Behind the Hysteria
“I wanted to give [Dora] a voice,” says Sheila Kohler, a lecturer in creative writing, because in Freud’s seminal 1905 paper “she hardly is ever allowed to say anything.”
“I wanted to give [Dora] a voice,” says Sheila Kohler, a lecturer in creative writing, because in Freud’s seminal 1905 paper “she hardly is ever allowed to say anything.”
Sameer A. Khan

One of Sigmund Freud’s most famous case studies concerned a young woman he called Dora, who suffered debilitating pain and at times lost the ability to speak after accusing a family friend of making sexual advances toward her. The case is regarded as a landmark in psychoanalytic theory for its discussion of psychosomatic illness and the significance of dreams.

Sheila Kohler’s novel Dreaming for Freud reimagines the interaction between Freud and Dora, conjuring their daily sessions, motivations, and anxieties, and bringing the iconic case to life in a new way. 

“I wanted to give her a voice,” says Kohler, a lecturer in creative writing, because in Freud’s seminal 1905 paper, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, “she hardly is ever allowed to say anything.”

In Kohler’s imagining, Freud and Dora, whose real name was Ida Bauer, don’t quite get along. Freud is anxious about money — he had six children — and craves professional recognition. He needs Dora both for her father’s money and for her dreams, which he is certain will prove his theories. “Freud was only 44, and very much at the beginning of his career,” says Kohler. “He was finding his way.” 

Though Freud, as a male and an authority figure, had the upper hand in the relationship, that power is tempered — in Kohler’s portrayal — by Dora’s wealth. As their sessions unfold in the novel, Dora analyzes Freud as much as he analyzes her. Kohler imagines Dora finding a copy of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in her father’s library and, after reading it, using her dreams to steer Freud’s analysis as she pleases, seizing control of her treatment. Freud’s case study depicts Dora as “this pathetic hysteric,” says Kohler, but the author’s research into Dora’s life demonstrated that she was quite savvy. After Dora’s father lost all his money, she survived by teaming up with his former mistress to start a club that charged society ladies money to play bridge.

In Kohler’s portrayal, Freud’s behavior sometimes is sexist, but he also affords women more respect than many other men did in early 20th-century society. He bullied Dora, Kohler says, insisting that her father’s friend made sexual advances toward her because she secretly was in love with him. On the other hand, Freud listened to her and many other female patients at a time when few others did. 

Dora found in Freud a sounding board for her intelligent mind, at a time when few channels existed for women to express themselves, Kohler points out. And Freud helped Dora — over the course of her treatment, several of her maladies disappeared. “Freud was aware that [women] actually had desires and sexual feelings,” says Kohler. “I think we have to thank him for making huge steps forward, just in the process of listening.”

In real life, Dora abruptly quit her treatment, and a regretful Freud considered the case a failure. But his write-up of Dora’s case would be widely praised for its empirical approach and its identification of new psychological ideas, and would ensure Freud’s — and Dora’s — place in history.