Freud as a Writer of Mysteries (by Sheila Kohler)

A multiple O. Henry Award winner and a Willa Cather Prize winner, Sheila Kohler writes both literary and crime fiction. She’s the author of eleven novels and three short-story collections. One of her novels, Dreaming for Freud, revolves around the historical figure who is the subject of this post. The author’s most recent story for EQMM, “A Secret Country,” appeared in our May/June 2022 issue.  —Janet Hutchings

Freud’s discovery of psychoanalysis may have become almost forgotten today or rarely practiced—too time consuming, too expensive, not sufficiently scientifically documented, but his skill as a writer is surely still there for us to emulate and enjoy. Not for nothing did he receive the Goethe prize. Particularly in his five famous case histories which read like mystery stories, we can admire this expertise. Perhaps the earliest of his case histories, published in 1905,  known as the Dora case,  is the best example. Dora, who was really Ida Bauer, after three months of treatment,  escaped,  which enabled Freud,  because of the case’s brevity, to write it up more easily.  Dora, in a sense,  by refusing treatment gave him the gift of the case history.     

From the first few lines of the case Freud immediately makes us aware of his control of the material, revealing the heart of the matter only gradually, letting the information emerge at just the precise moment when we are about to raise a question. The case-history starts at the end, or anyway, in the middle, with the patient and the mystery of her various symptoms: a cough, bodily pains, a suicide note, whose meaning is to be discovered by our Sherlock Homes, while the patient herself gives us our Watson.

Freud has a great sense of timing. Like Dostoevsky at the beginning of The Brothers Karamazov, when speaking of the father’s death “which I [i.e., the author] shall relate in its proper place,” Freud gradually leads us through the intricate unravelling of this tightly tied and complicated knot. Like Nabokov in the preface to his Lolita Freud captures our interest by telling us that “Sexual questions will be discussed with all possible frankness, the organs and functions of sexual life will be called by their proper names, and the pure-minded reader can convince himself from my description that I have not hesitated to converse upon such subjects in such language even with a young woman.” Who among us could resist such an invitation to read on?

Both Nabokov and Freud speak of the necessity of hiding the identity of their characters. Nabokov announces that “Save for the correction of obvious solecisms and a careful suppression of a few tenacious details that despite H[umbert]H[umbert]’s efforts still subsisted in his text as signposts and tombstones (indicative of places or persons that taste would conceal and compassion spare), this remarkable memoir is presented intact.” Freud tells us of his attempts to hide the identity of the real Dora. “I have picked out a person the scenes of whose life were laid not in Vienna but in a remote provincial town, and whose personal circumstances must therefore be practically unknown in Vienna.” Is the purpose of these statements only to respect privacy? Or is it also—primarily, even—to make us curious? How much truth do they hide? Regardless, mystery is created, and questions are aroused in our minds.

It is Freud’s ability to create mystery and, at the same time, to give us precise details which makes us see, hear, and understand Dora’s dilemma. We wonder from the start what is troubling this seventeen year old who Freud describes as “in the first bloom of youth” so deeply.

Freud chose here a high-stakes story. One might even equate it with a soap-opera quartet. Dora’s father who had been successfully treated by Freud for syphilis brings  his young daughter, an intelligent, lively girl telling him that his goal is to get her to be reasonable.  He maintains that she has been led astray by unsuitable reading. and adds that she has merely fancied a whole scene where a certain Herr K has attempted to seduce her.

Herr K, it turns out, is, in fact, the husband of the woman Dora’s father is having an affair with, and whom her father covers up for, along with, in effect, offering him his daughter, in compensation. Freud adds to the suspense maintaining, “ I had resolved from the first to suspend my judgement of the true state of affairs till I had heard the other side [i.e., Dora’s], as well.” We, too,  wish to hear the other side of course, identifying with the hapless girl.  

It is easy to put ourselves in the place of this girl between her sixteenth and eighteenth year.   We recognize at once that her situation was a desperate one. The three adults with whom she was closest, whom she loved the most in the world, were apparently conspiring—separately, in tandem, or in concert, to deny the reality of her experience. Freud, at least listens and makes us listen, too, to this high-stakes story, which remains shocking, even to us today. Who would not empathize with this vulnerable, young girl, treated as a pawn in her father’s adultery, part of a diabolical quid pro quo: “You take my daughter, and I’ll take your wife.”

