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Freud’s Cordelia

Anna Freud: A Biography

by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
Summit Books, 527 pp., $24.95

My Three Mothers and Other Passions

by Sophie Freud
New York University Press, 351 pp., $27.95

She was his dutiful daughter, his Antigone, the one who found her destiny in safeguarding the shrine of his achievement. Melanie Klein and the Kleinians believed that having been analyzed by her father, she never escaped the Oedipal thrall. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s splendidly intelligent biography makes a convincing case that she managed her escape, becoming both a theoretical innovator and a woman in her own right. It is an authorized biography, but thankfully free of the hagiographical pieties of the genre. Young-Bruehl, who has written a deservedly praised biography of Hannah Arendt, was allowed access to the four steamer trunks of meticulously filed memorabilia left behind at Maresfield Gardens upon Anna’s death in 1982.

From dream fragments, adolescent poems, and confessional journals, as well as letters to her female confessor-friends, Lou Andreas-Salomé and Dorothy Burlingham, Young-Bruehl reveals the often anguished private person behind the austere public image. Anna’s sexual fantasies are on display, and the calipers of psychoanalytic theory are applied to them, but the result is a victory for moral tact, reconciling the biographer’s requirement to be both truthful and humane. Altogether the book is a psychobiography that, unlike most works of the genre, demeans neither psychoanalysis nor history. It deserves to stand beside Jones’s Freud in the small canon of secondary writings about Freud and his circle that renew our respect for lives that have changed our own.

If criticism of Young-Bruehl’s work could be ventured, one is that it is, as one might expect, partial in its account of Anna’s lifelong conflict with Melanie Klein, and should thus be read in conjunction with an account from the other side, for example, Phyllis Grosskurth’s equally partial but equally informative account in her biography of Melanie Klein.* The Freud–Klein controversy began as soon as each published her first work in child analysis in the 1920s and continues unabated to this day in the division within British psychoanalytic circles between the A, or Kleinian, group and the B, or standard Freud, group. It is a disagreement over methods in child analysis, over the origins of aggression and the formation of the superego in early infancy, the nature of a child’s mourning of the loss of the maternal breast, and the relative weight of environmental and psychic factors in the genesis of infantile neurosis.

The dispute is about all of these things, but crucially it is about who was the true heir of Freud: Klein, the radical innovator, or Anna, the more cautious keeper of the flame. On these issues, Young-Bruehl offers perceptive summaries of the issues at stake between the two camps, as well as acute psychological commentary on the generalship of the two leaders, but she does not entertain the possibility that it was Klein, rather than Anna Freud, whose work—especially on unconscious fantasy—has proved the more fertile theoretical ground for succeeding psychoanalytic generations.

The other criticism is that Young-Bruehl consistently sees the relationship between father and daughter from the daughter’s side and thus understates the ambivalence on the father’s side. Anna herself was keenly aware of this ambivalence. Toward the end of her life, she confided to her old friend Manna Friedmann that had an acceptable form of birth control existed in the Vienna of 1895, she would never have been born. Such haunting obiter dicta reach children from only one source: their parents. Anna’s mother can hardly have welcomed a sixth pregnancy in eight years, nor can Anna’s birth have been a matter of rejoicing for her father, struggling to keep an ailing practice afloat and in the throes of the agonizing self-analysis that was eventually to result in The Interpretation of Dreams. The attention of the pater-familias was both distracted by immense theoretical labor and monopolized by a circle of adoring women. It was not until Anna was a teen-ager, when the other children had married and left home, that she was able to edge her way into her father’s affections, and it seems clear, as Young-Bruehl argues, that the memory of “being lost” during the first seventeen years of family life endured as a bitter hurt. In a beautiful lecture, “On Losing and Being Lost,” delivered in 1953, which Young-Bruehl shows to contain a large measure of disguised autobiography, Anna made oblique reference to what seems to have been her own family situation:

It is only when parental feelings are ineffective or too ambivalent, or when aggression is more effective than their love, or when the mother’s emotions are temporarily engaged elsewhere that children not only feel lost but, in fact, get lost.

