Did Freud Sleep With His Sister-in-Law?

Did Freud Sleep With His Sister-in-Law?

Today, I’m pleased not only to return to Freud Friday after a long absence but also to give you a double header: On my friend Vera Marie Badertscher’s excellent A Traveler’s Library site, I review Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman (see The Steamy Side of Vienna). Although I discuss some problems I have with the book there, including my feeling that it doesn’t convey a strong sense of Freud’s Vienna, I grant it its central premise, that Freud had an affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays.

Here I’d like to dig a little deeper.

A Q & A (Call It the Socratic Method)

The prime source of the information presented here is Peter Gay’s Freud: A Life for Our Time, generally accepted as the definitive Freud biography. I also turned to Mrs. Freud: A Novel by Nicolle Rosen, a French psychologist. Rosen’s well-researched book, which I sought out — just as I sought out Freud’s Mistress –– for its details about Freud’s domestic life (such as meat shopping), is written from the point of view of Martha, Freud’s wife of 53 years.  It not only discusses the arrangements of the Freud household, but also dwells quite a bit on Freud’s relationship with her sister.

What do we know for sure about the relationship between Freud and his sister-in-law?

From early on, Freud had a very friendly relationship with his future sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, who had been engaged to a friend of his (the friend died of tuberculosis). They corresponded while he was pursuing her older sister, Martha, but there was no question which one he was romancing. Minna was smart, witty and acerbic, and her friendship with Freud continued through the years; they not only lived in the same household for 40 years — she moved with the family to London, unlike Freud’s sisters, who were left behind —  but also took many trips together.

What about their living arrangements on 19 Berggasse?

Okay, so this is a little weird: Minna’s small sleeping quarters were right next to Sigmund and Martha’s bedroom, and separated only by a flimsy partition, not a wall and door. The only way Minna could get to her room was to walk through the bedroom that her sister and brother-in-law shared.

That must have put a damper on Sigmund and Martha’s sex life, no?

By the time Minna moved in, in 1896,  Martha and Sigmund’s sex life was pretty much over. Martha didn’t want to have more children after her sixth, Anna, was born in 1895, and Freud thought using birth control led to neurosis, so he stopped having sex with Martha, though they continued to share a bedroom.

What else do we know about Freud’s sex life?

Freud claimed to be sexually abstinent after his children were born, though he hinted at some incidences of intercourse with Martha afterwards; he also wrote to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss that he often suffered from impotence. He seems to have advocated sexual freedom more than he practiced it.

Where did the idea of an affair between Freud and Minna originate?

Carl G. Jung, 1910. Did Minna really spill her guts to him three years earlier?

With Carl G. Jung, who initially made the claim in private and then put it on the record in a 1957 interview — 50 years after the event supposedly occurred. Jung met Minna in 1907, upon his first visit to Berggasse 19. He says that Minna confessed the relationship to him a few days later, because she felt guilty about it.

Other critics rely on dreams and hearsay, extrapolating from the fact that Freud and Minna often traveled together.

Was Jung’s account reliable?

Not really. Jung and Freud had a falling out and Jung tried in other ways to discredit Freud (and vice versa). Why would Minna confess to a stranger, anyway?

What finally convinced many of the unconvinced — including biographer Peter Gay — that the rumors of Freud’s illicit liaison with Minna were true?

In 2006, a German sociologist discovered that in 1898, during a two-week vacation in the Swiss Alps, Freud and Minna registered at an inn as “Dr Sigm Freud u frau” — i.e., as man and wife.  They took the largest room in the hotel, but one that had what is described as a “double bed.”

Soon after they checked in, Freud sent his wife a postcard that regaled her with details about the gorgeous scenery, but described their lodgings as “humble,” even though the hotel was “the second fanciest in town.”

What conclusions can we draw from these facts?

That Freud and Minna shared a room and a bed in Switzerland and downplayed the hotel where they stayed.

Did they have sex?

There’s no proof one way or the other, but I tend to doubt it.

  • Their living arrangement on 19 Berggasse put Freud and Minna in a situation that was intimate without being romantic. How much modesty could they have had around each other when they could hear each other farting and belching on a regular basis?
  • Even before Minna moved in, Freud doesn’t claim to be a very sexual being.
  • In spite of all his professions to the contrary, Freud would have felt guilty. He may not have been religious, but he was Jewish.
Why would Freud sign the register the way he did, then?

It was the Victorian era and they were in uptight Switzerland. Who would rent them a room if they asked for one under the names Dr. Freud and Miss Bernays?

