A Seamstress in Tel Aviv

Adam Phillips

  • Anna Freud: A Biography by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
    Macmillan, 527 pp, £18.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 333 45526 6

Psychoanalysts after Freud have to acknowledge that the founder of psychoanalysis was never properly trained. He was not psychoanalysed in the conventional sense – that is, by someone else; and there was no one to tell him whether what he was doing with his patients was appropriate. That Freud, paradoxically, was the first ‘wild’ analyst is one of the difficult facts in the history of psychoanalysis. It is easy to forget that in what is still its most creative period – roughly between 1893 and 1939 – when Freud, Jung, Ferenczi, Abraham, Klein and Anna Freud herself were learning what they thought of as the ‘new science’, they had no formal training. Later generations of analysts dealt with their envy of Freud and his early followers by making their trainings increasingly rigorous, by demanding and fostering the kind of compliance – usually referred to as ‘conviction’ – that tended to stifle originality. Psychoanalytic training became a symptom from which a lot of people never recovered.

Not surprisingly, most of the dissensions in psychoanalysis after Freud’s death arose around this vexed question of training. Since she devoted her life to protecting her father’s legacy, Anna Freud was to be involved, often unwillingly, in what soon became known as the politics of psychoanalysis. After the devastation of the war, the generation of psychoanalysis that emigrated to London would think of psychoanalysis as something they belonged to and that belonged to them. When they talked about psychoanalysis they were always talking about something else and Anna was, inevitably, in a privileged position in this fraught conversation. In Freud’s absence psychoanalytic groups increasingly organised themselves around different canons of acceptable interpretation. And psychoanalysis, which, at least in theory, makes hero and heroine-worship impossible, found new leaders, all of whom claimed to be protecting Freud’s legacy. As this careful biography shows, Anna was not only the daughter of an Extraordinary Man – a Father who made himself indispensable, and not only to his own children – she was also the daughter of a Growing Controversy. Freud called her, in one of his more daunting pieces of mythologising, ‘his Antigone’. It is one thing to be Antigone to one’s father, but to be Antigone to his Movement may have been a distraction for Anna as well as a destiny. Oedipus, after all, did not start a new profession.

Freud managed to live virtually half his life – what he came to think of as the most significant half – without psychoanalysis. Anna lived her whole life in its shadow. Young-Bruehl’s compelling account enables us to consider what it would be like to live a life committed to psychoanalysis as Anna Freud was perhaps the first person to do. She would regret towards the end that they had ‘not yet discovered the secret of how to raise ... men and women who make use of psychoanalysis to its very limits ... for a way of living’. But devotion is always a parody of its object. Since psychoanalysis has undermined piety Anna Freud’s life is necessarily one of strange and unprecedented ironies, not least of which is the fact that when she was a young woman her father psychoanalysed her (it is usually the fantasy that one is being analysed by one’s father that has to be analysed). A father’s ordinary ambivalence about his daughter – we see Freud, in Young-Bruehl’s vivid account, worrying about Anna’s social timidity but suspicious of any interest she showed in men – is enacted for the first time in the new scenario of analysis, in which Anna is obliged to report her masturbation fantasies. ‘Papa himself requires that when one speaks with him one does not stop after telling half of the information.’ To have been psychoanalysed by one’s father would not qualify today as any kind of psychoanalytic training. With biographies such as this we can begin to see how really bizarre psychoanalytic history is.

Instead of freeing her for Love and Work, as Freud in his more enthusiastic moments believed it could do, psychoanalysis seems to have strengthened Anna’s resolution to do one at the cost of the other. ‘Maybe we have all learned how to work too well,’ she wrote wistfully to her old friend and colleague August Aichorn, when she was in her fifties, ‘and done rather poorly in learning to loaf.’ Nursing her father through several terrible illnesses including his last, organising their flight from Vienna in 1939, and then setting up her own child analytic training in London after the war, left little time for loafing. And loafing is certainly not taught, though it should be, in any of the recognised training institutions. It is, nevertheless, a pertinent regret and cannot be unrelated to the absence in her life of sexual relationships or, indeed, to longings for a life outside psychoanalysis. Anna Freud, as far as we can know, was the first and probably the last chaste analyst. If sexuality, as Freud showed, is the only route out of the family – faced with the three-person relationship of the Oedipus complex, the child is forced to realise that he can do everything else with the parents, except the one thing he most wants to do – then there is a sense in which, despite her extraordinary character, something in Anna never came to life. All this is only tactfully implied by Young-Bruehl, and perhaps that is as it should be. To construe the possible connections between Anna’s capacity to frustrate herself and the fact that she was manifestly one of the very few great analysts after Freud becomes a perilous invitation to a biographer. Young-Bruehl’s honourable wish to report without unnecessary judgment leads her, however, to moments of grotesque Dickensian humour. Unable to knit at the end of her life because her hands shook, Anna ‘mocked herself’, Young-Bruehl writes, ‘for the good sublimation behaviour she had demanded of them when she was young: “Look at what that hand did, it is angry because I controlled it for so long.” ’

