Int. Rev. Psycho-Anal.
(1991) 18, 143
SIGMUND FREUD: THE SECRETS OF NATURE AND THE
NATURE OF SECRETS 1
JAMES W. BARRON, RALPH BEAUMONT, GARY N. GOLDSMITH, MICHAEL I. GOOD, ROBERT L. PYLES,
ANA~MARIA RIZZUTO AND HENRY F. SMITH, MASS.
'He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret.' [Freud commenting on the meaning of
Dora's playing with her reticule.] (1905a, p. 77.) 'But don't tell this to Mummy or Tini ... It's a secret. ' [Little Hans commenting to his
father about the stork bringing his sister.] (1909, p. 71.)
This paper focuses on two aspects of Freud's work and life:
(1) the development of his theory and technique, as a life-
long pursuit of Nature's secrets and (2) the sources of Freud's motivation to unveil those secrets.
We present in this paper the following points:
(1) Freud's passionate attempts to uncover secrets ran like a leitmotiv
throughout his life.
Periods of elation and
dejection revolved around his success or failure in unveiling Nature's secrets.
(2) Freud's personal character reveals paradoxical attitudes: openness towards sharing information of a personal
'nature in order to advance psychoanalysis yet pronounced secretiveness about his private life,
in particular his personal
history and his marital life.
(3) These character traits seem to relate to his ambivalence towards his mother and 'unspeakable' family secrets.
(4) The evolution of central aspects of his theory and technique follows Freud's progressive discovery of how elusive
human secrets are.
(5) Freud started out with a concretely focused search for some specific aetiological secret, factual events or trauma.
His life work revealed the deep and pervasive significance of secrets, as part of complex, repressive and expressive am-
biguous processes such as resistance, transference and defense. The concept of the' secret' may be viewed as a construct
uniting Freud's theory with pervasive elements of his character and personal history.
FREUD'S CHARACTER, THE ORIGIN OF HIS
INTEREST IN SECRETS
AND HIS RELATIONSIDP WITH HIS MOTHER Nature's Secrets and Freud's Decision To Be a Scientist
As a young man, Freud had been hoping for a promising career as a lawyer. On 1 May 1873, shortly after his
seventeenth birthday, he attended a public reading of what he believed was Goethe's essay, 'On Nature'. In his autobio-
graphical study, Freud (1925) commented:
1 This paper is the result of the collaborative efforts of members of the Freud Study Group at PINE (Psychoanalytic Institute of New England, East). The
authors would like to express their appreciation to Sanford Gifford, M.D., Anton Kris, M.D., Howard Levine, M.D. and Arthur Valenstein, M.D. for their thoughtful reading
of an earlier version of this paper and their many helpful suggestions.
THE FREUD STUDY GROUP AT PINE
‘it was hearing Goethe's beautiful essay on Nature read aloud at a popular lecture by Professor Carl Bruhl just before I
left school that decided me to become a medical student' (p. 8). The recollection of the experience reappeared in a dream,
in Freud's early forties, and in it he relates the word' nature' to sexual urges and castration (1900, pp. 662-3).
The essay describes Nature as enticing, enigmatic, and unwilling to surrender her secrets:
Nature! We are surrounded by her, embraced by her-impossible to release ourselves from her and impossible to enter more deeply into
her. Without our asking and without warning she drags us into the circle of her dance and carries us along until exhausted we drop
from her arm.
She creates ever new forms; what exists has never existed before; what has existed returns not again; everything is new and yet
We live in her midst, and yet we are strangers to her. She speaks constantly with us, but betrays not her secret to us. We are
continually at work upon her, yet have no power over her... She is the sole artist... always with some soft covering spread over her...
She delights in illusion... To no one is she niggardly but she has favorites upon whom she lavishes much and to whom she shows great
devotion... She veils mankind in darkness and forever spurs him toward the light (Wittels, 1931, pp. 31-2).
Nature is portrayed here as a seductress-fickle, mysterious, unyielding, powerful, capable of great love for 'her
favorites'. Soon after hearing this essay, Freud wrote about his career decision to his friend, Emil Fluss, playfully and
teasingly announcing his change of mind:
I was not more specific at the time, partly because of the suspense, which would have greatly flattered me, partly because I was not yet
sure of myself. Today it is as certain and as fixed as any human plan (any being can turn into a Tower of Babel). Now I can also speak
freely. When I lift the veil
will you not be disappointed? Well, let's see. I have decided to be a Natural Scientist and
herewith release you from the promise to let me conduct all your law.
