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

Anna Freud
Anna Freud; drawing by David Levine

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…

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