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BRIEF REPORTS

SIGMUND FREUD AND MINNA BERNAYS


Primal Curiosity, Primal Scenes, Primal Fantasies
and Prevarication
Zvi Lothane, MD
Mount Sinai School of Medicine
Attacks on Freuds theories on sexuality began when Freud launched his studies
on hysteria in the last decade of the 19th century and are still ongoing. The latest
cavil is embedded in a sensation exploded in the summer of 2006 by Franz
Maciejewski of Heidelberg, Germany. It was publicized in front-page reportage
by New York Times columnist Ralph Blumenthal (2006): A Century-Old Swiss
Hotel Log Hints at an Illicit Desire That Dr. Freud Didnt Repress, additionally
editorialized as adequate to impugn [Freuds] reputation (p. A4). In this
article, arguments ad hominem, bordering on Freud-bashing, concerning Freud
as a person and his relationship with his sister-in-law Minna Bernays, are
separated from arguments ad rem, regarding the merits of Freuds theory of the
Oedipus complex. The evidence presented by Maciejewski is found to be awed
and to not rise above the level of conjecture. Similarly, his construction that the
alleged sexual affair between Freud and his sister-in-law was tantamount to
incest, and thus source of theory of the Oedipus complex, has no standing either.
Keywords: love affair, incest, Oedipus complex, incest complex, Freud-bashing
Curiosity about the world in which we live is primary to the quest of knowledge and truth,
to researches in science and love. It is basic to the quest for truth and for unmasking lie.
It is the most powerful motive for learning and personal growth. There is also a primal
curiosity about the primal instincts of procreation and sexuality. It started in Paradise:
Primal curiosity made Eve so curious as to yield to the serpents seduction and eat of the
apple from the tree of knowledge of good and eviland of carnal knowledge, themes
primeval, Freuds primal prototypes and Jungs archetypes, going back to phylogenetic
times immemorial. In the ontogenesis of the person and of character, childhood primal
scenes and the primal fantasies children spin play a primary role in the vicissitudes of the
Oedipus complex, which made Freud both so famous and so infamous. In psychotherapy,
we hear how people as children were curious about the sexual goings-on in the parental
Zvi Lothane, MD, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Professor Zvi Lothane, MD,
1435 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10128. E-mail: schreber@lothane.com
Psychoanalytic Psychology, 2007, Vol. 24, No. 3, 487495
Copyright 2007 by the American Psychological Association, 0736-9735/07/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/0736-9735.24.3.487
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bedroom. Primal scene is naturalized in the language and is an entry in Websters Third
International Dictionary of the English Language (2002).
Primal curiosity may help us understand the perennial pervasiveness of primal curi-
osity beyond the familyits extension to neighbors, strangers, and the sex lives of the
famous and the fabled, for example, the tabloid press about Hollywood stars, exposes of
politicians, to the point of excessive, nay, morbid inquisitiveness. Such curiosity breeds
gossip within families, communities, and societies. When it reaches the public domain, it
breeds scandal that can ruin the careers and reputations of the rich, the politically
powerful, or the intellectually inuential; societies; and nations. For example, our appetite
for the sexual sins and secrets of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, spicily served
up in the Starr Report and the ensuing circus of the impeachment hearings, satised the
primal curiosity of the masses with consequences that led to the election of President Bush
and the Iraq mess that followed. It should be noted, however, that with Clinton there was
a smoking gun, his semen stain on the womans dress, but with Freud there is none, only
conjectures.
It was inevitable that Sigmund Freud, who pried into the sexual secrets of mankind,
should one day become himself the prey for the primally curious. His biographer Ernest
Jones was the rst to hint at gossip about Freud and his sister-in-law Minna Bernays and
to deny the malicious and entirely untrue legend that [Minna] displaced his wife in his
affections, whose intellectual, and particularly literary, interests, absorbed her life
(Jones, 1953, p. 153). Jones (1955) also told about the many trips Sigmund and Minna
took. Then came John M. Billinsky, a psychologist at Newton Theological Seminary in
Andover, Massachusetts, whose 1957 interview of C. G. Jung, then 82, was published in
1969: While he was visiting the Freud family in 1907, Minna allegedly confessed to Jung
her love affair with Freud (Billinsky, 1969). This inspired Peter J. Swales (1982) to push
the envelope further: There was a pregnancy and an abortion. The latest Freud bombshell,
a gift to Freud on his 150th birthday, became the chronique scandaleuse (the days tittle
tattle) by Franz Maciejewski (2006a), an analytically trained doctorate in philosophy and
sociology (and author of texts on Freuds and Little Hans circumcisions, published in the
prestigious Psyche, and a book on Freuds monotheism), who discovered a Swiss hotel log
book entry in which Freud signed himself and Minna in as Dr. Sigm. Freud and wife on
August 13, 1898, the mother of all proofs to end all disputes: The two had sex that night
and committed incest, to boot. Case closed. I strongly disagree (Lothane, 2007b, 2007d).
