Decker on Meyer-Palmedo, 'Sigmund Freud - Anna Freud: Correspondence, 1904-1938'

Ingeborg Meyer-Palmedo, ed.
Hannah S. Decker

Ingeborg Meyer-Palmedo, ed. Sigmund Freud - Anna Freud: Correspondence, 1904-1938. Translated by Nick Somers. Cambridge: Polity Books, 2014. xiii + 513 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7456-4149-2.

Reviewed by Hannah S. Decker (University of Houston)
Published on HABSBURG (October, 2015)
Commissioned by Jonathan Kwan

Daily Life and Intellectual Life in Early Twentieth-Century Central Europe

This book is the complete correspondence between Sigmund Freud and his youngest daughter, Anna Freud, beginning when Anna was nine years old and her father fifty-two, although for the first six years, the letters are only from Freud. When Anna is fifteen (1910), we begin to see her letters.

While Freud’s correspondence with various important non-family figures in his life has been extensively mined and studied in the most minute detail, this is not the case for the early letters of his daughter. Thus, this volume tends to teach us more about Anna than her famous father, although in the analytic world Anna became quite famous in her own right. This fame rests primarily on her contributions to the understanding of human defense mechanisms—gambits we all employ to deal with troublesome issues, some of these maneuvers helpful, some destructive—and on her advances in early childhood education and psychology

We owe the publication of this book under review to the fact that, for better or worse, Freudians consider every aspect of the Freuds’ lives vital knowledge. Still, the reader may wonder why correspondence that begins with material addressed to a nine-year-old is considered significant enough to merit publication, and I might add, coupled with unusually extensive annotation. This last feature, by the way, actually turns out to be one of the highlights of the book if you are a Freud/psychoanalysis researcher.

But another reason for publication of the correspondence, although perhaps not even realized beforehand, is that both Sigmund and Anna were great letter writers, who, when separated, often at vacation time, wrote about everything. Thus their letter writing is a marvelous compendium of some of the mores of the middle class in central Europe during the first four decades of the twentieth century, and the comprehensive annotation contributes here as well. So intellectual matters take second place in what is essentially a book about Freud family matters, although inevitably psychoanalytic professional concerns do enter. However, these have less to do with ideas than with the running of the psychoanalytic enterprise and Anna’s intensifying involvement in it. This came partially as a result of her father’s increasing incapacitation owing to his oral cancer, which first became manifest when he was sixty-seven and she thirty-eight.

At the same time, much in these letters does not deserve enshrining. The Freud family had the unusual habit of rarely traveling together during vacation times, so there is much correspondence dealing with travel plans and news from various resorts. Apt comparisons can be made to the ways texting, Facebook, and Twitter are used today. In short, the letters are filled with mind-numbing trivia, of interest only to the individuals at that moment. One can conclude that the correspondents probably would also have used Instagram if it had been available.

Nevertheless, the letters turn out to have some legitimate interest. I propose to structure my review around six themes in the correspondence, although in some cases the subjects may receive just minor attention: First, the way a society copes with inevitable health problems is always important, so we will begin by noting the reliance on spa “cures” in the medical armamentarium of central Europeans a hundred years ago. A subtheme of this is Freud’s own conviction of the necessity of drinking the mineral water from Karlsbad (today in the Czech Republic) to treat his ongoing stomach complaints. Second, we will examine conditions in central Europe during World War I and its aftermath, including the new problem of procuring passports and visas after World War I after almost a half-century when this had not been necessary in Europe. Another point of interest is the fallout from the extreme inflation that occurred in the small new Austrian state. Third, I will highlight an uncommon reference to anti-Semitism, surprisingly a subject rarely openly written about by members of the Freud family, even though it affected their lives continually. Fourth, we will follow Anna Freud’s (b. 1895) unconventional trajectory as a middle-class girl and woman who had little interest in finding a husband and how this troubled Freud for many years until he made his peace with her desire for a career and her interest in intellectual matters. This will be examined in tandem with Anna’s intense personality and her tendency to push herself to the point of exhaustion. Relevant here also is the creation of a tight bond between father and daughter that eventuated in Anna’s dedicated caring for him in old age and sickness. Fifth, I will briefly discuss Anna’s increasing involvement with the psychoanalytic movement, eventually acquiring prominent roles in the governance of the movement and in the development of psychoanalytic knowledge about children. Finally, we must mention Freud’s mortal illness, an oral cancer, that began when he was sixty-seven and which he steadily made worse by his extreme addiction to cigars.

