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Anna Freud: A BiographyReview - Anna Freud: A Biography
Second Edition
by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
Yale University Press, 2008
Review by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Ph.D.
Apr 28th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 18)

The book before us could be subtitled The Loves and Labors of Miss Anna Freud. It is a second edition of the biography originally published in 1988. It is longer (545 pages) than the first edition (527 pages). Reading this book requires a good knowledge of basic psychoanalytic literature. The author is an eminent intellectual, as well as a practicing psychoanalyst. What we get here is detailed, meticulous, and erudite descriptions of every aspect of her subject's life, together with a large cast of supporting characters and extras.  Sigmund Freud is a supporting character here, but his weight is never underestimated and all events occur under his shadow. This is naturally one of main topics. Young-Bruehl's lucid style helps immensely when clarifying many theoretical discourses, such as the fine points of the   1940s dispute between Anna Freud and Melanie Klein. The author also offers psychoanalytic interpretations of her subject: "the most obvious manifestations of her unresolved father-complex" (p. 185). Later, this "father complex was no longer conflictive" (p. 188).

  Anna Freud (1895-1982) was the youngest of Sigmund Freud's six children, and the only one among them who made psychoanalysis her life's work. Anna entered psychoanalysis with her father in 1918, published her first paper on psychoanalysis in 1922, and started practicing as a psychoanalyst in 1923. Sigmund Freud was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw in 1923, and during his sixteen years of illness Anna tended her father, and took over many of his functions as he became less able to take care of things. She became General Secretary of the International Psychoanalytic Association and director of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Training Institute. The Freud family fled Austria for England in the summer of 1938, following the Nazi takeover of Austria. Anna lived for the rest of her life in London, and became more and more involved in the psychological treatment of children. She was more of a practitioner than a theorist, and most of her ideas about personality dynamics came, she claimed, from her observations of children. Anna Freud had intellect, knowledge, energy, ideas, ideals, and organizational ability.

Being psychoanalyzed by one's own father would not be done today, but in those early days of psychoanalysis it was still possible, while causing quite a few murmurs of disbelief.  Anna Freud simply refused to discuss this chapter in her biography (Chapter 3 in this volume), while she was alive. Becoming a psychoanalyst while having no formal education beyond high school would be unbelievable today, but it is to the credit of the  school system in Vienna in the early twentieth century, and to her innate talents,  that Anna Freud was clearly a well-educated woman, displaying impressive knowledge in several fields. Even though she never gave birth, she was always taking care of other people's children with undoubted dedication and warmth. Establishing her own separate identity was a constant challenge, and she met it to some extent thanks to the other significant relationships in her life and to the new practice of child analysis, that she helped create.

Anna Freud was among the pioneers of what has become known as psychoanalytic ego psychology. Her preference for the ego is a true reflection of her personality, with an orientation towards meeting the needs of reality before all else.  Her book, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense has certainly inspired many interesting research efforts, and will keep its place in the history of psychology, because ideas about defense mechanisms are one part of psychoanalysis that has been taken up by many academic psychologists.

In addition to the qualities which made her an outstanding worker, she was also capable of love and committed friendships, and this is amply demonstrated in the biography. The author manages to persuade us that there is indeed something special about feminine friendships. Of Anna Freud's many maternal female friendships, Young-Bruehl writes: "The needs expressed to and through these many women were more complex than the needs to love and be like a man that were filled by Freud and Freud only" (p. 459). Another judgment by the biographer is that "her thoughts reflect her bisexual constitution" (p. 461). The most important relationship in Anna Freud's life after that with her father was her life partnership with Dorothy Burlingham (nee Tiffany, daughter of the famous designer), a wealthy American who came to Vienna seeking help for her troubled children, and with whom she shared her life after 1927. Dorothy Burlingham was at one point also analyzed by Sigmund Freud, and eventually became a training analyst. Dorothy's children were analyzed by Anna Freud. There have been speculations about the sexual side of the relationship between Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham, but Young-Bruehl tells us decisively that Ann Freud had a "chaste life" (319).

