of the contenders’ originality beneath the stolid weight of his own thought. One wishes he could do justice, for example, to Anna Freud’s counter-intuitive discussion of character change in children and adults. If adults were less malleable than children, she argued, it was because the hold of the parents of memory and fantasy was fiercer and more obdurate than the hold of living parents. She also argued, with the same taste for paradox, that infancy was less accessible to children than to adult patients. Lacking the capacity for full transference and for sustained free association, children, she claimed, had no language with which to re-enter the lost kingdom before speech.

These and other moments of insight in her work remain unvisited in this dull, visionless biography, dotted with misprints. It is written in a strange language, half-way between English and its German original: such a poor translation, in fact, that no one will own up to it on the jacket. One wonders what she – fastidious master of an adopted tongue – would have made of this lifeless book.

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