From her earliest years, Anna had to endure her father’s obvious partiality toward her sister, the beautiful and feminine Sophie. His letters to Anna in her teen-age years convey a tormentingly ambiguous message: Why don’t you become more frivolous and feminine like Sophie, why don’t you marry, and, on the other hand, never leave me, no one can love you as much as I. In Freud’s 1912 essay on the theme of the three caskets in literature, Anna is given oblique and ambiguous representation as the Cordelia figure, the daughter who defies the patriarch but who eventually dies with him. The final sentence of the essay on the three caskets reads, “But it is in vain that an old man yearns for the love of woman as he had it first from his mother; the third of the Fates alone, the silent Goddess of Death, will take him into her arms.” For Freud to begin to see Anna as his true heir was a more difficult process than Young-Bruehl manages to convey: it meant also coming to see Anna as the angel heralding his own death. No wonder he withdrew from her embrace.

If Young-Bruehl minimizes Freud’s ambivalence, even occasional hostility to his youngest daughter, she is brilliantly perceptive on the relationship seen from Anna’s perspective. The decisive phase began when Anna was a teen-ager. She found herself locked in a pattern of obsessive masturbation, driven by fantasies in which she saw herself, as she later reported in a paper about her own case, as “a weak young man…dominated or symbolically castrated or beaten.” Young-Bruehl plausibly observes that instead of saying “father loves only me,” the fantasy says the more acceptable (or less incestuous) “father defeats or beats only me.” Young-Bruehl might have pointed out that these fantasies express as much hatred and fear as they express love; indeed, they seem to say: if I cannot be loved as a woman, I will take domination like a man.

Confronting and analyzing these fantasies, Young-Bruehl shows, strongly influenced Anna’s later development as a theorist, particularly her later emphasis on the passive partner’s identification with the aggressor. In a 1951 paper, she argued that the passive partner in a homosexual relationship identifies with the active partner and thus lives out, if only in fantasy, both sides of the sexual relationship. Young-Bruehl suggests that these theoretical speculations are a form of disguised autobiography and offer a clue to Anna’s earlier resolution of her beating fantasies with her father. She shied away from sexual relations with men because they compromised her essential self-image as a dominated man. The way out of her erotic impasse was to renounce active sexual life altogether and remain, in fantasy, the passive object of her father’s love. His hold on her was too strong to allow her the other alternative. Anna’s lifelong relationship with the American child analyst Dorothy Burlingham was affectionate but unconsummated. Anna remained, as Marie Bonaparte put it, a vestal guarding the portals of her father’s tomb.

Such renunciations might have been crippling, were they not understood in the bleak but powerful light of psychoanalytic reason. She became the living embodiment of the psychoanalytic truth that a fate must be understood if it is to be endured. If Anna Freud was reconciled to sexual abstention, it was because she understood its hidden logic in her case, and if she managed to become formidably creative, it was because she thought of her work as sublimation not merely of the drives that could not be consummated with her father, but also of her desire to escape frustration by a leap into fantasy. This break occurred in her twenties. Instead of writing moody sub-Rilkean poems and unfinished novellas of her teen-age years, Anna began to compose her first psychoanalytic paper, on her own fantasies of being beaten.

The most astonishing feature of this successful passage into adulthood, of course, is that she survived analysis with her own father. Melanie Klein and Ernest Jones insinuated that Anna’s development as a theorist was stunted “by imperfectly analyzed resistances” to her father. Anna herself acknowledged “the absence of the third person, the one onto whom the transference advances, and with whom one acts out and finishes off the conflicts.” The absence of an impartial spectator, she admitted, encouraged “temptations to untruthfulness” in her analysis. When Ernest Jones ventured to suggest that Anna’s analysis was incomplete, Freud exploded. “Who, then, has ever been sufficiently analyzed? I can assure you that Anna has been more deeply and thoroughly analyzed than, for instance, yourself.”

Thorough it may or may not have been, but wounding it most certainly was. In the middle of it, Anna wrote disconsolately to Lou Andreas-Salomé that her inner life was being “pulled apart, analyzed, published, and in every way mishandled and mistreated.” The words eerily echo and even help to explain the chilling sentence in her later work on masochistic individuals for whom “love meant being maltreated or kicked about or watching such scenes of punishment.” For Anna, to be loved by her father was to be studied, and to be studied was to be pulled apart.

