Kohler’s (Bay of Foxes, 2012, etc.) new novel fictionalizes the story of Dora, one of Freud’s earliest and most memorable patients.
In 1900, a wealthy industrialist brings his 18-year-old daughter to his own doctor—Sigmund Freud—for treatment of her “nervous” cough and “imaginary” leg and abdominal pains. Dora is crucial to Freud, who is still in the beginning stages of his career, not only for the fee he can command for her daily sessions, but because he hopes to find validation of his theories concerning the causes of hysteria. Reclining on his Persian-carpeted couch, gazing at his Greek and Roman antiquities, Dora (a pseudonym) is at first a reluctant analysand. She's there because she accused a family friend, Herr Z., of trying to molest her, and her family thinks she's lying. Soon she begins to view Freud as the only confidant who believes her stories. She tells him that her father has an invidious motive for defending Herr Z.: He is consorting with Frau Z. and is in effect willing to barter his daughter in return for Herr Z.’s cooperation. Freud appears sympathetic at first but later alienates Dora by implying that, far from feeling revulsion for Herr Z., she desires him. In retaliation, after dipping into Freud’s critically reviled The Interpretation of Dreams, Dora invents two dreams which Freud, eager for such fodder, interprets as further indications of Dora’s sexual obsessions. Thus, though hewing closely to the details of the Dora case study as written and published by Freud after the abrupt departure of his patient, the novel tests its veracity. Kohler handily exploits the therapeutic deadlock between the two principals to reveal character. Freud’s insecurities, frustrations, self-absorption and longing—for a more prosperous existence, for a trip to Rome, for the return of his estranged friend Fliess—are sensitively evoked, as are Dora’s internal conflicts.
As both the patient’s and the doctor’s vulnerabilities are exposed, the very nature of a person’s “story” is called into question.