Spa cures remain a fixture among many Europeans, and at the turn of the nineteenth century they were considered vital to the treatment of chronic conditions of every variety. Different spas became famous for their supposed therapeutic effect on specific illnesses and some in particular were known for their treatment of women’s complaints. The standard cure available to the middle- and upper-class clientele consisted of a stay of three to six weeks, frequent immersion in the therapeutic baths, drinking the mineral waters, which had a laxative effect, relaxation by strolling through the well-kept gardens and parks, and partaking of the particular diversions of each spa, ranging from quiet to lively. Patients often took home bottles of the mineral water or could buy them at home. Freud relied on Glauber’s Salt, first processed in the seventeenth century, being essentially the sodium salt of sulfuric acid (also used today in detergents!). When he came to the United States in 1909 and found American cuisine unsettling to his stomach, he was bereft of his usual treatment, one of several factors that turned him against American culture. In his later years, Freud preferred to go on vacation to Bad Gastein (in Austria), famous for its thermal springs and also frequented by large numbers of Jews (p. 186). From time to time, other members of the Freud family frequented various spas, or spent winters especially in Merano, today in northern Italy, then famous as a resort for tubercular patients and for its drink of whey made with radioactive grapes.

World War I, of course, had to figure prominently in the life of Freud (1856-1939) and his family. His three sons served in the Austrian army; one was wounded and the other was a POW, so there was worry aplenty. However, what is strikingly apparent from the letters is the extent to which, at first, the war scarcely interrupted the usual rhythms of life. The family and their friends and relatives continued their vacations and travel in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, and the mail continued to function well. Judging from the letters, only gradually did difficulties at borders arise and some problems with food appear. In the summer of 1915, the hotels in Bad Ischl (Austria) were crowded in August, and the war seemed distant. However, the next year in Bad Gastein, there was a shortage of white bread and Freud found the black bread “uneatable” (p. 124). However, Anna in nearby Altaussee found the bread fine. In 1917, vacations continued, and Freud, to offset anticipated shortages, brought with him supplies of eggs, cheese, butter, and bread (and cigars) that had been sent by friends. Freud’s practice had dwindled, yet travel continued even in the fateful last months of the war when Freud went to Csorbato in Slovakia and Anna to Budapest. But now, she brought back food to Vienna, and in September recorded living on beans and potatoes. Freud, still away, complained about the “miserable” mail delivery (p. 146). The war years in the correspondence ended with Anna looking forward to her trip to Budapest for a psychoanalytic congress, which was duly held the autumn of 1918 while cataclysmic events were ripping apart the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

All over central and eastern Europe, new countries were coming into being. The new republic of Austria was proclaimed on November 17, 1918. The use of passports and visas, begun as a temporary war measure, continued. The word “passport” had come into existence in the seventeenth century, and by the end of the eighteenth century almost every country in Europe had set up a system to issue passports to their subjects. In addition, travelers had to have visas issued by the countries they wanted to visit. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the frequent use of railroads led to such extensive travel, much of it crossing multiple borders at high speeds, that passports were abolished beginning in the 1860s. By the eve of World War I, passport requirements had been eliminated virtually everywhere. The war changed all that, and a “temporary” need for travel documents emerged. Temporary morphed into permanent. While Anna had no trouble vacationing in the mountains of Bavaria in July 1919, the next month friends and family in Austria, wishing to join her in Germany, had problems getting passports and visas, although they did arrive eventually. In response to the new circumstances, the League of Nations held a conference on passports in 1920, which resulted in the issuance of passport guidelines. Here we see yet another legacy of the Great War: barriers to population movements and refugees, still with us today (although the situation is somewhat ameliorated within the European Union).

The problematic food situation, which had reached epidemic proportions by the time of the armistice in November 1918, also continued for a few years due both to actual shortages and to increasing inflation. Long-established trade patterns were disrupted, the British blockade continued through the spring of 1919, and a black market thrived. Yet, while food supplies were scarce in Vienna in 1919, this was not the case in spa resorts, probably because the clientele represented a wealthier part of the population. Freud had begun treating English patients who paid in pound sterling, and later Americans who paid in dollars; both currencies could be exchanged for the millions of Austrian kronen needed for many food purchases. In the early 1920s, the Austrian economy was close to collapse.

