Martha Freud—the stalwart footnote to the life of her husband Sigmund—finally takes center stage.
Seven years after Sigmund Freud dies, his 85-year-old widow receives a letter from Mary Huntington-Smith, an American psychoanalyst requesting permission to interview her for a biography. Martha declines. But the interest Mary expresses in Martha’s life (she assumes, it turns out correctly, that it cannot have been easy to be Mrs. Freud), plus her admission that she doesn’t like Anna Freud, the controlling youngest daughter who assumed the mantle of heir to her father’s great legacy—secretly delights Martha. A correspondence ensues. Initially, Martha, living in England in what has already been designated the Freud Museum, follows the party line—her “Sigi” was a great man to whom she was blessed to have been married for 53 years. He wrote her 940 letters during their three-year engagement! But soon, darker disclosures emerge: Sigmund was pathologically jealous, forbidding Martha from even calling her cousin by his first name. A strict atheist, he slapped her hand the first Sabbath of their married life as she lit candles. His sex drive resulted in too many pregnancies too quickly, exhausting his wife. When she asked him to consider taking “some precaution,” Freud decided marital celibacy was the appropriate response, and so, as a 34-year-old woman, Martha became relegated to the background as manager of the household. The story comprises a year’s worth of letters Martha writes to Mary, interspersed with entries in a journal Martha begins to keep. As she becomes better known to herself—and to the reader—Martha experiences, in lifelike psychoanalytic fashion, associative remembering intermittently and significantly interrupted by incongruous responses that reveal suppressed emotion. These feelings are deepest regarding the circumstances that brought Martha, Sigmund and Anna to safety in England from Vienna in 1938—the one decision Martha can never forgive her husband for.
A perceptive look, from a psychoanalyst, at the downside of being Mrs. Sigmund Freud.