Did Freud Sleep With His Wife's Sister? An Expert Interview With Franz Maciejewski, PhD

May 04, 2007

Editor's Note:

A recent discovery by Franz Maciejewski, PhD, a German sociologist, about an alleged sexual relationship between Sigmund Freud and his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, originally noted in the national German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, led to a worldwide media furor. Research had previously established that the two shared a trip to Maloja in Oberengadin, Switzerland, in August 1898. While researching his book, The Moses of Sigmund Freud, Dr. Maciejewski followed the path that Freud and Bernays had taken over a century before. On his sojourn, he discovered a single room in the names of Freud and Bernays at the Hotel Schweizerhaus in Maloja, in which Freud himself had registered them as "man and wife." Alma H. Bond, PhD, Fellow, former faculty member, Institute of Psychoanalytic Training and Research, New York, NY, interviewed Dr. Maciejewski by email on behalf of Medscape about his discovery and the impact that it may have on the future of psychoanalysis.

Medscape: First, kindly tell us something about your background. Are you a psychoanalyst as well as a sociologist?

Dr. Maciejewski: I am a sociologist with a PhD from Frankfurt, Germany, and also trained in psychoanalysis in Zürich, Switzerland.

Medscape: If I may venture to ask, were you ever in analysis yourself? If so, of what school of analysis was your analyst? Do you consider your analysis a success?

Dr. Maciejewski: Sure; I was in analysis. It was done by a Freudian analyst in a classic setting, and I consider it a success.

Medscape: How did you first become interested in the subject? What in your life prepared you to undertake such a difficult search?

Dr. Maciejewski: Well, the starting point of my research was not the "chronique scandaleuse" of the so-called "Minna question" raised by Peter Gay,[1,2] but rather, another unsolved enigma of Freud's biography: Why did Freud's identification with the figure of Moses have the character of an obsession?

I learned from Ernest Jones[3] that Freud's younger and early deceased brother Julius possibly was called by his second Jewish name, "Moshe.[4]" If so, this could explain something of a hidden "Moses complex." As there was no entry of the birth or circumcision of Julius to confirm Jones' supposition, I had to go the way of text exegesis. I knew, like other scholars, that the secret of Julius' second name was obviously inscribed in the first case of the forgetting of a proper name -- a slip that Freud mentioned in a letter to his friend Fliess, "Julius Mosen," the name of a German poet and author.[5] I considered the Freudian slip of Julius Mosen (not uncovered by any scholar so far) as a big challenge.[6,7]

The first result of my investigation was, surprisingly enough, that the Julius Mosen slip took place during the first trip that Sigmund and Minna took together, which led the founder of psychoanalysis and his sister-in-law via Austria's northern Tirol to the Upper Engadine in Switzerland.

I pinned my hope on the belief that I might find the necessary material to decipher the slip in question if I myself would travel the ways that Sigmund and Minna had walked a century or so before. I was on the track that would ultimately bring me to Maloja, the place preserving the secret of Freud's second "wife."

For solving the puzzle of the Julius Mosen, see my recent book, The Moses of Sigmund Freud.[6] Only the German edition is available so far.

Medscape: Do you intend to write a book about your discovery and your quest for the truth about the father of psychoanalysis?

Dr. Maciejewski: Yes. I intend to write a book about the secret of Freud's love affair with Minna Bernays; it is already on the way and will be published in autumn.

Medscape: How long did your research take? Was it a labor of love, an obsession, or simply a scholarly exercise? Would you undertake it again, if you had to do it over?

Dr. Maciejewski: My research took about 2 years. In August 2005, I spent my holidays in exactly the historical places of Freud and Bernays' first unaccompanied trip. Step by step, I had to learn that the enigma of Julius Mosen included the 2 sides of an ambivalent whole: hatred and love, the "murder" of the brother (Julius), and the incestuous love with the sister-in-law (Minna). I understood that Julius (whom Freud had greeted at birth with death wishes) returned as a revenant of days of old on that journey with Minna because his imago had the power to reanimate the emotions accompanying the first dangerous liaison in the life of Freud -- his passionate love for his mother, Amalia.

