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Rebecca Coffey: On Sigmund Freud’s Relationship with His Lesbian Daughter Anna and Using Fiction to Explore the Truth

Rebecca Coffey: On Sigmund Freud’s Relationship with His Lesbian Daughter Anna and Using Fiction to Explore the Truth

Author: Joan Lipkin

August 25, 2014

On May 13, 2014 She Writes Press published Rebecca Coffey’s latest book, Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story which has been getting very positive reviews. Booklist called it “complexly entertaining, sexually dramatic, [and] acidly funny”; Lambda Literary said it’s “got a plot so rife with tension it’ll make you squirm.” And Oprah’s magazine recommended it in its June 2014 issue.

By day Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist, making nationally televised documentaries, reporting for Scientific American, Discover and, contributing to Vermont Public Radio and Progressive Voices Radio, and writing nonfiction books about violence and society. In researching her 1998 book Unspeakable Truths and Happy Endings: Human Cruelty and the New Trauma Therapy, Coffey investigated the history of modern psychology’s approach to tales of terrifying events. In that vein she read Sigmund Freud’s work, and from there stumbled upon a deeply buried side story.

Fortunately, by night Coffey is a novelist and humorist, and it was to her night work that Coffey brought her discovery. Last May, She Writes Press published Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story, which tells the fact-based tale of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis of his own lesbian daughter. Coffey explains that the novel is called Hysterical partly because Anna’s coming of age was informed by the hysteria epidemic that had swept Western Europe twenty or so years earlier. Also, in Hysterical, Anna maintains her sanity during confrontations with Sigmund by drawing on the wellspring of Jewish humor that the family was known to savor.

Playwright and theatre director Joan Lipkin sat down with Rebecca to go backstage on the genesis of this hot book and its content.

Let’s start with the big question. Anna Freud was Sigmund’s favorite child, the one who became his chief sounding board and collaborator, who led the Freud dynasty after he died, and who never publicly contradicted his theories, including his homophobic attitude towards lesbians. Why do you think Anna was a lesbian?

While I was giving myself an education in all things Freud. I read his original works as well Ernest Jones’ three-volume authorized biography, some unauthorized biographies, some book-length portraits of family, patients, and friends, and many criticisms of Freud’s theories. I was distinctly uncharmed by Ernest Jones’ three-volume set. It was as unremittingly adoring of Freud as The Lives of the Saints had been of holy men back in the 1800s. The unauthorized biographies were only slightly less disappointing because most were written by psychoanalysts whose credibility depends on Freud’s continuing good name. The portraits of family and friends written by historian Paul Roazen were much more revealing.

At some point as I read all of these books I realized that a pattern had emerged about one name. It was “Dorothy Burlingham,” who was usually called “Anna’s lifelong friend,” and then never any more information was given about her. That seemed odd, for those same books could go on for pages about people far more trivial to the Freud entourage than a lifelong friend of Anna’s would have been. Then I noticed that aunties and the like seemed to offer apologetic explanations for why Anna never married, telling stories about this man or that man with whom Anna never quite gelled. It began to sound like what my own mother used to say about my lesbian cousin. Finally, in a Foreword to one of his books, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, the former projects director at the Freud Archives, told his story of working at the Freud Museum, the house in Hampstead where the Freuds had lived after fleeing Hitler and where Dorothy and Anna still lived as very old ladies. Masson is a self-professed gourmet of gossip, and he didn’t hesitate to ask the maid if the two women shared a bedroom. The maid had been with Dorothy since Anna and Dorothy met. She assured Masson that each woman had her own room but were flexible about where they slept. That was the point at which I began to suspect I had a novel in the making.

And when did you become sure?

When I read Paul Roazen’s disclosure that Sigmund had analyzed Anna, alarm bells went off in my head. Remember, I was in the middle of researching a book about psychological trauma, which of course includes incest. And I knew that Sigmund had defined psychoanalysis as an erotic relationship—not just incidentally, but essentially. The romantic longing that the patient forms for the analyst and that the analyst reciprocates are the stuff of Freudian psychoanalysis. They are analyzed in an attempt to discern what went on in the family many years before. So I had the frightening realization that Freud had intentionally initiated erotic feelings between himself and his daughter, while believing that all those feelings could possibly illuminate were earlier erotic feelings between them.

What was that psychoanalysis like?