Like many skilled mystery writers Freud often uses a binary structure with reiteration and reversals. We learn of two seduction scenes: the first, in Herr K’s office, when Dora is only 13, where he has proposed to meet her along with his wife. Instead, he comes alone and clasps her to him and begins forcibly to kiss her. Revolted, she wrenches herself away and flees, not mentioning the scene to anyone.

The second such scene takes place two years later, by a lake where the family has a house. Dora has previously learned from the governess to the K’s’ children that he, Herr K, while “ardently courting” the governess, had complained, “I get nothing out of my wife.” He uses the same sexual allusion with Dora in a similar overture of love. Insulted and traumatized by this crude approach, she slaps him in the face and flees and ultimately, this time tells her father of his behavior. That same afternoon, when she awakens from a nap, she finds Herr K again beside her, insisting that he can enter whenever it suits him. Yet the father denies the truth of Dora’s account, putting it down to her reading of unsuitable literature. Where we wonder does the truth lie in all of this? 

We are presented, too, with two dreams, around which the case history is organized, like any successful novella.

How wonderfully suggestive these dreams are, is reflected in the fact that they have been used again and again as inspiration by various writers, such as in D.M. Thomas’ “The White Hotel.”

Henry James once said, “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” But that is not what happens here. Who could forget Dora’s first dream of a burning house and the jewel-case that must be saved? Or her second one, which involves a train station, a letter, and the death of her father? These two dreams conjure up many mysterious dangers: of fire, of death, of voyages.

Freud also introduces mystery by using an obfuscating, third-person narrator. This device allows him to claim he is protecting confidentiality, but also frees him up to introduce arguments to  convince us of his opinion.

Mainly, Freud, like an unreliable narrator gives us his own version of what his patient has supposedly told him. Here, he describes Dora’s dragging her leg after that famous kiss: “That is how people walk when they have twisted a foot. So she had made a ‘false step,’ which was true indeed, if she could give birth to a child nine months after the scene at the lake.” One supposition , namely that pregnancy could result from a kiss, leads him to the next, namely “the false step.” Does Dora accept all of this? We have only what Freud’s third-person narrator tells us: “And Dora disputed the fact no longer.” Poor Dora!

Freud’s need to curtail and at the same time to select the essential in the exposition of his analysis is reinforced, he tells us, because of the patient’s “resistances and the forms in which they are expressed.” This resistance, of course, was useful to Freud as a mystery writer, although it might have made his task as a therapist more difficult. Resistance enables him to create conflict. For example, when he likens the jewel box in her dream to her vagina, Dora, in one of the few moments we are privileged to hear her voice directly, says “I knew you would say that!” We immediately agree with her because, indeed, what else would Freud have said!

Similarly, whatever “resistance” may mean clinically, it enables Freud to delay his revelations until the right moment not only for the patient but also for the reader. We are held in suspense and brought along gradually like Hansel and Gretel following the crumbs in the forest to accept as reality what might otherwise have seemed unbelievable.

Nor does he disappoint us: behind each revelation there is always an even deeper one. The fourth major character, in this quartet, we discover, after Dora, her father, and Herr K, is Herr K’s wife. All three of these adults betray Dora in varying and horrifying ways. We learn, early on, that Frau K has shared a bedroom with Dora, knowing that her husband is sleeping elsewhere. She has shared the secrets of her troubled marriage with Dora, who is taken with her “adorable white body.” As it turns out, Dora is in fact attracted to her rather than to her husband. Thus, Freud gives us a much more interesting and unusual triangle, surely a more believable one for such a young girl, cleverly divulging this at the right moment.  He thereby introduces the theme of bisexuality, much on his mind at that time, as revealed in the letters to Fliess, whom he himself may well have been in love with. 

As in a good mystery story, nothing is what it seems: behind every object, every gesture, every word, lies its opposite. Ultimately, Freud leads us on with reiteration and reversal like any wily mystery writer. What Dora feels as disgust, Freud assures us is desire. Love and hate are juxtaposed: this is the best and the worst at the same time, as in a Dickensian world. Truth remains elusive, but what matters here is the skill of the writer, our pleasure in this well-told tale and, above all, the deeper truths about human nature we find scattered here like gold, which are to be extracted by our unreliable narrator, Freud, himself.

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