Freud Had An Affair With The Sister Of His Own Wife
Maybe it was just a Freudian slip. Or a case of hiding in plain sight.
Either way, Sigmund Freud, scribbling in the pages of a Swiss hotel register, appears to have left the answer to a question that has titillated scholars for much of the last century: Did he have an affair with his wife’s younger sister, Minna Bernays?
Rumors of a romantic liaison between Freud and his sister-in-law, who lived with the Freuds, have long persisted, despite staunch denials by Freud loyalists. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung, Freud’s disciple and later his archrival, claimed that Miss Bernays had confessed to an affair to him. (The claim was dismissed by Freudians as malice on Jung’s part.) And some researchers have even theorized that she may have become pregnant by Freud and have had an abortion.
What was lacking was any proof. But a German sociologist now says he has found evidence that on Aug. 13, 1898, during a two-week vacation in the Swiss Alps, Freud, then 42, and Miss Bernays, then 33, put up at the Schweizerhaus, an inn in Maloja, and registered as a married couple, a finding that may cause historians to re-evaluate their understanding of Freud’s own psychology.
A yellowing page of the leather-bound ledger shows that they occupied Room 11. Freud signed the book, in his distinctive Germanic scrawl, “Dr Sigm Freud u frau,” abbreviated German for “Dr. Sigmund Freud and wife.”
“By any reasonable standard of proof, Sigmund Freud and his wife’s sister, Minna Bernays, had a liaison,” wrote Franz Maciejewski, a sociologist formerly at the University of Heidelberg and a specialist in psychoanalysis, who tracked down the record in August.
Freud’s wife, Martha, knew about his trip with Miss Bernays, if not its nature. The same day Freud signed the hotel ledger, he sent his wife a postcard rhapsodizing about the glaciers, mountains and lakes the pair had seen. In the card, published in Freud’s collected correspondence, he described their lodgings as “humble,” although the hotel appears to have been the second-fanciest in town.
The evidence is persuasive enough for Peter Gay, the Freud biographer and longtime skeptic on what he called “the Minna matter,” to say that he is now inclined to revise his work accordingly.
“It makes it very possible that they slept together,” he said. “It doesn’t make him or psychoanalysis more or less correct.”
The revelation is also likely to reignite a longstanding debate about Freud’s personal life. The father of psychoanalysis, whose 150th birthday was celebrated this year, plumbed the darkest sexual drives and secrets of the psyche. But scholars still argue about how scrupulous Freud was in his own behavior.
Peter L. Rudnytsky, a former Fulbright/Freud Society Scholar of Psychoanalysis in Vienna and the editor of the psychoanalytic journal American Imago, said the disclosure was hardly a “so what?” matter because “psychoanalysis has such a close relationship to the life of Freud.”
“Psychoanalysis has invested a great deal in a certain idealized image of Freud,” said Dr. Rudnytsky, a professor of English at the University of Florida. “Freud dealt with issues considered suspect — sexuality — things that made people uncomfortable, so Freud himself had to be a figure of impeccable integrity.”
In any case, he said: “Things that happen in people’s intimate lives are important. It’s very Freudian.”
Freud himself was cryptic, writing to the American neurologist James J. Putman in 1915: “I stand for a much freer sexual life. However I have made little use of such freedom.”
Peter Swales, a historian and researcher who has spent decades uncovering details of Freud’s relationship with his sister-in-law, hailed the discovery as recognition of what he called “Minna Bernays’s central, fundamental and profound place in Freud’s intellectual biography.”
How Dr. Maciejewski discovered the hotel ledger in itself seems strangely Freudian. He spent August 2005 retracing the Swiss idyll taken by Freud and Miss Bernays for a book, published this year, on Freud’s long fixation on Moses.
While in Switzerland with Miss Bernays, Freud had trouble remembering a name. Dr. Maciejewski theorized that the lapse involved some secret guilt of Freud’s, but he could not get to the bottom of it. However, while reading the proofs of his book last spring, he said, “a feeling of you forgot something crept over me.”
In August, he returned to Maloja, and asked at the Schweizerhaus if the original guest book still existed. It did, and there, on a page from 1898, he found Freud’s entry.
Dr. Maciejewski said he came away convinced that “they not only shared a bed, they were even up to misrepresenting their relationship to strangers as that of husband and wife, a subterfuge they surely then maintained whenever feasible during subsequent holidays together in faraway places.”
Dr. Maciejewski published an article about his find in a German newspaper, the Frankfurter Rundschau, in September. An English version will appear in American Imago next month. Freud helped found the quarterly, now published by Johns Hopkins University Press, in 1939, shortly before his death in London, where he lived after fleeing the Nazis. Minna Bernays died in London in 1941.
