Monday, March 12, 2012

Did Freud have an Extramarital Affair?

From L to R, Minna Bernays, Martha Bernays Freud, and Dr. Freud (1929) 
As a supplement to our in-class discussions of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalytic theory, my students recently read this Newsweek article from 2006 that attempted to capture the Austrian psychologist's impact on modern psychiatry on what would have been his 150th birthday. As student questions often do, one student's inquiry into a detail from the article that I had glossed over and essentially dismissed drew my attention to the need for further investigation on my part.

The article hinted at the possible existance of an extramarital affair between Freud and his sister-in-law, Minna Bernay (sister to his wife, Martha). My students wondered whether this was true. It turns out there has been interest in this possible episode in Freud's life since Carl Jung claimed, in a 1953 interview, to have been told of the affair by Minna herself. Freud biographer Peter Gay had explored these allegations in 1989 when a number of letters in the Freud archive of the U.S. Library of Congress became publicly available, but the information offered by this source was inconclusive at best. Some letters exchanged between Minna and Freud were missing, others revealed nothing more than a friendly, if close, relationship between in-laws who lived in the same household for some time.

Such rumors apparently resurfaced in 2006, when a hotel log was uncovered that revealed Freud and Minna had spent a week together at a hotel in the Swiss Alps, registered as husband and wife. This NYTimes article explores the significance of the revelation, including speculation about whether a pregnancy scare followed the trip.

Defenders of Freud's otherwise unmarred sexual history (ok...unmarred in the sense of conscious behavior...we all know what he believed about unconscious sexual impulses) find this evidence to be lacking. It doesn't actually prove the existance of an affair. Critics might wonder, what proof would one need?

One could easily argue, "What does it matter, anyway?" Yet, given what we know about how much Freud's personal life influenced his theories, one might expect that an illicit love affair (if it happened) would have had a rather significant impact on his already complicated view of human sexuality.

1 comment:

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