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[SWP: Behind the Book] Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story
Written by
Rebecca Coffey
June 2014
Written by
Rebecca Coffey
June 2014

My Writing Life is a mixture of science journalism, humor, and fiction.

My interest in writing a novel about Anna Freud was born 22 years ago when I was researching the nonfiction book, Unspeakable Truths and Happy Endings: Human Cruelty and the New Trauma Therapy (Sidran Press, 1998). Specifically, I’d been exploring the history of how psychologists have responded to patients with traumatic pasts. I came across Jeffrey Moussaeiff Masson’s book, The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory. Working as the Projects Director for the Freud Archives, Masson had been granted full access to Sigmund Freud's correspondence and other unpublished papers. Reading and rummaging, he’d soon realized that, although Freud had initially built a reputation as a neurologist on the idea that many "hysterical" women had no neurological problems at all but had been raped as children, as the years passed he’d begun dismissing as fantasies women’s tales of rape. His reasons had nothing to do with the women but everything to do with his desire to find acceptance for his new “science” of psychoanalysis.

Fascinated by hysteria and by Freud's apparent deception, I became engrossed in literature by about Freud.

In many of the books I read, Anna’s name came up again and again. Well, of course it would. In Sigmund’s later years she had been his closest confidant and his unflagging intellectual and emotional companion. Indeed, she’d never married (and at that point I knew little enough to assume that she’d never married out of devotion to him.) Indeed, in the literature I found many references to her as a virgin, and there was an occasional reference to the fact that Freud himself had referred to her as a “vestal virgin.”

But soon enough I stumbled across occasional mentions of the name “Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham." She was usually quickly described as "Anna's friend,” and no further information was given. This struck me as bizarre, given that the books I was reading were, for the most part, terribly cumbersome because they made a habit of fully describing each and every incidental person in the Freud family circle. So why wasn't I seeing more information about Dorothy?

I also noticed a tendency on the part of people close to the Freud family to make vague, proud references to men Anna could have married but somehow never got around to dating. “Poor, lonely Anna, too devoted to her Papa to live a full life” was the general sentiment. This was precisely how my mother and aunts used to refer to my cousin who never married, and who revealed in her 40s that she was gay. My index of suspicion about Anna was becoming very high. Normally I wouldn't spend a second thought wondering about a historical figure's sexuality. But my research had told me that Anna's own father had pronounced that lesbianism is a gateway to mental illness, and is always the fault of the father. Hmmm….

Meanwhile, I read another one of Jeffrey Moussaeiff Masson’s books. In the foreword, I found a delightful anecdote. In the very late 1970s, when he’d been working as the Projects Director at the Freud Archives, Anna and Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham (who’d been “friends” for more than five decades by then) still lived in the Freud family home, which was Masson’s workplace. Masson is a self-described gossip. And he was oh, so curious about those two women. They doted on each so nicely. Were they lovers? Among Freud family and friends Masson could find no one who wanted anything to do with answering a question like that. And so he asked the maid whether Anna and Dorothy shared a bedroom. Essentially, her response was that they each had their own bedroom and they used whichever one they wanted.

Of course, reading Masson's anecdote was a "Eureka!" moment for me. I must admit, though, that I felt more than a little sympathy for Sigmund Freud. Lesbians didn't "come out" in Sigmund Freud’s lifetime. And in Vienna as Anna was growing up, there was simply no safe place in civilized society for a women who did not enjoy the ballast of husband and family. If Sigmund had been perceptive enough to wonder about Anna's sexuality, surely he'd been filled with fear, guilt, and dread.  Imagining all of that, I began reading a book by Paul Roazen, a historian with no alliance to the Freuds (and with no bone to pick with Sigmund's theories). In it Roazen revealed that Sigmund had analyzed Anna.

Of course, I’d “heard” about this before, but in the books by Freudians it was always referred to as a “training analysis.” Anna and Sigmund, those books assured me, were just talking about how to analyze; they weren’t analyzing. Oh, but Roazen told the story entirely differently. And the implications of his story were enormous, for, according to Sigmund, psychoanalysis is not just occasionally an erotically charged enterprise. It must be one. Mutual desire is what analyst and analysand parse. It is the very stuff of psychoanalysis.

When I began wondering what the heck Anna and Sigmund had talked about in psychoanalysis, the novel was born, and the novelist in me took over.

Although it took a very long time for me to research Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story to my journalistic satisfaction, that part of the process was easy, for journalism and research are what occupy most of my days. What was most difficult for me was feeling free to write the scenes and to carry the implications that I’d found in my research to their logical conclusions. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis may not be held in the esteem these days that it was only a few decades ago. But I’ve always held him in high regard as at least a breakthrough thinker and as someone who established clear guidelines about how not to create havoc with the erotic material of psychoanalysis. Hmmm… About those guidelines …

No doubt, the information I was working with was of bombshell quality. How could I make it believable? How could I make it readable? And how did Anna survive about 1000 clinical hours of talking with her father about her dreams and her masturbation fantasies and emerge, as she did, able to love and care for her father as he aged while also loving Dorothy and raising a family with her?

The answer was in the literature I was reading. Sigmund Freud was one funny guy—and I by “funny” I don’t mean “weird”. He really loved humor. He wrote about it. He cracked jokes liberally, spontaneously, and well. He was irrepressible enough that it was easy for me to imagine that humor was a part of family culture. All I needed to do was put humor into Anna’s “genes” and I could turn what might otherwise be an intolerable family horror story into something that was actually readable. I could also imbue Anna with a survival mechanism. When confused, when overwhelmed, she could find wry perspective and make herself laugh.

Once I’d made the decision to allow the Freud family humor to come to the fore in Anna’s life, Hysterical: Anna Freud Story came flowing out of my typing fingers, incorporating all three aspects of my professional life: journalism, humor, and fiction.

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  • Mardith Louisell

    Rebecca, a great post, full of information of all sorts.  The book sounds fascinating and I plan to check it out. I love how your curiosity took you there and how you were paying attention all the time. I'm into Gothic cathedrals and as I research the middle ages, I find myself asking, "Where are the Jewish people?" By staying alert, I manage to find out a few things but not in the regular places, that's for sure.

  • Rebecca Coffey

    Thanks Clene. If you read it, I'll be interested in hearing what you think. Good luck with your writing. It looks like you're up tot quite a lot!