How Women Writers Are Reinventing Freud
The psychoanalyst has influenced literature for a century, but in the hands of these authors, his ideas are transformed
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A college professor of mine put it bluntly: “Marx lost, Freud won” in the implicit race to be the 20th century’s seminal influencer of cultural thought. In particular, texts like Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, The Interpretation of Dreams, “Mourning and Melancholia,” and “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” have inspired countless authors and scholars of literature, spawning an entire field of literary theory. This symbiotic relationship between psychoanalysis and literature is echoed in Freud’s own narrative style. He once observed of his career, “Like other neuropathologists, I was trained to employ local diagnoses and electro-prognosis, and it still strikes me as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science.” With these case histories, full of twist endings and inappropriate touching, he pioneered a new literary subgenre, guilty of as much self-delusion, fabulism, and autoeroticism as any patient’s monologue.
Every author can be given a psychoanalytic reading, but for decades, famous writers from all corners of the globe have acknowledged an affinity for and debt to Sigmund Freud. But today, a number of female authors are refracting Freudian concepts and power dynamics through their own work in a way that feels new. Contemporary writers like Lidia Yuknavitch, Carmen Maria Machado, Olga Tokarczuk, Siri Hustvedt, Leslie Jamison, and Esmè Weijun Wang have cheered me more than a dose of Cymbalta. These authors have embraced or rejected Freudian hijinks, sometimes doing both within the same book. In their novels, short stories, and memoirs, I divine a rupturing of the male-dominated culture that has persisted since the early days of psychoanalysis, when women’s stories were swapped among male doctors like trading cards and shared at public conferences, where the audience received them with laughter, titillation, or jeers.
I root them on in part because I dreamed of wrangling power from my own psychiatrists for years. Involuntarily committed several times as a child for anorexia and suicide attempts, I was subjected to clumsy cognitive behavioral techniques in the benighted 1980s, as were my fellow inmates. (One of my roommates was hospitalized for “gender confusion”; I almost don’t want to know what the doctors thought they meant by that diagnosis thirty years ago.) In one psych ward, the psychiatrist who led my treatment team ordered me, like he did all of his patients, to put my life story on paper, and then scolded me in group therapy because I only turned in two pages. Never mind that I was eleven years old. At that tender age, I was already being shown that my words while committed were performances for and the property of others. Just as it was during Freud’s era, psychiatric treatment is still a process of narrative appropriation. In that context, I would have given anything to stash books by these women under my regulation pillow.
The one I would have cherished most would have been Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch. It was high time someone turned the tables on the troubling gender dynamics of Freud’s case histories, and no one was more suited to the job than glorious disruptor Yuknavitch. There’s no way around it: Some of Herr Doktor’s behavior toward female patients was downright icky. He routinely stroked and hypnotized ladies like Dora, Frau Emma, and Fraulein Elisabeth as he tried to decode their stories. In Dora, Yuknavitch retells the story of Freud’s most famous analysand from the young woman’s point of view. That point of view is raunchy, honest, and pained. As the protagonist Ida/Dora puts it, “Seventeen is no place to be. You want to get out, you want to shake off a self like old dead skin . . .I’m not sick. I. Just. Need. Out.” Yuknavitch’s women are never passive, never patient—even when they are patients.
Ida appropriates Freudian discourse for her own ends in sessions with “Siggy” at the same time that Yuknavitch updates her character’s language to the present. After relaying a dream, Ida observes,
He thinks it’s remarkable. He rubs his hands together. He’s way into it. God. I can see him revving up his interpretation jazzy jizz. And yep, just like I think he will, he goes straight for the jewel case. And just like I knew he would, he says it’s a vag.
But Ida isn’t solely a teenage cynic. She’s an artist, secretly recording Siggy for an experimental film. The intersection of art, violence, and radical healing is a preoccupation of Yuknavitch’s work, and in this novel, the tropes of psychoanalysis serve to underscore it. In a scene in Dora, Ida and her friends spy on Siggy’s engorged penis in an ER, and one character remarks that the view through the camera “looks like we’re looking through a vag.” For Yuknavitch, a cigar, or any phallic object, isn’t just a cigar, nor is a jewel case just a vagina. They’re all catalysts for art, and art offers more potential for healing than any talking cure.
No less interested in carnal pleasures, Carmen Maria Machado doesn’t explicitly mention Freud in her short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, but the book could be read as a reinterpretation of the female id and uncanny. In the bravura story, “The Husband Stitch,” which opens the collection and previews its concerns and consternations, desire itself is uncanny, that thing both familiar and utterly taboo, and dangerous enough to get a woman locked up. The narrator confesses,
I once heard a story about a girl who requested something so vile from her paramour that he told her family and they hauled her off to a sanatorium. I don’t know what deviant pleasure she asked for, though I desperately wish I did. What magical thing could you want so badly they take you away from the known world for wanting it?
