THE ENIGMA OF ANNA O. by Melinda Given Guttmann


The Remarkable Story of Visionary, Writer, Feminist, and Social Worker, Bertha Pappenheim
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A motley and admiring memoir of the remarkable woman known as “Anna O.” in Studies on Hysteria by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud.

Guttman (Speech, Theater and Media Studies/City Univ. of New York) has done the work demanded by her daunting subject. She visited all the relevant sites, read everything there is to read, visited every useful archive, and devoted ten years to the project. As a result, she has brought to life the amazing Bertha Pappenheim (1857–1936), who, once she emerged from her “hysteria” (exacerbated if not engendered by the illness and death of her beloved father), devoted herself with fierce intelligence and passion to a variety of feminist, Jewish, and humanitarian causes until she died of cancer on the eve of the Holocaust. Guttman could not discover much about Pappenheim’s childhood, so she picked up the story in 1880 when Bertha, who was raised in comfort in a prosperous Jewish home in Vienna, began to suffer from a variety of debilitating symptoms with no evident medical cause. The early chapters deal principally with Bertha’s profound and intimate relationship with her physician (Breuer), who was developing with Bertha the “talking cure” that would provide the foundation for the nascent field of psychotherapy. Breuer was not completely successful, so Pappenheim was confined for some time in asylums before her eventual recovery. Afterwards she never married and spent her long, productive career writing fairy tales, plays, short stories, and feminist articles, and establishing and running an important Jewish women's organization as well as a home for unwed Jewish mothers. She was a lifelong opponent of prostitution and a lifelong advocate for women’s rights. There are some problems, none mortal, with Guttman’s approach. Several times she gets wrong the titles of Mary Wollstonecraft’s works (which an admiring Pappenheim translated), she sometimes substitutes jargon for analysis, and several chapters consist entirely of translations of Pappenheim’s stories, letters, and prayers—items whose relevance to Pappenheim’s biography Guttman does not always convincingly demonstrate.

Thoroughly, lovingly researched, this is weakened a bit by inconsistencies of style and organization. (22 b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: April 1st, 2001
ISBN: 1-55921-285-3
Page count: 400pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2001