It depends on whom you ask. Freudian psychoanalysts have long insisted that it was only a teaching analysis; he was showing her tricks of the trade. Yeah, well . . . five nights a week for several years? The Freud Archives, which owns the copyright to Sigmund’s and Anna’s papers, keeps references to that analysis sealed. (It has also sealed the correspondence between Dorothy and Anna.) But both Sigmund and Anna left huge clues. Sigmund wrote a paper called “A Child is Being Beaten” describing his analysis of a girl whose masturbatory fantasies since childhood were of a child being beaten by a man for a mistake over which the child had no control. A few years later when Anna wanted to be admitted to the International Psychoanalytic Association she needed to present a case study. She hadn’t yet analyzed anyone, so she presented a paper called “Beating Fantasies and Daydreams” describing both the child Sigmund had written about and the fantasy. They hadn’t analyzed the same child. Sigmund had analyzed Anna, and Anna had presented her own self-analysis.

And, indeed, in bits of Anna’s correspondence that have been made available to scholars she describes a life of erotic beating fantasies that match those described by her father. The child in her fantasies, Anna apparently knew, represented her. And the man, I hope she knew, represented her father, who in analysis, anyway, figuratively beat her nightly for the “mistake” of her lesbianism.

You say in Hysterical that Dorothy and Anna were a couple for 54 years and raised a family together. With the Freud Archives keeping the record sealed it’s probably safe to assume that neither Sigmund nor Anna wanted her lesbianism or the analysis to be made public. Why did you decide to “out” them.

For starters, Sigmund and Anna Freud were enmeshed in the prejudices of a different world, one in which lesbianism was still thought of as a hysterical illness. And while Sigmund had helped create those prejudices, he was apparently capable of learning. As Anna steadily loved Dorothy and incorporated her into the Freud family, Sigmund’s attitude shifted, at least privately. In response to people’s questions about Anna and Dorothy he could shrug and mutter that they were fine, people should just let them be. Anna though, in her professional life, became not nearly as sanguine about homosexuals as I would have thought. She conducted conversion therapies, and in 1956 remarked to a journalist that “nowadays we can cure many more homosexuals than was thought possible in the beginning.”

That is very curious. Can you say more?

I have no way to explain the disconnect between her private life and her professional attitudes other than to use one of her own ideas. In her book Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense she described “Identification with the Oppressor,” which is more commonly known these days as “Stockholm Syndrome.” It’s ironic, if it’s true, but it may be that Anna took on Sigmund’s prejudice about lesbians while freeing him from his own.

Now, to get to why I felt free to “out” Sigmund and Anna: Hysterical is Anna’s fact-based, fictional autobiography. It’s about her whole life, though in its largest part it’s the story of Sigmund’s attempt to convert her from lesbianism. Gay conversion therapy is practiced to this day, albeit increasingly only by marginal therapists. But it remains enormously harmful. And it is practiced in part because Sigmund’s definitions of what a man is and what a woman is have persisted. These days some young people aren’t even sure who Sigmund Freud was (much less Anna). But if they are burdened in any way by antiquated ideas about what is normal and moral in sexuality, I want them to see the “man behind the curtain” as the imperfect person that he was. Anna’s analysis is the quintessential example of his imperfections.

Yes, he has such a legacy that it is important to get to some of the primary influences behind reparative therapy. It is fascinating that you portray an inappropriate and coercive analysis between father and daughter while still in a sense honoring the dignity of the father.

I eased my way by trying to make Sigmund very human and by highlighting how fear and confusion from his own past motivated him. I made sure that the words “A Novel” would be plain on the front cover, and I emphasized in the Authors Note that I had taken my responsibilities as a novelist to simplify, magnify, and create fun to heart. Remember, no one paid attention to Paul Roazen when he revealed the improper analysis, because reading nonfiction about Freud is just no fun. Hysterical is classic fact-based fiction, and while it’s dead serious it’s also funny. I hope that “funny” helps get the message out.

Joan Lipkin photo

About: Joan Lipkin

Joan Lipkin is a playwright, director, educator and social activist who divides her time between New York City, St Louis and other parts of the country. Her work is published in Best American Short Plays, Amazon All Stars: 13 Lesbian Plays, Mythic Women/Real Women: New Plays and Performance Pieces, Upstaging Big Daddy: Directing Theatre as if Race and Gender Matter, Here Come the Brides: Tales of Lesbian Love and Marriage and numerous other anthologies. The co-producer of the Briefs Festival of Short LGBTQ Plays, she is the recipient of many awards including a Visionary, the James F. Hornbeck Ethical Humanist of the Year, Women and Theatre Achievement for Activism and Performance, and Arts Innovator of the Year.

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