Freud, Dora, and Vienna 1900
by Hannah S Decker
Free Press - 299 pp
Reviewed by Linda Dangoor-Khalastchi
Everyone has heard of Freud but no-one has heard of Dora. Who was she? Freud's mistress? Daughter? Mother? No. Dora, alias Ida Bauer, was a patient of Freud for many years and about whom the Viennese psychoanalyst wrote extensively. One of Freud's unhappiest cases, her case history became a pioneering vehicle in theory and practice for subsequent analysts.
But don't let that put you off!
Although the book is about Dora, her story (and that of Freud's) is told within the broader framework of Bohemian and Viennese Jewish history. From their first settlements in the 11th century, the Jews of Bohemia were a people apart, their lives hallmarked by unpredictability. While certain stable times allowed them to practice numerous crafts and trades and allowed them to live "normally" these were always short-lived. Changing times brought with them restrictions, special taxes, physical attacks and repeated expulsions.
Hannah S Decker with great insight describes how these anti-semitic conditions had a lasting and negative psychological effect on the Jewish psyche which was passed on from generation to generation. We learn, for example, that in the 18th century a programme of deliberate population curtailment had begun in Bohemia. In 1726 a law was passed which caused much suffering to the Jewish community. It disrupted family life by limiting the number of Jews eligible for marriage. Only the eldest son was allowed to marry and this not before the age of twenty four and only after his father's death. If children, other than the eldest son wanted to marry legally they had to leave the country as marriages not conforming to the new conditions were considered illegal.
The Law had the desired effect. In thirty years the Jewish population of Bohemia fell by a quarter.
By placing Dora and Freud and their respective families in their historical, religious and socio-economic context, the author does a wonderful job in reconstructing Jewish lives, attitudes and aspirations and showing how ineffectual conversions to Christianity was as a means to being accepted.
Dora was born at the end of the 19th century into an upper middle-class Viennese Jewish family at a time when masculine qualities and feminine ones mistrusted and ridiculed.
"In Christian society, middle-class Jewish girls and women felt especially powerless. In addition to the continual negative sentiments they had to bear as women and as Jews, they had to cope with the very real disadvantages that barred their admission to higher education and careers."
Misogyny (woman hating) and anti-sensitive went hand in hand, the denigration of both, women and Jews being part of social conventions "Even the most superior woman was immeasurably below the most debased man, just as Judaism at its highest was immeasurably beneath even degraded Christianity". Hannah S Decker explains that it was the general consensus that women were inferior and the insistent proclamations of anti-semites that the proof of the "Jews' deficiencies lay in their exhibition of traits commonly associated with women. Thus did anti-feminism and anti-semitism unite at the turn of the century.
A young Jewish woman like Dora could be filled with more self-doubt, and even self-loathing than a Jewish man.
It is disheartening to learn that an important and influential man such as Freud held the same views as some of his contemporaries. "At no time in his career, was he prepared to recognise women's sensibilities".
It begs the question: how much harm was done and can be done by psychoanalysts' bigoted views and ideas?
Freud, as the author explains, was from a most traditional background, leading a conforming married life. He "cannot be blamed for his conventional views. But his lack of empathy with Dora ........further narrowed her circumscribed situation.....".
Half-way between a documentary and a novel, Decker's book makes fascinating reading. Although repetitious at times, it raises questions that are still pertinent today.
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