It takes guts to begin a novel about Freud as Sheila Kohler does, with the bland pronouncement that “he sits at his desk in his study, sucking on a cigar.” The joke is almost too obvious, and in the hands of another author would likely come across as desperate. That I was smiling by the time I finished reading the punchline is a testament to Kohler’s consistent ability to transform the stuff of erotic melodrama into something with a good deal more verve and intelligence.
And yet, in some ways, Dreaming for Freud flips Kohler’s usual formula on its head. Erotic secrets abound, but Kohler steadfastly refuses to position any of them as central—the key to unlocking Freud, Dora, or the narrative itself. If this sounds antithetical to Freud’s own theories, it should; this tension forms the backbone of the novel. Freud is a man in search of origins. Office lined with Egyptian figurines, he goes about his work like an archaeologist or, in his own words, a “hunter”: “He is an adventurer, a conquistador, Pisarro, a searcher of gold! He is hunting down the truth of the heart, and this girl must be made to give it to him, whether she wishes to or not.”
“This girl” is Dora—real name Ida Bauer—whose case would form the basis of one of Freud’s most controversial works, An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. Dreaming for Freud begins much as the real-life case did: with a seventeen-year-old girl displaying a bizarre array of symptoms that apparently lack any physical origin. Freud is eager to interpret her illness as a byproduct of repressed desire, but Dora herself rejects his explanations, even suspecting that Freud has been employed by her father to maneuver her into accepting the sexual advances of a family friend.
Freud’s account of Dora’s symptoms—particularly his insistence that the fourteen-year-old Dora unconsciously desired a sexual encounter that now reads like assault—have made him infamous in feminist circles. But while Kohler is clearly familiar with such criticism, her own rewriting of the case is not bound by it. If Freud is at times the bullying patriarch, he is equally a man beset by insecurities—most touchingly, perhaps, over his Jewish heritage. And Dora herself proves more than capable of squaring off against her would-be analyst. Dora, we learn, has a flair for storytelling—a talent she will draw on when, after reading The Interpretation of Dreams, she decides to beat Freud at his own game.
This, then, is the central conflict. It is, to a certain extent, a battle between the sexes, but it is also much more: a battle between competing ways of understanding the world, ourselves, and the nature of stories. Is there, as Freud believes, an origin for all our thoughts and actions, or are we simply spinning tales that retroactively create order and meaning? Kohler refuses to come down definitively on one side or the other, although the novel is at its most successful when it is slyly subverting Freud’s own theories. Take, for example, what Dora has to say about her relationship to her father: “Father said I was the only one who could comfort him, who understood him. Only I knew what he wanted, just from the pressure of his hand on mine. I would gladly have given my life for him.” Oedipal, one might say, but then consider the context. Dora speaks “dramatically”; she “expects the doctor to be swept away by her excellent recitation, her devotion, the pathos of the situation.” She parodies through performance.
Or maybe this is too simplistic a reading, because for Dora, there is a value in such performances that is wholly removed from any everyday sense of what is “true” or “real.” Though she never quite accepts Freud’s ideas, Dora finds herself grudgingly respecting the man, and her tour-de-force performance—the invention of the dreams—is both a way of placating him and, strangely, a gesture of sympathy: “Despite herself and despite his sometimes infuriating responses, she would like to please him by giving him some support for his theories.” It matters little to her that this evidence is pure fabrication; there is, she ultimately feels, something else that is worthwhile in Freud’s ideas. As she tells him years later, “It is here that I learned the importance of speaking what comes to mind, and how that can change things.” Or maybe it’s just that Dora appreciates a good narrative. Freud, after all, fancies himself a storyteller too, however different his aims and style; he “knows how to tell a story, hinting from the start at what is up ahead, releasing the information little by little, so as to pique the interest of the reader and catch him in his net, as he had hoped to catch this girl. Now he will pin her down with his pen like a butterfly on the page for posterity.”
There is a good deal more that could be said about Dreaming for Freud. Kohler’s use of flash-forwards is particularly masterful, and raises some interesting questions about the role of the future in a novel dealing with the buried past. What, if anything, connects Freud’s search for origins with Kohler’s interest in her characters’ endpoints? How, for example, does the knowledge that all but one of Freud’s sisters will die in the Holocaust reframe the novel itself? I’m not sure, but it’s well worth the read regardless.