The following is an exclusive chapter-long excerpt from Vienna Triangle.
Brenda Webster’s critically acclaimed memoir, The Last Good Freudian, gave us “a powerful critique of orthodox psychoanalysis without engaging in Freud bashing” (San Francisco Chronicle) and a “fascinating glimpse into the heyday of American psychotherapy” (Booklist).
Webster’s Vienna Triangle delves – as only a novel can – even deeper into the interlaced roots of psychoanalysis. Webster explores the loves and rivalries in Freud’s inner circle that led to the tragic and unexplained death of Viktor Tausk, Freud’s “most brilliant disciple,” in 1918.
Forty years later, Kate, a young scholar, stumbles upon this mystery as she interviews Helene Deutsch, “Freud’s darling” and one of the few surviving members of his inner circle. Kate’s research becomes urgently personal as she probes the tangled affairs of the legendary analysts: Freud, Deutsch, Tausk, and Lou Andreas-Salomé, “serial muse” to Nietzsche, Rilke and Freud. Were the fears and jealousy of the “father of psychoanalysis” justified? Who was stealing ideas from whom? Was psychoanalysis used as an Oedipal weapon? The truth may be both lethal and life-affirming.
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The day after her talk with Helene, Kate set off in her battered old Buick - a hand-me-down from her mother - for New York. She liked driving - it soothed her - and though the gentle rain obscured the views along the coast and slowed traffic, it cut the glare. About half way, after two and a half hours, she stopped at Mystic, a small fishing port, and had a chowder and a coffee on Main Street to fortify her for the slog on to the City. She was very tired when, more than two hours later, she finally squeezed the Buick into a parking space a block from her mother's apartment.
Emily lived in a rent-controlled building on the Upper West Side by the river. It was small but perfectly adequate for her needs. Kate had a rather seedy place on Broadway above Ninety-sixth.
Kate's mother told her she remembered putting the insurance papers in her desk - she'd find the key in her jewelry box. Once Kate got to the apartment, she went immediately to the closet where her mother kept the box on a shelf behind an old hatbox - she always put it there when she went out of town. She was sure, she told Kate once, that this would throw any casual thief off the scent, and anyway she didn't have much of value - she'd passed much of it on to Kate already. Thinking of that gave Kate a pang of guilt as she rummaged in the tangle of beads - amber and garnet - and lacy antique silver brooches and bangles bequeathed by Grandma Hilde.
The key was there, just as her mother remembered it. The desk was an American colonial with a top that opened outward, becoming a writing platform with a deep drawer beneath. Kate opened the top with the key and found the insurance papers under a heap of old bills, unfilled prescriptions and postcards from friends.
She was just about to shut it when she saw a gold key peeking out from one of the desk's many cubbyholes. She pulled it out and examined it, wondering what it was for. There was a small locked drawer under the cubbyholes, but when she tried the key, it was too big. That only piqued her interest, and Kate studied the desk more carefully. Snooping wasn't something she generally approved of. When she was a teenager and her mother had gone through her things searching for pot, Kate had been furious.
She sat, turning the key over in her hand, wondering if she should just put it back. But she wasn't looking for anything in particular, she told herself, she was just curious. She gave a tentative pull to the knobs on the desk's beautifully inlaid lower drawer. It stayed firmly shut, and after debating with herself another minute, she couldn't resist trying the key. It fit perfectly into the keyhole and Kate pulled the drawer open.
The drawer stuck a little because it was full to the brim with papers. The first ones she saw were bills, and she imagined Keith teasing her about the meager results of her nosiness, but then she saw some pen and ink sketches of what looked like a large private estate with open lawns and big trees, under which men strolled or sat. There were only a few women in the scenes, and they seemed to be dressed with aprons and starched caps as nurses. The sketches showed considerable talent, and alongside them were some poems and what seemed to be a play and clippings in German. She put them neatly on top of the desk and kept digging down.
At the very bottom was a small brown leather diary with the year 1908 stamped on the cover in gold. She opened it and sat down in her mother's chair to look. Inside was a photograph in mezzotint of an extremely handsome man in uniform: blond close-cropped hair slightly receding at the temples, a moustache over sweetly curving lips, wide-set eyes, a high forehead and a fine straight nose.