Jürg Wintsch, proprietor of the Schweizerhaus, confirmed the existence of the ledger entry, which he said Dr. Maciejewski had first brought to his attention. He described Room 11, now called 24, as one of the largest in the hotel and said its structure was substantially unchanged since Freud’s visit. He said he had been hoping to keep Freud’s stay there a secret until the hotel’s 125th anniversary next June.
The triangle of Freud, his wife and her sister has long been irresistible to scholars, including Dr. Gay, who noted in a 1989 essay, “As every biographer of Freud must ruefully acknowledge, that great unriddler of mysteries left behind some tantalizing private mysteries of his own.”
The most riveting among them, he wrote, were the rumors of a love affair with Miss Bernays. But, he added, scant evidence of any romance could be found in the published correspondence between Freud and his sister-in-law, although some letters were intriguingly missing.
From the moment Freud fell in love with Martha Bernays in 1882, he was also drawn to her “intelligent, caustic” younger sister, Minna, whose fiancé died of tuberculosis in 1886, the year the Freuds married, Dr. Gay wrote in the essay. In 1896, Miss Bernays moved in with the Freuds, helping with household chores and child rearing. She lived with them, it turned out, for 42 years.
In 1953, Ernest Jones, Freud’s student and first biographer, tried vigorously to dispel stray gossip about Freud’s “second wife.” He dismissed what he called “strange legends” and described Freud as “monogamic in a very unusual degree.”
Mr. Jones wrote, “His wife was assuredly the only woman in Freud’s love life, and she always came first before all other mortals.”
This idyllic portrait largely held sway until 1969, when John M. Billinsky, a psychologist at the Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, published an interview he conducted with Jung in Switzerland in 1957. Recounting a visit with his wife to Freud in Vienna in 1907, Jung told Dr. Billinsky that Freud had said, “I am sorry I can give you no real hospitality; I have nothing at home but an elderly wife.”
In contrast, Jung described Miss Bernays as “very good looking” — although later photographs show her rather dour and stolid — and said that in private she confessed that “she was very much bothered by her relationship with Freud and felt guilty about it.”
“From her I learned that Freud was in love with her and that their relationship was indeed very intimate,” Jung continued.
When Jung and Freud traveled to America in 1909, Jung said, Freud confided some dreams about Mrs. Freud and Miss Bernays, but then abruptly ended the discussion, saying, “I could tell you more, but I cannot risk my authority.”
Jung’s account was attacked as unreliable by, among others, Dr. Kurt R. Eissler, the longtime director of the Sigmund Freud Archives who, as recently as 1993, six years before his death at 90, wrote in a published essay, “In one respect Freud was undeniably superior to Jung: his sexual record was lily white.”
Dr. Eissler said that Freud’s theory “of course was obscene, with its eternal harping on sex, but the conduct of the man who originated it was beyond reproach.”
What Dr. Eissler did not say was that four years before the Billinsky interview, he had heard many of the same things about Freud and Miss Bernays firsthand in an interview with Jung in Zurich in 1953. But Dr. Eissler and the Freud Archives placed an embargo on the transcript of the interview for 50 years and then ordered the papers sealed for an additional 10 years, until 2013. A German transcript, stamped “Confidential,” in the Library of Congress was made available in 2003 for reading only at the library, although a copy was obtained by The New York Times.
In 1981, Dr. Eissler was at the center of an uproar at the Archives when his designated successor as director, Jeffrey M. Masson, was fired after breaking ranks with orthodox Freudians over interpretations of psychoanalytic theory and Freud’s character.
In the 1953 Jung interview, which Dr. Eissler apparently never cited publicly, Jung said he thought Miss Bernays had developed a psychological attachment to Freud but that when he had broached the subject, Freud turned unresponsive.
“Every man has his secrets,” Jung concluded, adding that when it came to Freud himself, “the unconscious was something which one should not touch.”
Jung theorized to Dr. Eissler that Freud had experienced some disappointment in love, sublimating it into a drive for power and developing a neurosis expressed in fear of losing control of his bladder.
“It could be precisely that he got into this conflict which in marriage is all too frequent, right?” Jung said. “The young woman, the other woman.”
Jung said that he vaguely recalled something about “a possible pregnancy,” but quickly added, “That can all be a stupid assumption.”
Hardly so to Mr. Swales. In a 1982 journal article, he argued that Freud’s story of a young man’s episode of forgetfulness in his 1901 book, “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life,” was actually thinly disguised autobiography, exposing Freud’s own alarm over an inconvenient pregnancy.
Since then, Mr. Swales said, he has traced a 1900 trip by Freud and Miss Bernays to the Austrian town of Meran where she may have had an abortion, falling mysteriously ill after returning to Vienna.
Freud, in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, said that Miss Bernays was suffering from a lung ailment, but, Mr. Swales said, “The jury is still out.”
Freud the Man: An Intellectual Biography
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