Ida Brauer, Freud and Kate Novack’s Short Film Hysterical Girl, Part I

When I was in school, one of my English teachers decided we would read Moby Dick. I was so excited, curious, intimidated. But when she handed out the books for us to read, it was an abridged version. I asked her why abridged and she said that the abridged version had all the whaling information taken out – that it was not necessary for the story.

I was appalled [in my teenager way] and not knowing exactly why. I thought if the writer put all that in the book, why would it not be relevant. I went and got an unabridged version and read the whole book instead. I did not entirely understand why the whaling parts were so important in that first reading, but I could feel their weight and importance to the story.

Many things are offered in this abridged way in school. I remember first reading about Freud [and I use about intentionally, because we did not read his actual work] and studying snapshots of his theory. Only, they were not presented as theory or ideas about the human psyche – his theories were basically presented as fact. With nice, easy to understand graphics.

All I had to do was memorize. Memorize and memorialize. Memorize and try to find myself in the theories.

Here was what was in that initial snapshot presented as factual: Fact: Id, Ego, Superego. Fact: Oedipus complex, Electra complex and penis envy. Fact: Everything in our dreams is what is repressed in the unconscious, about wish fulfillment. Fact: dreams work with repression, especially of sexuality, of wish fulfillment. Fact: There are psychosexual stages of development based on pleasure-principals, or erogenous zones of children. Hidden [or not so hidden] Fact: the sexualization of children and women.

I do not know how all of this is taught in general studies now, I hope with some context, but there was no context at the time. In doing some basic research of Freud now, there are comments about how Freud’s theories have been questioned or are not “widely accepted” – but they are still out there, they are still discussed with the disclaimer at the end. Still presented with great graphics. Still presented as “Classic”.

There was not a great deal of contextualization. Looking into Freud’s theories, we did not look into the man, his times, his circumstances, his ambitions. For the general population not involved in the field of pyschology, not versed in the historical context, what is left [in our pysches] are these snapshots, bits of information.

Presentation as fact.

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Director Kate Novack’s recently released short film  “Hysterical Girl”  explores the story of Ida Bauer. [Go here to watch it.] Ida is the subject of Freud’s full length book “case study” called Dora: Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria[1] which he released in 1905.

What I love about the film, which only runs just over thirteen minutes, is that Novack takes key details from the “case study” as reported by Freud and presents the story through Ida’s experience rather than through Freud.

Ida who was 18. Ida, who was not asked if it was okay for Freud to publish a book detailing her life and her issues. Ida who left working with Freud after 11 weeks because she was furious.

Ida who was brought to Freud by her father who read her journal and found an entry saying she did not want to be alive. Her father who said, “Talk some sense into her.”

Ida who had been sexually assaulted by Hans Zellenka, a family friend, when she was 13, propositioned at 18 to be his lover because he said, “my wife gives me nothing”, groomed by him for years with gifts, flowers, attention. Ida, whose father did not believe her when she told him.

Here’s a fun actual fact about the Ida’s reality – Ida’s father was having affair with Hans’ wife, Peppina.

The brilliance of Novack’s film is that by having Ida speak her story, we bring the story out of Freud’s gaze and judgment of her, out of his sexualization of her. Taking her words out of Freud’s mouth and putting them in her own.

Novack also brings Ida into our times – out of 1899 and into now, weaving her story with images of our times.

It is powerful, to take a girl’s story from 1899 as told by the “father” of psychotherapy and allow Ida her voice. To not just allow Ida voice, but to bring it into the context of now.

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Why does the story of one girl from 1899 who worked with Freud for a mere 11 weeks before quitting still have relevance now?

Because at the root of Ida’s story is sexual assault and sexual grooming of an older man, a family friend. A married man. And whose wife was having an affair with Ida’s father.

At the root of Ida’s story is how she was not believed. First, not believed by her father that anything happened. Then, by Freud, who believed what she reported, but did not believe her motivation, her response, her experience.

Which is [actual fact] still the experience of people when they try to speak their experience – they are not believed or their stories are twisted to place blame on them. Novack’s film weaves images of other women of our times where the woman was not believed – images of movies, of famous [powerful] men accused of sexual predation [CK Lewis, Bill Cosby, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas], of confirmation hearings where a woman has brought her story of sexual harassment and not been believed [Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford].

We are still here.

We are still here and it is necessary, I believe, to bring these kinds of exploration not just to the [sometimes cloistered] academic world, but to public imagination and consideration.