Even though the biography is divided into two parts of almost equal length, entitled ‘Vienna’ and ‘London’, it is the first part, or more exactly, the period up to Freud’s death, that is the more revealing. When she read the account by Max Schur, Freud’s physician, of what he called ‘the last chapter’ of Freud’s life, dealing with his terminal illness, Anna said of it: ‘There is contained my whole biography.’ In fact, she lived with great resourcefulness for another 43 years, but the story revolves continually around her father. And what is not glossed over here is Freud’s complicity in keeping his daughter for himself. When Ernest Jones, for example, began to take a bit of a shine to Anna, Freud sent him a letter, Young-Bruehl reports, ‘suggesting that the courtship was inappropriate because Anna was too young and not yet interested in men’ – she was 19 – and a further letter to Anna making himself quite clear. ‘I have no thought of granting you,’ he wrote, ‘the freedom of choice your two sisters enjoyed. For it has so happened that you have lived more intimately with us than they, and I would like to believe that you would find it more difficult to make such a decision for life without our – in this case my – consent.’ When Anna met a man she was interested in she would tend to give him to her father, usually for psychoanalytic instruction. Even Lou Andreas-Salomé, whom she admired and confided in, wrote to Freud, after one of Anna’s visits, celebrating her asceticism. ‘Altogether Anna has stirred up quite a storm of passion here,’ she writes in 1922 when Anna is 27, ‘but nevertheless returns home totally unseared by these flames. Nor should I be at all surprised if this sequence of events were to be constantly repeated, so much does she enjoy every homecoming.’ There was, she was constantly being reminded, no place like home. And home, of course, would be one of the many things that would never be the same again after Freud. In Young-Bruehl’s story there is certainly a suggestion that Freud was to blame for the sins of his daughter. Or rather, in Anna’s case, for the sins she was unable to commit.

Anna Freud was born in Vienna in December 1895. Five months earlier something more momentous than the birth of a sixth child had happened to her father. ‘Do you really believe,’ Freud wrote to his collaborator Fliess, ‘that some day on this house one will read on a marble tablet: “Here revealed itself, on 24 July 1895, the secret of the dream to Dr Sigm. Freud”?’ Freud, at this crucial time of his life, troubled by an array of symptoms, was preoccupied by the need to earn a living for his growing family while persisting with his self-analysis. The year after Anna’s birth his father died and he used the word ‘psychoanalysis’ for the first time in print (in French). These were years of real and necessary self-absorption for Freud. Mrs Freud’s absence, as all biographers of the Freud family have found, is more puzzling. Always a revealing gap, so to speak, in the story, we do at least know that at the time of Anna’s birth Martha Freud was exhausted by her five other children, four of whom were under five. According to Young-Bruehl, Anna never made a close or pleasurable relationship with her mother, and was really nurtured by their Catholic nurse Josefine. Quite definitely Josefine’s favourite, Anna described her after her funeral as ‘the oldest relation and the most genuine of my childhood’. Throughout her adult life Anna would seek intimate relationships with powerful older women and would have remarkably little to say in her theoretical work about mother-daughter relationships.

