Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story

Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story

by Rebecca Coffey


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Imagine growing up smart, ambitious, and queer in a home where your father Sigmund Freud thinks that women should aspire to be wives and calls lesbianism a gateway to mental illness. He also says that lesbianism is always caused by the father, and is usually curable by psychoanalysis.

Then he analyzes you.

Ultimately Anna Freud loved Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham (heir to the Tiffany fortune) for 54 years. They raised a family together and became psychoanalysts in their own right, specializing in work with children. But first Anna had to navigate childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in a famous family where her kind of romantic longings were considered dangerous.

What was it like to grow up the lesbian daughter of “the great Sigmund Freud”? Aside from Anna’s sexuality and from her father’s intrusive psychoanalysis of her, what were the Freud family's most closely closeted skeletons? What is it about the birth of psychoanalysis that even today's psychoanalysts would prefer to keep secret? How did Anna defy her father so thoroughly while continuing to love him and learn from him?

Weaving a grand tale out of a pile of crazy facts, Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story lets the pioneering child psychologist freely examine the forces that shaped her life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781938314421
Publisher: She Writes Press
Publication date: 05/13/2014
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

REBECCA COFFEY is an award-winning print journalist, documentary filmmaker, and radio commentator. Coffey contributes regularly to Scientific American and Discover magazines. She blogs about sexuality, relationships, crime and punishment, social media, and psychology for Psychology Today, and is a broadcasting contributor to Vermont Public Radio’s drive-time commentary series. Her most recent major work of journalism is the March 2012 eBook MURDERS MOST FOUL: And the School Shooters in Our Midst (Vook), which landed her appearances on Fox News, CBS Radio and NPR, among others. Her narrative nonfiction book UNSPEAKABLE TRUTHS AND HAPPY ENDINGS: Human Cruelty and the New Trauma Therapy (Sidran Press) was widely praised, and was named an Outstanding Academic Title by the American Library Association’s Choice magazine. Her television documentaries about health and mental health have been broadcast nationally. Coffey is also a humorist. Her NIETZSCHE’S ANGEL FOOD CAKE: And Other “Recipes” for the Intellectually Famished was published by Beck and Branch in 2013. Other humor has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, and a large handful of literary magazines and e-zines. For more on Rebeeca, go to http://rebeccacoffey.com/hysterical-anna-freuds-story/

