Sigmund Freud’s 150th birthday is May 6, and kitsch sellers are making full use of the occasion. On its web site, the American Psycholoanalytic Association sells beverage coasters (they call them “table defenses”), each with a mug shot of Freud. The web site’s “Many Moods of Freud” T-shirt shows the same mug shot. The T-shirt, though, repeats it nine times with nine different mood captions: ecstatic, depressed, surprised, cautious, love struck, angry, hysterical, confused, and happy.
At Whackyplanet.com there’s a Sigmund Freud action figure for sale. Ask around at a few stores during May and you’re sure to find a Persian rug mousepad.
Is Sigmund Freud a Joke?
It’s hard to know for sure. One hundred fifty years into the legend, nearly everything we know about Freud seems to have been refracted through trick mirrors, making it hard nowadays to see anything but a funhouse-quality grotesquerie. In the 1960’s Masters and Johnson debunked Freud’s distinction between clitoral and vaginal orgasms. Ever since then, feminists have shot his ideas about women all to hell. In his time, however, Freud was much more than a buffoon on a beverage coaster. He was one of the major shapers of modern thought. His ideas were so breathtaking, his influence so pandemic, that W. H. Auden aptly described him as not a person but “a whole climate of opinion.”
Whence the deterioration of Freud’s reputation? Surely it isn’t just the passage of time. For, even though science has marched steadily onward, we all still think highly of Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei. The guffaws that we reserve for Freud can’t even be blamed on his fascination with sex. Witness the reputations of Jean-Martin Charcôt and Pierre Janet and even those of William Masters and Virginia Johnson; they remain pretty untarnished. Even Alfred Kinsey, with a major motion picture exposing his personal pecadillos, gets more respect these days than Sigmund Freud.
But then, as far as we know, Alfred Kinsey did not have an erotic relationship with his own daughter. As far as we can guess, Sigmund Freud did.
It seems to have happened behind closed doors, in psychoanalytic sessions.
The Freud Family Skeleton
Anna Freud was born in 1895 and lived until 1982. Unlike her two sisters and three brothers, she never married. Instead, beginning in her mid teens, she became Freud’s pupil of sorts. By her early adulthood she was his nearly constant companion and, eventually, his closest collaborator. As Freud’s cigar habit led to cancer and cancer surgeries increasingly debilitated him, Anna began tending physically to her father day and night. This arrangement continued until Freud’s death, when Anna assumed the mantle of the head of the psychoanalytic movement and carried his psychoanalytic seed forward into the world. Ultimately, Anna became a pioneer in the field of child psychoanalysis, doing truly groundbreaking work with war orphans and with children traumatized by violence and neglect.
Anna was inarguably her father’s favorite daughter. Freud’s intellectual descendents readily concede that point. What most Freudians don’t concede is that there was anything inappropriate in Anna’s relationship with her father. For the longest time, most didn’t have cause to.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Paul Roazen, a political scientist and historian of the development of psychoanalysis, stumbled upon an immense skeleton in the Freud family closet. Even though Freud defined analysis as an erotic relationship laden with transference (the inevitable desire of the patient for the analyst) and countertransference (the inevitable, reciprocal desire of the analyst for the patient), Freud analyzed Anna. He did so for two periods, one beginning in 1918 and continuing for almost four years and one beginning in 1924 and continuing for almost two years.
Roazen published his discovery in 1969 in Brother Animal, a book that raised serious questions about Freud's role in the bizarre suicide of one of his most brilliant pupils. To say the least, the book was not heartily embraced by the psychoanalytic community.
So while, beginning in about 1969, some people within the psychoanalytic community surely knew about the illicit analysis, for the most part, that community treated Roazen's views—and news—with scorn. It wasn’t until 1988 that news of the improper analysis officially “broke” within the psychoanalytic community itself. In Anna Freud: A Biography, Psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Breuehl described the analysis without commenting on its propriety or lack thereof. On the other hand, that same year in Freud: A Life for Our Times, Peter Gay (a historian with no professional allegiance to Freud’s ideas) called that particular psychoanalysis “a most irregular preceding,” and Freud’s decision to analyze Anna, “a calculated flouting of the rules he had lain down with such force and precision.”