There was an inscription at the bottom: "to my beloved Hilde from her Viktor."
Facing the photo on the diary's first page was the name Viktor Tausk in black ink with a beautifully curved script. It took her a moment to realize what she was seeing. This handsome young man - whom Helene had been telling her about only a few days before - must be her grandfather.
She felt stunned, dismayed after all these years of her mother's inexplicable refusal to speak his name. It didn't seem possible . . . it was surreal, confusing. Just a day ago, she thought, her head spinning, she hadn't even heard of him.
But along with her confusion she felt exhilarated, even exuberant. Helene had referred to Viktor Tausk as the brightest of Freud's disciples. He had humane, progressive views, and on top of it all, he'd been the lover of Lou Salome. What could her mother have objected to about this man - except of course that he had declined to marry Hilde? Maybe she was just punishing him for that, determined that even posthumously he wouldn't have the affection of his granddaughter.
Then she made out in smaller letters in German: Notes from the Asylum of Ahrweiler am Rein. Oh my god, Grandpa was crazy. It took her a moment to recall that an asylum in those days wasn't for the insane - but a place to rest and regroup. She turned the page and saw the date written in the same beautiful hand, September 26, 1908. Her college German somehow began to come back to her as she slowly worked her way down the page.
Today I had my initial medical examination. The doctor was young and very attentive. Palpated me everywhere, examined me for tremors, checked my heart, which he said was nervous - I suppose he meant an irregular beat - and my lungs, which he found weak, then he asked me about the last years.
Kate stopped and took a deep breath; then she got up and carried the journal to her mother's armchair near the window, thinking it would be more comfortable for reading. Before she sat down again, she took down her mother's German dictionary from the nearby shelf, and wiped her hands carefully with a Kleenex to protect the journal's seemingly fragile paper. On closer inspection, she saw that only the edges of the yellowing paper were crumbling slightly; in fact, the journal was written on thick, sturdy stock. She'd just have to be careful turning the pages. She went on.
I told the doctor about my agonized decision not only to leave my wife but to give up the law - he knew about my separation already and gave me a sympathetic look. Martha had obviously been to see him and asked about me. He was surprised to hear that she was an excellent mother and loyal wife. Her carelessness about her appearance and the fact that she is obviously an intellectual and no beauty probably put him off. But he was baffled by my decision to give up the law.
So her grandfather had been married to a homely intellectual before he fell in love with Hilde, whose photos showed her to have been extremely beautiful. Not only that, he'd given up a law career. Kate had wondered so much about her grandfather's profession. Now it seemed he'd had two: law and psychoanalysis. What would have made him give up a promising career for a completely different one? The doctor seemed to ask the same question.
My career seemed to him to be so full of possibilities. My love of art, my poetry, my writing for the theatre, none of that seemed to interest him very much. I gave him a copy of my last story, my best so far, I think, my gypsy tale of homelessness and murder, but he put it aside with only a perfunctory look. Perking up only when I mentioned that it was based on a real law case in which a man was tragically murdered by his own father. In his opinion, I couldn't experiment with an artistic life while trying to support my family by odd assignments as a journalist. It was clear he felt that to put my family first was the only possible solution and my duty. His diagnosis, when he finished with me, was mental and physical exhaustion.
In any case, he seemed to think that after rest and the proper treatment - which seems to consist mostly of warm milk, long walks and baths for my insomnia - I'd see the light and go back to making money. Though the doctor is so young, he manages to sound much like my father. Urging me to a career of law to "make money quickly." Certainly money and some success would do me good, but my nature rebels against making it by defending thieves or petty criminals. I told him my mother was melancholic for as long as I could remember. That gave him a moment's pause because he suspected an hereditary taint, an inclination, as he put it, towards psychopathology, but then he rallied and told me he didn't want me even to think of reading - nothing to over-stimulate the brain, just long walks in the countryside and plenty of fresh milk. I'm lucky he didn't take away my diary, which is small enough for me to secrete in my linen. Tomorrow, if I have the strength, I'll write a note to my poor boy - Martha tells me he is feeling my absence terribly.