Maciejewskis (2006a) article turned into a sensation in the United States and else-
where thanks to the front-page reportage in the New York Times by Ralph Blumenthal
(2006), who a quarter of a century earlier (Blumenthal 1981a) publicized the megascandal
of Jeffrey M. Massons assault on Freud for having pusillanimously reneged on the real,
not fantasized, seduction of children by adults. Masson stole the show thanks to the
Blumenthal article and the subsequent articles in the New Yorker by Janet Malcolm that
became a book (Malcolm, 1984). But Jeffrey Masson fell short of the truth: Freud never
used the term seduction theory and also never gave up the concepts of seduction and
trauma (Lothane, 2001). Blumenthal (1981b) qualied as probable Peter Swaless
exegetical claims, based on reading Freuds texts, that Minna and Freud had sex and cited
Massons opinion:
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, who was recently dismissed as projects director of the Sigmund
Freud Archives and who has been at odds with Mr. Swales, said that unpublished letters he
had seen from Freud to Miss Bernays betrayed no hint of sexual intimacy.
Now, avoiding the topic of incest, Blumenthal (2006) was more sanguine about
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Swales than in 1981 and endorsed Maciejewskis claim as having solved a mystery that
had titillated scholars for much of the last century (p. A1); showed a photograph of
Room 11 as it looks today, not what the room looked like in 1898; and cited opinions by
luminaries pastKurt R. Eissler, Ernest Jones, and C. G. Jungand presentnotably
Peter Gay, the only one who was not smiling: After years of doubting the rumors, he
found the evidence persuasive enough . . . and is now inclined to revise his work
accordingly (p. ??). Others were gloating. Let us now examine what is fact and what is
ction in this story and a few other opinions.
There is a fact, that Sigmund and Minna spent the night in the same room, and there
is an inference, an interpretation, an opinion, a verdict: They must have had intercourse
that night. Some will be persuaded, others will not. I am not: probable, yes, proven, no.
Can a 42-year-old man and a 33-year-old woman spend a night in a room without sex?
This is also probable. Nobody held a candle, as the French say, therefore, the jury is still
out. Neither the New York Times nor the Frankfurter Rundschau would print my letters,
although the latter published a rebuttal from Albrecht Hirschmuller (2007b), the editor of
the Freud/Bernays correspondence. Our articles in the American Imago (Hirschmuller
2007a; Lothane, 2007a) argue practicality: It was a busy night at the inn; there may not
have been singles available, and a double room may have been cheaper. But there was a
more serious reason than even prudery about consensual cohabitation: On the basis of the
then Swiss, and Austrian as well, prostitution and procurement law, an innkeeper pro-
viding accommodations to an unmarried couple could be prosecuted as a pimp (Kanton
Graubunden, 1851, 146.7). Moreover, had the two registered as Dr. Freud and Miss
Bernays, they might also have attracted unwelcome attention from and gossip by other
hotel guests.
As with Bill Clinton, there are two issues here: an alleged lying with Minna,
considered by some as either illicit or immoral, and an implied lying about it to his wife.
Eissler (1993) went out of his way to claim
that in one respect Freud was undeniably superior to Jung: his sexual record was lily white.
His theory, of course, was obscene, with its eternal harping on sex, but the conduct of the man
who originated it was beyond reproach. (p. 171)
Blumenthal (2006) cited the same passage but with an apparently different intention:
to expose Freud as a hypocrite and Eissler as a fanatic defender. For Maciejewski (2006a),
there was no doubt that Freud displayed a hitherto unknown degree of concealment,
secrecy, and deception toward other family members (p. 40, my translation), implying
that he also lied to us, Freuds public. In the English version (Maciejewski, 2006b), the
just quoted clause was translated and edited as follows: Freuds concealment, deception,
and secrecy with respect to the state of his married life (p. 501). What were the
previously known instances of concealment? Who are the other members? The only
concerned member was his wife, and Maciejewski cannot tell what she knew and what she
was told. Ethically speaking, unlike Clinton, who was a public servant and under oath to
tell the truth, Freud was not obligated to reveal his private life to anybody else, even as
we are entitled to investigate it. Maciejewski (2006a) fabricated another b when, after
quoting from a letter from Freud to his bosom friend Fliess of July 30, 1898 (Freud, 1985,
p. 321), about the two separate trips Freud planned with Minna and Martha, he insinuated,
It is striking how here Freud is showing off that he has two wives, even though on that
page Freud says nothing about two wives.