Nor did she entertain any illusions about the degree of independence that her completed analysis allowed her. In 1924, she wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé, “I am pleased to be acquiring a degree of independence in the eyes of other people (not before Papa).” And in a poignant afterword, which shows that she felt her intellectual accomplishment had suppressed her feminine side, she confessed to Lou, “I would prefer to give and to serve than to acquire and demand.”

The only test of whether this father-daughter analysis actually worked is the prodigious achievement of her life—the seven volumes of collected papers, the Hampstead Clinic, the circle of devoted admirers left desolate by her death. These achievements could only have been the work of a psyche that had managed to reconcile its fate and its desires. She lived a celibate life, but even in the intimate domain, she found a way to have a family life of her own: she lived not only with Dorothy Burlingham but with Dorothy’s growing children, and later at the Hampstead Nurseries, freely admitting that in caring for others’ children she could, by the ruses of fantasy, have her own children, and perhaps just as important, be a child herself.

In The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, another work of theory that concealed a deep autobiographical thread, Anna described a governess who “displaced her ambitious fantasies onto her men friends and her libidinal wishes onto her women friends.” Anna made this strategy of “altruistic surrender” her own, and in the climactic incident of her life, her interrogation before the Gestapo in 1938, it helped her to display a noble imperturbability that astonished everyone who thought of her as living only in her father’s shadow. She spent seven hours at Gestapo headquarters coolly answering questions about the International Psychoanalytic Association. When she returned home, as composed as ever, her father wept and also declared that he wanted them all to flee Vienna at once. This was the only time any of Freud’s associates saw him lose his composure. Ernest Jones, with the condescension that was habitual in his dealings with Anna, attributed her courage on that day to her father’s example. But Anna was surely speaking of herself when she wrote, “Anyone who has very largely projected his instinctual impulses onto other people knows nothing of this fear [of death]. In the moment of danger his ego is not really concerned with his own life.”

Astonishingly, a life devoted to her father did not lose its meaning when he died. Indeed, Freud’s death in September 1939 was followed by the establishment of the Hampstead Nurseries, and a further surge of theoretical creativity. Perhaps the protractedness and the horror of his cancer gave her time to complete her mourning in advance of his death. The energy of her later years even suggests that she put to creative use some of the anger she must have felt at having so entirely suppressed her life for the sake of his.

Yet her years of emancipation were haunted by him. There was a return of the repressed, a bout of pneumonia in 1946 in which her longings for him returned with incapacitating force. With typical thoroughness, she kept the notes she jotted down recording the terrible dreams she had about him. She saw him wandering on the mountaintops alone, and she longed to console and be consoled by him. “Eventually he calls me to him and demands this himself. I am very relieved and lean myself against him, crying in a way that is very familiar to both of us. Tenderness.” Then she adds, “My thoughts are troubled: he should not have called me, it is as if a renunciation or a form of progress had been undone because he called.” This is psychoanalytic lucidity at its most courageous: in her refusal to surrender to sentimental nostalgia, she clearly understood her dreams as a fantasy that would undo the progress she had made to live beyond him and without him.

The psychic calm of her later years, the regal equilibrium that awed those who met her, becomes more impressive when one realizes what it had cost her to achieve. She knew only too well from her own life that psychoanalytic understanding did not necessarily reduce the complex pain of living. If she was a humane woman, it was at least partly because she was, like her father, a stoic person. This comes out clearly in a little incident involving Marilyn Monroe. Two of Anna’s colleagues and friends, Marianne Kris and Ralph Greenson, had worked as the actress’s analysts. After her suicide, Anna wrote a comforting letter to Greenson, who was grieving for his patient and his failure to help her: “In these cases we are really defeated by something which is stronger than we are and for which analysis, with all its powers, is too weak a weapon.” This stoicism softened the hard edges of the certainty with which she defended a doctrine she did not doubt was a science. When Monroe’s will was finally settled, a large legacy went to the Hampstead Clinic.

