Often when I mention that I’ve written a book about Anna O, people will say something along the lines of: ‘Oh, yes, she was one of Freud’s patients, wasn’t she?’ This isn’t really surprising as she is so intimately connected with the history of psychoanalysis. In a sense, she was, as she is sometimes described, ‘Freud’s Anna O’. Her case is the foundation stone on which Freud started to build his theories; and without Freud, Bertha Pappenheim would be known only for her later success as a pioneering feminist and social worker.
Some people may think that it doesn’t matter whether or not Freud was her doctor, in the same way that some people think that it doesn’t matter whether Shakespeare or someone else wrote his plays and sonnets. It matters very much, in fact, and this is why it’s surprising that the misconception about Anna O even extends to the psychotherapy community.
A cursory Google search threw up a few interesting items.
A webpage titled Student Resources in Context has Bertha being treated by both Freud and Breuer simultaneously. In this version the collaboration starts with Breuer telling Freud about Bertha. It goes on to say that ‘during daily visits to Freud and Breuer, the doctors discovered that some of her symptoms were alleviated merely by discussing her memories and the feelings they created in her’. Finally, Freud alone is given credit for the cure with the claim that: ‘When Freud encouraged Anna O to recall a given situation and express the reaction she had earlier repressed, her symptoms vanished.’
Psychotherapist Humair Hashmi goes further. Anna O, he claims, began to express affection for Breuer and tried to put her arms round him. This so alarmed Breuer that he passed the case on to Freud. Nothing daunted, Freud, ‘the fearless pioneer that he was’, regarded this as a challenge and interpreted it as a manifestation of transference which could be used as a means of effecting a cure. Hashmi goes on to say:‘This is what Freud did in Anna’s case.’
An even more surprising misrepresentation is one I discovered when I came across a Wall Street Journal review of a show called Dr Freud’s Cabaret in which Freud takes to the boards with a number of his most famous patients. The show starts with an Anna O number called Chimney Sweeping (Bertha Pappenheim’s term for the talking she did with Breuer) and the review describes how ‘Anna O would hold Freud’s hand while she told him fairy stories and dark fantasies that helped alleviate her psychosis.’ Investigating this further I found that the idea for the show had germinated when the writer was reading Studies in Hysteria as research for a novel. So far so good, but the fact that she had done this research makes it even more puzzling that she could then flout the truth by portraying Anna O’s treatment as being with Freud rather than with Breuer. Artistic licence, you might say. Perhaps. But what really takes the biscuit is that the show was put on at the Freud Museum in London which seems to have been quite comfortable with helping to perpetuate the myth that Freud was Anna O’s patient. It would all be so much neater if she had been, after all. The fact that she was not is possibly, for them, what Al Gore might term ‘an inconvenient truth’.