Let me play the devils advocate: Suppose Freud did have sex that night. If so, lets
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ask further: Did he also before that night and thereafter? Also in his apartment at
Berggasse 19, where Minnas bedroom door opened directly into Martha and Sigmunds
bedroom (Davies & Fichtner, 2006, p. 24)? In other places? It is getting curiouser and
curiouser: Does this mean they practiced a sexual threesome? Or that Minna was
Sigmunds concubine? There seems to be no end to making guesses and interpretations.
But why should we reduce their entire relationship, apparently platonic, to sex? Not that
sex is obscene, for as Charles Lamb commented in July 1798 in a letter to Southey, The
scene for the most part laid in a Brothel. O tempora, O mores! but as friend Coleridge said
when he was talking bawdy to Missto the pure all things are pure (Oxford Dictionary
of Quotations, 1955, p. 306, No. 33), but reducing everything to sex detracts from the
dignity of their intellectual and spiritual friendship.
Doubts about the affair were expressed by the late Freud historian Paul Roazen
(personal communication, January 23, 2005):
One reason I published a photo of Minna in Meeting Freuds Family [Roazen, 1993] was so
people could see what a spinster she was. Stories from Joan Erikson conrm that. Why
Swales, and now Rudnytsky, should carry on so is beyond me. Esti Freud [Freuds daughter-
in-law], and also Eva Rosenfeld, repudiated the idea of such a liaison.
Roazen did not mention that he had tended to believe Jung (Roazen, 1993, p. 150).
Similar arguments were offered by Bair (2003):
Anne Bernays, Freuds grandniece (letter to the author, May 8, 1999), said she remembered
her mother saying, Sigmund would have never have slept with Minna; she was too
unattractive. Bernays adds that her mother was hung up on appearance, and her remark
demonstrated that she had no clue how love/lust works. As for her own opinion, Bernays
holds no strong conviction either way. Anthony Storr gave me his correspondence with
E. A. Bennet . . . and Godfrey Smith . . . in regard to Dr. John Billinskys claim that C. G. Jung
told him about the Freud/Minna affair. Storr thought it very likely that Billinsky [had] drawn
on his fairly active imagination. (p. 702, note 27)
As remembered by Paul Roazen,
I knew Henry Murray at the time that the Andover article rst appeared. Billinsky got it
wrongaccording to Murray, Jung considered it a sign of his own superiority to Freud that
Jung could carry on such an extramarital affair, with Toni [Wolff], whereas despite Freuds
fantasies, it was out of the question for him, since he was so repressed. (personal communi-
cation, 2005)
Billinskys (1969) reportage of his 1957 interview of Jung is subject to serious doubts
as to its accuracy and of Jungs reminiscences half a century after Minnas alleged
confession. Jung offered two explanations for his break with Freud: (a) I rst visited
Freud in 1907. I talked with him for hours and hours. . . . He was very serious about his
theory of sex, but somehow the more he spoke about it, the more doubts there were in my
mind (Billinsky, 1969, p. 41) and (b)
When, a few days later, I was visiting Freuds laboratory, Freuds sister-in-law asked me if she
could talk with me. She was very much bothered by her relationship with Freud and felt guilty
about it. From her I learned that Freud was in love with her and that their relationship was
indeed very intimate. It was a shocking discovery to me, and even now I can recall the agony
I felt at the time. . . . From the very beginning of our trip [to America, 1909] we started to
analyze each others dreams. Freud had some dreams that bothered him very much. The
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dreams were about the triangleFreud, his wife, and wifes younger sister. Freud had no idea
that I knew about the triangle and his intimate relationship with his sister-in-law. And so,
when Freud told me about the dream in which his wife and her sister played important parts,
I asked Freud to tell me some of his personal associations with the dream. He looked at me
with bitterness and said, I could tell you more, but I cannot risk my authority. (p. 42)
It was my knowledge of Freuds triangle that became a very important factor in my break with
Freud. And then I could not accept Freuds placing authority above the truth. This, too, led to
further problems in our relationship. In retrospect it looks like it was destined that our
relationship should end that way. It was full of questions and doubts from the very beginning.
