The Freud Museum


The Family Freud

How good...that you knew him when he was still in the prime of his life, for in the end he suffered terribly, so that even those who would most like to keep him forever had to wish for his release! And yet how terribly difficult it is to have to do without him. To continue to live without so much kindness and wisdom beside one!  Martha Freud to Ludwig Binswanger 7 Nov 1939. makes one so unspeakably happy to feel oneself loved,..... and above all if one is lucky enough to have abducted a little princess! Letter to Martha August 23 1883

Freud's household in England consisted of himself and the women who cared for him. His wife Martha, her sister Minna Bernays, and their daughter Anna were the immediate family and had formed the nucleus of Freud's domestic circle since the marriage of the two older daughters, Mathilde and Sophie, some 25 years earlier. The other members of the household were Dorothy Burlingham, a pioneer of child psychoanalysis and a close colleague of Anna Freud's; and Paula Fichtl, the housekeeper who had been with the family since 1929.

Martha's younger sister Minna Bernays first joined the Freud household in Vienna in the mid 1890's after her fiance had died. She shared the upbringing of the children with Martha, and became a close intellectual confidante of Sigmund Freud, one of the three women who were his most intimate companions. Her friendship and support were particularly important in the crucial early years of psychoanalysis.

Martha herself was the accepted authority in domestic matters. We are told that she showed little interest in her husbandís work; she seems to have preferred it to be kept locked in the study along with the collection of antiquities. She certainly kept him away from the nursery, despite the fact that he has several works on child development in his library. In the early days Freud had to rely on the observations of his friend Wilhelm Fliess to supplement his studies.

Perhaps for Freud there was something inaccessible about Martha as well. She was a woman from a higher social class than Sigmund - the 'little princess' he once said he had 'abducted' - and from a religious background. At the time of their courtship he felt he had to woo her and win her against both the wishes of her family and the internal demands of her upbringing.

For her own part Martha resisted his attempts to enlist her on the side of his work, but at the same time it must have been precious to her in some way. On the one hand there was something about it that seemed to her like 'pornography', as she once said, but there was 'kindness and wisdom' there too. The encapsulation of the work within the domestic environment was a result of such warring forces as these.

Anna was the third member of this triptych and also the youngest of three sisters. She became a psychoanalyst like her father, and was Freud's nurse, companion and representative in the last years of his life. Freud called her his 'Antigone', daughter of Oedipus, and in her role as the youngest child who surrenders her own impulses for the sake of others, we can suppose that she was following not only the dictates of a cultural tradition, but also her own desire.

Each of these women therefore had different relations to psychoanalysis and to the figure of Freud himself, and we might suppose that the resulting family dynamics were as complicated as the structures of our own families, or other institutions we might find ourselves in.

Freud may have used his own family structure, and the disquieting sense that he was now entering old age, as a creative resource when he wrote his essay "The Theme of the Three Caskets" in 1913. The essay begins with a simple dramatic situation found in stories and myths across the world. A man chooses between three women, or between three objects which represent them (the 'caskets' of the title). The women are often portrayed as sisters, such as in King Lear for instance, or the Cinderella story; and Freud recalls those other familiar sisters of Greek and German mythology, the Fates or Norns who weave the thread of life.

Out of this unpromising material Freud conjures up a theme of universal significance - man's struggle against the fact "that he too is a part of nature and therefore subject to the immutable law of death". This struggle takes place on the terrain of mythopoeic thought. By means of mythic construction man masters intellectually (in a magical and omnipotent way - which nevertheless has dramatic effects in the world) the realities of his life and the certainty of death. Where there is necessity, he produces a story of choice. Where there is a figure of terror, he gives us the fairest and most desirable of women.

"In this way man overcomes death, which he has recognized intellectually. No greater triumph of wish-fulfilment is possible. A choice is made where in reality there is obedience to a compulsion."

But in Freudian thought, Death - in and of itself - is meaningless. In order to mean something for a human being, death must be represented in a way that resonates with the structure of our unconscious wishes and fears. Lear does not fear death, he fears loss of contact with the figure of the mother. He insists on hearing how much his third daughter, the silent Cordelia, really loves him. But it is all in vain. Reason demands that the old man makes peace with the necessity of dying, and thus Freud ends his essay movingly like this:

"We might argue that what is represented here...are the three forms taken by the figure of the mother in the course of a manís life - the mother herself, the beloved one who is chosen after her pattern, and lastly the Mother Earth who receives him once more. But it is in vain that an old man yearns for the love of woman as he first had it from his mother; the third of the fates alone, the silent Goddess of Death, will take him into her arms."

Sigmund and Martha Freud in 1938

Sigmund and Martha Freud in 1886

Anna Freud

Anna Freud

This website uses cookies to ensure we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on this website. Find out more about our cookie policy.