Rebecca Coffey: On Sigmund Freud’s Relationship with His Lesbian Daughter Anna and Using Fiction to Explore the Truth
On May 13, 2014 She Writes Press published Rebecca Coffey’s latest book, Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story which has been getting very positive reviews. Booklist called it “complexly entertaining, sexually dramatic, [and] acidly funny”; Lambda Literary said it’s “got a plot so rife with tension it’ll make you squirm.” And Oprah’s magazine recommended it in its June 2014 issue.
By day Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist, making nationally televised documentaries, reporting for Scientific American, Discover and PsychologyToday.com, contributing to Vermont Public Radio and Progressive Voices Radio, and writing nonfiction books about violence and society. In researching her 1998 book Unspeakable Truths and Happy Endings: Human Cruelty and the New Trauma Therapy, Coffey investigated the history of modern psychology’s approach to tales of terrifying events. In that vein she read Sigmund Freud’s work, and from there stumbled upon a deeply buried side story.
Fortunately, by night Coffey is a novelist and humorist, and it was to her night work that Coffey brought her discovery. Last May, She Writes Press published Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story, which tells the fact-based tale of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis of his own lesbian daughter. Coffey explains that the novel is called Hysterical partly because Anna’s coming of age was informed by the hysteria epidemic that had swept Western Europe twenty or so years earlier. Also, in Hysterical, Anna maintains her sanity during confrontations with Sigmund by drawing on the wellspring of Jewish humor that the family was known to savor.
Playwright and theatre director Joan Lipkin sat down with Rebecca to go backstage on the genesis of this hot book and its content.
Let’s start with the big question. Anna Freud was Sigmund’s favorite child, the one who became his chief sounding board and collaborator, who led the Freud dynasty after he died, and who never publicly contradicted his theories, including his homophobic attitude towards lesbians. Why do you think Anna was a lesbian?
While I was giving myself an education in all things Freud. I read his original works as well Ernest Jones’ three-volume authorized biography, some unauthorized biographies, some book-length portraits of family, patients, and friends, and many criticisms of Freud’s theories. I was distinctly uncharmed by Ernest Jones’ three-volume set. It was as unremittingly adoring of Freud as The Lives of the Saints had been of holy men back in the 1800s. The unauthorized biographies were only slightly less disappointing because most were written by psychoanalysts whose credibility depends on Freud’s continuing good name. The portraits of family and friends written by historian Paul Roazen were much more revealing.
At some point as I read all of these books I realized that a pattern had emerged about one name. It was “Dorothy Burlingham,” who was usually called “Anna’s lifelong friend,” and then never any more information was given about her. That seemed odd, for those same books could go on for pages about people far more trivial to the Freud entourage than a lifelong friend of Anna’s would have been. Then I noticed that aunties and the like seemed to offer apologetic explanations for why Anna never married, telling stories about this man or that man with whom Anna never quite gelled. It began to sound like what my own mother used to say about my lesbian cousin. Finally, in a Foreword to one of his books, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, the former projects director at the Freud Archives, told his story of working at the Freud Museum, the house in Hampstead where the Freuds had lived after fleeing Hitler and where Dorothy and Anna still lived as very old ladies. Masson is a self-professed gourmet of gossip, and he didn’t hesitate to ask the maid if the two women shared a bedroom. The maid had been with Dorothy since Anna and Dorothy met. She assured Masson that each woman had her own room but were flexible about where they slept. That was the point at which I began to suspect I had a novel in the making.
And when did you become sure?
When I read Paul Roazen’s disclosure that Sigmund had analyzed Anna, alarm bells went off in my head. Remember, I was in the middle of researching a book about psychological trauma, which of course includes incest. And I knew that Sigmund had defined psychoanalysis as an erotic relationship—not just incidentally, but essentially. The romantic longing that the patient forms for the analyst and that the analyst reciprocates are the stuff of Freudian psychoanalysis. They are analyzed in an attempt to discern what went on in the family many years before. So I had the frightening realization that Freud had intentionally initiated erotic feelings between himself and his daughter, while believing that all those feelings could possibly illuminate were earlier erotic feelings between them.
What was that psychoanalysis like?