2 Strachey (footnote 4) explained: ' According to Pestalozzi (1956) the real author of the essay (written in 1780) was G. C. Tobler, a Swiss writer'.
Second, Goethe himself falsely claimed authorship of the essay. Strachey added, 'Goethe came across it half a century later, and, by a paramnesia,
included it among his own works'.
3 Another example of Freud's fascination with secrets during his adolescence was his' secret language'. Jones suits. It is no longer needed. I shall
gain insight into the age-old dossiers of Nature, perhaps even eavesdrop
on her eternal processes, and share my findings with anyone who wants to
learn. As you can see, the secret
is not so frightful;
it was fearful
only because it was altogether too insignificant
(Freud, 1969, p. 424, our italics).
In his letter, the adolescent Freud initially concealed his secret-a fearful
secret-from his friend, then finally revealed it.
He would discover Nature's hidden processes by 'eavesdropping'. The work of psychoanalysis, listening for secrets and
hidden meanings, was already foreshadowed in the letter of the 17-year-old correspondent, as was his own ambivalence.
'Frightful' and' fearful' as the secret was, Freud trivialized it as 'too insignificant'.
SECRECY AND FREUD’S CHARACTER
Freud's exploration of the role of secrets in mental life became an inextricable part of his research. In August 1895, he
wrote to Fliess: 'Psychology is really a cross to bear... All I was trying to do was to explain defense, but just try to
explain something from the very core
(p. 136, our italics). On 15 October of the same year, Freud described
his 'fever' to his friend:
For two weeks I was in the throes of writing fever, believed that I had found the secret,
now I know that I still haven't, and have again
dropped the whole business... Have I revealed the great clinical secret to you, either orally or in writing? (p. 144, our italics).
Freud initially exulted in the discovery of his neurotica,
believing he had touched on one of the' great secrets
(Letter to Fliess, 21 May 1894, p. 74, our italics). His exultation turned to dismay when, on 21 September 1897, he
confessed to Fliess 'the great secret' of his erroneous theories:
1953, p. 164) commented: 'No one in Freud's family knew how he came to have such a good knowledge of Spanish. The mystery was
disclosed in a letter he wrote to Martha on the occasion of his coming across an old school friend, Silberstein, whom he had not seen
for three years. He was Freud's bosom friend in school days and they spent together every hour they were not in school. They learnt
Spanish together and developed their own mythology and private words, mostly derived from Cervantes'.
SECRETS OF NATURE AND NATURE OF SECRETS
And now I want to confide in you immediately the great secret that has been slowly dawning on me in the last few months. I no longer
believe in my neurotica
[theory of the neuroses] (p. 264).
Freud did not make public the collapse of his 'neurotica'
until he completed' The interpretation of dreams' (1900).
With the sweeping conviction of what he considered to be his most important contribution, Freud used his own dreams to
demonstrate that he had revealed the 'secret' in the psyche-secret wishes, secret meanings (p. 146), and secret intentions
(p. 170). He proclaimed, 'Insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime' (p. xxxii).
On 6 June 1900, he envisioned glory arising from his discovery of the secret of dreams. He fancied a festive
celebration of his achievement and imagined a marble tablet commemorating the place where he had the Irma dream.
The plaque would read: 'Here on July 24, 1895 the secret of the dream revealed itself to Dr. Sigmund Freud' (Freud,
1895, p.4l7). His wish was finally fulfilled more than three quarters of a century later when such a plaque was placed
there on 6 May 1977.
Freud (19l0b) expressed admiration for Leonardo's method of extracting Nature's secrets through careful observation,
and quoted approvingly from Leonardo's biographer Solmi, who noted Leonardo's' insatiable desire to understand
everything around him' (p. 73). Freud appeared to identify with Leonardo's passion for uncovering nature's secrets. The
affective tone of his essay contrasted with the clinical detachment of many of his other writings. Freud believed that
biographers are fixated on their heroes... they have chosen their hero as the subject of their studies because-for reasons of their
personal emotional life-they have felt a special affection for him from the very first. They then devote their energies to a task of
idealization, aimed at enrolling the great man among the class of their infantile models... (p. 130).
