Title: Freud’s Mistress
Author: Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman
No. of Pages: 368
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program; Amy Einhorn Books
Release Date: 9 July 2013
Bottom Line: Compelling and a teensy bit disturbing
It is fin-de-siecle Vienna and Minna Bernays, an over-educated lady’s companion with a sharp, wry wit, is abruptly fired, yet again, from her position. She finds herself out on the street and out of options. In 1895, the city may be aswirl with avant-garde artists and revolutionary ideas, yet a woman’s only hope for security is still marriage. But Minna is unwilling to settle. Out of desperation, she turns to her sister, Martha, for help.
Martha has her own problems—six young children and an absent, disinterested husband who happens to be Sigmund Freud. At this time, Freud is a struggling professor, all but shunned by his peers and under attack for his theories, most of which center around sexual impulses. And while Martha is shocked and repulsed by her husband’s “pornographic” work, Minna is fascinated.
Minna is everything Martha is not — intellectually curious, engaging, and passionate. She and Freud embark on what is at first simply an intellectual courtship, yet something deeper is brewing beneath the surface, something Minna cannot escape.
In this sweeping tale of love, loyalty, and betrayal—between a husband and a wife, between sisters—fact and fiction seamlessly blend together, creating a compelling portrait of an unforgettable woman and her struggle to reconcile her love for her sister with her obsessive desire for her sister’s husband, the mythic father of psychoanalysis.
Thoughts: In Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman, Minna Bernays is a woman caught in between social changes. The revolutionary ideas that began to spark in earnest during the final years of the 20th century, ideas she firmly embraces, had not yet drilled down into women’s rights. For someone against the idea of marriage for marriage’s sake and against the very limited employment possibilities for single women, she has very little options in regards to hearth and income. Minna does what so many others have done before her and turns to her sister for help, only to be caught up in an unexpected and passionate relationship – with her husband’s sister.
It is worth noting that of the three figures in complicated love triangle, the one who generates the least sympathy is Freud himself. His cavalier attitude towards his wife as well as his obsessive adoration of one person at a time characterize someone who is supremely self-centered and oblivious to the feelings of others. He never loses this aspect of his personality, and yet, a reader’s feelings about each of the characters, including Freud, will evolve along with the dynamics of their relationships. As Martha shares with Minna the unspoken secrets of her long marriage, Sigmund’s behavior and attitudes become less repellant and more something that just is. Similarly, readers’ attitudes towards and opinions of the two sisters change and adapt to each new uncovered facet of their personalities and silent perseverance. In particular, Martha morphs from a shrewish, oblivious housewife into someone completely surprising. It is a brilliantly written example of the dangers of jumping to conclusions and a lovely little bit of irony given that Freud made his name by assuming all mental ailments are sexual in origin.
It should not come as any surprise that someone who made his name through his theories about sexual desire and deviance would come across as an absolute cad. His ideas were so far removed from the Victorian social mores to which he was bound, that there is bound to be friction between his actions – which follow his beliefs – and more conventional behavior. What is surprising is that Freud was married in the first place. It would stand to reason that someone who made a living developing theories about sexual impulses and had extremely progressive views on sexual behavior would be less inclined to enter into a traditionally monogamous relationship. Yet, his six children and long-lasting marriage prove otherwise.
Minna is quite the conundrum, and that really does not change as the story progresses. While Minna’s guilt and frustrations at the lack of prospects are completely understandable, her continuing presence in the Freud household serves to do nothing but compound her guilty feelings. This mental self-flagellation is easily explained and yet gets old as her time in the household progresses because it contradicts her progressive attitudes and opinions. As much as she is Freud’s victim, she is also his accomplice, and her remorse at her actions does not fit with her general outlook on marriage and women’s roles.
Ms. Mack and Ms. Kaufman excel at sharing the Freuds’ unusual lifestyle and its origins. Their seamless blending of fact with fiction creates a compelling story that explores the frustrations of living and loving a man ahead of his compatriots in terms of psychoanalysis and attitudes towards sex. Minna’s story also showcases that no matter how much one might delve into another person’s life story, it is impossible to discover their innermost secrets without their cooperation. Ironic, isn’t it?