Last semester I taught Freud’s five case histories as short stories to a group of bright young freshmen at an Ivy league institution. I was somewhat apprehensive about addressing this sexually frank and sometimes disturbing material with such young students. I need not have worried. We were soon talking freely and intelligently about “widdlers,” castration and the Oedipus complexes not to speak of more basic matters of the body like bowel movements.
The first case history we read was the Dora case. I asked the students what they thought of it, and above all Freud’s role with this very young woman who is suffering from a plethora of ailments and whom Freud considers hysterical. “Arrogant,” one young woman said immediately, “He’s so very arrogant!” I had to agree.
In the next case history, “Little Hans” where the child is given more of a voice and where Freud’s attitude is obviously more tolerant, the students became more tolerant of Freud and indeed applauded some of his remarks particularly when Freud himself applauds the young analysand when he suggests he should marry his mother. Young Hans lets his father off the Oedipus hook by suggesting he marry Hans’ grandmother!
The students were even interested by the last case history we read which my psychiatrist husband had suggested we did not undertake: The Schreber Case. “He’s too mad,” my husband said, referring to this distinguished judge who believes he can save the world by changing his sex. But it was perhaps this madness, which interested some of the students particularly: the originality and the freedom it gives him to express his ideas.
When I asked the students to write short essays on some of the subjects brought up in the case histories I had some amazing responses. While reading “Little Hans”, I suggested the students write about their own childhood fears. I had one wonderful essay from a young Chinese student, a Mathematics major, who said it was the mirror in his room he feared as a child. He was afraid, he wrote, if he looked at himself in the mirror he might see that he was not as exceptional as his parents were determined he was to be!
I had some excellent essays, too, written from the point of view of some of the interesting minor characters in the case histories: the cruel captain in the Ratman case for example, who describes the rat torture to Ernst Lanzer, or Fraulein Peter, the nursemaid who lets the Ratman finger her freely, or the Wolfman’s brilliant sister who seduces him, writes poetry, and eventually commits suicide after a visit to the Russian poet, Lermontov’s grave or even Nanja the Wolfman’s old nanny who has such interesting conversations with him about religion. “Does Jesus have a backside?” the little boy asks.
Certainly, Freud continues to provide an amazingly fertile terrain where one can draw inspiration, as I have done myself, writing on the Dora case in “Dreaming for Freud.” There is much one still can learn about oneself as well as others, of course, in these pages, but also much to be learned about how to write it down on the page.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.