Freud's Mistress is a story riddled with passion and thwarted love. Living in
fin de siècle Vienna, thirty-year-old Minna Bernays never imagined that at this point in her life she would have to make her own way in the world. Unlike her sister, Martha, who married the famous Sigmund Freud, Minna
remains unwed. Her life is turned upside down after her employer lets her go; a shot of gin, a single cigarette, and the world of literature act as the preferred antidote for Minna’s terrible feelings of boredom, dread and loneliness.
Thrust into the world that views woman “as possessions”--where marriage, especially for the middle and upper classes, is seen as a business arrangement for either title or money, and where love matches are rare,
even scoffed at in some circles--Minna has little choice but to turn to the loving arms of kindly Martha and the seductive, successful Sigmund. Huddled in the Ninth District near a canal of the Danube, Freud and Martha’s busy, industrious household and their gaggle of noisy children
provide at first a much-needed sanctum for Minna’s depleted and damaged spirit.
Astounded at the dark silence, Sigmund is more handsome and impeccably groomed than Minna remembers. With his thick
hair and intensely dark and appraising eyes, the renowned neurologist’s mere presence forces Minna
to think back to when he first courted Martha. “An old-fashioned sweetheart,” Martha has since proved to be a world apart from her more intellectually-minded sister, whom Freud admits he loves for her vital opinions and her ability to engage in serious conversations.
Martha lives in a comfortable marriage with a man she loves to death, but this safe, abstinent world
is in danger of being turned upside down when sexual passion--the one thing that Minna is missing--comes calling in the name of handsome Sigmund. Meeting in his office late at night and talking about his work--of freeing patients by encouraging them to talk about their sexual neuroses--Minna
is delighted to be with someone who considers her an intellectual. When Freud opens his mouth, his words and actions have a captivating quality, opening Minna up to many erotic tastes and the wild side of his intellect that has always so fascinated her.
As Minna’s narrative shifts, profoundly in the way she thinks about herself and about her lover, Mack and Kaufman’s strength
lies in recreating their heroine’s internal conflicts and vulnerabilities. Minna is torn between what she thinks is right and moral and what she truly desires. Alone in a house full of people and high on coca, Sigmund’s head thrusts forward while Minna’s
mind floats off into space. The whole scenario is fraught with an inexplicable peril. As little voices rattle on in her head, dissecting the implications and consequences of her behavior, the authors attempt show how Minna’s desire trumps her righteousness and how she steadily succumbs to the yearning arms of the man whom she’s convinced will seduce her forever.
Riding along the jumbled cobblestone streets of Vienna and, later, in
Hamburg, Minna tries to ignore the panic building inside her. This affair with a married man, especially her brother-in-law, seems such an unpalatable betrayal. Minna inhabits the world of outcasts as her feelings, wildly passionate in one moment, instantly switch to the “dark, barbarous world of sin and remorse.” Freud is far less sympathetic.
He’s lettered, affluent and hardworking, but he’s not prepared to forsake his marriage to Martha. As Sigmund and Minna’s affair deepens from a mere physical attraction into something more, Minna sees
the irreversible slide of her “moral landscape” and the impending catastrophe that will eventually consume her and be her undoing.
Freud's Mistress has a richness and a fully created world that is difficult to find in most historical fiction.
In this glimpse at a way of life long since gone, the characters and settings are allowed to breathe and live as though we are seeing a coherent slice of turn-of-the-century reality. Mack and Kaufman fully realize Freud and Minna’s affair, and we learn much about the man who became known as the founding father of psychoanalysis, viewed through the fractured, passionate, tortured prism of the thoroughly modern but flawed Minna.