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.


This easily read novel is in some ways a thought experiment about the mystery over the relationship of Sigmund Freud to his sister-in-law Minna, told from her perspective. Very little is actually known about Minna and her letters with Freud were sealed until 1987; however, in 2006, the Swiss hotel register was shown to have an entry for “Freud und frau” at a time when Martha was known to be in Vienna. This discovery resurrected the long contested debate, originally triggered by Carl Jung, and it convinced some scholars, such as Freud biographer Peter Gay, that they had been lovers after all.

Following that 2006 discovery and relying on the research of Peter Swales, the authors construct a “what if” narrative that accepts that long-contested opinion that Freud conducted a sexual affair with his sister-in-law. They explore Minna’s torment, as she struggles with her growing passion and with her loyalty to her sister. In a sense, then, although the issue is not related in so many words, Minna (ego) is wrestling with both her id and her super-ego at a moment in time when Freud is developing those theories, which he discusses with her.

In this account, Minna is shown to be a beautiful, strong, independent thinker. She smokes, swears and dresses simply but well. She dares to argue with Freud, and rejects some of his theories, especially those concerning sexuality as the root of all mental distress. She criticizes his constant cigar-smoking (a slightly overdone premonition of the cancer that would kill him), and she is baffled and betrayed by his preoccupation with Wilhelm Fliess, a superficial yet dangerous interloper. Nice cameos of real figures people the narrative – Eugen Bleuler, Wilhelm Fliess, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Anna as a baby, and lisping Sophie Freud at age four.

Minna’s social situation is a statement on the narrow choices available to women in her time. Chauvinism and racism both pervade the story. There is even a hint that her miscarriage may have been provoked by an unethical physician who has been "bought" by Freud.

The note on sources shows that the authors researched their subject well, keeping the novel in the realm of “the plausible;”  therefore making it an inviting approach to the history and criticism of Freud’s theories. A special effort is made to recreate the atmosphere of fin-de siècle Vienna, but a bit too much prose is devoted to descriptions of clothing and furniture, although those aspects have been researched too.

Told from the feminist-critical angle, however, Freud emerges as singularly unattractive—selfish, arrogant, petulant, addicted, and dogmatic -- making it difficult for the reader to accept the heroic Minna’s powerful attraction to him and her baffling weakness in accepting the specific gender-demeaning roles that he assigns her.

A few editorial lapses mar the overall effect: would a 19th century Viennese Jewish woman describe herself as “antsy,” and, even in a whisper, would she swear by “Christ Almighty” (p. 124)?


For Peter Gay’s assessment of this relationship based on their letters, see  

For the discovery of the hotel register and its implications, see

On Peter Swales, a 1984 Dutch documentary explores his research on Freud and his affair with Minna, see


Amy Einhorn Books, Division of Putnam

Place Published

New York



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