Indeed, again and again Freud had cautioned his colleagues about the rules. “Never, ever try this at home” is essentially what he said about psychoanalysis and families.
Questions for Freud
Both Gay and Young-Bruehl named the analyses primary topic: Anna’s masturbation fantasies, which were frequent, violent, and masochistic. Anna had been masturbating to what she called “beating fantasies” since about age six. The earlier fantasies took different forms and had vaguely defined protagonists and antagonists. Now that she was an adult, the fantasies were clearly about Anna. She imagined herself a young man being held captive by a knight who tried to force her to betray “family secrets.” Even though the youth never made a whole-hearted attempt to escape from the knight, he refused to blab. The youth was always beaten by the thoroughly enraged knight.
When Freud first analyzed Anna, he seems to have done so with the objective of relieving her of her habit of masturbating—a habit that he considered masculine in nature and therefore dangerously inappropriate for females. But was Freud concerned about more than just the masturbating? Anna had not married; she’d never even dated. In the beating fantasies that she discussed with her father she played the role of a male (albeit a male in a homoerotic relationship with another male). Was Freud also concerned about a general tendency in Anna towards masculinity? And was Anna indeed struggling with questions of sexual preference when she first entered analysis with her father?
In 1922 Anna and Freud mutually terminated Anna’s analysis; although the record is unclear about why they chose to do so, the frequency of Anna’s masturbating may have diminished. Regardless, by 1924 she was again masturbating regularly—and enjoying it immensely. “I am impressed by how unchangeable and forceful and alluring such a daydream [of the young man held captive by the knight] is, even when it has been—like my poor one—pulled apart, analyzed, published, and in every way mishandled and mistreated,” Anna wrote to her friend, the novelist and femme fatale, Lou Andreas-Salomé. “I know that it is really shameful … but it [is] very beautiful.”
And so, in 1924, Anna reentered analysis with her father.
Also in 1924, Anna met an American woman, Dorothy Burlingham, heir to the Tiffany fortune. Almost immediately, Dorothy and her four children took up permanent residence in Vienna. Soon enough they moved into an apartment in the same building as that of the Freud family. Anna moved many of her personal items out of her family’s apartment and into Dorothy’s. Dorothy and Anna began vacationing together. They bought a small house in the country together. Eventually Dorothy began referring to Anna as the second mother to her children.
Almost any concerned father of Freud’s day would have hoped that his daughter would marry and have a family. So Freud may be forgiven for at least wanting Anna to be analyzed in 1924, given the fact that she was about to turn 30, her biological clock was ticking, she was masturbating again and aplenty, and her sexual fantasies were not classically “boy meets girl, boy marries girl, girl has children” ones. Freud may also have been especially interested in analyzing Anna once Dorothy entered the picture and the apartment building.
But given that Freud knew that analysis was always erotically charged, why didn’t he refer Anna to a colleague for analysis? By his own theorizing, if his daughter were a lesbian, mistakes that he had made as a father were the cause of that trouble. Was Freud too worried about his personal reputation to let a colleague talk frankly with Anna? Was he hoping that, as Anna’s analyst, he could quietly rectify any “problems” he had “caused”—and help her refuse a life that would speak embarrassingly about his failings?
And just how erotic did things get in the nearly six years of analysis between Sigmund and Anna Freud?
No doubt, an answer to the question about incestuous overtones in the father-daughter psychoanalytic relationship would be easier to improvise if Anna’s sexual fantasies had demonstrably changed over the course of the analyses in a way that invited speculation. But they didn’t. Anna continued on with her “young man meets knight, young man gets imprisoned by knight, young man doesn’t actually try to escape from knight, young man gets beaten by knight and Anna has an orgasm” fantasy life.
Anna, however, was hardly the only significant party to the analysis. Surely her father’s thoughts, feelings, and fantasies were tugged thither and yon in all of that transference and countertransference. Does evidence exist suggesting how Freud himself was affected? Changed?
Certainly we know nothing about his sexual fantasies during that period or any changes in them. We do know, however, about his theories about women, and those did change, significantly, during the years of his analyses of Anna. Or at least two theories did.