Tausk had a son, then! Her mother had a half-brother. Kate shut the book and went to her mother's bathroom to pee. While she washed her hands with her mother's French soap, she thought about the fact that she had a half-uncle. Tausk sounded concerned about him - though Kate didn't want to read too much into a single line - and clearly torn by the conflict between developing his creativity and doing what seemed best for the child.
Got up today and had the warm milk that they think is so necessary to my condition, a terrific migraine nonetheless. Just to get up and brush my teeth was an effort. The warm milk was given me by a very pretty nurse, who said it came straight from the countryside, which is full of dairy farms and incredibly beautiful. I have to realize how sick I am by the fact that she didn't arouse the slightest desire except perhaps to lie against her bosom and have her stroke my hair while I was drinking. But after the milk - I drink a liter and a half a day - and a short walk in the fresh air, I was able to read my mail from Martha and even to write to my boys - Marius and little Emil. And then Martha.
Kate gave a start. So there were two boys. Her family had suddenly doubled in size! Kate looked to see if he said more about them but he had switched to his wife.
The fact that she has remained a faithful correspondent, never blaming me, only makes my guilt seem greater.
The truth is I love only people who are independent of me - which Martha, especially after the children, couldn't be . . . . Her being dependent on me made me depend on her, and I can't abide that. It makes me strike out at her even without wanting to . . . to take revenge for needing her. Then of course I feel like a beast . . . truthfully, I think I am doing the best thing I can for someone of my temperament. Or will be doing once I get out of here. I must find some work which truly satisfies my nature and live on my own with no one depending on me - not a slave because not a master.
Kate had taken in almost as much information as she could in one sitting, so she skimmed the next entries, noting that his condition got much worse before it improved. At one point he described the doctors as having intelligent faces but the patients looking like poisoned rats and mules, their faces destroyed. She jumped to the last entry, a month later, which had his "weight improving, color good, catarrh cleared," preparing to leave the hospital. Kate shut the book with a feeling of triumph.
Whatever his flaws, Kate thought, he was a complex, interesting human being. Her mother may have been frightened by the fact that he had had a minor breakdown, but though he was undoubtedly suffering, he wasn't cut off from reality - far from it. Even when he was most despairing, he tried to grasp his mental state and put it into words. Besides, she found herself empathizing strongly with much of what he said. Emily had never pushed her toward money-making - if anything, she was disappointed that Kate hadn't taken to painting - but she certainly had friends whose parents had pressured them to give up ballet or architecture or novel-writing and go into business. Keith's parents weren't all that happy with his decision to be a professor instead of a businessman like his father.
Other parts of Tausk's diary entry had also resonated in an almost uncanny way. His fear of people becoming dependent on him or him on them. Wasn't she experiencing something of that with Keith right now? Though certainly there was a downside to Tausk's predicament: he seemed to be in flight from what would have done him the most good. As he himself said, he needed the help (here Kate read "love") of some wise and good human being, a way of life that gets richer because you daily practice the duties of love. . . .
She went to the window of her mother's bedroom and looked toward the fringe of trees that barred her view of the river. Children were running and playing with a brightly colored ball; the air was muggy but blessedly, not overly hot, as it often was in early July. It struck her with a shock that her mother's half-brothers might well be alive somewhere. She checked back to the page with the names of Tausk's sons - Marius and Emil.
As she was putting the book down it slipped from her hand and two scraps of paper fluttered out. It was a program of the psychoanalytic meetings in New York a year before. She eyed it curiously. What was her mother, who professed no interest in psychoanalysis - in fact, an aversion - doing with a program? She ran her eye down the list of presenters and a name jumped out at her: Marius Tausk, 2:00 PM, Green Room, a paper on the precursors of Freud's death instinct.
So her brand-new uncle was an analyst too, like his father. Could her mother have been in touch with him? Or was she just interested in what he was doing? Perhaps she had been tracking him and his brother for years without ever trying to get in touch. That seemed more likely, given her wish to keep Kate in the dark.
She turned the program over and saw a lightly penciled number, a phone number. 831-4514. Next to it, almost illegible but there nonetheless, the initials MT. Without giving herself time to think of reasons to delay, she dialed the number. A man answered.
