Reveries and Recollections: Re/construction in Sheila Kohler’s Dreaming for Freud

DSCN2097 - Version 2Kohler, Sheila. Dreaming for Freud. New York: Penguin, 2014.

The Introduction (rather interestingly at the end of the novel in the Readers [sic] Guide Section) to Dreaming for Freud tells us that Sheila Kohler “builds upon the known facts of Freud’s and Dora’s lives to brilliantly reimagine the story behind one of psychology’s most famous and controversial works” (Introd. 4). Do I have to say anything more? The Guide section also includes sections “About the Author” (short), “A Conversation with Sheila Kohler” (four and a half pages), and twelve “Suggested Questions for Discussion.”

DSCN2097 - Version 2All but two of these questions ask the reader to give rather subjective answers to questions about the two main characters in the novel: Freud and Dora. One question deals with Freud’s Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. Another considers the relationship between literature and psychology. They are not invalid questions, but are they necessary? Do readers need study guides? And if so, surely one question at least could be about narrative technique. I am being sidetracked here into a discussion of the whole validity of Readers’ Guides and whether or not they really do help readers develop an objective, analytical approach to the product that is a novel.

DSCN2097 - Version 2In this case, I suspect that in a way the questions actually detract from the power of the work, focussing as they do on the personalities and to a certain extent on the success or failure of the therapy. In this novel, as Eco does in The Prague Cemetery, Kohler writes about historical persons but appropriates them to her own uses.

DSCN2097 - Version 2One could perhaps argue, too, that this is just what Freud did with his patient. Ida Bauer became Dora for Freud. Yes, obviously, he had patient confidentiality to consider, but, nevertheless, by giving her a different name rather than simple anonymity, he creates someone other than the real Ida Bauer.

DSCN2097 - Version 2What Kohler makes clear in her novel that at least in her fictional world, both Freud and Ida have something to lose and to gain from their relationship. Freud wants advancement, confirmation of his theories about dreams, financial and professional security. Ida wants to be free of dependence, to be free of pain. Writing in the third person, Kohler shifts the focalization between Freud and his patient, and this shifting perspective is mirrored in the ambiguity of her title. Read as Dreaming for Freud the title focuses the attention on what Freud wants to know about dreams. Dreaming for Freud suggests an act made for Freud. Whichever way one reads, both doctor and patient appear to disappoint each other and themselves.

DSCN2097 - Version 2This is a novel of disappointments and questions: the therapist’s questions of the patient, the characters’ questions of themselves and of their own motives. Dreaming for Freud ends in December 1945 with Ida Bauer, an old woman in Brooklyn remembering her past and considering the irony of having become famous because of the “many people [who] have already taken up her story and filled in the blank spaces, attempting to explicate what happened according to their own imaginative desires” (228), and wondering if anyone will “guess that the dreams she told him were invented” (228).

DSCN2097 - Version 2Ida/Dora admits to liking “to make up stories,” but asserts, “I know the difference between the truth and a lie” (35) and is angry that her mother believed the “imaginary diary” (39) to be true.

However, Ida’s claims about the attentions of Herr Z are disbelieved by her father. Given our current understanding and experience, we are more likely to believe her, so from early in the book our response to the patient’s narratives is coloured by contemporary knowledge. So, too, is our whole response to Freud whether as a historical personage or as Kohler’s created character. Then there is our knowledge of historical events, our knowledge of the past, which to the characters in the novel is still the unknown future. At times, Kohler reminds us of our superior knowledge of the characters’ futures through proleptic moments such as identifying Freud’s sister-in-law Minna as the one who will tell the Gestapo that the family does not “keep guests standing in their home” (110), or asking “How could he envisage that the very rooms in which he had heard so much about the beginnings of the lives of his patients will serve as a Nazi transit station” (207).

IDSCN2097 - Version 2nvention and the telling of tales lie at the heart of this novel. It is a study in narratives and in the relationships between conflicting narratives. It is a study in how we use narratives. After all, Kohler uses Freud’s narratives to construct her own, the novel. How true are the tales we tell, the memories we think we have, the dreams we experience? Yes, it does raise questions about Freud himself and about psychoanalysis, particularly Freudian analysis. But perhaps more than these, it raises the questions about how narratives work, the uses to which they are put, and perhaps most important, who owns, for want of a better word, our stories. Who should tell them and why?


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2 Responses to Reveries and Recollections: Re/construction in Sheila Kohler’s Dreaming for Freud

  1. Such an interesting review of my book. Thank you for reading it so carefully. Sheila Kohler

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