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
If you had seen my Papa in my young years, you would have noticed the light burning in his eyes. The nights are long in Vienna mid-winter. And when I was born, back in the time of royals and castles, even in broad daylight coal dust darkened the sky. Thankfully, light beamed out of Papa’s eyes morning and night on his tromps around the Ringstrasse. On his smoking-and-thinking walks he illuminated a path for everyone.
Funny, isn’t it? The exaggerations in children’s memories?
But I’ll wager that each one of my siblings remember Papa’s eyes that way and recall being obligated to troop behind him twice a day. Before breakfast and again just before supper we ran like mad to keep up, all six of us plus Nanny and a governess. Bundled in layers of wool, we dodged carts and made “unnecessary noise.”
Summers in the mountains were best, though, for there we could relax. Our family hikes were leisurely, quiet, mesmerizing—just strolls, really. Papa and his brood in the mountains in the bramble. There were endless days of mushroom hunting, with Papa calling, “Come out! Come out! It’s safe to come out!” and then, having enticed fungi, trapping them in his hat, much to our wild delight.
“One of life’s real pleasures,” Papa would proudly announce, “is rooting out wild things.”
If you had visited us then, if you had seen Papa in his tall socks and warm-weather pants, you wouldn’t have suspected. His Alpine attire held no clues to his habits and fancies. You wouldn’t have known about his sunburned face going even redder at night while he talked to Mama. You would not have imagined Papa and the dog rolling together in the summer garden in the early morning dew.
Winters. Six children, Mama, Papa, my Tante Minna, one nanny, and one governess. Papa’s patients. One bathroom. Papa always said that stuttering and lisping are upwards psychological displacements of conflicts about excrementory functions. We all lisped. Even Papa lisped sometimes.
My sister Sophie was Papa’s favorite child; she was older than me by two years. She was far prettier, she hated me, and she already she knew how to wrap a man around her little finger. My sister Mathilde, eight years my senior, was obedient and kind, and for these qualities Papa was grateful. I especially liked her kindness. But she often sang aloud to herself; she couldn’t help it, even though extraneous sounds annoyed Papa. My three boisterous brothers were all loud, too, which set Papa on edge.
And so I developed a singular talent that afforded me my own special relationship with my father. I alone among our gaggle could promise to be quiet and then do it.
When I was five or so, Papa rented an apartment downstairs from our family’s quarters. He used it as a professional suite. He couldn’t really afford the apartment. He’d trained as a neurologist, but only rarely accepted neurology patients. And not all of his psychology patients paid him for his attention. In fact, he paid some of them to allow him to ask questions and learn. But poor Mama just needed him to bring home some bacon. In an unforgettable alto tone she would weep loudly about the added rent. And of course Papa’s face would turn red.
Papa wanted deference. But he didn’t want to shove away his entire family. So while I was still too young for school, he routinely invited me to accompany him downstairs to his suite of professional rooms. While he met with patients in his consulting room, I played on the Persian rugs of his waiting room. Sometimes, between patients’ visits, he read to me from books of fairy tales.
They’re not subtle stuff, those fairy tales that have traveled for a thousand years through India, the Mideast, and Western Europe. They’re not for the squeamish. Giants eat little boys’ livers. Parents chuck children into the woods to fend off witches all by themselves.
Good always triumphs in fairy tales, of course. But whenever Papa returned to his consulting room, I wondered about the times when good might not triumph in time. It never seemed to when Sophie tormented me. It hadn’t seemed to for the pure-at-heart children in Jack and the Beanstalk whose livers were eaten by the giant before Jack arrived.
The waiting room had no toys. Aside from my doll, I had nothing with which to entertain myself when I waited for Papa. Usually, right after Papa entered the consulting room with a patient, I stuck out my tongue at his consulting room door. Once, while proudly appreciating my tongue’s length and flagrant pinkness, I noticed that my vision had changed. It had lost focus of everything except for the tongue itself. Of course, I’d just crossed my eyes. Still, I held them in their tongue-seeking position while I moved my head about. The effect was dizzying.
I didn’t really dare walk that way. But I did stumble upon the discovery that, when my eyes were crossed, within Papa’s ornately woven Persian rugs I could see more than the abstract designs that everyone else saw. I could see people. The clumps of wool and silk in one rug, for example, resembled women. If I jiggled my head while keeping my eyes crossed, those women danced. The spiky yellow and brown forms in a second rug became manticores racing about. A third rug’s lumps resembled vegetables and fresh fruit eerily floating through the air.
My single boldest action while alone in Papa’s waiting room was when I looked one day at my tongue while standing on my head in the middle of a large, circular rug. From that perspective I saw a tower and houses made of stone. I even saw village people. The rug itself was surrounded by a deep blue border, and so the village itself was surrounded by a sea to which tiny, woolen dots of children ran to swim.
Wouldn’t you know, Papa walked in with a patient while I was enjoying the view. Evidently my cheeks were purple with blood flow and my eyes were, well, funny looking.
“If you fall, your face will stay like that,” Papa warned, commenting not at all on the fact that my undergarments were on display.
And so I called my own halt to the tongue game. But I still enjoyed the rugs now that I knew they were neighborhoods.
