Sheila Kohler has a serious knack for writing historical fiction. Having published nine novels, including the highly acclaimed Becoming Jane Eyre and Cracks, three short story collections and a number of stories since the late 80’s, she has found her niche. Her work is thought provoking yet subtle, lyrical and flows with an undercurrent of passion. Kohler’s tenth novel, Dreaming for Freud, may be primarily imagined, but it seeks to uncover the truth. Based on Sigmund Freud’s influential and famous Dora case, Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905), Dreaming for Freud is the story of doctor and patient, diving into the dark corners of Kohler’s characters’ inner psyches to explore an interaction and relationship that surpassed its expected boundaries.
It’s the turn of the 20th century, and 17-year-old Dora (a pseudonym chosen by Freud) is just another ailing woman in Vienna diagnosed with hysteria. She suffers from a constant cough, lack of breath and at times, a crippling pain in her leg. After informing her father that his close friend, Herr Z., has made sexual advances towards her, Dora is sent to a new doctor, one that her father knows and insists “has an entirely new method for curing illness.” Freud, though, is preoccupied with battling his own insecurities and shortcomings amongst his colleagues in the medical community.
When the two protagonists are brought together, tension ensues. Freud sees Dora as an opportunity, another hysterical patient to aid in furthering his theories, thus advancing his journey towards professorship and his search for the “model dream.” “Yet what can she safely say? What stories can she tell to placate and satisfy this man, these men? What version of the truth will please them?” writes Kohler. Freud assumes that Dora’s repulsion towards Herr Z. and anger towards her father merely stems from the repression of her sexual desires for Herr K., as well as for her father, and he himself. “He tells her what he is certain of, that such vehement hate is often close to love,” writes Kohler. When Dora realizes she’s become a pawn in Freud’s game, she retaliates by cooperating.
Like Freud, Kohler studied psychology in Paris before later moving to the U.S. in 1981 with her three daughters. While at the Institut Catholique, she was assigned five of Freud’s case histories. Dora was the only female subject out of five. While reading Dora’s case on a flight home to South Africa, Kohler began to feel ill herself. “When I got to South Africa, I discovered I was ill, with the measles,” says Kohler. “The case history made a tremendous impression on me.” She was shocked by how little Freud allowed Dora to speak. “He never gives her a voice,” says Kohler. “When we read the case history, we don’t quite know for sure how Dora feels.”
Kohler is interested in this abuse of power. Having grown up in Johannesburg, South Africa during apartheid, Kohler was immersed in a society of oppression. “We could run around with no shoes on and were given a lot of freedom,” says Kohler of her childhood. “But on the other hand, there was this whole lie that was told, in a way. There were servants who took care of us, who we loved and they us, but they weren’t treated well.”
During the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, there was a great deal of discrimination and injustice in Vienna as well. Kohler touches on the issue of anti-semitism in Vienna in her novel: “Despite her irregular education she knows all about this, as one does about a fire that runs beneath the surface of things at all times, half-hidden but erupting dangerously and surprisingly…” Freud fails to address any of this in a majority of his writing. Nor does he mention anywhere in Dora’s case that she was Jewish. “He avoids talking about the society at large,” says Kohler. “Dora was a woman and a Jew. All of those things were working against her. I wanted to give her a voice.”Steph Derstine is a freelance writer in Austin. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.