This biography is consciously presented as part of a wider project, that of writing the history of psychoanalysis, and of continuities and discontinuities in psychoanalytic theories and practices, and should be read in this wider context. The author uses the terms "science" and "scientific" hundreds of times in this book, and you don't need to be a psychoanalyst to think that this may reflect defensiveness. She refers to the "histories of scientific revolutions", Newton, and Einstein (p. 455) in describing the generational dynamics of the movement. 

 When referring to Anna Freud's legacy, she writes"but it has been modernized. Little of the Freudian language of instinctual drives remains, although respect for the unconscious and its power is everywhere in combination with the Winnicottian attention to mother-child relations and with much attention to attachment theory, which originated with John Bowlby" (p. 12). This paragraph gives us a good summary of historical transitions in mainstream psychoanalysis, but should lead us to one major issue that the book never raises. The questions we are left with at the end have to do with the evolution of psychoanalysis. Why do certain ideas become acceptable? Is it a matter of rhetoric, charisma, or zeitgeist? What is the evidence needed to change minds in this field? What is the logic of change or "progress" or "modernization" in psychoanalysis, as Young-Bruehl sees it? Anna Freud thought, according to Young-Bruehl, that only more research could determine the correct answers in disputes among psychoanalysts, such as the one between herself and Melanie Klein. The question is only how do we do such research.

Young-Bruehl expresses throughout the book an unshaken confidence in what she describes as a science in progress, and she has her own ideas about its future course. She writes: "In the domain of female psychology and  in the domain of homosexuality, psychoanalysis had been substantially reformed,  but further reform in Freud's theory and technique had been needed, and more responsive—more "relational" ways of listening to patients had been needed"( p. 10).

We never see the use of the expression "reformed" in discussions of progress in physics, but it is proper here, because the changes Young-Bruehl refers to have not been the result of systematic research findings, but of political-cultural changes. The case of homosexuality and psychoanalysis deserves to be looked at. As Young-Bruehl tells us, Anna Freud, with her "unreformed" views on the subject, regarded homosexuality as something that should and could be cured. She described the dynamics of homosexuality in terms of "phallic narcissism", identification, and projection, all tied to early childhood experiences. Such ideas are not likely to be used by psychoanalysts today, not because they have been investigated and found wanting, but because homosexual organizations in the United States have used their political muscle skillfully to remove homosexuality from the realm of psychiatric diagnosis. Biological research in recent years has taught us that homosexuality, like other persistent behavioral orientations, is related to genetic and hormonal factors, and has made psychoanalytic theorizing simply irrelevant. Thus, progress in biological psychiatry has been pushing psychoanalytic ideas to the wayside, but mainstream psychoanalysis, as presented in this book, prefers to ignore that.

Psychoanalysis started its life outside the academic world and has remained there. It is called here often a science, but looks to this reader quite clearly as a social movement guided by a utopian vision. Young-Bruehl states that some psychoanalysts felt as if their movement was "the only hope for humankind's better future" (p. 455). Reading this book, one comes to realize that this view was quite common or even dominant, and that even Young-Bruehl seems to share it.  Despite the author's intentions and her idealized view of psychoanalysis as an investigative and intellectual enterprise, the picture that emerges in the book is of social-political-utopian movement, reflecting its origins in 19th century Central Europe. Developments in this movement have often been intensely personal, and the interactions  typical of an extended family.

Psychoanalysts seem to be, as a group, highly talented, intellectual, types, and psychoanalysis has clearly been an inspiration and a stimulus for many brilliant minds. This does not mean that these ideas should be taken seriously without reflection and without evidence. The issue is that of evaluating the validity of psychoanalytic theories about human behavior, and that of determining the efficacy of psychoanalytic treatment techniques. The value of psychoanalytic ideas does not depend on the personal lives of those who developed it. Whether Sigmund Freud had sex with his sister-in-law or whether Anna Freud had sex with Dorothy Burlingham is totally irrelevant to the value, and to the validity, of their ideas. These have to be judged on their merits.

© 2009 Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi is professor of psychology at the University of Haifa.  Among his publications: The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience and Psychoanalysis, Identity, and Ideology: Critical Essays on the Israel/Palestine Case. 


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