10 Things About Sigmund Freud You'll Wish You Hadn't Learned

For his daughter's 120th birthday: His prejudices about women and lesbians.

Posted Dec 01, 2015

Ferdinand Schmutzer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Sigmund Freud, 1926
Source: Ferdinand Schmutzer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

December 3 is the 120th anniversary of Anna Freud's birth. She was a profoundly influential child psychoanalyst. Still, her main claim to fame was as Sigmund Freud's daughter. What most people don't know about Anna Freud is that it may have been particularly difficult for her to be Sigmund's favorite child. Let's jump right into how and why that was the case.

  1. Sigmund believed that homosexuality in men is neurotic but not particularly problematic. Lesbianism, however, he considered a gateway to mental illness.
  2. This (according to Sigmund) is because only men have moral sense. We all evolve from apes, so no human is born with it. But boys acquire morality through the castration complex—the fear that their fathers will emasculate them for their misbehavior.
  3. Having nothing obvious to neuter, girls and women are essentially amoral, lying and conniving to get what they want. Girls must be guided through civilized life by a father, and women by a husband. And because they choose not to marry, lesbians remain loose cannons, fundamentally untrustworthy and unstable.
  4. His daughter Anna was his closest intellectual and emotional companion. Yet she was a lesbian.
  5. Freud taught that lesbianism is always the fault of the father and is curable by psychoanalysis.
  6. Freud cautioned followers that analysis is an erotic relationship.  Analyst and patient together must scrutinize the amorous feelings that flow between them. This being the case, by rules he asked his followers to honor, Freud could not attempt to cure his own daughter’s lesbianism.
  7. When Anna was 23 and enjoying an especially close friendship with another woman, he took her into analysis anyway.
  8. In that six-night-a-week, several year analysis he and Anna dissected her masturbation fantasies, which featured an angry father figure (Freud?) beating a child who had made a mistake over which she had no control (Anna and her homosexuality?).
  9. He spoke publicly about her fantasies at a conference while Anna sat on stage in “the wife’s’ chair” near the podium. (He did not, however, name the patient under discussion. We know the patient was Anna because, when she wanted to become an analyst, she described  the same fantasies in a paper called “Beating Fantasies and Daydreams.” She also wrote to her friends about her fantasies. )
  10. Try as he might, Freud failed to “correct” Anna’s lesbianism. She enjoyed 54 years of happy monogamy with Dorothy Burlingham, heir to the Tiffany fortune.

All this being said, compared to his contemporaries, Sigmund Freud was indeed a compassionate, forward-thinking physician. He became a doctor at a time when lesbianism and masturbation were considered symptoms of hysteria. Most doctors treated hysteria with opiates, ovariectomies, and clitoridectomies. Freud profoundly misunderstood lesbianism, but he treated “hysterical” women by talking to them. He urged patients to look inside themselves and marvel at what they found. As problematic as details of his life and theory were, his idea that physical illnesses can be caused by emotions was a remarkable advance for humankind. 

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 Anna Freud's Story
Source: Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story

Rebecca Coffey is an award-winning science journalist (Scientific American and Discover magazines, among others) and the author of Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story, the fact-based, fictional autobiography of Sigmund Freud's lesbian daughter. Booklist has called Hysterical "complexly entertaining, sexually dramatic, [and] acidly funny" and LAMDA Literary said it's "got a plot so rife with tension it’ll make you squirm."  Oprah’s magazine recommended it in its June 2014 issue. The GLBT Roundtable of the American Library Association named it a 2015 Over the Rainbow Book.

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