Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman’s latest novel, Freud’s Mistress, is a compelling story surrounding Freud and his family that weaves fact and fiction. This book is about a possible love affair between Sigmund Freud and his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays.
Although many scholars dismissed it as ridiculous they have come to change their minds after the discovery of a glamorous Swiss hotel’s register where Freud signed in as “Dr. Sigm Freud u frau (wife).” What is very gripping is that same day he sent his wife a postcard describing the lodgings as “humble.” Beyond the affair, the authors also intertwined facts about Freud’s life and theories.
The novel begins with Minna moving in to her sister and brother-in-law’s house in the late 1890’s and traced her forty-two year residency with the family. Kaufmann and Mack find it fascinating and hope the readers will as well, that during the period where Freud was developing his theories on psychoanalysis and dreams, he was having a scandalous affair with his sister-in-law. They want to make it clear that the affair was recreated, but the surrounding information was accurate and factual. They did extensive research and drew from the actual letters written by Freud although they paraphrased a lot of the dialogue.
The authors brilliantly point out the differences between Freud’s writings and his actual life. In fact after finishing the book the readers will wonder if Freud should have had his family “on the couch.” He was unhappy with his wife and thought of marriage as infringing on desire and passion. One of his children, Sophie, was a bed-wetter who stammered. His oldest son, Martin, once said that his father never talked about sex to him and that they hardly had a relationship. This seems ironic since the authors chronicle how Freud related all neurosis to something sexual. Karen noted, “During this time period his theory was that all problems were related to sexual neurosis. However, later on he backed away, maybe because Minna questioned him or maybe because his young daughters started to grow up.”
Regarding Freud’s personality, the reader will come away with several distinct impressions: charismatic, chauvinistic, self-centered, and brilliant. This is no more exemplified than their recreation of a Freud lecture where all the students were spell bound and mesmerized, leaning on his every word: “The air was charged with electricity as he offered his audience fresh possibilities, new ways of thinking. He made them laugh and laugh again. They were drawn…to his greatness.” Contrast that with another quote from the book showing his narcissist personality, “Minna was just one more person who ‘stimulated his mind.’ And that this attachment would eventually pass, just like the others.”
Jennifer explained, “Through his letters, which we wanted to convey in the book, male or female became enamored with him but he chose to move on after awhile. He always seemed to need a friend or an enemy. Minna learned the hard way that there were always people drifting in and out of Freud’s life. At first they were indispensable, but after a period of time they were often discarded.”
Freud’s mistress is more than just a novel of passion and betrayal between a husband and a wife, and between sisters. It is also very informative about the difficulties Freud faced due to the uniqueness of his ideas, his personality, and the cultural conditions in the late nineteenth century, including the anti-Semitic atmosphere.