During the six years in which Freud analyzed Anna, he redefined penis envy as the major factor in a woman’s sexual development and he redefined masochism as an expression of female nature.
Way back when Anna was 10 years old, Freud had first theorized about penis envy, but back then he had framed the concept rather innocently. In 1905’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality Freud had sounded neither pejorative nor terribly informative about a girl’s supposed desire for a penis of her own. He said that all little boys assume that everyone has a penis. When presented with evidence to the contrary they deny the absence that they behold. Little girls, on the other hand, do not resort to denial. They immediately recognize that a boy's genital is bigger than a girl's and they want one more like the one that boys have. Penis envy as described in 1905 was much like the envy that any child with a small scooter might have for another child with a large tricycle. For a child size always matters.
Even as a little girl, Anna had been a precocious thinker, so independent that her father’s letters to friends were proudly speckled with anecdotes about her feral ways. As a young woman, she remained unconventional and forward-thinking. Other girls looked forward to lives as homemakers. Anna did not. She wanted to know about analysis. She wanted to meet analysts, breathe analysis. She wanted to discuss ideas.
However, once Freud took 23-year-old Anna into analysis and the inevitable web of sexual attractions were woven, Anna grew emotionally dependent on her father, more than she had ever been before. While they were briefly separated in 1920, she wrote to Freud, “You surely can’t imagine how much I continually think of you.” Around the same period, Freud’s letters to friends began including concerns about Anna’s increasingly unshakable attachment to him. In 1921, he wrote to his Berlin colleague, Max Eitington, “I wish that she would soon find reason to exchange her attachment to her old father for a more durable one.”
It was in 1925 that Freud published an elaboration of his original theory of penis envy. He said, essentially, that the moment at which a girl first discovers her lack of a penis is a moment of ineradicable psychic trauma. From that single moment on the girl will want a penis. As she matures, however, she will realize that she can never under any circumstances grow one. Hoping, then, for second best, she will begin to desire her father's penis. Because she knows that incest is taboo, the girl's desire for her father's penis will be wrapped in shame. She will eventually sublimate her desire for her father’s penis into a desire for a child. To fulfill her obsession to have children throughout her childbearing years she will need to secure and retain a man.
Freud believed that boys build their moral sense from a fear that their fathers might castrate rather than spank them. A girl, however, has no penis to lose to her father’s rage and therefore no good incentive to develop moral virtue. Whatever virtuous behavior she will manage to exhibit will derive from her quest to catch and maintain the man who can provide her with cute and cuddly penis substitutes. Or so said Freud, roughly.
By Freud’s own understanding of the erotic tangle that psychoanalysis creates, each session of Anna’s six-night-a-week psychoanalysis was one in which she and her father/analyst sexually desired each other. There seems no reason not to assume that each of them conducted themselves admirably in spite of the abundant opportunity the privacy of analysis gave them to transgress almost any boundary imaginable. Rather, there is every reason to assume that they went through whatever machinations were necessary to avoid acting on whatever desire they felt. It seems probable that their actual behavior was impeccable, and this in spite of the fact that the nightly topic of conversation (the youth, the knight, the youth’s curious failure to escape, and, oh, that inevitable beating) probably fed the general level of agitation in the room.
Plain English: However innocent its beginnings, Freud’s theory about penis envy and a girl’s overwhelming desire for her father’s penis may be based only minimally on observable phenomena in girls and young women in general. More profoundly, it might be about Freud’s own daughter and Freud’s own penis.
In 1905’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality Freud also first discussed masochism, observing that certain people require physical or mental pain in order to achieve sexual satisfactions. Unequivocally he called masochism a perversion.
Then, in a 1919 paper called "A Child is Being Beaten," Freud normalized masochism, suggesting that sometimes masochistic elements in childhood sexual fantasies are but sexual representations of underlying feelings of guilt. Freud based "A Child is Being Beaten" on his analysis of the masochistic fantasies of two boys and four girls. However, one child’s case material made up the lion’s share of the paper’s documentary evidence.
