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?
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.