I finished the first part of my research without asking for the hotel guestbook in Maloja. However, in the springtime of 2006, when I got the proofs of my book, a feeling of "you forgot something" crept over me, a feeling not to be refused. Following that inspiration, I took the journey to the Upper Engadine a second time in August 2006. This time I asked the manager of the hotel whether the hotel had preserved the guestbook from the end of the 19th century. That being the case, I was given the opportunity to examine the "Fremdenbuch 1883."

Although the subject of my research was obsessional love, my own work was simply scholarly exercise. And, yes, I would undertake it again, if I had to do so.

Medscape: What were your feelings when you discovered Freud's registration in the register of the Hotel Schweizerhaus? You wrote that you believed that there was something unknown that Freud felt guilty about. Were you glad or sorry to have your ingenious hunch confirmed?

Dr. Maciejewski: I knew as a matter of documental record that Freud and his companion terminated their trip in Maloja, staying there for 3 days or 2 nights in the venerable Hotel Schweizerhaus. Under the appropriate date (August 13, 1898) was to be found, as one would expect, the handwritten registration of Freud, but with quite an unexpected twist. When I realized what I had seen, I enjoyed an overwhelming feeling of pride. I saw writing on the wall that no one had seen before.

We have to value all available documents and proofs. My finding is part of a puzzle. However, for sure, we are not at the beginning of a case of circumstantial evidence, but rather at the end, based mainly on the report by [Carl Gustav] Jung [in an interview published after his death in 1969, in which Minna confessed her affair with Freud to Jung in 1907][8]; the testimony of Freud's friend [Sandor] Ferenczi; and, more recently, on the strength of the research of Peter Swales [who studied Freud for 25 years] (Swales PJ, unpublished draft, 1998).[9,10]

To make my position a little clearer, I was convinced that Freud and Minna had a love affair before my own finding. The force of my arguments developed from text exegesis (for example, the Julius Mosen slip, dreams, and letters of Freud's). Here, it is the logic of the unconscious, a genuine Freudian path, that confronted me with the same result.

Medscape: Some people believe that there are possible explanations, other than the sexual one, for why Freud and Minna shared a room, such as financial reasons or the fact that in those days it was not unusual for family members to share a room. Do you personally believe that Freud and Minna had an affair? If so, how do you feel about the morality of the situation?

Dr. Maciejewski: My finding does not raise in the first degree the question of morality; I mean, it is not the time of scorn. On the contrary, through having now been exposed as altogether fallible, Freud paradoxically gains in being seen as someone human, all too human.

Medscape: Has Freud been an important influence in your life? Does your discovery change your estimation of his character?

Dr. Maciejewski: Yes indeed; Freud has been an important influence in my life, and this will be the case in the future. In "discovering the Freud beneath Freud," I do not like to hang a name on Freud or degrade his character. I fight for a progress in psychoanalysis that for the genius of the master would never have come into being.

Medscape: How do you feel about the tremendous response that your discovery has provoked? Are you surprised, or did you expect such an uproar?

Dr. Maciejewski: I am surprised about the tremendous response that my discovery has provoked. It is due, I believe, to the work of Freud's hagiographers who, time and again, have presented us with the picture of a scientific saint. Freud was a genius but not infallible. We can notice 2 extreme reactions. I do not share either: the Freud basher on the one hand and the Freudian hardliner on the other hand.

Medscape: What effect do you believe that your discovery will have on our perception of the validity of psychoanalysis and its future?

Dr. Maciejewski: The affair with a sister-in-law is no mere amorous escapade whose impact lies only in the sphere of biographical study. Notwithstanding all the controversy over time, scholars have never doubted that a possible relationship of Sigmund and Minna would count as incest (brother-sister incest or maybe even as mother-son incest -- Minna in a role as "second mother"). The desire for incest is central within Freud's oedipal paradigm. So the question arises of whether (or how) the biographical actuality may have influenced that theory.

One conclusion may be that psychoanalysis can no longer be held together by appeals to the personal integrity of its founder, but only by its heuristic power as a complex theoretical system. This change in psychoanalysis as a scientific project will generate, in my opinion, an even better psychoanalysis than the original Freudian theory and therapy ever has been.

Medscape: Thank you, Dr. Maciejewski, for your informative and courageous responses.

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A Response to "Did Freud Sleep With his Wife's Sister: An Expert Interview With Franz Maciejewski, PhD"


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