After Anna’s birth the Freuds, for the first time in their married life, did not spend their holiday together. And this period of Anna’s early years coincided with their use of a new form of contraception, the one that was to be at the heart of the psychoanalytic enterprise and was called abstinence. The year after her birth the now infamous Aunt Minna, Martha’s sister, moved into the family home; she was another woman whom Freud liked but who never took to Anna. The last of the Freud children, Anna was the accidental late comer, the one who, judging from some of Young-Bruehl’s upsetting evidence, had to struggle especially hard to find a real place in her parents’ minds. From the picture that Young-Bruehl builds up of Anna’s early family life it seems that the Freud parents had to work at their sense of Anna’s specialness. It sounds, that is to say, as if she was more an object of devotion than desire, and this became one of the stories of her life. At the age of 58, writing to Ernest Jones about his biography of her father, she is struck by the fact that his ‘descriptions bring it home to me what a long and full life he had before my time, that I really only appeared somewhere in the middle as a very insignificant item’.

From the very beginning, it seems, the spoils had been divided. Freud had named their previous child, his adored Sophie, after Sophie Schwab, an attractive niece of Freud’s revered Hebrew teacher, Professor Hammerschlag. Anna was named after the professor’s ‘very intelligent but quite plain daughter’. This Anna, who was widowed after a year of marriage, was, as Anna Freud would be, a schoolteacher and a patient of Freud’s. Anna always hated her name, thinking of it as common and plain, while ‘Sophie’ was ‘lovely and sophisticated’. (Freud’s peculiar but touching attempt to console her by pointing out that her name was a palindrome could easily have been heard by her as implying that her body was the same back to front.) ‘The two young Freuds,’ Young-Bruehl writes, ‘developed their version of a common sisterly division of territories: “beauty” and “brains”!’ There is something too jaunty about this, but lives are cast in such early divisions of emotional labour. What one is loved for in the family becomes a fate.

‘Annerl is turning to a charming child,’ Freud wrote to Fliess, ‘she is of the same type as Martin, physically and mentally.’ Anna deleted this passage from the first edition of the Fliess letters. She must have known very early the agony of sexual jealousy: that it is not a question of rivalry – competitions, after all, can be won – but of something far worse. It confronts us with the impossibility of being someone else. ‘Brain’ and ‘beauty’ are dismaying alternatives, and because no one is ever given the choice we all know which we would prefer. Never made to feel beautiful in the family, Anna was left with her intelligence and the lack of something feminine that her father was drawn to in Sophie. She would not be the last person to find that psychoanalysis was a relief from the mystique of beauty.

‘She felt herself to be lacking,’ Young-Bruehl writes, ‘the slim waist and trim ankles that her sister had, and as she grew into her adolescence she favoured the long-skirted traditional country dress, the dirndl, that disguised her waist and covered her thick ankles. She also developed a slightly hunched forward posture – one that hours sitting over knitting aggravated – of the sort adolescents use for hiding.’ Young-Bruehl has organised some of the early part of her book around a conventional oversimplification derived from the 19th-century novel. Anna is the heroine whose exceptional character is the consequence of her undesirability, of the fact that she had had to do more work. She was, apparently, ‘such a day dreamer that even her father was startled by the elaborateness of her creations.’ In her imagination, she was daring and dreamy, full of spirit, identifying with the male heroes in her stories; in public she was timid and cramped. She is presented as someone bold and inhibited – ‘an adventurous, fearless girl who was also very prim and orderly’ – but also as someone trapped in the banality of opposites, a biography that is not allowed to turn into a novel. The use of this kind of presiding conflict as an explanatory device too easily replaces a more subtle or nuanced sense of the complexity of Anna’s character. One could be left thinking that depth is the only resource of those who are not shallow enough to be attractive.

As an adolescent, Anna would sit in on the famous Wednesday meetings where Freud and his newly-formed circle discussed psychoanalysis. She may not have been out dancing but she was the only woman present while a group of older men, led by her father, engaged in a new kind of conversation about the significance of sexuality. For a 17-year-old, not to mention for the men who talked in her presence, this must have been a heady atmosphere; it certainly makes sense of Young-Bruehl’s contention that in Anna ‘the good girl caution and conservativeness ... were always coupled with her verve.’ If she was, as we are told here, ‘very self-conscious about not being feminine or femininely attractive enough’, it wouldn’t have taken her long to work out what it was about her that could engage her father. For Freud, the dream was their nightly rendezvous. In 1915, during the bleak war years, Anna, having qualified as a teacher, began to translate psychoanalytic articles into German, and wonder what she really wanted to do with her life, now that she was the last remaining child at home. And her father began, ‘when he thought it appropriate’, as Young-Bruehl adds in parenthesis, occasionally to interpret her dreams.

