1905: Dora

Sigmund Freud’s sixteen-year-old “Dora” had all the makings of a reality TV star.

Editor Philip Rieff might well have been composing a pitch letter when he wrote in the 1962 introduction to Dora, An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria that the “sick daughter has a sick father, who has a sick mistress, who has a sick husband, who proposes himself to the sick daughter as her lover.”

It is the sick father who, in the fall of 1900, delivered his daughter to the good doctor Freud and begged his help. The sick daughter herself elected to discontinue treatment only a few months later on the last day of that year. The record of that brief therapy – held back from publication for more than four years after Freud finished writing up the case history – offers a keyhole view of a time at once utterly familiar to our strictest moral sensibilities and radically alien to our most progressive humanistic tendencies.

The following excerpt acquaints the reader with one of the more sinister elements of Dora’s quandary and captures the penetrating (though not necessarily fact-based) nuance that have made Freud an essential companion to anyone who would grasp the unfulfilled wishes of the 20th century:

I could not in general dispute Dora’s characterization of her father; and there was one particular respect in which it was easy to see that her reproaches were justified. When she was feeling embittered she used to be overcome by the idea that she had been handed over to Herr K. as the price of his tolerating the relations between her father and his wife; and her rage at her father’s making such a use of her was visible behind her affection for him.

At other times she was quite well aware that she had been guilty of exaggeration in talking like this. The two men has of course never made formal agreement in which she was treated as an object for barter; her father in particular would have been horrified at any such suggestion. But he was one of those men who know how to evade a dilemma by falsifying their judgement upon one of the conflicting alternatives. If it had been pointed out to him that there might be danger for a growing girl in the constant and uncontrolled companionship of a man who had no satisfaction from his own wife, he would have been certain to answer that he could rely upon his daughter, that a man like K. could never be dangerous to her, and that his friend was himself incapable of such intentions, or that Dora was still a child and was treated as a child by K. But as a matter of fact things were in a position in which each of the two men avoided drawing any conclusions from the other’s behavior which would have been awkward for his own plans.

It was possible for Herr K. to send Dora flowers every day for a whole year while he was in the neighbourhood, to take every opportunity of giving her valuable presents,a nd to spend all his spare time in her company, without her parents noticing anything in his behaviour that was characteristic of love-making.


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