Why did Freud misrepresent the hotel where they were staying to Martha?

Martha was notoriously frugal and in charge of the household accounts. Maybe Freud and Minna wanted to stay in a nicer hotel but didn’t want to spend too much money. Why not get a large room in a nice hotel rather than two small rooms in a crummy hotel for the same amount?

But get real — it  was a double bed! Doesn’t that mean they had sex?

Not necessarily. We don’t know how large the bed was, but I’d bet it was sizable.  Have you seen the beds in German-speaking Europe? I have and they’re huge. When I was in Vienna, I shared a bed in my uncle’s house with my friend Andrea. I promise you, we didn’t have sex.

I’m still not convinced. Why would they travel together if they weren’t going to have sex?

Misguided theories like penis envy aside, Freud liked and respected women; he had a series of powerful women friends, including Princess Marie Bonaparte, who helped the entire family escape from Vienna (Freud also translated a dog book she wrote; see Freud & Dogs, Pt 3). When Freud’s daughter, Anna, was old enough to be an interesting companion,  Freud traveled with her. He enjoyed talking to Minna about his ideas; she understood them and was supportive. It might have been sexist to leave his wife and children at home and go off with his sister-in-law, but there’s a good chance that actual sex had nothing to do with these trips.

21 Responses to Did Freud Sleep With His Sister-in-Law?

  1. […] central premise, that Freud and his sister-in-law had an affair (but see Freud’s Butcher, Did Freud Have Sex With His Sister In Law?  for an analysis of this question) and to grant that the sequence of many events had been […]

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this diversion about Freud’s sex life (or not). But a couple of questions remain in my mind.
    As to the double bed–many of the “double” beds we slept in when we were traveling in Europe were in fact two single pushed together. Even in Germany, we didn’t experience the huge beds you mention when we were in hotels. I accept the frugality argument and could see them sleeping in the two single beds.

    But on the other side:
    Why would Freud mention being impotent if he wasn’t trying?

    I find it completely deflating to learn that the man who focused everybody’s attention on sex and the psyche had such a confused sex life.

    And thanks for your contribution at A Traveler’s Library!
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted..The Steamy Side of ViennaMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I wondered about the double bed myself — it was a term used by the authors of Freud’s Mistress, not one that I came across in the articles about Freud and Minna’s supposed tryst.

      As for the impotence, this was in a letter to Fleiss that preceded Minna’s arrival. So he was trying with his wife. It’s possible he tried with Minna too; since there were no camera phones for them to sext each other, we’ll never know 😉

  3. Fascinating. One thing I don’t understand – if i read this correctly – is the idea that Freud wouldn’t have had the affair because he would have felt guilty (because he was Jewish).

    might that not have made it all the more appealing – a heightened sense of guilt from the master of neurosis – giving it all the more an air of the illicit, notwithstanding the familiarity of their living quarters-?
    Diane Schmidt recently posted..Creating a sanctuary within for Rosh Hashanah and the New Year 5774My Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      You’re right, Diane. There probably would have been a heightened excitement. I meant it as kind of a joke but I think it undercuts my argument a bit.

  4. Oh, right – of course! this is all fun – sorry if I missed the implicit sarcasm!!!!
    Diane Schmidt recently posted..Creating a sanctuary within for Rosh Hashanah and the New Year 5774My Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Not all of it — I’m serious that I don’t think that Freud and Minna had sex. There are some parts that are a bit tongue-in-cheek but I do want to make a good case for my thesis, not to undermine it.

      • Got it – I think. So you’re saying that its hard to see through our 21st century lens into what would be going on in Freud’s house – that the conventions of their day do not point to an affair, and further, that speculation of an affair in some sense demeans the sister?
        Diane Schmidt recently posted..Creating a sanctuary within for Rosh Hashanah and the New Year 5774My Profile

        • Edie Jarolim says:

          I don’t think speculation demeans the sister in law or Freud; I just wanted to step outside some of the heavier psychological scholarship and look at the issue from a different perspective. I think my observations are valid but in an attempt to be lighthearted about the way I presented them, I might have gone a step too far.

  5. Leo says:

    You have some very solid points there.
    And when Freud was afraid of using birth control, would he not only have had sex with Minna, but unsafe sex as well!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      You’re right — I hadn’t thought of that. Freud’s aversion to birth control definitely bolsters the case that they did not have a physical relationship. Thank you!

