Anna Freud’s Astounding Story

New fact-based novel about Sigmund Freud’s smartest daughter astonishes.

Posted Jun 07, 2014

Science journalist Rebecca Coffey’s just published novel, Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story, is a fact-based, fictionalized exploration of the complicated and loving relationship between Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna.

As Anna tells her story, we gain insight into such questions as what it was like for her to grow up lesbian in a household where her world-renowned father had pronounced lesbianism to be a moral and emotional death sentence; what it must have been like for Anna to discuss her longings and beating fantasies every night with her own father as part of his analysis of her; and how she was able to build a full life with her female lover, all while doting on her disapproving father as he aged and died.

Q&A with Rebecca Coffey: 

Q: Your account of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna was eye-opening for me. I knew nothing about his family. How much inventing did you have to do, considering that Anna's personal papers are still not allowed to be seen by researchers? 

What I did was read everything—and I mean everything. I read the Freuds’ published works, I read official biographies, I read unofficial biographies, I read the criticisms, I read the defenses, and I read Sigmund’s available diary. In this way I became sure of many events and characters.

My next task was to treat them all like “dots” and connect them, much in the same way that anyone constructs a life story from what they can remember of their own lives. Wherever I could I stayed very close to the bone of the historical record. Of course I had to imagine dialogue, scenes, and situations. When the historical record was lacking, I followed implications to their logical conclusions. Sometimes those conclusions were pretty outrageous—but I take no responsibility for the lunacy of the “set-ups.”  

Q: What was your initial interest in Anna Freud? I got so angry at Sigmund Freud as I read how he humiliated his daughter, how he broke his own rules by psychoanalyzing her for years, how he was a product of his time in his acceptance--nay, promotion--of women as inferior beings. 

For another project, I had been reading Sigmund Freud’s papers. Specifically, I’d been researching the history of how psychologists have responded to patients with histories of trauma. I came across Jeffrey Moussaeiff Masson’s revelation that Freud had begun dismissing as fantasies women’s tales of rape for reasons that had nothing to do with the women but everything to do with his own professional advancement. Fascinated by hysteria, I became engrossed in literature by and about Freud.

In all of this research, Anna’s name came up again and again, usually with a nod to her unrelieved loyalty to her father. But also, fairly consistently, people referred to Freud’s having called Anna a “vestal virgin.” I thought that an odd way to describe a fully realized woman. But it seemed to raise no one’s eyebrows. (I now realize that may be because the authors of most of the works I was reading early on were psychoanalysts. They tend not to wonder aloud about Sigmund Freud.)

And then I noticed that, occasionally, the name “Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham” came up in association with Anna’s. When the name was mentioned, no further information was divulged—and this struck me as bizarre, given that reams of paragraphs were routinely devoted to nearly every other person in the Freud family circle.

I also noticed a tendency on the part of people close to the Freud family to make vague, proud references to men Anna could have married but somehow never got around to dating. “Poor, lonely Anna, too devoted to her Papa to live a full life” was the general sentiment.

 Anna Freud's Story
Meanwhile, I read another one of Jeffrey Moussaeiff Masson’s books. In the foreword, I found a delightful anecdote. In the very early 1980s (or maybe even the late 70s), he’d been working as the Projects Director at the Freud Archives, and his job had been to root around in the Freud home in London and read whatever documents he could find. Anna and Dorothy still lived in the home. Masson became curious.

Were the two sweet old ladies lovers? He could find no one who wasn’t made terribly nervous whenever he asked that question, and so he did the obvious thing (for him; he’s a self-confessed snoop) and asked the maid. She had been in Dorothy’s employ for 54 years—since the year Anna and Dorothy met. Masson asked her whether Anna and Dorothy shared a bedroom. Essentially, her response was that they each had their own bedroom and they used whichever one they wanted.

That’s when my own growing suspicions about Anna’s sexuality exploded. I already knew that Sigmund not only believed lesbianism to be a gateway to mental illness, he thought it was always the fault of the father, and was curable by psychoanalysis. I began reading a book by Paul Roazen, a historian with no alliance to the Freuds (and with no bone to pick). In it Roazen revealed that Sigmund had analyzed Anna. Of course, I’d “heard” about this before, but in the books by Freudians it was always referred to as a “training analysis.” They were just talking about how to analyze; they weren’t analyzing.

Roazen told the story entirely differently. I was truly shocked because, according to Sigmund, psychoanalysis is not just occasionally an erotically charged enterprise. It must be one. Mutual desire is what analyst and analysand parse. It is the stuff of psychoanalysis—as opposed to the stuff of psychodynamic therapy today.

When I began wondering what the heck Anna and Sigmund had talked about in psychoanalysis, the novel was born.


Q: Anna's lifelong devotion to children in need seemed almost at odds with her role in promoting her father's business and legacy. They were one weird duo. These days, you'd expect many therapists to suggest she break those codependent ties with a father who never accepted her for who she was. I wonder if she was brainwashed into believing as much of her father's beliefs as she possibly could.

I have thought a lot about the same question and actually wrote a chapter in which she explained her choices, but then deleted it because I liked leaving the reader to wonder. Separating from the family was probably unthinkable for a woman in Vienna in those days. There was simply no way to fit into society without the ballast of a husband or a family.

Once the war was over and Anna and Dorothy were living in England, Anna’s choices were undoubtedly more plentiful. But the war had taken away so many loved ones. I doubt if she was in any sort of emotional position to break important bonds and to turn her back on gratitude about the fact that most of them had survived.  And, of course, it wasn’t terribly long after arriving in London that Sigmund died.

But I also direct you to the sentence in Hysterical that Anna speaks with reference to Ernest Jones: “The bond of victim to perpetrator can be a strange one, laced with a tie no truly free person could accept.” It could just as well describe Anna and Sigmund—and many people in many families.


Q: What is your writing process like? Do you enter a flow state when you write? Is it different for you with fiction than non-fiction? 

Fiction or non-fiction, I’m very disciplined. I wake up. I have coffee. I sit down. I study my notes. And I start to write. I do not wait for inspiration; it doesn’t come to me that way. Inspiration happens as I type.

Really. Hysterical is very “close to the bone” as I said earlier. But there are two major surprises in the book that I wasn’t planning on. Two separate characters blurted out lines that I was not in any measure anticipating. It was truly as though I’d been spoken to, and it was such a joy! But of course I don’t believe I’m channeling anyone. I just believe that I get swept up, and that unless I stick to my workman-like routine I won’t have anything on a page to react to.

Q: The jokes you include in the book are funny, but for me, they sometimes interrupted the flow of the narrative. Do we have any actual record that the family liked to joke around?

The joke “Sometimes a wife is like an umbrella. Sooner or later you take a cab?” To the best of my knowledge, that really was original with Freud, and the person he said it to was duly shocked. (And I love that joke for its leap in logic. What a work of art those two sentences are!) Also, Freud wrote Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious. It’s full of jokes. By all counts, he loved a good one.

I thought giving Anna a sense of humor was important (a) because she had it in her genes and (b) she needed some habit that gave her perspective in dicey moments. I didn’t want it to be a book of complaints or horror. I wanted it to be a book of perspective. Wit can be such a gift.

Q: Your next project?

I’m working on a sequel to Nietzsche’s Angel Food Cake: And Other “Recipes” for the Intellectually Famished. (More info about that book is at I'm also writing a novel (working title Animal Truths) about an indigenous girl living in arctic Siberia in the 1930s.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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