(p. 43)
There was no laboratory in Freuds apartment. If Freuds relationship with Minna
weighed so heavily on Jung, why did he not ever confront Freud in any of his letters, or
in person, especially at the height of their conict?
Jung offered two reasons for the break: one doctrinal and one personal. The Freud/
Jung correspondence (McGuire, 1974) shows that the dispute about the causal role of
sexuality in emotional disorder, and the disagreements over the sexual interpretation of the
Schreber Case (in keeping with Bleulers criticism of it), were the real reason for the break
(Lothane, 1997). The Minna excuse does not stand. There is a legal principle: falsus in
uno, falsus in omnibusfalse in one thing, false in all.
Compare the Billinsky interview of 1957 (Billinsky, 1969) to the one Jung, then 76,
gave to another disciple of H. A. Murray, Saul Rosenzweig (1994), in 1951, in which he
also complained that Freud was placing personal authority above truth (p. 67). On the
other hand, in a number of publications I defended Jung and Sabina Spielrein from all
allegations of a sexual relation (Lothane, 1999, 2003, 2006, 2007c). Jung did not breathe
a word to Rosenzweig either about Minna or about Toni Wolff; he only told about Freuds
enuretic accident. It is noteworthy that Rosenzweig made no reference to Billinsky,
either. But it was Jung who was the womanizer: Toni Wolff and Jung had their rst
sexual intimacy in Ravenna, Italy, sometimes before or during Emmas [fth] preg-
nancy and subsequently an unorthodox emotional triangle began that endured for the
remainder of their lives (Bair, 2003, p. 248), which was, however, accepted by Jungs
wife Emma. Why would Minna at 42 conde in a stranger 10 years her junior? Half a
century after the events, Jung may have been telling a tall tale. Was this the belated
repartee of a man with a guilty conscience over his adulterous relationships? On the other
hand, I defended Jung against one charge by posterity: of having had a sexual liaison with
Sabina Spielrein (Lothane, 1999); unconsummated sex has a passion and poignancy all its
own. In both stories, Minnas and Sabinas, there was no public scandal, only gossip
circulating within certain families and communities (Lothane, 2006). The scandals have
been created by latter-day commentators and expose journalists because sex sells news-
papers and sensation makes people either rich or famous. What is lost in this hothouse of
sex sensations is the spiritual nature of Jungs friendship with Spielrein as his femme
inspiratrice, or of Freuds rare friendship with Minna, of her intellectual status as Freuds
muse and condante in matters professional. For example, in his letters to Minna
(Hirschmuller, 2005), Freud writes to her about his book on aphasia, the cold reaction it
got from Breuer; discusses his treatment of patient Anna von Lieben; and has Minna check
the proofs of his translation of Bernheims book on hypnosis.
Thus, for Maciejewski (2006a) evidence of scandal was a clever pun Sandor Ferenczi
sent Freud in 1912, when, after being the lover of married Gizella Palos, 8 years his senior
(whom he would eventually marry), Ferenczi confessed to Freud that he had also been
passionately in love with Gizellas daughter Elma Palos, his sister-in-law and patient. He
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presented Freud with a kind of a deant apology; (father, after all you did something
similar with mother) . . . your sister-in-law you once took a trip to Italy with your
sister-in-law (voyage de lit-a`-lit [ from bed to bed, homophonic with de lItalie])
(naturally only an infantile thought!) (Brabant Falzeder, & Giamperi-Deutsch, 1993, p.
453). Fantasy proves fact, Italy proves Switzerland, anything that ts the ction.
The most egregious ction created by Maciejewski (2006a) is that Freud committed
incest with Minna and that many others have claimed the same. This a mistake. Incest is
sex between blood relatives. The book of Genesis tells how Jacob married two sisters. In
the book of Leviticus there is a prohibition (18:18) against marrying the wifes sister as
a second, rival, bigamous wife but none against marrying the second woman should the
rst one die. I discussed the matter with Maciejewski in a telephone conversation but
failed to convince him: In his reply (Maciejewski, 2007) to Hirschmullers (2007b)
rebuttal letter in the Frankfurter Rundschau, he repeated the incest argument. Even though
he agreed with me in a telephone conversation that incest only applies to blood relatives,
he repeated the incest claim in an interview with Dr. Alma Bond published on Medscape
Mental Health (Maciejewski, 2007b), which I rebutted (Lothane, 2007d).
