What did Freud want?

Rosemary Dinnage

The sharpest comment in Freud’s Women – a huge book, but consistently readable – comes at the end. It would be eccentric, say the authors, to conclude after five hundred-odd pages that Freud’s significance for women lies in his having been the first equal-opportunities employer. Eccentric, but rather tempting because, in his famously ambivalent way, he left such a paradox behind. Grossly demeaning, even by the standards of his time, in his various theories about women, he maintained relationships with them as fellow-analysts and friends which were much more cordial and straightforward than his relationships with male colleagues. And over the years 1920 to 1980, when the figures for women in medicine and law were 4-7 per cent and 1-5 per cent respectively, that for women analysts was 27 per cent. Yet ‘What does Woman want?’ he fatuously asked. A woman wants a bit of sense. What on earth did Freud want?

One of his wants he extremely efficiently fulfilled: that biographers should have as little personal material as possible available, and in particular about the women in his life. We have the affectionate letters to his fiancée from their long engagement, but only a scrap or two of unreliable gossip about their much longer marriage. What would now be considered his most important relationship, not with the father-figure as he himself stressed, but with his mother, remains virtually a blank. Some of his papers are embargoed until the year 2113, as if (as the authors put it) they were important secrets hidden in a Swiss bank account.

Appignanesi and Forrester, one a Freud scholar and the other a writer and television producer, begin with these family relationships, take in the early women patients and then the dozen or so women colleagues, and end with a close analysis of theory: what Freud actually wrote at different stages about the psychology of women, what revisions women analysts have made, what contemporary feminists have argued. About Freud’s family relationships we know that he was a good brother and a good son, visiting his mother every week until she died at 95. One of her grandchildren described her as ‘somewhat shrill and domineering’. Apart from that, we only know that Freud makes her vanish by describing early memories of the mother as ‘grey with age and shadowy’. His first childhood memory, though, is most arresting. It is of himself and another little boy snatching away a bunch of flowers from a little girl; the child is consoled by a woman giving her a bit of bread; then the boys get some too, and it tastes delicious. What does this tell us about snatching away a woman’s birthright, and coming second to her in the queue?

Freud’s wife Martha also remains far more shadowy than his women colleagues, though we know that she was conventional, capable, and of a better family than Freud. She looks, too, quite charming in their engagement photo, sexily swathed in the tight-laced clothing of 1885 and laying a hand on the young lion’s shoulder with an air of gentle possessiveness. Freud’s grouchy comment on a wedding anniversary was that it ‘hadn’t been a bad solution of the marriage problem’ (it would be an entirely Freudian-ironic joke if he had thereby concealed a perfectly happy partnership from prying posterity). At any rate, if he drew his theories of womanhood from scrutiny of his mother, sisters or wife it was certainly not overtly. The authors’ suggestion, as brain-teasing as any of Freud’s, is that it was typecasting his wife as the typically feminine woman that enabled Freud to recognise that no other woman did conform to that ideal.

The section on some of the early, famous women patients – Anna O., Cäcilie M., Emmy von N., Katharina (a peasant girl who did not rate a surname), Elisabeth von R. and Lucy R. – is fascinating as higher gossip, but it doesn’t explain where Freud drew his psychology of women. With their life-stories expanded, none of these women are quite what they appear in the case-histories. They do not appear to have achieved dramatic cures, nor to have particularly resented their treatments. Anna O., about whom most is known, was Breuer’s patient rather than Freud’s and treated some years before they jointly wrote Studies in Hysteria, but was considered by Freud as the discoverer of the talking cure. (One of the most interesting aspects of her florid symptoms was that she would switch back to living the events of the year before to the exact day, suggesting that we have an accurate internal clock.) She did recover some time after her treatment, and became a successful social worker, writer and feminist. Appignanesi and Forrester investigate her history at length and conclude that though the birth of psychoanalysis through her may have been a myth, it was a necessary one.

The pro-woman side of Freud’s ambivalence is visible in his warm descriptions of his early patients: Cäcilie M. was ‘uniquely gifted’ and a ‘highly intelligent woman’, Emmy von N. a ‘highly estimable, serious and morally austere woman’; and of Elisabeth von R.: ‘we cannot refrain from deep human sympathy.’ At this stage of his career he was hypnotising, massaging and ordering these women about, which they seemed to enjoy (how little we knew in the early days, he was to say later). The ‘austere’ Emmy von N. evidently had kept a lively sex life concealed from him, however. As for Fräulein Elisabeth, who is last seen in the case-history in Fin de-Siècle mode – ‘I heard that she was going to a private ball for which I was able to get an invitation, and I did not allow the opportunity to escape me of seeing my former patient whirl past me in a lively dance’ – she told her daughter years later that the ‘young, bearded nerve specialist they sent me to’ had tried to persuade her that she was in love with her brother-in-law, but it wasn’t true.