Anna carried on a full productive life until the late 1970s. Then her health began to fail. Her last years were miserable, weakened by illness, tormented by literary adventurers like Jeffrey Masson, whom she mistakenly gave access to the papers in Maresfield Gardens for his patricidal edition of the Freud–Fliess correspondence. Dorothy Burlingham died, and one by one Anna’s circle of women friends was diminished by death.

It was then that her niece, Martin Freud’s daughter, Sophie Freud came to know her. My Three Mothers and Other Passions is a curious mixture of thinly fictionalized autobiography, memoir, and conference paper, yet its artless candor makes it an intimately confessional and touching book whose recurring theme is the psychic cost, for Sophie herself, for Anna her aunt, and for Martin her father, of being a Freud. If Anna Freud became her father’s Antigone, Martin Freud seems to have been his prodigal son, the one unfortunate enough to live out his father’s fantasy life. Such at least is Sophie Freud’s implication in her thinly fictionalized portrait of her father: the chaste and ascetic Sigmund “had delegated the fulfillment of sexual pleasure to his oldest son.” His daughter remembers that Martin always kept a special edition of his father’s Four Case Histories in which the first few pages dealt with the Schreber case, and the rest of the book was filled with pages and pages of photographs of his blond female conquests, in place of his father’s writing. There can’t be many more pathetic memorials to the impasse of prodigal revolt.

In the diaspora of the family following the Anschluss, Martin stayed in London with his father and ran a shop, while his wife and daughter went to America. They were never reunited, and during the war Sophie sent him packages of food, which he acknowledged with sour and unfeeling notes. (“It is raining; I do not feel well; could you not send me some smoked sausage that is less salty?”)

He died in 1967, still estranged from his daughter. It is as if Sophie’s rapprochement with her aunt Anna represented a desire to be reconciled, through a surrogate, both with her father and with the legacy of being a Freud. Sophie waged a campaign to win Anna over, with presents and kindnesses and an attention that slowly re-created, so one can see from Young-Bruehl’s biography, a long-suppressed infantile pattern: Anna’s dependency on her beloved Kinderfrau, Josefine. Having cared for others all her life, having, as she once put it wearily, always been the good student who wiped the blackboard, she was able at the end, in her niece’s loving care, to become little Annerl again. At the end, Sophie Freud peeled grapes for her, and held her head when she was too weak to drink from a glass unaided.

Yet Sophie Freud is convinced, much as she loved Anna the woman, that Anna the theorist remained “enchained and enslaved” to her father’s reductive drive theory. She cites her relative lack of interest in new findings in cognitive psychology, academic infant research, and new work by the object relations school deriving from Melanie Klein and D.W. Winnicott. She maintains that Anna’s exclusive interest in sexual development “bypass[ed] adolescent concerns about identity development and dependency conflicts.” This criticism, however, is not easy to reconcile with Anna’s The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, a work that, as Sophie Freud herself admits, “was instrumental in shifting the course of psychoanalysis from an id psychology to an ego psychology.” She then takes Anna to task for exaggerating the aggressiveness of children, a reproach which has its ironic side, given that her opponents, the Kleinians, always reproached her for the opposite.

There seems little doubt that Anna was a conservative figure in psychoanalytic thought. Her father said as much. In a letter to Max Eitingon in November 1928, he wrote, “Compared to the opinions of Klein, hers are conservative, one might even say reactionary, but it looks as if she is right.” Coming from a man who prided himself on being a conquistador, a revolutionary innovator, this comment is ambivalence itself: he admired revolutionaries, but he did not want his daughter to be one. She lived with this double message all her life, and it is a testament both to her strength and to psychoanalysis itself that she managed to live a life full both of work and of love. Young-Bruehl ends with a particularly touching image of the dying Anna, being wheeled around Hampstead Ponds, diminished to the size of a child, wrapped deep in the folds of her father’s old woolen coat. She inherited the mantle and yet she survived its weight.

Letters

Heirs to Freud January 19, 1989

  1. *

    Melanie Klein: Her Work and Her World (Knopf, 1986; paperback edition, 1987, by Harvard University Press).

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