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Writers Analyze Freud: Engaging Reviews by Hustvedt, Boyt, and Others
Sigmund Freud’s patient’s couch is on show at the Freud Museum. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Spare a thought for Ida Bauer. The 17-year-old entered Freud’s consulting room with a slew of symptoms—fainting spells, pains, a hoarse cough, and breathlessness. She confided in Freud that her father’s friend Herr K had begun making advances toward her at the age of 13. Bauer revealed she had even slapped Herr K on one occasion for his inappropriate behavior. Herr K’s actions might have been a twisted form of retribution, as Bauer’s father had been involved with Herr K’s wife.

Freud, however, disagreed with her account, suggesting instead that she actually wanted to be seduced by Herr K—and, disturbingly, by Freud himself. It’s no surprise that Bauer terminated her therapy after just three months. Cartoonist and editor Sarah Boxer writes about this in her essay, describing Freud’s treatment of Bauer as “Ground zero for ‘No means yes.’”

The world knows Ida Bauer by the pseudonym Dora, a name Freud assigned her in his 1905 case study on hysteria. In this study, Freud played the unreliable narrator donning the mask of a sober scientist, while Dora was depicted merely as a collection of symptoms, voiceless and without agency. Freud once posed the question, “What does a woman want?” But his writings suggest he already assumed he knew.

Novelist Sheila Kohler, in her essay, revisits “Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” She, though impressed by Freud’s narrative abilities, expresses her outrage: “I was appalled by the therapist’s role here, Freud’s bullying tone, his insistence on his assumptions. How dare he insist this girl was in love with Herr K?”

Despite the criticisms, Freud’s daring approach has ensured his name persists in both academic and popular discourse 85 years after his death. As Adam Phillips wrote in his introduction to “The Penguin Freud Reader,” “Our desire, when it is not solely the struggle for survival, is essentially… a desire for something forbidden.” This perspective on human desire suggests that Freud’s controversial hypotheses may still hold water. We cannot know for certain how Ida Bauer herself felt, as her voice remains absent.

Women’s voices in this collection offer a rich tapestry of viewpoints. Susie Boyt shares her anxious experience of spending a night in London’s Freud Museum, fretting about being monitored by CCTV to ensure she didn’t sit on her great-grandfather’s fragile couch. Ultimately, she finds some rest in Anna Freud’s bed.

Then there’s Jennifer Finney Boylan, who fiercely critiques Freud’s thesis on penis envy from the perspective of a transgender woman who is content with having transitioned.

Yet, one voice remains conspicuously absent. Daphne Merkin, in her essay “Searching for Martha Freud,” acknowledges that Martha Freud, Sigmund’s wife, took “the mystery of who she was” with her when she died 12 years after her husband.

This book, orchestrated by literary agent Andrew Blauner, assembles 25 of his favorite authors to reflect on Freud. Blauner has a talent for curating themed collections: his previous works include “The Peanuts Papers” and “Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference.”

The resulting compilation is a delightful assortment of essays. There are meditations on Freud’s dogs, poignant glimpses into trauma, and reflections from both analysands and analysts on the significance of their therapeutic journeys. Peter D. Kramer reflects on his early years as a Freudian psychiatrist, questioning whether his methods might have harmed patients, yet acknowledging that his rigorous listening and restraint likely served many well.

Why continue to examine Freud’s methods? Despite his Victorian views on women, homosexuality, and other subjects, which now seem antiquated, contemporary advocates, particularly women, argue for his continued relevance. Sociologist Sherry Turkle calls for a return to Freud to counter our age of inauthenticity, where we are reduced to mere datasets devoid of inner richness.

Novelist Siri Hustvedt concludes the book with praise for Freud’s talking cure. She emphasizes that a therapist allows room for narratives that others may find uncomfortable, responding without judgment. This contrasts sharply with Freud’s approach to Ida Bauer, but Hustvedt’s point stands: “In the room, the details of a person’s life stories are crucial, not incidental. The person is not reduced to his brain, genome, or diagnosis.” This insight explains why writers and artists, if not all scientists, are still drawn to Freud’s work.

Hustvedt notably uses “she” for the analyst and “he” for the analysand, suggesting that contemporary Freudian analysis is often conducted by women on men, a reversal that hints at a more attentive and empathetic practice.

  • On the Couch: Writers Analyze Sigmund Freud, edited by Andrew Blauner, is published by Princeton University Press (£25).

Source: Guardian