Two celebrated cases in which Freud plays rather a poor part – those of Emma Eckstine and of Ida Bauer (Dora) – are analysed closely by the authors. Eckstine he referred during her treatment to his slightly lunatic colleague Fliess for an unnecessary nasal operation. When Fliess nearly killed her by leaving a roll of gauze in the nasal cavity, Freud vomited with shock but later, rather than lay the blame squarely on Fliess, began to interpret her haemorrhage psychologically. She was made of stern stuff, however (‘So this is the strong sex!’ she taunted Freud when he blenched at the blood), and blamed neither doctor, going on to become a psychoanalyst herself and to write a book on the evils of masturbation (the ‘symptom’ for which the nasal operation had been prescribed). Dora’s case has provoked even more criticism; as the authors say, it sums up what is ‘both fascinating and repellent, most subtle and most bullying in Freud’s relationships with women’. Its outline is well-known: that Dora was a teenage girl surrounded, in Schnitzlerian fashion, by adult corruption and taken to Freud by her family to ‘bring her to reason’. Rather than commiserating with her on, among other things, the sexual harassment she had suffered, Freud went on the offensive and declared that she had wished it. It was a short treatment; Dora broke it off, quite politely. Her affection may well have been, not for her harasser, but for his motherly wife; and the tale ends in the Thirties with these two women, husbands now behind them, setting up together a school for teaching bridge.

Just as it is difficult to connect Freud’s awesomely weird theories of female sexuality with these early women patients, so it is hard to know how much they benefited by the Ur-version of an analysis. From what is recorded of women hysterics treated by Charcot and Janet, women stifled by trauma, sexual hypocrisy and desperation could remain patients for life. Alice James suffered continuous hysterical symptoms and died at 43, rejoicing that she had got a disease that would kill her. Talks with a Viennese nerve specialist could only have helped.

About a third of Freud’s Women is taken up with the professional women who surrounded him, starting usually as patients and going on to become analysts. Some – Marie Bonaparte, Helene Deutsch, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Sabina Spielrein – have already been the subjects of biographies. In Spielrein’s case Jung, the ineffable white-haired guru, behaved worse than Freud ever had, seducing her as a teenage patient and promising her parents he would stop if they paid up his bills. She went on to have an admirable career. What is striking about the analyses, especially now when analysts avert their eyes if they meet patients in the street, is the way in which everyone knew everyone and analysed everyone. Helene Deutsch arrived for her session bringing goat’s milk for Mrs Freud, and her husband was Freud’s doctor. Marie Bonaparte wrote asking Freud’s advice as to whether she should commit incest with her son; he advised against. Jeanne Lampl de Groot kept him supplied with cigars and he signed his letters to her der alte Taube (‘old pigeon’). He was analysing his daughter Anna, and when he invited Lou Andreas-Salomé to take over the case, they pretended she was their daughter (something which Mrs Freud might have found more annoying than adultery). His patient Loë Kann was mistress of his second-in-command Ernest Jones, and letters flew between the three of them about her treatment. Freud spoke warmly of her as he always did – ‘I have become extraordinarily fond of this Loë ... she is a treasure.’ In contrast with his venomous attitude towards some of his male colleagues, there is not a derogatory remark about a woman quoted in the book. When his ex-patient Joan Rivière moved into the camp of the heretic Melanie Klein, all Freud mildly said was: ‘Mrs R.’s logic and perspicacity are revealed even in her error ... Is it not time to end this not altogether agreeable episode? I should be sorry if Mrs R. continued to be discouraged or estranged.’ Is there, under this chivalry, a strong sense of the patronising? Girls allowed to join his gang, once their bunch of flowers had been snatched? Freud had – rather late – admitted that a male analyst could stand in for the mother in psychoanalysis, and that he did not like it: ‘It always surprises and shocks me a little. I feel so very masculine.’ Did this mean ‘I feel so like a psychoanalyst’? So omniscient, so kind, so authoritative?

A long concluding section unpicks Freud’s theories of womanhood, absurdity upon absurdity – after all the book’s detail, we are still bewildered as to who provided the data for them. Then follow the revisions written by women analysts. Of these, Melanie Klein – not without proposing features more outré than Freud’s – shifted the focus back to infancy and the all-important mother; others, calling all their own lively qualities ‘masculine’, tinkered only with details. Helene Deutsch added an absurdity of her own by saying that giving birth is the ‘acme of sexual pleasure’. Appignanesi and Forrester trace the succeeding assault on psychoanalysis by feminism, the attempts of Juliet Mitchell and others to encompass both, the use of Freudian method to analyse Freud, and the place of psychoanalytical textual criticism in the intellectual projects stemming from Lévi-Strauss and Lacan.

Psychoanalysis in its Cultural Context, a collection of Austrian studies, provides a counterpoint to the story. Harriet Anderson’s article shows that even in pre-1930 Vienna, feminist responses to Freud were mixed. ‘An outstanding dialectician of psychology and in addition a monomaniac of his own system’, commented Rosa Mayreder in 1916, and a number of women found Adler, with his stress on social rather than biological factors, more realistic. Paul Roazen’s contribution speaks much sense about what Appignanesi and Forrester call the 20th-century love affair with Freud: a love affair which has been endowed with Freud’s own legacy of ambivalence. Its special applicability to Freud on women is apparent even in Appignanesi and Forrester’s title – were they Freud’s women? An eminent woman analyst, Hanna Segal, has summed up:

I think Freud’s theory that little girls think they have got a penis and then discover they don’t is bunko. On the other hand, Freud was the first to treat women as human beings in the sense that he gave a proper place to female sexuality. He didn’t consider them asexual beings. And even more important, I think, psychoanalysis is the first organised profession in which from the beginning women were treated exactly the same as men.