It depends on whom you ask. Freudian psychoanalysts have long insisted that it was only a teaching analysis; he was showing her tricks of the trade. Yeah, well . . . five nights a week for several years? The Freud Archives, which owns the copyright to Sigmund’s and Anna’s papers, keeps references to that analysis sealed. (It has also sealed the correspondence between Dorothy and Anna.) But both Sigmund and Anna left huge clues. Sigmund wrote a paper called “A Child is Being Beaten” describing his analysis of a girl whose masturbatory fantasies since childhood were of a child being beaten by a man for a mistake over which the child had no control. A few years later when Anna wanted to be admitted to the International Psychoanalytic Association she needed to present a case study. She hadn’t yet analyzed anyone, so she presented a paper called “Beating Fantasies and Daydreams” describing both the child Sigmund had written about and the fantasy. They hadn’t analyzed the same child. Sigmund had analyzed Anna, and Anna had presented her own self-analysis.
And, indeed, in bits of Anna’s correspondence that have been made available to scholars she describes a life of erotic beating fantasies that match those described by her father. The child in her fantasies, Anna apparently knew, represented her. And the man, I hope she knew, represented her father, who in analysis, anyway, figuratively beat her nightly for the “mistake” of her lesbianism.
You say in Hysterical that Dorothy and Anna were a couple for 54 years and raised a family together. With the Freud Archives keeping the record sealed it’s probably safe to assume that neither Sigmund nor Anna wanted her lesbianism or the analysis to be made public. Why did you decide to “out” them.
For starters, Sigmund and Anna Freud were enmeshed in the prejudices of a different world, one in which lesbianism was still thought of as a hysterical illness. And while Sigmund had helped create those prejudices, he was apparently capable of learning. As Anna steadily loved Dorothy and incorporated her into the Freud family, Sigmund’s attitude shifted, at least privately. In response to people’s questions about Anna and Dorothy he could shrug and mutter that they were fine, people should just let them be. Anna though, in her professional life, became not nearly as sanguine about homosexuals as I would have thought. She conducted conversion therapies, and in 1956 remarked to a journalist that “nowadays we can cure many more homosexuals than was thought possible in the beginning.”
That is very curious. Can you say more?
I have no way to explain the disconnect between her private life and her professional attitudes other than to use one of her own ideas. In her book Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense she described “Identification with the Oppressor,” which is more commonly known these days as “Stockholm Syndrome.” It’s ironic, if it’s true, but it may be that Anna took on Sigmund’s prejudice about lesbians while freeing him from his own.
Now, to get to why I felt free to “out” Sigmund and Anna: Hysterical is Anna’s fact-based, fictional autobiography. It’s about her whole life, though in its largest part it’s the story of Sigmund’s attempt to convert her from lesbianism. Gay conversion therapy is practiced to this day, albeit increasingly only by marginal therapists. But it remains enormously harmful. And it is practiced in part because Sigmund’s definitions of what a man is and what a woman is have persisted. These days some young people aren’t even sure who Sigmund Freud was (much less Anna). But if they are burdened in any way by antiquated ideas about what is normal and moral in sexuality, I want them to see the “man behind the curtain” as the imperfect person that he was. Anna’s analysis is the quintessential example of his imperfections.
Yes, he has such a legacy that it is important to get to some of the primary influences behind reparative therapy. It is fascinating that you portray an inappropriate and coercive analysis between father and daughter while still in a sense honoring the dignity of the father.
I eased my way by trying to make Sigmund very human and by highlighting how fear and confusion from his own past motivated him. I made sure that the words “A Novel” would be plain on the front cover, and I emphasized in the Authors Note that I had taken my responsibilities as a novelist to simplify, magnify, and create fun to heart. Remember, no one paid attention to Paul Roazen when he revealed the improper analysis, because reading nonfiction about Freud is just no fun. Hysterical is classic fact-based fiction, and while it’s dead serious it’s also funny. I hope that “funny” helps get the message out.
Goldsmiths College professor and highly regarded race and cultural studies scholar Sara Ahmed offers an expanded study of the “feminist killjoy” in her new book, Willful Subjects.
In her 2010 book The Promise of Happiness Ahmed crafted the identity of the “feminist killjoy,” or critic of extant heteronormative strictures of happiness. Feminist killjoys are “those who refuse to laugh at the right points; those who are unwilling to be seated at the table of happiness”; they are “willful women, unwilling to get along, unwilling to preserve an idea of happiness” in order to fit or or remain complicit with what the world gives them.
Willful Subjects takes this identity as a starting point for a larger examination of the willful subject in a broader historical and cultural context. To be willful is to be striking, to annoy, arrest or disrupt the flow of things. “[T]o be judged willful,” Ahmed explains, “is to become a killjoy of the future: the one who steals the possibility of happiness,…the one who gets in the way of a happiness assumed as on the way.”