I also took up a chalk-and-slate activity that today’s psychologists might call “counter-phobic.” For example, if Sophie had bossed me around earlier that day, I drew pictures of her bound and gagged. I often drew pictures in which I was bigger than she—bigger than Mathilde, even. With my crude sketches I changed everything I didn’t like, even some of the fairy tales Papa read. In my versions, beanstalks didn’t grow into the clouds; Cinderella’s mother did not die; and Cinderella had no sisters.
Fascinated by what I created, between appointments Papa helped me turn my graphic tales into stories with words.
The drawings I made of The Frog Prince are long lost. Only the words I dictated have survived.
The Frog Prince
Once upon a time there was a princess who, when sitting on the edge of a lake, dropped a precious ball that her papa had given her. A frog retrieved it for her, thinking he might get a kiss in return.
“But I don’t want to kiss a frog,” the princess complained to her papa once she had the ball back.
With no problem at all, her papa understood and explained the problem to the frog.
King Papa walked with the princess as she led the frog to a wide creek, where she pointed him downstream towards the river.
The princess and her papa waved gaily as the frog lifted up his little butt and hopped in.
The frog swam away disappointed, for he had hoped that the princess would be his love. Still, he was pretty sure he could find the river.
“Bye, bye!” the princess whispered. She looked beautiful with her curly, blonde hair and her new princess shoes.
“Bye, bye!” the frog whispered back, without complaining. What a prince he was!
The frog went on to live happily ever after, and so did the princess and her papa.
Here’s a good joke.
Mrs. Cohen,” the psychoanalyst says. “I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this. Your son has a terrible Oedipus complex.”
“Oedipus, schmoedipus,” says Mrs. Cohen. “Just as long as he loves his mother.”
Papa loved that joke. It’s been a long time coming, but these days, so do I.
As I write it is the autumn of 1982. I was born in 1895—though I think of my life as having started in 1881 when Mama and Papa met. Mama was a twenty-year-old traditional girl from an orthodox family. Papa was a twenty-five-year-old secular Jew who had just finished neurology training. Mama and her sister dined one evening at Papa’s family’s house.
On very first sight, something about Mama’s flat, grey-green eyes, her thin face, and her thick, dark hair parted unimaginatively in the middle and pulled back tightly behind prominent ears made Papa fall in love. Or perhaps it was her passive manner. When he caught her eye with a meaningful look, she smiled.
The next time that Papa came to dinner, he gave Mama a rose. She allowed him to touch her hand under the table.
On Mama’s third visit, Papa promised to love her forever. Her heart was the only prize he ever wanted, he told her. And that was true, until he got it. Then he also wanted the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.
Unfortunately, when Grandmother Bernays realized that the nice young man who had given her Martha a rose was an apostate, she removed Mama from Vienna to Germany proper, where for almost four years she attempted to change Mama’s mind about her romantic prospects.
Meanwhile, Papa tried to make a start at the sort of career with which he could impress Grandmother. He found employment as a researcher in a cerebral anatomy laboratory, and there he conducted experiments on the effect of cocaine on rats. Papa was the first person ever to discover that cocaine anesthetized rats’ mucous membranes.
He also wondered whether it might anesthetize eyeballs, thus making cataract surgery possible. But before he could find out, he took a trip to visit Mama in Germany. While he was gone, his friend Karl Kohler performed exactly the sort of surgery Papa had imagined. Ironically, perhaps, he performed it on Papa’s father. Kohler’s operation was successful, and for it, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.
In his later years, Papa referred to that as “The Eyeballs of My Father Fiasco.” Still, during his research at the laboratory of cerebral anatomy, Papa did make one other important discovery: Cocaine anesthetized his own mucous membranes just as well as it did the membranes of rats. That, and it did wonders for his loneliness. He published his findings and began to make a small reputation.
Papa used cocaine throughout the years of his separation from Mama. During that time he sent her at least one hyperbolic letter a day. Nine hundred of them have survived.
“Woe to you, my little Queen, when I come! I will kiss you quite red. And if you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body.”
In 1885, with Mama still waiting faithfully for Papa in Germany, Papa moved to Vienna to study in Paris with the greatest neuropathologist of his day. Docteur Jean-Martin Charcot’s workplace was the Hôpital Salpêtrière, a medical poorhouse for women. Studying with Docteur Charcot is when Papa’s training in neurology began to blossom into a fascination with psychology.
At the time, all of Europe was in the grips of an epidemic of hysteria. The victims were almost exclusively females. No one knew hysteria’s cause, but doctors had strong ideas about how to treat it. When symptoms included twitching, fainting, masturbation, hearing voices, talking in tongues, or paralysis, women were examined by neurologists. Some were given pelvic massages resulting in orgasm. Some were treated with opiates.
When neither cure worked, and especially when hysteria’s symptoms included homosexual desire, patients were sent to surgeons for ovariectomies or clitorodectomies.
Docteur Charcot’s patients got no treatment at all. With their symptoms unhampered, the good Docteur attempted to discern hysteria’s cause. He found that, under hypnosis, most hysterical women recounted deeply traumatic experiences.
Upon his return to Vienna, Papa opened a small neurology practice and welcomed into his practice quite a few hysterical patients. He did not administer massages or opiates. Most patients were happy to let Papa plumb their psyches for evidence of trauma. Papa became quite the conversationalist.
In 1886 Papa and Mama finally married.
In 1887 Mathilde was born.
In 1889 Martin was born.
In 1891 Oliver was born.
In 1892 Ernst was born.
In 1893 Sophie was born.
And in 1895 my father suffered three great failures.