"Dr. Tausk please," she said, her voice quavering.
"Speaking," answered a soft, accented voice. "What can I do for you?"
"My name is Kate Berg," Kate said. "Perhaps my mother has been in touch with you? You're my mother's half-brother and I guess that makes me a sort of niece."
"No one has gotten in touch with me claiming a family connection," the doctor said rather suspiciously. "What's more, I have no sister of any kind. I think you must have made an error."
"My grandmother was Hilde Loewi," she explained, "the pianist Hilde Loewi. She and your father were sweethearts. They were supposed to get married but he abandoned her."
There was a short silence. "Abandoned her?" He seemed puzzled by the word.
"That's what my mother told me. It was after she got pregnant."
"I see . . . well . . . it's unfortunately true that they were sweethearts, but Hilde Loewi never had a child."
"Yes, she did. She had my mother. I have photos of Hilde nursing her. I have a photo of your father as a young man, too. He gave it to my grandmother. His resemblance to my mother is striking. I have -"
"These photos mean very little to me," he interrupted, suddenly harsh. "Your mother could still have been someone else's child. Did your - did she tell you to contact me? What does she want?"
Kate suddenly realized how bizarre this must have sounded, how he must think she was trying to get money or some other favor from him.
"No, no!" she said. "She doesn't want anything . . . this is all my own idea. You are an analyst. You can understand. There has always been a big hole at the center of my life, it seems to suck everything else into it. Unless I fill it I'll never know who I am. Mother would never tell me anything. Not even my grandfather's name."
"Then how are so sure of it now?" he asked dryly. "And how did you happen to have my number?"
"I found it in her drawer written on a program of the psychoanalytic meetings, along with a diary of my grandfather's, and other papers, sketches, poems. I think they must be his, too. I haven't gone through them all."
"A diary of my father's? Why didn't you tell me this first?" he said in a much more friendly manner. "What sort of a diary?"
"Look. It's very difficult to talk about this on the phone," she said, sensing both his lessened suspicion and his interest. "If you could spare the time, I'd like to meet you. I could bring the diary if you like."
"I'm very busy for the next few days, but I think I could make space for you on Tuesday afternoon around four. Why don't you come by, then, if that's convenient, and by all means bring the diary. I'd like to have a look at it." Again she noticed a catch of eagerness in his voice, though he was trying to sound unconcerned.
"I don't have your address."
"300 Central Park West. I'll let the doorman know you're coming. Auf Wiedersehen until Tuesday, then."
Kate felt frustrated. Two days felt like an eternity. She called her mother and told her that she had to stay in New York for a couple of days and was sending the insurance papers FedEx. After she hung up, it occurred to her that it would make sense for her to try and find out a little more about her grandfather before she saw Marius. Since Marius was a psychoanalyst, she decided to go to the Columbia library and see if she could find any of Tausk's analytic publications. She could come back to the poems and other things later.
It was a hot day and the summer students were out in droves in granny dresses and bright colored glasses. Kate found it pleasant to retreat into the coolness of Butler library. She rifled patiently through the card catalogue looking for Tausk's name but, to her disappointment, came up with only one journal article (translated from the German in 1933), "On The Influencing Machine in Schizophrenia." That sounded vaguely familiar; possibly she'd heard it mentioned in a course, but Kate wasn't sure. She checked out the journal and took it over to the long reading desk where she sat down, got her notepad and pen out of her knapsack and started to read.
She immediately felt the lucidity and strength of Tausk's mind. His words seemed to leap off the page. His presentation was balanced and clear. A footnote mentioned that the paper had been presented to the Psychoanalytic Society in January 1918 - after the war - and was discussed again at a further meeting. The two meetings suggested that the other analysts in Freud's group took Tausk seriously. It was rare in those days, Kate knew, for early analysts to investigate psychosis clinically, so he was ahead of his time. But it struck her again as odd that this obviously gifted analyst had dropped so completely out of sight.
