Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: Freud's Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman

As the father of modern day psychoanalysis, Freud is such a large part of our cultural knowledge that it is almost hard to think of him as a real person. He developed the theory of the Oedipus complex, the theory of psychosexual development (penis envy and castration anxiety), he touted the efficacy of the "talking cure," and gave us the entertaining phrase "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," among other things. And yet he was not just the revered, larger than life neurologist and psychoanalyst of history, but was a real person with a family, wife, children, and a possible adulterous relationship with his single sister-in-law, Minna Bernays. It is this relationship that Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman bring to life in their engaging historical novel, Freud's Mistress.

Minna is an intelligent, curious, and over-educated lady's companion. When she seeks medical assistance for a lowly young kitchen maid in her mistress' house without permission, she is let go. While she found the job stifling and demeaning, it gave her a modicum of independence outside of marriage. But with her dismissal, she finds herself unemployed, unmarried, and completely destitute, giving her no option but to impose on her married sister. Having just had her sixth baby, her older sister, Martha, is married to Sigmund Freud, a professor and neurologist who works with troubled patients. They accept Minna into their modest home and she settles in to help Martha with the difficult and mundane business of raising children.

It has been many years since Martha cared to listen to her husband's theories about the mind or to pay him much attention, focused more on running the household and the blissful oblivion of opium. Minna, on the other hand, is captivated by the chance to exercise her brain after many years of only exchanging letters with the brilliant Dr. Freud. She is fascinated by his emerging theories, including those that the establishment finds perverse or unspeakable. She is not put off by his assertion that all problems stem from unacknowledged psychosexual aberations, in fact she is enthralled by the idea, even if she doesn't agree in its entirety. Her attraction to his brain and the challenges he presents quickly becomes an attraction to him, a dangerous proposition given her knowledge of the unhappy inner workings of his life and marriage to her sister. For Freud, it is appealing to have his sister-in-law worshipping him and stimulating his mind. He introduces her to medicinal cocaine and slowly seduces her, first intellectually (although never as his equal) and then physically, without any remorse for his infidelity or for the potential damage to her relationship with her sister.

Minna tries to fight her obsessive love for her sister's husband, struggling with a terrible guilt for the way in which she is betraying Martha, but unable to escape Freud's magnetic pull. She has few life options available to her as a gentlewoman of little means in fin de si├Ęcle Vienna and at 29, she is getting to an age where marriage will no longer be an option even should she desire it. So it is no surprise that she finds it exhilarating, intoxicating even, to be appreciated for her agile intelligence. She can only do so much to resist Freud's advances despite the heartache it promises and the potential it carries to destroy so many people about whom she cares deeply.

Mack and Kaufman have drawn Minna as a caring and thoughtful character, trapped by her own circumstances and the limited times in which she lives. She agonizes over her growing feelings for Freud and determines to do the right thing for her sister and the children; yet she is unable to escape the pull of her heart or the flattering attentions of her brother-in-law. Freud as a character is far less appealing than Minna. He is self-absorbed and rigid, certain that a relationship with Minna is not wrong since he and Martha are living a life of celibacy and sex, is, of course, necessary for a fully functioning life. He twists his own theories and beliefs to excuse and approve of what he wants, dragging Minna with him. He is sometimes dismissive and hostile to her, choosing to ignore her deeper feelings towards him, and in the end treating her as if she doesn't deserve even the common courtesy of cancelling their assignations when he has something more important to do. Martha Freud is not a terribly interesting character, constructing her life as suits her, often using her sister as an unpaid nanny or servant, alternately languishing in bed or acting as a martinet. She rarely makes an effort (to be kind, amenable, or grateful, to be anything really) and as a result, it is hard to understand Minna's loyalty to Martha.

Based on probable historical truth, Mack and Kaufman have done a wonderful job capturing Vienna of the time and the professional difficulties Freud faced with his controversial and "lewd" theories that ran so counter to the establishment's ideas. They've portrayed the often stultifying life choices available to smart women through Minna's dismal experiences, showing that even her affair with Freud was not a freedom but another shackle. The lonely life and feeling of imposing on family that faced spinsters of the time was incredibly well done. Because the novel is narrated from Minna's perspective, her character is complete and realistic. Freud, on the other hand, remains a rather unpleasant enigma and there will be more than one occasion where the reader wonders how and why Minna fell in love with him and remained so for so long. Mack and Kaufman have taken into consideration the scant historical evidence, from Carl Jung's early and unsubstantiated assertion that the affair happened to a recently discovered hotel guest book entry that appears to confirm Jung's statement and have drawn a fictionalized story that carries the seeds of an explosive scandal. But, as is evident from the historical information, that scandal never leaked out, if in fact it happened, and so the novel, remaining true to what we do in fact know, was left with an anticlimactic feel over all. A slow novel of secrets, guilt, and repressed emotion, it winds down to a quiet and unassuming end, in many ways mirroring much of Minna Bernays' life. Fans of historical fiction and those interested in the man behind the lionized Freud we read about in psychology classes will find this an interesting and worthwhile read.

For more information about Karen Mack, Jennifer Kaufman, and the book, check out their website or find them on Facebook. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. I have had my eye on Freud's Mistress. It sounds very much like Mrs. Poe, which I recently read and loved. Thank you for your review.
    -Dilettantish Reader

  2. "But, as is evident from the historical information, that scandal never leaked out, if in fact it happened, and so the novel, remaining true to what we do in fact know, was left with an anticlimactic feel over all."
    I loved the book, but it did leave me wanting more. As unlikable as Freud was, I felt the acceptance of their arrangement, supported by the fact that none of those involved ever confirmed what surely would have been a scandalous tale, somehow put him in a softer light. Throughout history, those with genius tendencies seem quite different and border on crazy sometimes. Maybe they figured out an arrangement that worked for everybody? I don't know...and it surprises me that I actually came to this conclusion. I usually HATE the other woman. Enjoyed your review :)

  3. I'm looking forward to reading this one! :)

  4. I, for one, would definitely NOT have wanted to be married to Freud ... I have a sneaking suspicion that he'd always be analyzing me. :/

    Thanks for being on the tour!


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