Love and Hate, Girl and Boy

Juliet Mitchell

Louise Bourgeois died, aged 98, in May 2010. Shortly before her death Jerry Gorovoy, her long-time assistant, found a forgotten box of her jottings, unpublished papers and diaries from her time in psychoanalysis. He had uncovered a similar stash six years earlier; together, the materials came to a thousand pages of notes. Some of the writings were displayed, along with a selection of drawings and sculptures, in the exhibition Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed, which travelled in Latin America, then came, in a smaller version, to the Freud Museum in London in 2012.

In the summer of 2011, I spent a week in the Bourgeois archive near the brownstone where she had lived in Chelsea (New York). I hoped to find out about her relationship with her younger brother, Pierre. His presence pervaded her psychoanalytic notes, which I had examined, but I couldn’t see much trace of him in her art until the 1990s, more than thirty years after his death. The absence was striking. But something else was nagging at me. The catalogue for The Return of the Repressed was accompanied by a volume of essays on Bourgeois and psychoanalysis. In my own contribution I had subscribed to the accepted story that Pierre never recovered from the shellshock he had suffered as a soldier in the Second World War. But shellshock was an odd explanation; a term used for soldiers traumatised in the First World War, it had been displaced by a different vocabulary in the Second. I wondered whether my own interests, in siblings and their maladies, might be more pertinent. As I sat in the archive, surrounded by boxes full of papers, a small, stiff brown leather suitcase, marked by age, was fetched for me. It had not yet been catalogued, so wasn’t used in the exhibition. In it, among a mix of unsorted papers, clinical documents and family letters, I found what I was looking for.

Louise Bourgeois (right) with her brother Pierre and her sister Henriette (c.1917).
Louise Bourgeois (right) with her brother Pierre and her sister Henriette (c.1917).

Pierre was born in 1913, the younger brother to three sisters, one of whom died before Louise was born. The family lived in a vast house on the Bièvre river in Antony near Paris, where they ran a business repairing antique tapestries – at a young age Louise assisted with the drawing. As small children Louise and Pierre were inseparable, and wrote to each other fondly when they were parted. But Pierre lagged well behind Louise at school, and never fully found his way.

We know little about his life. He was a troubled young man. He tried to escape conscription but in 1934 his father, Louis, forced him into France’s compulsory military service. For some time he lived on his own in the family house, undertaking so-called renovations, but his father arranged to have him evicted on the grounds that he was destroying the property. After a breakdown in 1945 Pierre hoped to come and live with Louise and her family in America. Fearing his mental state, she let him down, and the move did not happen. He was labelled with the (then) catch-all diagnosis of ‘schizophrenia’ and institutionalised. He died in his sleep in May 1960, aged 47.

Louise was thirteen months old when Pierre, the longed-for boy, was born. She always both wanted and did not want him. This is a normal ambivalence on the part of an older child, which can echo through life. It did for Bourgeois. I was astonished to find my own idiosyncratic interests in sibling relations so powerfully pre-empted not only in Bourgeois’s art but also in her psychoanalytic thinking. ‘There is something wrong with me,’ she wrote in March 1964. ‘I love to / search / who, my brother? … / For what is wrong with me = I am ashamed / For my remedy to it = I am guilty / This might have appeared as early as the 2d / year of my life.’ It was a confirmatory revelation: an artist always gets there first.

Bourgeois’s father died unexpectedly in April 1951, when she was 39. It was then that she entered a prolonged and intensive psychoanalytic treatment with Henry Lowenfeld, a Freudian with a special interest in art who had escaped Germany with his wife in 1938. She already had a good sense of psychoanalytic theory through her contact with the Surrealists in prewar Paris. Once in America, she became an extremely well-read and hard-working analytic patient. Her full analysis with Lowenfeld lasted from 1952 to 1967; after that, she remained in touch with him and had two further intensive but brief periods of therapy. After Lowenfeld’s death in 1985, she continued a self-analysis through her art, her written reflections and what she called her ‘pensées plume’, or ‘feather-thoughts’. ‘The cost of Parents fixation (one of the cost[s]) is your total inability to deal with siblings,’ she wrote in her diary in September 1986. Combining this recognition with her knowledge of psychoanalysis, she realised that something important was missing, both from the narrative she had constructed of her own life and from the theory of psychoanalysis.

Published accounts of child analysis abound with children whose first outbreak of neurosis or psychosis coincided with the arrival of a new baby in the family. The child, Freud wrote, feels that

it has been dethroned, despoiled, prejudiced in its rights; it casts a jealous hatred upon the new baby and develops a grievance against the faithless mother which often finds expression in a disagreeable change in its behaviour. It becomes ‘naughty’, perhaps, irritable and disobedient and goes back on the advances it has made towards controlling its excretions. All of this has been very long familiar and is accepted as self-evident; but we rarely form a correct idea of the strength of these jealous impulses, of the tenacity with which they persist and of the magnitude of their influence on later development.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in