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A Partisan Biography

ISSUE:  Autumn 1989
Anna Freud: A Biography. By Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. Summit Books. page=$2295

Young-Bruehl’s first biography, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, attracted a lot of attention. But as a biographer she lacked critical distance; hers was a serious study in which a superb essayist like Arendt got puffed up into a theorist whose own marginal notes in books were considered worth studying and quoting. Arendt’s preferences, sympathies, and eccentricities were lovingly rolled together, accepted, and made to appear coherently justified.

Arendt was fiercely anti-Freudian, so one wonders how Young-Bruehl reconciles that biography with one of Anna Freud. But consistency is not this biographer’s objective; she does not even think of herself as writing history. “In a biography,” we are instructed, “a life is held as it were in suspension, to be contemplated as a whole, with any records that might remain of the subject’s self-understanding giving the only clues to what the life might have been like in the living, moment by moment.” It is rubbish to say that “the only clues” can be found in subjective knowledge. Young-Bruehl pursues this specious doctrine even though it is an unsound remnant of romanticism: “What Anna Freud discovered for herself and described for psychoanalytic theory in the years just after the Second World War was the one way that human beings have to preserve a life, a life story, in a true dynamism.” This biographer foists onto Anna Freud an exaggeration of the significance of identifying with others, historiographical nonsense which would exclude the possibilities of self-deception, hypocrisy, and lies, which themselves help provide “a true dynamism.” Young-Bruehl thinks she has found “the one way” of writing biography, even though she concedes that the method “of identification . . .is not a matter of history writing and it lacks the supposed objectivity of history, . . .”

The result is that Young-Bruehl has produced a partisan biography. In 1975 Anna Freud was unhappy about studies of her father, and proposed the creation of a “Defense League” like the secret committee her father had brought together before World War I to preserve the “cause” of psychoanalysis. It looks like Anna may be succeeding in her objective, for this biography enlists Young-Bruehl in the ranks of those using their talents in behalf of an “orthodox” view of the history of analysis. Book sales indicate the continued popular rewards for taking the official line on things.

A key to the “orthodox” distortions of the past lies in the use of silence. A general reader will be caught up in the narrative web of Anna Freud and its use of interestingly fresh documentary material. But how would someone necessarily know, for example, that between 1965 and 1967 Anna was particularly concerned about the impending publication of the book her father co-authored in the late 1920’s with William C. Bullitt on Woodrow Wilson? Not a word about Anna’s negotiations and editorial efforts appears in Anna Freud. Perhaps it was left out because the Wilson study itself was disappointing.

In her lifetime Anna constituted an obstacle to research on the history of analysis. That which might or might not have offended her was enough to scare off independent thinking. But Young-Bruehl does not present a balanced account of Anna’s pet hatreds. When she was disgusted by a paper of Erik H. Erikson’s on her father, that reaction goes unmentioned. Bruno Bettelheim does not come up either, even in connection with Anna’s little essay on concentration camp victims. Heinz Kohut’s work was deemed by Anna to have become “antipsychoanalytic,” and for this biographer no further comment is necessary. Wilhelm Reich’s writings on character analysis, and its influence on Anna’s The Ego and Its Mechanisms of Defense, are left out.

Although Anna played a part in the difficulties between Sandor Rado and her father, that episode does not appear here. Young-Bruehl discusses Anna’s minor contribution to the subject of feminine psychology without once mentioning the name of Karen Horney. One way of dealing with schismatics is by consigning them to the outer-darkness of non-persons. Someone as unimportant as Berta Bornstein, whom Young-Bruehl concedes “had great difficulties in writing, if not in thinking,” gets afforded a disproportionate amount of attention; but she was securely in Anna Freud’s camp, so that one concludes that Young-Bruehl’s book is the account of a religious sect.

At the same time Young-Bruehl does not seem to know about the best material on Anna’s work, important essays written by her niece Sophie Freud Loewenstein. Although I think that Anna’s most original writing consisted of her clinical descriptions of young children at her clinic in London during World War II, her official biographer leaves that aside and concentrates instead on a few papers of Anna’s that Young-Bruehl considers autobiographically revealing. (The less said the better about the use of index cards for diagnosis under Anna’s leadership.)

I felt embarrassed for Anna’s sake, with her hatred of publicity, at the attention Young-Bruehl pays to the issue of masturbation, and the “beating phantasies” which are supposed to have been Anna’s efforts to ward off her incestuous desires. The theory Young-Bruehl relies on seems analytically antique, and it is crude to reduce Anna’s problems— Freud told her she was “a little odd”—to autoeroticism.

The curious relationship between Anna and her intimate friend Dorothy Burlingham strikes me as humanly touching. (Dorothy was originally a Tiffany, got analyzed by Freud, and herself became a child analyst.) The two women worked out an original arrangement. Anna modeled herself on how her maiden Aunt Minna helped rear Anna and her five siblings, and Anna was able to do the same for Dorothy’s four children.

Yet even when one of the Burlingham children killed herself in Anna’s house in London, after years of analysis since early childhood, it would seem that Anna never allowed herself sufficient doubts about the efficacy of analysis as either therapy or prophylaxis. If Anna could not criticize herself, or was too involved in her father’s whole way of thinking, at least her biographer should have asked some of the obvious questions. The ideal of historical truth exists to check the self-indulgence of those too apt to identify with their biographical subject.