If dreams are the way we tell ourselves secrets about ourselves at night, they also represent the impenetrable privacy of the self. No one can know what someone else’s dream means, though they can, with the dreamer’s assistance, say more or less interesting things about it. But in dream interpretation the margin of error is also the margin of freedom: the interpreter can never capture the dream or the dreamer. Telling one’s dreams to someone else is a form of flirtation because the dream invites a curiosity that will always be frustrated. For Anna to offer her dreams to her father, the man to whom, supposedly, the secret of dreams had revealed itself, may have been as much an act of unconscious defiance as one of surrender and enlightenment. In Young-Bruehl’s fascinating account of Anna’s struggles during these formative years – taken mostly from diaries and letters – it is possible to detect considerable but veiled hostility to her father as The One Who Knows. One fortnight when Freud was too ill to analyse her she wrote to a friend: ‘These two weeks I have lived as I did in the time before I became an analyst ... with the poetry of Rilke and daydreams and weaving. That, too, is an Anna, but without any Interpreter.’

Psychoanalysts, and psychoanalytic theory itself, creates a problem for modern biographers, especially when they want to interpret their subject’s dreams or provide a plausible account of their subject’s own psychoanalysis. Dreams, by (Freudian) definition, require the associations of the dreamer – which can hardly be reconstructed by someone else; and an analysis, like all forms of coupledom however well-documented, is always hermetic to outsiders. This need not preclude speculation – most great literature, after all, is conjecture about couples – but it can create timidity in the biographer of a famous psychoanalyst when faced with what is loosely known as the analytic community. This putative community has not been keen to let outsiders speculate about its idols, as though its members needed to protect themselves from their own doubts as from more vulgar forms of questioning. The link between Anna Freud’s lifelong celibacy and her analysis with her father is worthy of, indeed invites, thoughtful consideration (puerile consideration would not be the end of the world). But the idealisation that Anna Freud sometimes suffered from in her lifetime – the idealisation that is a refusal to know someone – has continued in retrospective accounts. Young-Bruehl provides the evidence to rectify this without quite daring to guess at possibilities.

In Young-Bruehl’s intriguing account of Anna’s analysis with her father, which began in 1920, it seems as though the one thing that her father refuses to recognise, and her biographer is unwilling to dwell on in the evidence presented, is Anna’s insistent but thwarted attempt to get out of the net of understanding that psychoanalysis, in the person of her father, provided. Of course so-called training analyses rarely cure people of psychoanalysis: indeed, the one thing psychoanalysis, when it works, cannot cure is belief in psychoanalysis. But there is still a daunting sense of Anna having submitted to a tyrannical version of Truth in the absence of compelling alternatives. Young-Bruehl implies in her ambiguous summary that Anna’s analysis and her life afterwards were an education in a Christian version of the stoicism – that most peculiar and unprepossessing virtue – that Freud was idealised for after the Jones biography. ‘She developed,’ Young-Bruehl writes, ‘a habit of finding acceptable outlets for unacceptable impulses and wishes, ultimately altruistically surrendering her wishes to others. The processes of sublimating and surrendering did not, of course, mean that her drives were depleted – she had the awesome, somewhat compulsive energy that is characteristic of chaste people with burning faith or compelling causes ... she was able to have a scientific interest in sexuality, but not be actively sexual in either a heterosexual or a homosexual mode.’ Anyone who heard Anna Freud at one of her Wednesday meetings at what was then called the Hampstead Clinic would not have thought of her as the Mother Theresa of psychoanalysis. But given that Anna Freud was an object of emulation for generations of analysts there are ironies here that should not be muffled. Freud had used psychoanalysis to make a powerful critique of burning faiths and compelling causes. He had revealed the origins in childhood of certain kinds of belief. After the war Anna would turn her father’s achievement into an object of such belief. In her theoretical work there would be little criticism of his, and she would make what is still the finest contribution to the psychoanalytic understanding of passivity.

