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Sigmund Freud


‘THE PSYCHOGENESIS OF A CASE OF HOMOSEXUALITY IN A WOMAN’ (1920) The last case history that Freud published involved an eighteen-year-old homosexual girl who was brought to him after a suicide attempt. Homosexuality at the time was criminalised by law and stigmatised as a disease by both the medical profession and the newly emerging profession of sexology. Although there were some sympathetic commentators who were exceptions to this rule, homosexuality was usually at best treated as an illness which required sympathy, pity and possibly therapy to help convince homosexuals of the error of their ways (see Weeks 1980). Freud’s attitudes need to be contextualised in the light of the attitudes that surrounded him, so that we can understand some of the more impressive aspects of his attitude to this young woman. Like Dora, ‘A Case of Female Homosexuality’ (as it is popularly known) involved a reluctant analysand. The girl did not feel that she needed psychoanalytic treatment and resisted coming to see Freud. As Freud points out, an unwilling patient greatly lessens the chance of psychoanalytic success. The girl’s father forced her to see Freud after she had thrown herself on to a suburban railway line. In the circumstances that immediately preceded the incident, the girl’s father had spotted her on the street with a woman with whom she was in love, and clearly registered his anger and disgust. One of Freud’s achievements in his treatment of her was to recognise that the girl’s attempted suicide was not necessarily related to her homosexuality, except in so far as it was a reaction to feeling rejected by her father. In other words, she was not unhappy because she was homosexual, she was unhappy because being a homosexual at that time could mean ostracisation from one’s family. Freud writes that there were many factors in the case that made it seem unlikely that it would resolve itself in a cure, but the primary one was that he did not think she needed to be cured, at least not of her homosexuality: the girl was not in any way ill (she did not suffer from anything in herself, nor did she complain of her condition) and … the task to be carried out did not consist in resolving a neurotic conflict but in converting one variety of the genital organisation of sexuality into the other. (Freud 1920a: 375) Freud recognises that this desire for a ‘cure’ for her homosexuality, which made her father bring her to him in the first place, is a misplaced desire. The most that psychoanalysis could do, Freud suggests, would be to restore a sense of original childhood bisexuality, but even this is quite unlikely. Since homosexuality, like heterosexuality, involves choosing to give up one love object (either the mother or the father) and keep the other, the two developmental paths are not structurally very different from each other: One must remember that normal sexuality too depends upon a restriction in the choice of object. In general, to undertake to convert a fully developed homosexual into a heterosexual does not offer much more prospect of success than the reverse, except that for good practical reasons the latter is never attempted. (Freud 1920a: 375–6) ‘Practical’ reasons are not ‘natural’ reasons. Obviously it was easier to live in the world of early

twentieth-century Vienna (as it is still easier to live in the world of early twenty-first century Europe and America) as a heterosexual rather than a homosexual. By foregrounding the contingent development of both these sexual attitudes Freud points out that they are roughly equivalent, and suggests that both of them depend upon ruling out certain object choices. Heterosexuality and homosexuality are not judged by Freud in terms of their pathology or normality; rather they are seen as choices that are made by people consciously and unconsciously. All that psychoanalysis claims to contribute to sexual choice is an analysis of the family dynamics from which these choices emerge. In the course of the analysis Freud discovers that the girl’s early intense love object was her mother; she decided to make herself like a man in order to win her mother’s love. According to Freud’s analysis, the girl appeared coolly reserved towards her father, but in fact she harboured feelings of revenge and hatred towards him. An exasperated Freud finds that she displays the same unemotional attitude towards the analysis and his insights that she does towards her father: ‘Once when I expounded to her a specially important part of the theory, one touching her very nearly, she replied in an inimitable tone, “How very interesting,” as though she were a grande dame being taken over a museum and glancing through her lorgnon at objects to which she was completely indifferent’ (Freud 1920a: 390). Like Dora, this patient’s resistance to his readings of her situation appears to upset Freud – he is taken out of the position of master or all-knowing analyst by the frank indifference of his audience. Freud suggests that the girl has transferred her feelings towards her father on to Freud and is treating him with a similar icy disdain. Because of this disdain, other, more emotionally engaged, kinds of transference will be unable to develop. Therefore, Freud breaks off the treatment after a short time and advises the girl’s parents to send her to a woman doctor with whom the girl may be more willing to develop positive transferences. ‘A Case of Homosexuality in a Woman’ is a brief but interesting case history that displays both Freud’s strengths and his shortcomings. Theoretically his attitude towards homosexuality is unpathologising and sympathetic. But his practical attitude towards his women patients, such as Dora and the eighteen-year-old homosexual girl, betrays a difficult wrestling with the problem of femininity: Freud’s inability to make his women patients’ past memories conform completely to his theories of the Oedipus complex. SUMMARY Freud’s case histories are some of the best places to look for his most brilliant interpretative turns and his literary finesse. His analyses are powerful and persuasive pieces of rhetoric that are full of psychological insight, although, as we have seen, they can also seem brutal or forced. According to Freud, the Rat Man’s obsessivecompulsive disorders were acted out in reaction to a series of ambivalent emotions, particularly towards his dead father; guilt and hatred went hand in hand with admiration and shame. The Wolf Man’s infantile dream of the wolves outside his window contributes the idea of the primal scene, and further fuels a continuing argument about the relative importance of memory and reconstruction in analysis. ‘Dora’ and ‘A Case of Female Homosexuality’ both display Freud’s practical mishandling of young women patients, at the same time as they show his theoretical flair for interpretation. In the end, Freud

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