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‘Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story’ by Rebecca Coffey

‘Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story’ by Rebecca Coffey

Author: Sara Rauch

April 13, 2014

Almost everyone, interested in psychology or not, knows who Sigmund Freud was, but I’d venture to guess that fewer people, unless they’ve studied psychoanalytic child psychology, know who Anna Freud was. I certainly didn’t, until Rebecca Coffey’s new book, Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story (She Writes Press), landed in my lap.

Anna Freud was Sigmund Freud’s youngest daughter. She was devoted to him: his collaborator, companion, and nurse; as Coffey points out in her introduction, she “never stopped parroting [his] ideas.” Anna was also a lesbian, and while not “out” in the modern use of the term, she spent five decades in a relationship with another woman, Dorothy Burlingham, a woman she co-mothered children with. If you know Freudian theory, you know Freud considered lesbianism a gateway to mental illness (and always the fault of the father). You might also know that due to what Freud considered an “inherently erotic relationship” between analyst and analysand, it was strictly verboten to engage in psychoanalysis with a family member. Despite this decree, Freud analyzed Anna during two distinct parts of her young adulthood. Neither of these “humps” (as Coffey terms them) has been given much attention in biographies of Sigmund Freud, or in the few biographies of Anna. Add to this the fact that Anna’s papers and diaries remain under the control of the Freud Archives and it’s pretty easy to deduce that history and politics have rendered Anna’s true voice relatively silent. Coffey, admirably, has set out to change that.

Though fiction, Hysterical is structured as an autobiography, with Anna’s voice assuming the narration. It’s an interesting trick, and one Coffey pulls off quite well—she captures Anna’s formality, smart but plain spoken, straightforward to the point of creating emotional distance, and occasionally so hyper-aware and unaware in the same moment that it grates.

Like a therapy session, Hysterical tunnels very deeply into Anna’s childhood experiences—thoughts, events, dreams, fantasies—and like a therapy session, the facets of what are revealed are at times disturbing and uncomfortable. Add to all that the inherent struggle between Sigmund and Anna, which twists and deepens as they both age, especially as Anna comes into her sexuality, and you’ve got a plot so rife with tension it’ll make you squirm.

Hysterical is rife with sexualities, Anna’s, her mother’s and father’s, patients’, siblings’—it seems that no person who came into contact with the Freuds was exempt. A lot of time is spent exploring Anna’s transgendered fantasies (though transgendered is a modern term I’m imposing on them, not one she uses). If you’re interested in the secret life of fantasies and dream sequences, these will interest you; if you aren’t, it’s tempting to gloss over them the way you do when a friend says over coffee: I had the most interesting dream last night. The dream or fantasy might be curious in and of itself, but for Anna, like for her father, there’s much more layered beneath the surface. And dig she does.

Hysterical also contains some incredibly riveting passages about various analysands of Freud’s—people whose deviant natures stuck with Anna, probably because she sympathized in some way with them—and some funny parts, jokes and other bits that provoke a laugh even while you feel slightly (or profoundly) disturbed. And while there is a strong emphasis on Anna’s childhood and coming of age, Coffey leads the reader through Anna’s young adulthood, her decision to become a teacher and from there an analyst and advocate for children, her first love, her “coming out,” and her life with Dorothy Burlingham.

Those with an interest in Freud, the history of psychology or psychoanalysis, and/or the history of gayness as “illness” will find this book a necessary and enjoyable addition to the literature. Hysterical approaches its subject with remarkable, even agile, tenderness and understanding—Coffey gives Anna a voice, one that history has thus far not allowed her.


Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story
By Rebecca Coffey
She Writes Press
Paperback, 9781938314421, 360 pp.
May 2014

Sara Rauch photo

About: Sara Rauch

Sara Rauch is the author of WHAT SHINES FROM IT. She lives in western Massachusetts with her family.

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