This book is harsh toward anyone who crossed Anna’s path without adequately succeeding in scraping and bowing; it is no wonder that Melanie Klein and Anna went to war against each other over rival approaches to child analysis, since they had such similarly autocratic personalities. But I read through Anna Freud with utmost fascination. It is amusing to find Anna complaining about Ernest Jones’s supposedly “negative attitude” toward her father; to the rest of the world Jones rightly looks like a Freudian apologist. Freud hated having to write a public letter in honor of Jones’s 50th birthday, since Freud thought Jones had made the contributions of a “schoolboy” and complained about his “dishonesty.” Jones in turn wrote that Anna had “no pioneering originality.” She did have an unusual simplicity and clarity of expression, especially speaking extemporaneously, but when put in front of graduate students at Harvard in 1952 she proved an embarrassment to her ideological allies.

Scholars will have to read this book even though it is littered with sloppy mistakes. Still, every new line by Freud that gets quoted from his correspondence is to me always interesting. There is a fine condolence letter from Freud to Dorothy Burlingham on the suicide of her husband. Anna Freud will inevitably do more to spur on the Freud industry, no matter how many books have already appeared. It is about time that someone pointed out how Freud, and Anna, too, were able to make politic use of old Viennese charm. Another way of describing that special tact and kindliness would be schmaltz, and an adequate degree of skepticism is needed about the habitual insincerities of cultivated people of that era.

Young-Bruehl does an inadequate job of trying to establish that Anna was a woman of imagination and fancy; a biographer has to be inventive to find “the ambitious adventurer lurking just below the cautious Miss Freud surface.” The tragedy of Anna’s life was that she was an unwanted child, but her biographer cannot come straight out and discuss the hatred Anna felt for her mother. It is preposterous to describe Martha Freud as dedicated “to elegant dresses, coiffures, and cosmetics.” Freud’s wife was more considerable a figure than his students ever wanted to acknowledge, and someday feminists will succeed in giving Martha her due. A couple of remarkable letters of hers are quoted here from her old age; in time the full correspondence from Freud’s years of courtship will be published. Except for some interesting work during World War II, ignored by Young-Bruehl, on the way young children bond to mother-substitutes, Anna excluded mothers from her theories.

Freud himself had his ambivalences toward Anna. Young-Bruehl devotes many pages to Freud’s lengthy analysis of Anna, without raising the obvious point that Freud was afraid what any other analyst might do to Anna. It has long been known that Freud referred to her as his Antigone and Cordelia, but this is the first time we find him calling her “St. Anna.” She needed to earn a living, and he did everything he could to build up her position within analysis. But he did not send her to a university. Freud was addicted to her staying at home with him. Yet one would have thought that a biographer would discuss the specifics of Freud’s will, his leaving book royalties only to his grandchildren, and what role money played in interfering with Anna’s relationships to her nephews in London.

Young-Bruehl makes some attempts to drag in politics; we are told that though “not a socialist. . .her sympathies clearly went in the socialist direction, for scientific if not for political questions.” I cannot make sense of such a contention, except that in contrast to Klein Anna talked about the “environment” of children. Anna’s favorite English author was Kipling. Young-Bruehl claims that “the analyst for whom Freud’s social vision became a credo most deeply and most lastingly was his daughter.” There were analysts who were not only socialists but Marxists, and some became members of the Communist Party. Anna consistently voted for the Liberal Party in England. She was, Young-Bruehl says, “never one to expect anything of the political realm.” During the 1934 civil war in Vienna which crushed the Socialists, Anna like her father craved “peace and quietness.” (Freud was by then a sick old man, but someone younger could afford idealism.)

Mythology about Anna has become an aspect of American intellectual history; her work has long been viewed with appropriate skepticism in Great Britain and France. Once it becomes possible to put in perspective the veneration for her as a symbol of her father’s genius, we will be better able to counteract the baleful impact of her collaboration in injecting questionable middle-class biases into legal doctrines affecting the welfare of children. On grounds of the need for continuity and the dangers of “confusing” children she was opposed to joint custody arrangements. She thought that the parent who got custody ought to have the right to control the visitations by the non-custodial parent.

However reactionary Anna may sound, the early Freudians were like 17th-century Puritans in their ascetic quest for theological introspection. Young-Bruehl cites some fascinating dreams (and associations) that Anna recorded and tried to understand, sometimes sending them on to friends like the Princess Marie Bonaparte in Paris. The circle around Anna, no matter how geographically scattered, was tied together by powerful allegiances; Young-Bruehl only tells us some of Anna’s associates whom she analyzed, so we are still in the dark about the full role of the power of therapeutic transferences in her life.

Young-Bruehl has succeeded in re-creating Anna’s hermetically-sealed world, and it does hang together in a dream-like way. Anna disliked her own first name, and dressed in an unusually plain and drab manner; entirely aside from the obvious triumphs in Anna’s life, it is hard not to think of her with sadness since she remained so tied to unfulfilled longings. As far as Anna Freud goes, if one knows enough to ask elementary kinds of questions it collapses into a heap of isolated pieces of selectively chosen documents. There are other biographical tacks besides “the only clues” that Young-Bruehl relies on here. Fortunately she is wrong about there being only “the one way” that biographers can preserve a life.


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