Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist who became known as the founding father of psychoanalysis, is one of the most famous names in medicine. His break through research led to major changes in the treatment of psychiatry. Not a lot of information is documented about his relationship with Minna Bernays, his wife’s sister, thought to have been Freud’s confidante and mistress.
Following the death of her intended husband and a series of unsatisfactory positions as governess and ladies’ companion, Minna Bernays took up residence in the Vienna home of her sister and brother-in-law, Martha and Sigmund Freud. It was the late 1890s and there were few avenues open to well-bred, unmarried young women.
Also, it was not easy for a woman to find intellectual stimulation. Bernays was well read, rebellious and independent — traits now admired but not so in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Many historians and researchers believe Bernays found intellectual stimulation, and perhaps emotional fulfillment as well, with the compelling and controversial Freud. Minna is said to have been very different from her inhibited sister. Freud described Minna as his closest confidante and has been called his muse.
The Bernays sisters were reared in an Orthodox Jewish home, granddaughters of a noted Rabbi. Freud, who was also Jewish, did not allow them to practice Jewish customs in his household. If the physical relationship between Minna and Freud was true, what might have been her feelings of guilt?
And how would it have altered her relationship with her sister?
The book explores all the possibilities of the members of this household. It also reveals Freud as a flawed, egotistical man with eccentric tastes and addictive habits, surprisingly lacking in empathy with the women in his life. Among the most famous quotations attributed to him is this: “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’”
There is much to ponder in this book, which is a work of fiction supported by numerous academic suppositions about the relationship between Freud and Minna Bernays. One fact cited to support that she was his mistress is a guest register from a Swedish lodge during a time Freud and Bernays were known to be traveling together in which he signed the register as Mr. and Mrs. Sigmund Freud. It’s food for thought about two interesting people during an interesting time.