Fictional Fetishes: If Sigmund Freud Psychoanalyzed Characters From Books
The founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud has fascinated and infuriated us for over a century, and we're still debating his ideas about dreams and the subconscious, women and hysteria, sexuality and the id, anal retention and the Oedipus Complex--the list goes on. He's cropped up in novels, movies, scholarship and pop culture, from "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" to the 2011 movie starring Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley, "A Dangerous Method." A new novel by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman, "Freud's Mistress," takes on a particularly dicey aspect of Freud's biography: his love affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays. We asked Mack and Kaufman what Dr. Freud would have thought of some iconic characters in fiction, and they've given us five Freudian psychoanalyses of literary characters, from Isadora in Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying" to Lisbeth Salander in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and more.
Mommy issues: Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing
This 1970s feminist classic begins when Isadora, a neurotic writer of erotic poetry, is flying to (where else?) a psychoanalytic conference in Vienna. She is married to one analyst and preparing to run off with another, when she decides to indulge in her fantasy of sex "for its own sake," without the annoying element of emotional involvement. Erica Jong's now infamous "zipless f*ck" was Isadora's mantra, a belief that fantasy encounters were "the purest thing there is--rarer than the unicorn." Naturally, she had childhood issues. She called her overbearing mother "Jude not obscure" and said she taught her two things: "The world is a predatory place …eat fast" and "never be ordinary." For Isadora, life was a long disease to be cured by psychoanalysis.
So what would Herr Dr. Freud think of Isadora? He would have a field day. First of all, that mother! And then he would observe that a happy person never fantasizes, only an unsatisfied one does. He posited that every fantasy was the fulfillment of a wish. He might well sympathize with Wing's "extra-marital" affair, for he felt (and demonstrated) that passion and marriage could not coexist. But, on the other hand, Freud once said in an interview that psychoanalysis is for hysterical, pathological cases and not for silly, rich American women who should be learning to darn socks.
Guilt: Briony Tallis
In this masterful Ian McEwan novel, set in an upper-class country estate in 1935, 13-year-old Briony becomes increasingly disturbed by her older sister's love affair with Robbie Turner, the housekeeper's son. She is even more alarmed when she intercepts one of Robbie's love letters to her sister, which has shockingly lewd references. Poor Robbie meant to tear up the vulgar version and send another, but he mistakenly sent the wrong one. Eventually, Briony falsely accuses Robbie of rape, and he is hauled off to prison and then to war. The consequences of Briony's innocent mistake plague her for the rest of her life, and she is filled with remorse, paralyzing guilt and isolation. At some point, she cannot even distinguish between reality and fiction.
Sigmund Freud would say that Robbie's little slip, which seemed innocuous at the time, could be interpreted to be of great significance: the Freudian slip. Freud observed that it may happen in life as in chess, where a false move can force us to lose the game. As for Briony's crushing guilt, Freud would tell her that guilt is simply a self-imposed punishment that is thrust on us by civilization. And you don't need to suffer it unless you choose to. He certainly didn't!
Cry for attention: Brenda Patimkin
Brenda, the beautiful wealthy Radcliffe undergraduate, has a summer fling with a working-class library clerk in New Jersey. She appears to have it all: a brand-new nose job, a closetful of frills and a father who treats her like the princess she is. But when Brenda carelessly leaves her diaphragm in her underwear drawer and her mother finds it, her pampered, cloistered life is destroyed. Her boyfriend and the story's narrator, Neil Klugman, is banished from the mansion, her inaccessible mother abandons her and she is "daddy's little girl" no more.
Freud would naturally say that Brenda unconsciously wanted her parents to know she was having premarital sex, so her mother would pay attention to her for once. The unconscious, according to Freud's theories, was responsible for all sorts of screw-ups, including self-destructive and irrational behavior. Because who, in their right mind, would leave a diaphragm in the one drawer that they know will be checked? Someone who wants to get caught.
Abusive childhood: Lisbeth Salander
Brilliant but deeply troubled and prone to violence and revenge, Lisbeth is a poster child for everything that could go wrong: traumatic childhood, sexually abusive guardian, sadistic psychiatric nurses and a plethora of emotional disorders that come with being an outcast and a lifelong victim. Still, she is a thoroughly absorbing and sympathetic heroine whose inability to conform to social norms makes her all the more appealing.
Lisbeth would be one of Freud's choicest patients, if for no other reason that she was an expert on perversions. She'd seen and done it all: a smorgasbord of neurosis. He would suggest that the reasons for all of her disorders were directly related to her abusive and violent childhood. Although, her bisexuality would have been something that Freud accepted. In fact, he said that everyone had homosexual tendencies, which was quite something to say in Victorian times, when many people thought homosexuality was either deeply depraved or just a "passing phase."
Overwork: Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes' extraordinary powers of observation were paired with a cocaine habit, a manic-depressive personality and asocial leanings that created an aversion to women. He was a memorable, eccentric genius with his sharp, hooked nose, crooked pipe and tweed cap. Surprisingly, he had quite a lot in common with Dr. Freud. For instance, they were both were cocaine addicts, heavy smokers and workaholics.
For years, Freud himself recklessly used cocaine as a cure for almost everything---depression, headaches, pain, stomach and nasal problems. It helped him relax, it helped him work. He described himself to his wife as a, "big, wild man with cocaine in his body." So, if he had treated Sherlock Holmes during these years, he would have probably parked himself in the man's smoke-filled study, lit up, coked up and engaged in all night discussions with him about human nature, passion, crime and just who was the true villain in "The Hound of the Baskervilles."
"Freud's Mistress" is the third novel by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman. Their first novel, "Literacy and Longing in L.A.," reached No. 1 on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list and won the Best Fiction Award from the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association. Their second novel, "A Version of the Truth," was also a Los Angeles Times bestseller. "Freud's Mistress" is their first historical novel. Karen Mack, a former attorney, is a Golden Globe Award−winning film and television producer. Jennifer Kaufman is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and a two-time winner of the national Penney-Missouri Journalism Award. Both authors live in Los Angeles with their families.