A review of Dreaming for Freud by Sheila Kohler

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Dreaming for Freud
by Sheila Kohler
Penguin
2014, $16usd, ISBN 978-0-14-312519-8

Sheila Kohler’s new novel, set at the beginning of the twentieth century, centres on a doctor-patient relationship that turns into a power-struggle. A nineteen year old girl, who has been suffering for several years from coughing spells, voice loss and stomach and leg pains, is sent against her will by her wealthy father to see the physician who treated him several years earlier. The forty-four year old doctor, a neurologist, has published a major work about dreams, but is not advancing in his career as rapidly as he would like. With a family of six to support, he longs for more clients and a professorship. A pioneer in psychoanalysis, he encourages his patients to talk about their problems, dreams and fantasies, and analyses what they bring to him. He feels that has learned a lot about women patients through their frank confessions regarding their sexuality. The doctor and his wife no longer have a sexual relationship, and although he and his sister-in-law are involved, he feels frustrated, and is frequently aroused by pretty women.

His pretty nineteen year old client is there because her father finds her rude and difficult with him and her mother. Her complaints about her life at first seem typical for a bright young woman living at home without being given a higher education, and with no plans other than making a suitable marriage some day. Elsewhere in the world, like America and Britain, a growing women’s movement was opening up the universities and various careers for women, but not in bourgeois Vienna in 1900. The girl’s mother is obsessed with housecleaning, and her brother, Otto, her former pal and intellectual companion, has surpassed her academically because he has been sent off to school. Her father was once her favourite parent.

Soon the young woman divulges the real reasons for her anger with her parents. When she was just turning thirteen, her family went to a mountain spa for an extended stay because of her father’s health. There they met a couple, referred to, in the novel, as Mr. and Mrs. Z, who were the parents of two young children. The young woman, who loved children, was kind to the Zs’ little girl. The friendship between the two families continued for the next six years and involved other long holidays. Once, alone on vacation with the couple and their little children, the young woman shared a bed with Mrs. Z, who listened to her confidences, discussed her reading, and caressed her inappropriately.

The young woman, who was fond of Mrs. Z, was confused and upset when she realized that Mrs. Z and her father were having an affair. Meanwhile, Mr. Z was grooming the young woman with gifts of jewellery and candy and making sexual overtures toward her. Her parents kept telling her that he was kind to take an interest in her. On one holiday, when she was fifteen, he got her alone and began to tell her how unhappy he was with his wife, and that she was the one he desired. But the young woman knew that he had seduced the governess with the same line.

The young woman slapped Mr. Z’s face, left, and told her father about the incident, the culmination of Mr. Z’s pursuit of her since she was thirteen. When her father told the Zs what she had said, Mr. Z denied doing anything, and Mrs. Z backed him up, saying that the young woman’s accusation came from reading inappropriate books at too early an age.

Shocked and confused, her illnesses worsened. Had her father intended that Mr. Z seduce her, so that he would be satisfied and not demand an end to her father’s affair with Mrs. Z?

Modern readers will find the situation creepy, and may expect the doctor to help the young woman find a way to be independent of her parents and their friends, but this is not what happens in the novel, nor did it happen in the real life case on which Kohler’s story is based.

The doctor asked:

“Could this not have been a serious proposition from Herr Z?… “Was it not possible after all that he had really fallen in love with you and was really considering leaving his wife to start his life again with someone new, someone young and fresh? Perhaps he really means to marry you when you come of age even if the man may have chosen his words poorly. And would that not, perhaps, be the best solution for all the parties involved?”

Horrified and incredulous, the young woman demands whether he would be happy if someone similarly propositioned his own daughter. Back home, feeling suicidal, she wonders:

“How can he take seriously the hackneyed words Herr Z. used to seduce her, exactly the same ones he had used with his children’s governess…? And how could the doctor imagine she wants to marry a man the age of her father, an old adulterer, a wrinkled Don Juan, when she has a fresh-faced, dimpled, and innocent young engineering student already in her mind and heart?… Why should she want to marry an old man of the doctor’s age. How can he imagine this as a solution? Is it perhaps because he, himself, would like to start his life over with someone young, pretty and fresh like herself?”

After a great deal of consideration, she realizes that she is not yet quite ready to quit seeing the doctor. He is someone who will listen to her, although she disagrees with his conclusions. She admires him for cutting through the “cant and hypocrisy” with which she is surrounded. She decides, however, that she “will have to reclaim some of her old wildness, her belief in her capacity to judge for herself.” To research the doctor, she reads his book on dreams and finds it all about sexual symbolism. She decides to concoct two dreams for him to analyse, to occupy his mind and get him off the notion that she could desire Mr. Z.

Listening to the doctor eagerly analyse these fictions she has created, she decides that he cares more about the intellectual exercise than in making her well and happy. Soon after that, she leaves analysis.

The doctor, who is, of course, Sigmund Freud, is angry and hurt that she has terminated analysis after only eleven weeks. He decides that she has “dismissed him like a servant” out of revenge, and that he will get his own revenge by writing up and publishing her case to advance his reputation. In “Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria”, published in 1905, he calls her “Dora”, a name chosen for several connotations, all of them negative. “Dora’s” two dreams feature prominently in the case study. Kohler’s novel is called Dreaming for Freud, not “of”, because the young woman has invented the dreams.

As a young psychology student in France, Kohler read Freud’s five famous case histories which includes the “Dora” study, and was “fascinated by his brilliance and understanding.” Years later, she reread the Dora case and “saw it through a rather different lens, and like many was shocked at some of the things the doctor told this very young and vulnerable girl.” She added that she depicted Freud as a “human being.. with failings and insecurities and longings.” He was a “creature of his time and place, Vienna, 1900, with its growing anti-Semitism and the dangers of syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases, but at the same time, an enchanting city…”

In his struggle with Ida Bauer (her real name) Freud had the power of interpretation on his side. His claim to be able to read the unconscious mind left her with little power to assert herself. If she disagreed with his analysis he could attribute her protests to repression. Ida (who is never named in the novel) comes across as courageous. Though feeling physically ill, she summons the nerve to end the analysis, and later confronts those who lied about her.

Freud’s refusal to believe that Ida genuinely disliked Herr Z’s advances shows his conviction that women were sexually passive, a notion contradicted by the twentieth century studies conducted by Kinsey and later, by the team of Masters and Johnson. Freud’s theories are suspect by modern scientific standards because they were derived from a small group of patients from the same socio-economic background.

Stylistically, Kohler makes excellent use of interior monologue, alternating between Freud and Ida. The novel is presented in a poetic, intimate way that encourages readers’ intense emotional involvement. Kohler also makes effective use of “flashes forward”, interrupting the present of the story to provide tidbits of information about the characters’ futures. The novel is suspenseful. We wonder: Will the young woman give in to Freud, or will she assert her own interpretation of her feelings? What becomes of her and the adults who poisoned her teenage years?

In the latter part of the novel, Kohler shows the impact of World War I and growing European fascism between the wars upon Ida. I would have liked the author to cite her sources about the rest of Ida’s life. (She lived from 1882 to 1945). She appears to have had a strong survival instinct, and to have enjoyed periods of happiness, mostly involving her talented son.

Ruth Latta’s novel, The Old Love and the New Love (Ottawa, Canada, Baico, 2012) is available at baico@bellnet.ca. For information about reviewer Ruth Latta’s writing, please visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com.

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