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.” ’

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