The first of Papa’s failures was that he allowed his friend Doktor Wilhelm Fliess, an eminent nose and throat specialist, to convince him that hysteria begins in the nose. Papa referred to Doktor Fliess one of his own masturbating patients and encouraged Doktor Fliess to operate on her nasal passages.
Doktor Fliess successfully removed the suspect portions of Fraülein Emma Eckstein’s nose. But then, when sewing up, he inadvertently left rather a lot of gauze inside the wound. Fraülein Eckstein hemorrhaged, and although Papa initially assumed that the flood of blood was an expression of unvoiced sexual longing, he did eventually recognize the need to call in a “patching up” surgeon who had to remove a significant portion of her nasal flesh. The nose couldn’t be reconstructed. Fraülein Eckstein lay in pain for months. She had been beautiful but never would be again.
To Papa’s dismay she continued to masturbate.
Papa’s second great failure of 1895 was a medical book that he and a colleague published about hysteria. Drawing on the work of Docteur Charcot, Studies in Hysteria suggested that hysteria is not always a neurologic condition necessitating surgery, sedatives, or massage, but sometimes an emotional one requiring attention, sympathy, and talking.
Studies in Hysteria sold fewer than thirty copies.
Just to give Papa’s professional failures of 1895 some historical perspective, that was also the year that French Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason and publicly humiliated. Rudolph Hess, who one day would become Adolph Hitler’s Deputy Führer, was born. Louis Pasteur died. Oscar Wilde was tried and convicted as a sodomite.
By now you may have guessed that I was Papa’s third great failure of 1895.
Upon my birth, Papa wrote to his friend Doktor Fliess: “If it had been a son I should have sent you the news by telegram. But as it is a little girl … you get the news later.”
Poor Papa. He did have one success that year. He stumbled upon what he considered to be the meaning of dreams. That discovery was the key to his hallmark creation, psychoanalysis. From 1895 onward, Papa lived in a rapture focused primarily on his brainchild.
In a way I consider myself to be the twin sister of psychoanalysis. I had always to share my father’s love with psychoanalysis, and to struggle against it for his attention. I even became a psychoanalyst. I have been one now for six decades.
Occasionally, I have been a hysterical one.
No doubt, that’s a comment that begs explaining.
After I was born, Papa waded even more deeply into the topic of hysteria. Intent on tickling the imaginations of esteemed colleagues, he authored three papers that painted the clinical picture of hysteria in bolder strokes than anyone had imagined. Docteur Charcot had shown that hysteria is linked to trauma. Papa and his colleague had written that it can be caused by trauma. Writing solo, Papa claimed that it is always caused that way—and that the trauma is always sexual and is almost always perpetrated by fathers on young children.
At the time, about a quarter of Papa’s colleagues’ daughters had succumbed to the hysteria epidemic. Papa had inadvertently raised questions, therefore, about the comportment of Viennese physicians. Not surprisingly, after his papers were published Papa felt the cold fog of professional disdain settle around him.
And so in 1897, Papa embarked on a career-saving about-face. He formally rescinded the idea that memories of paternal childhood rape were founded in actual rapes. Then he began work on another idea.
Theatrically, anyway, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality was stupendous; it explained away Papa’s troublesome statements, and in doing so, intrigued nearly everyone. Hysterical females, Three Essays announced, are far more disturbed than even Papa had guessed. They have not been raped, not even the ones who clearly remember being raped. Rather, every one of those girls and women wishes she had been raped. Furthermore, all females wish for that, not just hysterical ones. It’s normal; it’s healthy. Those who become hysterical are the ones who refuse to acknowledge this fundamental desire. Women’s failure to embrace their innate need to be sexually brutalized is the source of all of hysteria’s mysterious symptoms.
This is an important idea and one likely to be lost in the shuffle as I tell my life’s tale. So let me be clear. Papa suggested that some girls and women wish so intensely to be raped that they masturbate or have sex with each other, which makes them hysterical, and along the way, causes them to confabulate rapes. Other girls and women are so horrified at the strength of their desire to be raped that they refuse to feel sexual longing altogether, and that makes them hysterical. Presumably, healthy girls and women just go ahead and get themselves raped.
It worked. With Papa’s new pronouncement he won respect as a controversial but careful psychologist.
Klaineh ganavim hengt men; groisseh shenkt men. Petty thieves get hanged; big thieves get pardoned, as my Grandmothers Freud and Bernays might have said.
Still, I loved Papa, preposterously so. Like my mother, I am loyal by nature, also preposterously so. For years I dutifully struggled to conquer my own hysterical tendencies, and I’ve analyzed many children afflicted with the same symptoms against which I once fought. To this day I defend Papa’s kingdom, which crumbles.
I even tell Papa’s jokes.
Herr Schwartz, the tailor, is on his deathbed.
“Are you there, my darling wife?”
“Yes, my dear husband.”
“Are you there, my dear son?”
“Yes, Papa.”
“And are you there, my dear cashier?”
“Yes, Herr Schwartz.”
“Then who the hell is minding the store?”
I am, Papa. Your daughter. And that’s a good joke.

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From the Publisher

"…[A] wonderfully insightful fictional glimpse into the Freud family dynamic and, most notably, its impact on Sigmund’s theories about lesbianism. How did Freud père receive the announcement that the daughter to whom he was closest—his right-hand girl and protégé—loved women? How did he deal with her long domestic partnership with another woman? Coffey’s presentation of what may have happened between Sigmund and Anna is nuanced, intelligent, and wonderfully persuasive."
—Lillian Faderman,author ofNaked in the Promised Land: A Memoir

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