Karen Mack

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Freud's Mistress

Kaufman, Jennifer; Mack, Karen

Last Updated: Jul-31-2015
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


Minna Bernays is the younger sister of Martha, Sigmund Freud's wife. Her own fiancé has died and by 1895, she is reduced to joining her sister’s family in Vienna because she has abandoned her position as a companion to a demanding, prejudiced aristocrat. The six Freud children love her, but she finds them exhausting and undisciplined. Obsessed with order, housework, and social standing, and possibly suffering from psychosomatic ailments, Martha is happy to leave the care of the children to Minna. She disapproves of her husband’s theories about sexual frustration as a cause of mental distress and refuses to discuss his ideas. Nevertheless, Martha is well aware that growing anti-semitism hampers her husband’s career, and she is eager for him to succeed: he could consider a conversion of convenience, like the composer Gustav Mahler.

Minna finds herself drawn to Sigmund for his intellect and his novel ideas. She is also attracted to him physically, and he to her. She resists the temptation, but he does not and actively pursues her, inducing her to try cocaine too. He justifies it - the sex and the drugs - as necessities for mental and physical well-being and he rejects the guilt that, he claims, so-called civilization would impose.

She tries to leave by finding another job as a ladies’ companion in Frankfurt, but he follows her there. They escape for an idyllic holiday to a hotel in Switzerland, then he brings her back to the family home. But his ardor cools and she is wounded, displaced by his enthusiasm for Wilhelm Fliess and Lou Andreas-Salomé.

Soon she discovers that she is pregnant, and Freud sends her away to a “spa” for an abortion, but at the last moment, she decides to keep her baby. Sadly she miscarries and returns to the Freud family with whom she remains for more than four decades until her death in 1941.

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