Thursday, June 20, 2013

Freud’s Mistress, by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman. Amy Einhorn Books, 2013

Freud has never been one of my favorite people from history; while I respect his genius in discovering the subconscious mind, conversion, and talk therapy, I never thought a lot of him as a person. He seemed egotistical and argumentative, dropping associates if they disagreed with him. All images I saw were of him as an older man, already bald, smoking a cigar. I knew nothing about his personal life. This historical novel shows us a younger man, one who could be charming when he wished to be. Sadly, he didn’t often wish to be.

The novel is told from the POV of Minna Bernays, sister to Martha Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s wife. Minna had spent her days working variously as governess or ladies companion; when she loses her job and knows she will get no good recommendation she goes to her sister’s house to stay for awhile. While she fears she’s a financial burden, both the Freud’s assure her she’s not, especially as she takes over the care of the six children for Martha, who was still recovering from the birth of her last child. It was at this time that the intellectual Minna became close to Sigmund, who seemed to respect and value her opinions, talking with her in his home office late into the night- something he did not do with is wife, who he treated as a servant. Minna becomes enamored of Sigmund, on both mental and physical levels. With Martha either in bed in pain or busy with errands and housework all the time, it is easy to see how an affair could start even in these close quarters. Minna tries, unsuccessfully, to leave, but Sigmund soon brings her back, with her sister’s blessing.

Not much is known about the real life Minna, but in the late 19th century, women didn’t have many choices in life. Women of Minna’s class would either marry or become a ladies companion or a governess, those offices which place the woman in the no-woman’s land of not being ‘good enough’ to be family but being ‘too genteel’ to be a true servant, leaving the woman with few, if any, people to associate freely with. Minna would have most likely have been lonely before she came to live with the Freuds, having had neither affection nor intellectual stimulation from her former employers. Perhaps this would have led her to fall for the first person to ask her opinion on something other than knitting or the ABCs? Or perhaps Sigmund was just that magnetic when he wished to charm someone- he’d charmed many before Minna, and would go on to charm many more, as friends, associates, and, presumably, lovers, before they disagreed with him or he got bored. The authors state right out that there is no completely solid proof Minna and Sigmund had a sexual relationship, but it was rumored during their lives and in 2006 proof was found in a resort hotel register that they had stayed there for several days as husband and wife. In those days, no upper class person would have done that just to avoid springing for a second hotel room!

In some ways, I found the story wonderful. The authors evoked fin-de-siecle Vienna in sights, sounds, smells and flavors; reading the book is an immersive experience. Minna’s life at the Freud’s feels claustrophobic; I could feel her confusion as she tried to figure out the right thing to do. But the book drags in places. I’m sure that the affair is something that Minna would have agonized over, but so many words were devoted to that agonizing that it became tedious. I think the book would have been better had it been a bit shorter. I enjoyed the ending and their version of what Martha might have thought about the whole thing.

Sadly, my opinion of Sigmund Freud as a human being didn’t improve- it actually got worse. 

I received this book from the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest, unbiased review. 

The above is an associate link. If you click through and buy the book, Amazon will give me a tiny amount of money. 

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