That “child” was Anna. The fantasies were the childhood versions of her adult beating fantasies. We know this because, three years later, Anna described the same child and the same fantasies in "Beating Fantasies and Daydreams," her first psychoanalytic paper ever. (In "Beating Fantasies and Daydreams," Anna referred to the child as a patient of hers. However, as psychoanalyst and historian Elisabeth Young-Bruehl pointed out in her 1988 biography of Anna, the conceit is transparent. The “patient” must have been Anna herself, for it would be another six months before Anna began psychoanalyzing anyone.)
Then, in 1924, Freud elaborated on masochism, suggesting for the first time that it is quintessentially feminine to find pleasure in pain—indeed that masochism is “an expression of the feminine nature.”
To his credit, there is no evidence that Freud based his 1924 idea of feminine masochism mostly on his analysis of Anna. Regardless, he did write it during his analysis of her. So it seems fair to ask: To what degree did his analysis of Anna convince Freud that masochism is characteristically female? Keep in mind that Freud, a self-described “conquistador” of the inner world, required Anna to recline on the couch six nights a week while he psychologically teased her apart. Keep in mind also that she complied.
Keep in mind that the young man in Anna’s beating fantasies never once tried to escape the pleasure of the knight.
All The King’s Horses and All The King’s Men
Shortly after Anna’s second bout of analysis came to an end, she went on to cohabit happily ever after with Dorothy. Evidently, even the king of psychoanalytic persuasion could not dictate to his daughter whom and how she would love. Freud seems to have grudgingly accepted Anna and Dorothy’s relationship. In his correspondence with friends he referred to them both fondly as “virgins” but, as the years passed, stopped wishing for the day that Anna would marry. Following Freud’s suit, over the years, friends and family and even Freud’s most doctrinaire adherents acknowledged Anna and Dorothy’s relationship as intimate and exclusive. However, no one but the maid ever hinted that it was sexual. (According to Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson, the former Projects Director of the Freud Archives, Anna and Dorothy’s maid told him that they “shared a bedroom” from time to time.)
Surely, during Anna’s second analysis, Freud sensed that he was losing the battle for Anna’s future. If so, he may have used with Anna the word “hysteria.” It was the diagnosis that doctors of his day sometimes gave to women whose sexual preferences wandered intractably from the straight and narrow.
One can only hope that, if Freud did label Anna an hysteric, he did not personally practice with her one of the era’s most common medical treatments for hysteria. It was the direct and prolonged application of massage by the doctor to the external genitalia of the patient. The massage continued until the patient reached orgasm.
Although the patients undoubtedly enjoyed the treatments, doctors sometimes complained that they were boring to administer. Indeed, as the use of electricity became widespread in cities, one inventive doctor treating a plethora of female hysterics developed the electric vibrator. While it probably didn’t “cure” his hysterical patients, no doubt it did reduce for him the risk of repetitive stress injuries in his wrists and hands.
Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious
1905, the year in which Freud first wrote about masochism and penis envy, was the first time he’d written in broad strokes about sexuality in general. Perhaps not coincidentally, that same year, Freud also wrote about humor. In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, he suggested that jokes, like dreams, symbolically express unacceptable sexual impulses.
In other words, dreams are the sexual secrets that we tell ourselves at night. Jokes are the ones we tell each other at parties.
In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud also wrote about laughter. He said that it’s the ejaculative emotional response that comes when a joke sets up an exquisite tension and then relives it with a surprise.
So now we know why we laugh at Freud. When one first reads Freud, one is impressed at the breadth of his curiosity and at his command of language. We admire Freud and we envy him. We want the ability to wonder as Freud wondered and articulate the precocious questions he dared to ask. Our regard for him grows almost unbearably as we browse through his works and then through tome after tome written by admirers with impressive credentials. And then, finally, suddenly, we learn just enough, perhaps about the history of psychoanalysis or about his comportment with various female patients or about the skeleton in the Freud family closet to begin to realize that we’ve been “had” in a grand way. Surprise! The tension breaks and with it comes laughter.
150 years after Sigmund Freud’s birth the laughter is coming in waves. Steadily, increasingly, Sigmund Freud seems funny. Indeed, funny Freud merchandise may be this May’s real growth industry.