From about 1920 to his death in 1939 Anna was Freud’s devoted nurse and colleague and was therefore soon embroiled in the frenetic rivalries of the psychoanalytic horde. ‘I am only under my father’s influence,’ she wrote ingenuously, ‘and for the rest I try to think of myself as an independent person and to figure things out for myself.’ There was, by the sound of things, a lot of trying, but there was also a lot of natural wit, an unofficial cunning that the biography every so often catches. So when Otto Rank, for example, begins to get critical of her father she is scandalised – partly from envy of his freedom to do so – but figures out something rather shrewd of her own. ‘Rank,’ she writes to her colleague Eitingon, ‘is very advanced compared to all of us in his understanding that human relations exist for the sole purpose of being ruined.’ She could never allow herself to be disillusioned about her father; and as the political situation worsened in Vienna there would be a growing external focus for any free-floating discontent.

Young-Bruehl provides a lucid narrative of the difficult pre-war years in the course of which the complicated psychoanalytic movement became international, and the dialogue between Anna and her father was to constitute some of their most important theoretical work. She is particularly interesting about the extent to which they both used material from her analysis as clinical illustration in their sometimes complementary papers. But despite, or because of, their devotion to each other, Freud’s contempt for Anna is something that shows up again and again, albeit obliquely and often unremarked, in Young-Bruehl’s temperate version of their relationship. ‘If the day comes when there is no more psychoanalysis you can be a seamstress in Tel Aviv,’ Freud used to say to Anna – it was, we are told, one of his ‘favourite little jokes’. When, towards the end of her analysis, Anna went for a holiday to Germany, Freud makes what Young-Bruehl calls ‘another very candid statement’ about her in a letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé: ‘I have long felt sorry for her for still being at home with us old folks ... but on the other hand, if she really were to go away, I should feel myself as deprived as I do now, and as I should do if I had to give up smoking!’ No one, presumably, wants to be a cigar. The first book of his Freud ever gave to Anna was Moses and Monotheism published in the year of his death.

After the years in Vienna and the account of Anna’s extraordinary courage in dealing with the Nazis before their much deferred emigration, the second half of the biography, covering the years in London, is less engrossing. And this in itself is revealing because they were in fact years of exceptional achievement for Anna, as well as a period of protracted mourning. Working at first with refugee children, she also established links between the analytic community and schools as well as setting up what is now called the Anna Freud Centre to train child analysts. It was then that she wrote her most distinguished psychoanalytic papers – including ‘About Losing and Being Lost’ which everyone should read regardless of their interest in psychoanalysis – and consolidated the most intimate relationship of her adult life with her colleague Dorothy Burlingham. She began to be able to enjoy, at least occasionally, her celebrity, and overcame her father’s prejudice about America by forming sustained professional and friendly links with American analysts, who would play an increasingly important role, in her psychoanalytic projects. Her elaborate and problematic relationship with Melanie Klein, the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London and the International, revealing as they are in the detail with which Young-Bruehl reconstructs them, will mostly be of interest to anthropologists of the psychoanalytic movement. In a sense, she blossomed as her life narrowed; she turned into a centre of psychoanalysis. ‘Her expectations were often exhausting to her correspondents, except for those who were unconflicted in their identification with her and the cause.’

The abiding and complicated enchantment between Anna and her father produced, in her own theoretical work, a protracted meditation, unrivalled in the psychoanalytic literature and possibly elsewhere, on submission, on the nature of passivity and what she called ‘emotional surrender’. Her sense of what it is to be a child is resonant in all her writing. She could make psychoanalytic theory sound like common sense, the refused common sense that it must be without sacrificing its radical oddity. But for her there was always one sacrifice that was the heart of the matter. As she wrote of the post-Oedipal child in Psychoanalysis for Teachers and Parents (1935), ‘the originality of the child, together with a great deal of his energy and talents, are sacrificed to being “good” ... It is as if the parents said: You can certainly go away, but you must take us with you.’ The war between originality and being good, between leaving home and finding nowhere else to go, was to dominate her life. When Oscar Nemon’s statue of Freud was unveiled in 1971, Anna ‘very pointedly made sure that her children from the Hampstead Nursery School did attend, and then she sent pictures of them looking up at her father’s presence and image to all of her friends and colleagues.’ One can’t help wondering what the children made of it. But then a lot of us are still looking up to her father.