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  • Freud as New Woman Writer:Maternal Ambivalence in Studies on Hysteria
  • Nicole Fluhr

All psychoanalytic theory was born from hysteria, but the mother died after the birth.

—Étienne Trillat, Histoire de L'hysterie

Trillat's claim provides a succinct summary of one aspect of motherhood's status in psychoanalytic theory: in one fashion or another, the mother always dies—indeed, must die—after the birth. The story psychoanalysis tells predicates a child's development on the loss of the mother. That loss is the price of subjectivity; to know oneself—to become a self—one needs to "lose" one's mother. But, since the subject in question is always the child, this formulation begs the question of a mother's experience of motherhood. This article looks at the period toward which Trillat gestures (the decade or so when Freud was developing his theories about hysteria) to argue that the case histories in Freud's and Josef Breuer's jointly authored Studies on Hysteria represent—although they often fail to consider—mothers as subjects, not the objects against whom their children define themselves. Psychoanalysis would eventually focus almost exclusively on the subjectivity of children, who first define themselves against their mothers. These early case histories of hysterics, however, focus on women whose roles as mothers or mother-surrogates contributed to their malaise. In doing so, they recapitulate the concerns of a significant subset of New Woman fiction that appeared almost simultaneously, featuring as protagonists mothers who were ambivalent about or hostile to their children.1

Considering Freud

Two case histories from Studies on Hysteria, both written by Freud, constitute oblique explorations of maternal subjectivity at the same time New Woman fiction took mothers' self-understanding as an explicit, [End Page 283] vexed topic for analysis. In the case history of Frau Emmy von N. (Fanny Moser), the widowed mother of two daughters describes and then radically redefines her role as a mother as she struggles to free herself from a host of hysterical tics. In Freud's account of Miss Lucy R.'s treatment, an English governess recognizes and works through her unrequited love for her German employer, learning to separate her work as his children's caretaker from the seductively similar roles of wife and mother. The first case exemplifies a crucial aspect of the dilemma motherhood presented to New Women; in treatment, Emmy recognizes that her needs conflict with those she attributes to her children, and by the end of the case history she refuses to subordinate her life to theirs. The second case features another figure familiar in the pages of New Woman fiction, the surrogate or foster mother, whom New Women writers resorted to in their efforts to disentangle motherhood and biology.2 Over the course of her conversations with Freud, Lucy arrives at a dispassionately analytical view of the extent and limits of her maternal role, and her ability to do this derives in part from her status as a surrogate rather than biological mother.

Lucy R., then, may be read as a New Woman not only because she self-consciously reflects on her surrogate motherhood, but also because the cure for her hysterical symptoms turns on her ability to separate her own feelings and desires from the culturally mandated narrative through which she initially reads them; telling the truth about her feelings even as she recognizes the unconventional nature of that truth is a mode of discourse central to New Woman fiction from Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (1883) through George Egerton's back-to-back story collections Keynotes (1893) and Discords (1894) and Sarah Grand's The Heavenly Twins (1894). The case histories collected in Studies on Hysteria, also published in 1894, date back to the early 1880s, when Breuer first treated his famous patient Anna O. (Bertha Pappenheim), frequently cited as his collaborator in discovering what she dubbed the "talking cure."3

To read the case histories of Emmy von N. and Lucy R. as types of New Woman fiction is only to take seriously Freud's concern, voiced in Studies on Hysteria, that his case histories might "read like short stories."4 One reason for such apprehension might...


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pp. 283-307
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Ceased Publication
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