In order to construct this historical and cultural genealogy of the willful subject, Ahmed begins by unraveling the genealogy of “the will,” which is a slippery, oftentimes ambiguous, philosophical concept in Chapter 1, primarily as it manifests in 19th and 20th century continental philosophy. The lack of clarity about the concept proves slightly problematic in the later chapters when Ahmed tries to harness it in order to understand the act of willfulness both in ethics and in politics. Chapters 2 through 4 delve into these discourses through her examination of the relation between the will and willfulness, ill will and good will, and the particular will and general will. Chapter 4, “Willfulness as a Style of Politics,” suggests an examination of the aesthetic nature of such willfulness — “I am to reflect [how] willfulness has been, and actively can be…claimed” (emphasis added) — but the ideas fail to coalesce, as Ahmed segues into a discussion of sovereignty in her point about willfulness as an act of disobedience.
Ahmed’s intellectual trajectory is based in continental philosophy, feminist theory and critical race studies; her previous publications, like Willful Subjects, blends philosophy with cultural and literary history. All of these discourses combined showcase Ahmed’s brilliance and breadth of knowledge, but at the same time prove unwieldy and arguably impossible to control. A part of this seems to be Ahmed’s stylistic endeavor, to remain ungrounded, unyielding, and to resist assimilation in the form of intellectual coherence.
What is produced, however, in the reader’s eyes is a hodgepodge of ideas, tethered together through association. There is, like many critical studies in the humanities commonly related as threads of New Historicism, an accumulation of surface without any depth. It is methodologically messy in the capacity that it’s not clear why she broaches or moves to certain ideas or texts other than the fact that they seem to pop into her head via association. This lack of methodological commitment is apparent even in the conditional language Ahmed uses to move from one thought to the next. For example, this flow of ideas occurs in one single paragraph: “It is worth [considering] here Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s description of queer politics as ‘voluntary stigma’…. Her argument [could be] related to that of Dan Brouwer who explores the use of tattoos in HIV/AIDS activism…” (emphasis added).
Why are these texts being connected? Why is it important? What is the connection? These questions are never answered. The connection is never made explicit to the reader, and one must wonder, when Ahmed follows the paragraph with the elusive sentence “There is something deeply evocative about Sedgwick’s own account…” that she herself is quite sure what that “something” is.
The selection of literary texts, too, is baffling. From Grimm’s fairy tales to Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, from Augustine’s Confessions to the anthology Sisterhood is Powerful, the collection of texts is completely random other than the fact that they all exhibit willful subjects.
This text, therefore, is very difficult to grasp as a whole, as Ahmed herself seems torn between writing a literary history of willful subjects, a philosophical genealogy of the concept of the will, and a political examination of willfulness in society.
The most promise, it seems, is in the literary history of willful subjects through a kind of feminist discourse, which is an interest that Ahmed has explored and written about variously, especially on her spectacular blog, feministkilljoys.com.
By Sara Ahmed
Duke University Press
Paperback, 9780822357834, 320 pp.
Also: an excerpt of Lena Dunham's new book; notable books of the week.
In The Sultan of Byzantium, Turkish author Selcuk Altun takes his hero into forgotten corners of the city, where once-majestic monuments go unnoticed amid the bustle of daily life.
Before Coe Booth was a writer, she was a caseworker, often tasked with placing kids with foster families. Her latest novel for middle-grade readers looks at two young members of a foster family.
Francine Prose: On Her New Historical Novel, Exploring the Psyches of Nazi Collaborators, and Examining Questions of Good and Evil
Set in Paris prior to and during World War II, Francine Prose’s historical novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 (HarperCollins), revolves around the lives of those who visit and perform at the Chameleon Club, a kind of burlesque joint/dance hall where “men danced with men, women with women in monocles and mustaches.” Club proprietor Yvonne, a “Hungarian chanteuse” keeps a lizard that matches her outfits; actually, she’s owned several—one died from exertion after being placed on a paisley print.
The lead is Lou Villars, an athlete and one of the first female race-car drivers, who eventually works for the Gestapo. She is also one of the women in “Lovers at the Chameleon Club”—a photograph described in the novel as a “lesbian couple, the pretty girl in the sparkly gown sitting behind her broad-shouldered lover with pomaded hair.” Villars was based on Violette Morris, a historical figure who collaborated with the Nazis. Morris’ story, Prose said, “seemed too good not to tell.”
Lambda Literary talked with Francine Prose—who’s written more than 20 works of fiction, was a National Book Award finalist, and has received numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright—about her latest novel.
The spirit of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is felt throughout the book. Which novels influenced you while writing Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932?
