Freud’s Love Letters Reveal Jealous Fits, Cocaine Experiments

Volume I
The cover of Volume I of Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays engagement letters, being published in full for the first time. Source: S. Fischer Verlag via Bloomberg

Sigmund Freud and his fiancee Martha Bernays exchanged more than 1,500 letters during their secret, four-year engagement. They fought, reconciled, described dreams, shared hopes and even compared cocaine experiences by post.

For many years, no-one outside the family knew the letters had survived. Bernays, who lived until 1951, almost destroyed them after her husband died because they were so private and intimate. Her daughters persuaded her not to. Germany’s S. Fischer Verlag is publishing them in full for the first time, in five volumes over five years. The first, covering the period from June 1882 to July 1883, was published this year.

The intensive correspondence reveals a stormy relationship and a jealous, insecure and domineering Freud. Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, a psychoanalyst and Freud expert, is one of its three editors and wrote the introduction. We speak in her sparsely furnished practice in Frankfurt’s chic Westend district, seated on two chairs next to an empty couch.

Picturing Freud on the couch, I ask whether we can analyze the founder of psychoanalysis from the letters.

“This is the most intimate and the most revealing of Freud’s correspondences, so it is very tempting,” says Grubrich-Simitis, trim and elegant with glasses and gray hair. “But you have to remember that he was very young -- he was 26 when it started and 30 when it ended. His stormy, precarious psychic state at the time had a lot to do with his uncertain social status.”

Daily Letters

The two kept their engagement from their families because Freud was not yet established and had no stable income. The Bernays family moved away from Vienna to Wandsbek, near Hamburg, weeks after the engagement. The pair only saw each other during Freud’s brief visits. They wrote almost every day when apart.

“They were separated too early,” Grubrich-Simitis says. “They couldn’t really develop a basis for trust in direct personal contact. She was much more stable and could handle it. For him, it was a huge challenge.”

It is the first time that Bernays’s letters have been published. She comes across as lively and intelligent with humor and common sense. Freud discussed his work with her and expected her to keep up.

“Her role will now be completely re-evaluated,” says Grubrich-Simitis. “She was an intellectual partner for Freud in these years -- this was not known beforehand. At the beginning, she was very shy and doubted her value. We see her self-confidence increasing through the course of the correspondence.”

Cocaine by Post

In later letters, Freud shared his findings about cocaine with Martha, Grubrich-Simitis says. He believed cocaine might lead to an important medical discovery and end his financial difficulties. He even sent his fiancee some by post.

“Martha tried it for a while,” says Grubrich-Simitis. “She thought it was great. She occasionally asked for more.”

Freud used cocaine “frivolously,” she says. “He took it to overcome fears and shyness and for energy before long walks, or when he was feeling down.”

The young neuroscientist was jealous of almost everyone in Martha’s immediate circle -- of her admirers, yet also of her brother and her mother. He wanted to shape Martha to suit him -- in one letter, he asked: “Be mine in the way that I imagine it.” He too grew up in the four years, Grubrich-Simitis says.

“He understood very quickly how important she was for his stability, as a connection to the real world,” she says. “He learned over the course of the exchange that it was impossible to shape her, and that it wouldn’t be good.”

Sigmund and Martha went on to have six children. So was it a happy marriage? Grubrich-Simitis says there is “not a shred of evidence” to support claims made in recent years that Freud later had an affair with Martha’s younger sister, Minna.

“I can’t say whether they were happy until the end,” Grubrich-Simitis shrugs. “But he must certainly often have been an absent husband since he was in his practice all day, and wrote in the evenings. Whether that was always fun for her, I don’t know, but I doubt it.”

“Die Brautbriefe, Band 1” is published by S. Fischer (628 pages, 48 euros in Germany.) There are so far no plans to publish the letters in full in English translation.

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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