The danger, the wording suggests, lies not just in what the woman wanted but how much she wanted it. But Machado’s characters, while walking the tightrope that divides surrender from violation, aren’t drawn to analysis or other forms of self-help. Instead, they want the world to expand to encompass their id. What they too often find, though, is that the world is filled with millions of ids in the form of sexual predators and other aggressions.
Some contemporary female authors bring Freud into their own work in a more experimental, playful way. One of the most intriguing is Olga Tokarczuk, the sui generis Polish writer, who reinterprets Freud’s theories as narrative possibilities. Tokarczuk has said in interviews that reading “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” was for her “the first step to becoming a writer.” In her hybrid book Flights, whose English translation was published last year to much-deserved acclaim, the opaqueness of Freud’s most challenging text is reborn as a chorus of dream voices, with each disparate story reifying both the human and the narrative subconscious. Characters disappear and materialize, go mad, and lose parts of themselves figuratively and literally, just as we do in our dreams.
The men and women in Flights are haunted by the past and cycle compulsively through the present, similar to both Freud’s idea of repetition compulsion in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” and how he described the unproductive response of melancholia to loss in his 1917 essay, “Mourning and Melancholia.” One character, a wife and mother named Annushka, runs away from home to ride the subway on endless loops through Moscow, perhaps in the hope of epiphany or release:
She shuts her eyes. When she opens them again the world has skipped from place to place. Right at dusk, revisiting the same place once again, she sees just for a moment, just for a few instants, the low sun break through from behind the white-blooming clouds to illuminate the apartment buildings with a red glow, but just their tips, the highest floors, and it looks like giant torches being set alight.
If those two essays of Freud’s were reinterpreted as a ballet, the cast of Flights, fleet creatures of obsessions, repetition, and pleasure, would dance right through it. The Polish title of the book, Bieguni, evokes travel by foot, and specifically, that of a peripatetic Russian mystical sect. But the English title gives us a hint about Freud’s impact on the author; for Tokarczuk, his words are not constraint, but dizzying flight.
Finally, while Freud may not be a wellspring for the stream of powerful memoirs about mental illness, addiction, and neurological disorders published in the past decade or so, he is undoubtedly an influence on them in some ways. Siri Hustvedt is one such memoirist and novelist who is thoughtful when it comes to his work. She takes from him what she needs and discards what she doesn’t. Since her doctoral dissertation on Charles Dickens, Hustvedt has incorporated Freud’s ideas into both her fiction and nonfiction. Trauma and the unconscious are key players, and the main character of her novel, The Sorrows of an American, is a psychiatrist. In The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, Hustvedt analyzes her own seizure disorder. Midway through the memoir, she comments on Freud’s description of the psychic wound implicit to melancholia in “Mourning and Melancholia”:
Reading the essay again made me say to myself, Yes, there is something here. And yet I don’t suffer from the feelings of worthlessness Freud attributes to melancholics who berate themselves fiercely and seem utterly joyless. I am not depressed. There is, however, in my mourning a blur of betweenness or a partial possession by a beloved other that is ambivalent, complex, and heavily weighted with emotions I can’t really articulate.
One of the things I enjoy about her work is this equitable assessment of psychoanalytic touchstones. Writers like Hustvedt remind us that Freud had some truly groundbreaking ideas, including the one I believe to be his most insightful: that our inner lives are narratives, and those narratives can either help or hurt us.
However, female memoirists are also helping to push the field of psychiatry, and especially our culture’s understanding of it, beyond what Freud could have imagined in his times. For example, Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath and Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias might have shocked him with their fresh insights. In these memoirs, Jamison and Wang do not shrink from chronicling their own experiences with alcoholism and schizoaffective disorder, respectively, nor from critiquing gender bias, racism in treatment of drug addiction, and other constructs that Freud had never considered. Yet one could argue that there might be no mental illness memoirs nor even A.A. meetings without Freud’s talking cure and the resultant normalization of speaking publicly about psychological trauma.
In fact, I wonder if today’s cultural moment would exist in its most brazen form without him. In the final analysis, Freud was perhaps less a doctor than an influencer. He grandfathered a culture of sharing our most private thoughts and deepest desires with strangers that underpins social media today. Were he alive in 2019, he’d likely make the most of it to spread his theories, cigar in mouth, and connect with like-minded souls. At the same time, he would possibly be taken aback by the ingenuity and wisdom with which Yuknavitch, Machado, Tokarczuk, Hustvedt, Jamison, and Wang have responded to his framework and seized their own cures. We’re entering a new era in which women make art out of both their diagnoses and their healing.
As much as they are demonstrations of the power imbalance of Freudian psychoanalysis, these diverse projects are also proof of authoring’s strange alchemy. That is, when you tell your story to a psychiatrist, he often claims it as his. But when you share your story with the world, it becomes all the more yours.