  6. […] sehr privaten Blickwinkel heraus – als Brillenträger, Hundeliebhaber und als möglicher Liebhaber seiner Schwägerin  (NZZ zur Minna-Frage), gleichzeitig hält sie sich durch die Verwendung […]

  7. […] Anyway, the series is clearly taking a bit of poetic license. In case you were wondering about the reference to Freud’s “tangled and provocative personal life,” I suspect this is an allusion to the central premise of the sensationalist book, “Freud’s Mistress,” by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman, i.e., that Freud had an affair with his sister-in-law, Mina Bernays, who lived with the Freud family. I’m not convinced; see Did Freud Sleep with His Sister-in-Law? […]

  8. Rick says:

    This kind of stuff is complete speculation. Anything, of course, is possible. Did Freud have sex with his dogs? Possibly. With his Egyptian artifacts. Possibly. Somehow because it is not Page Six and about Tom Cruise and is about Freud ( or Melville and Hawthorne anyone? etc.), this supposedly has more validity? I’m not saying sex isn’t a topic of interest, I am saying that speculation in the absence of compelling evidence os just gossip, no better, it isn’t academic scholarship. But is it humorous? Sometimes, but the above hardly had me doubled over in laughter because even laughter requires some snese of the forebidden and here everyone is obviously trying way to hard, which isn’t humorous either.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Well, actually, Freud’s biographer, Peter Gay, believed that there was a “smoking gun” of a hotel record, indicating that Freud and his sister-in-law shared a room when they went on holiday today. My point here is to debunk the so-called proof. You’re right, it is speculation, and I called the book based on it lurid. That said, it would be a big deal if Freud was cheating on his wife with her sister — it would undercut his integrity. And his theories do have a lot to do with sex. Here’s the NYTimes story on the topic: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/24/world/europe/24freud.html?pagewanted=all

      As for whether the speculation is humorous, some think it is. Sorry you don’t. Can’t please everyone.

  9. Rick says:

    I read Gay’s book and think he is a way overrated writer, kind of a generalist dipping into all sorts of subjects but mostly not very interesting. All of this stuff has been gone over many times before, from decadent Vienna to the Freud’s followers and less than disciples. I never read the novel because it would smell from fifty yards. IF Freud were cheating on his wife, this might (or might not, I mean how much, etc.?) mean something, given he wanted to appear to be in rational analytic control of himself and not to have some polymorphous unbridled id (he he, this is maybe funny, I mean it’s Sigmund we are writing about, not Lucien), but even this kind of shows only one aspect of Freud. He was, of course, closely associated at any time with Jung, Ferenci, Stekel, Rank, and all sorts that make our antiseptic oh so politically correct castrato therapists seem like dead fish. Schitzler — Jewish by the way — whose main topic of fiction was always adultery and illicit sex was close to Freud as well.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I don’t disagree about Gay. I just cited him to suggest that you were dismissing a subject which is taken seriously by people who are taken seriously in Freud scholarship. I agree too about the novel. So maybe we are not far apart in our views.

      • Rick says:

        Well, we are going around in circles. Melville’s supposed homoerotic love for Hawthorne is taken seriously by scholars. Anything slightly off the center of a monogamous marriage is taken seriously by scholars. Marlowe was gay, supposedly, read Edward II say. Shakespeare was gay, maybe (read some sonnets). Much better to speculate when we know next to nothing about these people. Scott Fitzgerald had a deep crush on Hemingway. T.S. Eliot of course was a closet gay. And so on. Not really scholarship, more like gossip, I say. And those who clearly have been documented as pretty far out the bourgeois norms? Like Goethe or ETA Hoffmann at around 75 falling romantically head over heels in love with 16-year-olds? Well, this can’t be scholarship since everyone knew about it, like trying to expose Henry Miller. Ultimately, given the Internet and what eight-year-olds are reading these days, all this “scholarship'” sounds like Nancy Grace catering to mongoloids.

        • Rick says:

          Sorry, Hoffmann was about 50, Goethe was about 75, but girl might have first been 14. Truth is sex was not created yesterday either.

          • Rick says:

            One other point, most of Freud’s quarrels with associates about sex — like with Reich too — involved not sleeping with patients. To my knowledge he never thought adultery taboo or particularly deviant. More, sleeping with Minna — and I doubt this really happened — was not incest either. Or, you could argue that after a wife dies (symbolically here if Martha refused all sex), you married the younger sister in Jewish tradition. I think if anything Freud’s asexuality is the issue, not this supposed affair, but then too he was not that young, increasingly ill, and often in great pain.

  10. Opinion: Two relatively healthy (opposite sex) adults sharing a bed in a very nice hotel on a vacation together…yes, they had sex. Any other conclusion cannot be based on the facts.

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