Some facts about my mother’s family and its ties to Sigmund Freud are indisputable. There’s no question that my great uncle, Siegmund Kornmehl, had a kosher butcher shop downstairs from Freud’s home and offices at 19 Berggasse in Vienna and that he sold meat to Freud’s wife.
Other facets of the family relationship to the father of psychoanalysis are a little less clear cut.
Along with the story about her uncle’s butcher shop, my mother also told me that her cousin Stella — daughter of another of the eight Kornmehl siblings — had been sent to see Dr. Freud. Stella had a limp of unknown origin, one that didn’t respond to physical treatment. Hoping that the condition was psychosomatic, Stella’s parents decided to seek out the talking cure for their daughter as a last resort.
This tale always led me to assume that Freud was considered a kind of faith healer in Vienna, only without the religious faith. But now that I’ve looked into the matter a bit, that doesn’t seem very likely.
Vienna Did Not ♥ Freud
According to an excellent essay by Lilian Furst, “Freud and Vienna”:
Throughout his life Freud enjoyed a far higher reputation beyond Vienna than in his adopted hometown. Most members of his circle came to him from elsewhere… Viennese adherents to psychoanalysis were decidedly in the minority.
And as Freud’s biographer Peter Gay put it in his introduction to Berggasse 19: Sigmund Freud’s Home and Offices, Vienna, 1938: The Photographs of Edmund Engelman:
Guidebooks and leaflets advertising the city barely mention Freud’s name. The public indifference, the latent hostility, are chilling…. Vienna, it seems, has largely repressed Freud.
The odds, then, that concepts like psychosomatic illness were part of Viennese popular discourse at the beginning of last century seem pretty slim. Moreover, Freud was very busy with his prestigious foreign patients and visitors — far too busy to see every local with an unexplained physical ailment, especially a minor one.
I have no reason to doubt my mother’s story, although I know for a fact that Freud didn’t cure cousin Stella’s limp. When I met Stella in Vienna, decades later, she still had a draggy leg.
This raises several questions: Why would Freud have agreed to see Stella? Surely not because she was the niece of his butcher. Did he have other ties to my mother’s family? Was Stella’s father, David Schmerling, a member of the same B’nai B’rith lodge where Freud presented many of his seminal papers on the workings of the mind because Austrian anti-Semitism kept him from university podiums?
And where did my mother come by her notions of Freud’s theories? She was a seamstress in Vienna, a young woman with roughly the equivalent of a high school education. She was intelligent, but far from intellectual. Would Jews in Vienna have been more aware of Freud’s ideas than gentiles — or only Jews whose relatives had businesses in Freud’s building?
A Freudian Nonslip
My mother’s knowledge of Freud — or at least her interpretation of his ideas — became particularly relevant to me in the late 1970s, when I joined a therapy group designed to deal with the impact of the Holocaust on the next generation. The group later became the basis of the book Children of the Holocaust: conversations with sons and daughters of survivors by Helen Epstein. To paraphrase my mother’s reaction to the news that I was getting involved with psychotherapy: “So you’re going to talk about me and tell everyone how everything that’s wrong with you is all my fault?”
As it happens, nothing could have been further from the truth. It was as a result of the group that I stopped blaming my mother for everything that was wrong with me. I gained a profound sympathy — and respect — for the timorous young woman who was forced to leave her parents and the only home she knew and flee to a strange country, alone, almost broke, barely knowing the language. Yes, my mother was overprotective and, often, critical. But she did the best she could and, given her circumstances, that best was pretty damned good.
Freud may not have cured cousin Stella’s limp, but psychotherapy helped me throw off the crutch of anger that had long kept me from seeing my mother clearly.
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