In such turbulent times, it is not surprising that the subject of anti-Semitism surfaced, although it was not usual for the Freuds and their contacts to dwell on it. Anti-Semitism never came up at the meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society or in Freud’s analyses of the patients for which we have records (and he had many Jewish patients). Early in his life he openly confronted it, later on he dreamed of it, and at forty-one he joined the Jewish men’s fraternal order, B’nai Brith, although the Freud family was non-observant. In the present correspondence the subject was raised by Anna, who while in Gottingen in 1922 observed that although it was good the German trains were running on time, “the ... bad thing is what I see of the passengers; I don’t know whether they are really all anti-Semites, but they look it. And I can hardly think of any other country where one has a stronger feeling of being among ‘foreigners’” (p. 292). Anti-Semitism caught up with the family in 1938 when they left Vienna after the Nazis had invaded.

In my conclusion I want to focus on Anna and her father. The correspondence is evocative of “the Victorian construction of womanhood” spelled out so clearly in Cynthia Eagle Russett’s Sexual Science (1991). Very early in the letters, it becomes clear that Anna, at fifteen, has intellectual ambitions, does not have some conventional “girlish” values (p. 45), and pushes herself towards hard work. However, Freud hopes and expects Anna to ready herself for marriage like her two older sisters, and he only reluctantly gives way to allow her advanced education to prepare herself for a career as an elementary school teacher. He writes to a close colleague: “Anna is insatiable with her education plans” (p. 79).

Both Freud and his wife are concerned that their daughter’s intellectual activities will harm her health. Freud wants Anna on vacation to become ”sensible” (p. 59), to rest, and to put on weight. Anna has been sent to the health resort of Merano for months of rest after her exhaustion from her high-school leaving exams. She is even told not to return for her sister’s wedding. She, however, frets “about my doing nothing all day long when I am not sick” (p. 63). Anna also informs her father that she is reading some of his books and that “you shouldn’t be upset: I’m big now” (p. 64). But Freud insists she should not overexert herself, and speaks out against the ”fervent overzealousness in your activities that has been your downfall to date.” He informs her when she is eighteen, “We will recognize [your rights as a young woman] when you no longer ascetically shun the distractions of your age but enjoy what other girls take pleasure in” (p. 65). 

Nevertheless, when Anna takes a trip to England at the age of nineteen, Freud cautions her not to get involved with the analyst Ernest Jones and not to be alone with him, and writes to Jones that Anna is too young to consider a serious relationship. Freud implores Anna to “let me know about everything that goes on with and around you” (p. 80). Jones wryly notes with oedipal perspicacity that “she is of course tremendously bound to you” (p. 87).

Freud did indeed construct unbreakable oedipal ties with his youngest daughter. By the time she went to England, she had already been in analysis with him for a year, and it went on for another three, a psychologically fraught situation. Then Freud tacked on another short analysis to prepare Anna for seeing patients. In addition, Anna, on and off, continued to request individual sessions of “follow-up” analysis (p. 156n3). For her part, Anna continued for most of her life to sign off her letters to her father with the same kisses she had sent him at fifteen. Freud began coming to terms with reality, albeit ambivalently, when Anna was twenty-six, announcing he was putting away money for Anna for either marriage or independence. He wrote to friends and colleagues that he hoped she would find a husband although he recognized “her attachment to her old father” (p. 249). 

Anna went on to become a mainstay of the psychoanalytic establishment, starting when she was still young by becoming a proofreader, translator, and editor of psychoanalytic literature and gradually expanding her activities to become an analyst in her own right and an officer in the international psychoanalytic movement. As in her youth, she pushed herself to the point where she suffered physical symptoms. And once Freud developed his oral cancer in 1923, she became his caretaker and professional representative, sometimes to a stage of exhaustion. After her father died, she became a vigilant gatekeeper, guarding her father’s legacy and preventing the publication of material that might cast Sigmund Freud in a negative light. This correspondence serves as a chronicle of Austrian life a century ago and also offers us a window through which to observe the creation of one of the most famous father-daughter pairs in Western history.  

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Citation: Hannah S. Decker. Review of Meyer-Palmedo, Ingeborg, ed., Sigmund Freud - Anna Freud: Correspondence, 1904-1938. HABSBURG, H-Net Reviews. October, 2015.

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