I read lots of books while I was writing the novel, but mostly memoirs and histories. Books by and about Brassai and Henry Miller, about Paris between the wars, the French Resistance, the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and so forth. One of the things that made the book a challenge to write was that I couldn’t find any literary models, really: examples of a novel that was supposedly a sort of “archive” of “written” documents, each by a different person, all telling the same story. The closest I could find was Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which is why I was so glad when I found that beautiful epigraph by Nabokov—an excuse to have his name in the book. I chose not to go back and reread A Moveable Feast, which I’d loved as a young person (so romantic!) and despised (so nasty and gossipy, so disloyal and ungenerous!) when I reread it as a somewhat older person.
Violette Morris serves as the basis for Lou Villars, the center of Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932. How did you learn about her and what made you decide to write a novel imagining her life?
I learned about Violette Morris from a wall text at a show of Brassai’s photographs. The text for the photo, “Lesbian Couple at le Monocle, 1932”—explained that Morris, the woman in drag, had worked for the Gestapo during the Nazi Occupation of France. The rest I found out on the Internet, and the story of an athlete and auto racer prevented from competing professionally because she was a cross-dresser and who was subsequently recruited as a spy by Hitler himself seemed too good not to tell.
Villars—who tortured people for the Gestapo and revealed the end of the Maginot line to the Germans—is easily manipulated. It seems she could have just as easily joined the French Resistance if she’d had someone guide her in that direction. Was the sometimes-circumstantial nature of evil an idea that you wanted to explore?
What a great question. I think that she—that is, my character—felt so despised, so lost, so unloved, and so cruelly prevented from doing what she really wanted (and being who she really was) that she could have been recruited by any side that made her feel valued and important. There’s a wonderful quotation from St. Theresa of Avila, I’m probably misquoting it, but it’s something like “In those days I would have followed anyone who offered me a sardine.” I think Lou was vulnerable in just that way. All it took was the right (or wrong) sardine.
The exploration of Lou’s psychological motivation, as well as that of other characters, seems similar to the deconstruction of motive of reformed neo-Nazi Vincent Nolan and Holocaust survivor Meyer Maslow in A Changed Man. What sort of thematic connections do you see, if any, between the novels?
Well, both have the Holocaust, to a certain extent, in their backgrounds; both are about survivors, and more importantly, both are about matters of conscience. What makes people decide and act for good or evil? And old and unanswerable question, but endlessly fascinating.
The novel is a variation on a Rashoman’s tale with multiple voices and writing styles, fragments of a journal, a biography, letters, along with the historical record. As a novelist, how did you find working within this structure?
I won’t lie: the structure made it very difficult. All the narrators have competing versions of the truth, and each was so persuasive (at least to me) that I often found it hard to keep track of what “really” happened.
What are working on now?
I’m working on a novel that begins backstage at a children’s theater production of a heartbreakingly terrible musical about a monkey.
Photo By Stephanie Berger
This week in the LGBT-themed arts:
The rumor reported in an earlier roundup has been confirmed: Philly AIDS Thrift has signed a two-year lease that will keep Giovanni’s Room–the oldest LGBT bookstore in the U.S.–open in the same location, saving it from permanently closing its doors.
Another update: After the removal of The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth from the high school/college prep reading list in Cape Henlopen, Delaware, the school district has decided to gut–and perhaps redo–the entire reading list.
Over nine hundred authors, including Sandra Gail Lambert, have signed a petition–which was published in the New York Times–demanding Amazon to cease its allegedly discriminatory and monopolistic practices against Hachette Book Group.
Props from the groundbreaking TV series Will & Grace have been donated to the Smithsonian Museum, along with the wooden racket of trans tennis player Renée Richards and the original blue-pink-white-pink-blue transgender pride flag.
October is LGBT History Month–and, not surprisingly, it has also recently become Queer Romance Month. A project conceived by British author Alexis Hall, QRM is an online initiative dedicated to the promotion of LGBT romantic fiction.
One of Robin Williams’ final roles was as a closeted gay man in Boulevard, a dark drama that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival but remains without a distributor. Williams also played an openly gay man in the 1996 comedy remake The Birdcage.
Shortlist has unearthed an infographic created by Brian Keda that distinguishes the songs of English rock legend Morrissey based on their themes.
NPR discusses the efforts of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop to increase racial and sexual diversity among the program’s faculty and students.
Drag performer John Epperson and his signature character Lypsinka will be performing a trilogy of shows in the East Village starting this November.
The Huffington Post has an homily for London’s Polari Literary Salon, which it cites as an alternative to the stifling conservatism of other book festivals.
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Hampton Sides' In The Kingdom Of Ice recounts an ill-fated 19th-century naval expedition to the North Pole. It appears at No. 1.
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