Why is this important? The Oedipus complex was named the incest complex by
Freud himself (Freud, 1914/1957, p. 64). Maciejewski constructs the following syllogism:
Because Freud committed incest, and it is well known that in later years Freud set incest
up as the core of his Oedipus theory, as a universal drive[,] the question arises whether the
biographical material has improperly inuenced the construction of the theory (2006a, p.
40; my translation). This ction trades on playing with the word incest: the biographical
material had precious little to do with Freuds psychoanalytic theory of the Oedipus
complex, which Freud derived from anthropology, with its concepts of incest taboo and
incest barrier; his predecessors in sexology, Sophocles Oedipus Rex, Shakespeares
Hamlet, and Diderots Rameaus Nephew; clinical observations; and openness to his own
sexuality. Maciejewskis tried-and-true method is bash the man and then bash his theory.
One of the methods of creating ctions is converting a paucity of facts into a plethora
of interpretations with the result that interpretations, that is, opinions, are themselves
converted into historical facts. Freud had done likewise in interpreting Schreber (Lothane,
1992). But to correct Freuds mistakes is to advance science; to brand Freud as a liar is
to attack Freuds personal integrity, and with a measure of malice. For both, solid, not
spurious, evidence is required. In bashing Freud, you also bash the house Freud built: the
entire enterprise of psychoanalysis. Shall the exposers scape whipping? Exposing the
exposers should be fair game. Maciejewskis (2006a) German article, whose title speaks
of a mistress, was republished in the American Imago with a new title, in which the
mistress is now promoted to wife (Maciejewski, 2006b). The intention of the quotation
marks is unclear: Is wife a continuation of Maciejewskis aforementioned innuendo? Or
are the quotation marks meant to suggest a pejorative nickname, a doubtful propriety? The
new article, we are told, was translated by Jeremy Gaines, with the collaboration of Peter
J. Swales and Julia Swales; however, unless a different copy was translated, which was
not stated, the collaborators also redacted the text but did not declare they did.
Maciejewski (2006a) wrote, In an equally astute as well as suggestive textual
exegesis, he [Swales] attempted to show that Minna was impregnated by Freud and
had an abortion in Meran (p. 40; my translation). The redacted translation in
Maciejewski (2006b) now reads: Swales (2005) has recently spoken publicly of
certain revelations found thereinfor example, that Jung evidently had reason to
think that Freud had once upon a time had grounds to fear he had made his
492 BRIEF REPORTS
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sister-in-law pregnant (p. 504). However, Blumenthal (2006) referred to Kurt
Eisslers interview with C. G. Jung in 1953, of which
a German transcript, stamped Condential, in the Library of Congress, was made available
in 2003 for reading only at the library, although a copy was obtained by the New York
Times. . . . Jung said that he vaguely recalled something about a possible pregnancy, but
quickly added, That can all be a stupid assumption. Hardly so to Mr. Swales. (p. A4)
However astute, exegesis is still only exegesis, or ction, until proven to be fact:
Jungs doubt was converted into a certainty, and alternate theories were not considered.
The eld of Freud studies has from its inception been divided into two historiographic
camps, the hagiographers and the revisionists, some of them iconoclasts. Some revision-
ists have toiled to expose Freud as a liar and psychoanalysis itself as a lie (Benesteau,
2002; Ciof, 1998, 199ff.; Grunbaum, 1993, p. 2; Israels, 1999). The tacit assumption is
that hagiographers lie and iconoclasts tell the truth, but this cannot be so black and white
(Lothane, 2007). I rebut Grunbaums egregious distertions elsewhere (Lothane, 2007a).
Morally, all historians should pursue the truth.
At the end of the day, what is the yield of this whole sensation? Much ado about
nothing. I do not need Freud to be lily whitehe made many mistakesbut I prefer the
grand mistakes of a genius to the trite truisms of a mediocrity. His work and insights have
enriched mankind, and the Oedipus complex is still useful to me when as psychotherapist
I try to help my suffering patients to examine their conscious und unconscious lives and
understand them, so as to live a better life. Who lies about what and to whom and to what
purpose? Is there a way out of this labyrinth? I believe there is. Its not easy, but its
always worth trying.
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