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First, let’s back up from 1899 when Freud had Ida as a client to 1896, to Freud’s earlier theory about the cause of “hysteria”.

In 1896, Freud published a paper called The Aetiology of Hysteria[2] in which he explored eighteen cases studies, coming to a quite different conclusion than his later writings. He writes:

I therefore put forward the thesis that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrence of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood, but which can be reproduced through the work of psycho-analysis in spite of the intervening decades. I believe this is an important finding, the discover of a caput Nili in neuropathology.

Before sexual repression, psychosexual development, before penis envy, Freud’s first theory of the cause of hysteria was that it stemmed from childhood trauma, often sexual trauma.

Reading Aetiology, Freud’s excitement and worry about his theory [which was not exactly entirely new] is palpable. He comes into the presentation arguing and continues to argue his case. Freud, a man who wanted to make a breakthrough, who wanted to make a name for himself. He fully expected to be met with acclaim.

Remember context. Freud was trying to make a name for himself.

Freud had been a student Jean-Claude Charcot, a French neurologist who brought the study of “hysteria” in women out of the idea that the women were throw-away people into a place for study. This is from a chapter called “A Forgotten History” Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery:

…all his [Charcot] prestige gave credibility to a field that had been considered beyond the pale of serious scientific investigation. Prior to Charcot’s time, hysterical women had been thought of as malingerers, and their treatment had been relegated to the domain of hypnotists and popular healers.[3]

Charcot presented women from his asylum in “lectures,” but he did not present cures or causes, just symptoms. [Fun fact – his “lectures” were open to the public and were spectacles, with Charcot inducing hysterical reactions in women in front of an audience. The lectures were fashionable and the talk of Paris. “Hysterical women”, apparently, made for good theater. They still do, actually and sadly and enragingly.]

Freud wanted to go further, Freud who wanted to make a name for himself. Again, from Herman:

The ambition of Charcot’s followers was to surpass his work by demonstrating the cause of hysteria. Rivalry was particularly intense between [Pierre] Janet and Freud. Each wanted to be the first to make the great discovery. In pursuit of their goals, these investigators found that is was not sufficient to observe and classify hysterics. It was necessary to talk with them.” [4]

This is part of the groundbreaking work Freud did bring to the new field – he actually listened to his patients [not just presenting them as theater the way Charcot did, well at first]. “The talking cure,” which Freud and others stumbled upon, opened new avenues of exploration with patients who seemed beyond help. Who were just hospitalized and “managed”, often in terrifying and abusive ways.

Even with Ida, instead of ignoring her or not believing her, he takes what she says as true, not a “phantasy” that her father and Hans claim about her experiences.

His Aetiology paper was not met with acclaim. Worse, for Freud, it was met with silence, disregard. It was not the breakthrough he had hoped [and envisioned] would shape his career, make his name.

A year later, he was backpedaling.

Three years later, by 1899, he was developing his other theories. In 1899/1900, Freud published his first rendition of The Interpretation of Dreams, where he began to explore his theories of dreams as wish fulfillment and rooted, often, in sexuality and sexual repression.

[Fun Contextual Fact: In a letter written to a colleague, Wilhelm Fliess, Freud said this: “Do you suppose that some day a marble tablet will be place on the house, inscribed with these words: ‘In this house on 24 July 1895, the secret of dreams was revealed to Dr. Sigm. Freud’?” (June 12, 1900). Another fun fact: There is such a plaque.]

This, in contrast, was eventually not met with silence. Theories he continued to develop around his ideas of “Oedipal Complex” and “penis envy”. Theories that the repression of sexual desire could make a woman “hysterical.”

This theory being much more palatable to his [mostly male] audience as it skirted the reality of women’s lives at the time and, instead, managed to turn the blame back on women. I cannot help but wonder how many men in his audience would have been implicated by his first theory – and how many men embraced Freud’s repression theory because it moved the onus to the “hysteric”.

Ida worked with Freud at the end of 1899.

Coming next: About Ida and Freud.

[1] Freud, Sigmund; Bell, Anthea, translator; Robertson, Ritchie, ed. Dora: Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Oxford University Press, 2013. [Note – original book published in 1905.]
[Also, note: This version is published under the Oxford University Press as part of their World’s Classics series.]
[2] Freud, Sigmund, Strachey, James, ed.. Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 3, “The Aetiology of Hysteria”, Vintage Classics, International Edition, 2001. [Note: Originally published in 1896.] [Also, note: This version is published under the Vintage Classics series.]
[3] Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery, BasicBooks, 1992/1997, p.10.
[4] Ibid. p. 11.