She read slowly on. Making admirable use of his young psychotic patient's own words, Tausk described the patient's belief that her body was controlled by a machine in the shape of a coffin-lid, lined with red silk. How surreal! It made Kate think of a mummy case. The machine was being manipulated, the patient said, in such a way that everything that happened to it was reproduced in her body. Kate had read Bettelheim's famous case of a boy who thought he needed a machine in order to breathe, but this machine didn't function in a benign way; it produced slimy substances and bad smells, even manipulated the patient's genitals. It turned out that the young woman had previously rejected a suitor, a college professor. Hallucinatory voices explained that this man was using the machine to persecute her after it had failed to influence her in his favor. After several interviews, the young woman decided that Tausk was also being "influenced" and broke off their sessions.
Tausk explained with obvious excitement that he had been able to observe the formation of this young woman's delusions at an early stage, that she'd been able to tell him in her own words that the machine originally represented her body: "it is distinguished above all by its human form . . . [which] resembles the patient, and she senses all manipulations performed on the apparatus in the corresponding part of her own body . . . and apparently vice versa. When she loses genital sensation, her machine double loses its genitals. Eventually [it] loses all human characteristics . . . and becomes merely a typical unintelligible influencing machine" that mysteriously persecutes the patient by producing pictures, or manipulating thoughts, sensations, and even physical movements by various means, including rays and magnetism.
In other patients where this delusion had been observed so far, the machine had been unintelligible. So seeing it at an early stage was a real advance. Furthermore, Tausk was able to offer a reason for the projection. The patient was ambivalent about her suitor's proposal. As a result of her conscious negative feelings, she said no. But she had positive feelings as well. They were projected onto the body-machine, which then prompted her to change her mind.
The case was curious enough, but what struck Kate was the almost compulsive allusions to Freud. She made a list of them with her ballpoint on her yellow legal pad.
1. Tausk alludes to Freud's discussion of his paper, in which Freud suggests that the infant's feeling that others know his thoughts comes from the process of learning to speak. Having taken language from others, he has also received thoughts from them; thus, his idea that others have ‘made' him the language and along with it, his thoughts . . . has some basis in reality. (A rather profound idea, Kate thought.)
2. Tausk reminds the reader that Freud discovered the mechanism by which the paranoid patient projects malevolent feelings outward and then imagines that they are really coming from others.
3. He notes that Freud, after hearing his "Influencing Machine" paper, proposed that ambivalence makes the projection possible. Once expressed, Tausk agrees that this thesis appears self-evident.
Here Kate paused and bit her pen, turning her bottom lip an inky blue. Wasn't that what Tausk had just shown so brilliantly? Whose ideas were whose? Tausk concludes that : "The present paper shows how, albeit unconsciously, I had been demonstrating Freud's formulation. (!)" Kate had had enough trouble with her thesis advisor at Columbia to know that a degree of kowtowing could be necessary. She wondered how it had been in Austria back then. "More or less ass-kissing????" she wrote in big letters. Or was this something peculiar to Tausk's relationship with Freud, a prime example of the desire to submit? She'd have to put it to Helene when she talked to her. She smiled to herself at the thought, and went on with her notes.
4. Tausk reminds his readers that Freud had already indicated in his paper on the psychotic Dr. Schreiber that the libido in schizophrenia is located at a stage even earlier than auto-eroticism. Tausk comments, "I arrived at this conclusion by a different route, and I take the liberty of presenting this fact as proof of the correctness of Freud's contentions." Modesty? Kate thought not. She thought she sensed a need for space to investigate on his own, "by a different route."
5. Tausk increases his protestations of innocence: "I am pleased to be able to refer to the many points of agreement between my contentions and Freud's in his paper, of which I had no knowledge at the time." (He wants, Kate thought again, to be able to think freely without being accused of stealing.)
His final note - six - seemed more ominous, though she wasn't sure how much she should read into it.
6. He explains that melancholia is related to the phenomenon he is talking about. It is a persecution psychosis without projection, a renunciation of love for one's psychic self (which has lost its raison d'etre) and can lead to suicide. "While this paper was in proof," he adds, "Freud's article ‘Trauer und Melancholie' (‘Mourning and Melancholia') appeared, to which I refer in this connection."
Vienna Triangle will be released January 2009 by Wings Press.
Causes Brenda Webster Supports
Doctors Without Borders
The Nature Conservancy
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