Freud commented significantly on the character of Leonardo:
The core of his nature, and the secret of it, would appear to be that after his curiosity had been activated in infancy in the service of
sexual interests he succeeded in sublimating the greater part of his libido into an urge for research (pp. 80-81).
The nature of Freud's identification with (and perhaps idealization of) Leonardo was suggested by his view of
Leonardo as a scientific pioneer:
Thus he became the first natural scientist, and an abundance of discoveries and suggestive ideas rewarded his courage for being the
first man since the Greeks to probe the secrets of nature while relying solely on observation and his own judgment (p. 122).
Although Freud himself steadfastly dedicated his efforts to unearthing the secrets of nature, he was markedly
ambivalent about revealing 'secrets' about his private life. We quote at length from Jones' biography (1955) to illustrate
We touch here on an arguable point. Freud always held very strongly that only he had the right to decide how much of his personality
he would reveal to others and how much not: in a general way a quite understandable position. But there were features about his
attitude that would seem to pass beyond that and to justify the word privacy being replaced by secrecy. For it would obtain when there
were no particular reasons for the privacy or concealment; and then, again, its strength was really remarkable... somehow he managed
to convey the impression that only what he vouchsafed about his personality was a permissible topic and that he would resent any
intimate questioning. He never spoke to his children about his youth and early years... Above all, as we have noticed earlier, there was
a striking contrast between the rather unflattering picture he revealed to the world concerning his inner life, notably in the analysis of
his dreams, and the quite complete reticence on the matter of his love life. The sacredness undoubtedly centered there, and we have
remarked on the quite extraordinary precautions he took to conceal a most innocent and momentary emotion of love in his
adolescence. His wife was the only person on earth to know anything of that side of his life and she was the only person to whom he
related the Gisela incident in question [Freud's only known adolescent infatuation] (pp. 408-9).
Freud's (1930) description of Goethe's admired character appears almost as a description of himself: 'Goethe was not only, as a poet, a
great self-revealer, but also, in spite of the abundance of autobiographical records, a careful concealer' (p.2l2). Kohut (1978) too has
commented on the tendency of the poet to conceal" even when the artist professes to be prompted by an urge toward confession or
self-revelation. Clearly, Freud seems to have assumed that the wish to hide was an important factor in the motivation of the poet, as
the following report by Hanns Sachs demonstrates: 'We were standing in front of... Goethe's works which filled three... bookshelves.
Freud said, pointing towards it, "All this was used by him as a means
(Sachs, 1944, quoted in Kohut, 1978, p.
281, our italics).
Given the identification of Freud with Goethe, might we not assume that Freud's insight in this statement carried with
it an autobiographical implication?
Jones went on to speculate about the source of Freud's secretiveness:
One must suppose that in Freud's earliest years there had been extremely strong motives for concealing some important phase of his
development-perhaps even from himself. I would venture to surmise it was his deep love for his mother (p. 409).
In 'The interpretation of dreams' Freud made ample use of his own dreams to illustrate his theory of dream structure
and formation, but he felt compelled to justify censorship:
I might draw closer together the threads in the material revealed by the analysis, and I might then show that they then converge upon a
single nodal point, but considerations of a personal and not a scientific nature prevent my doing so in public. I should be obliged to
many things which had better remain my secret,
for on my way to discovering the solution of the dream all kinds of things
were revealed which I was unwilling to admit even to myself (Freud,
1900, p. 640,
Although Freud had elected to use himself and his dreams to reveal the hidden structure of dreams, he simultaneously
retained the right to be the guardian of his own secrets. Andre Breton alluded to this paradox of revealing and concealing
secrets at the same time when he complained that Freud's dreams lacked the sexual content of those of others. In
response to Breton, Freud stated:
the cause is only rarely timidity with regard to the sexual. The fact is, much more frequently, that it would have required me regularly
to discover the secret source of the whole series of dreams in relation to my father, recently deceased (Clark, 1980, pp. 178-9).
Schur (1966) commented that he felt the deeper secret contained in the censored dream material pertained to Freud's ambivalent trans-
ferential relationship with his friend and correspondent at the time, Wilhelm Fliess. It was Freud's wish to conceal all letters written to
Fliess during that same period. When Marie Bonaparte later discovered those letters, Freud advised her to burn them (Freud, 1887-
An earlier example of Freud zealously guarding his privacy occurred at the age of 28, during his engagement to
Martha Bernays. In 1885, he wrote to her:
I have just carried out one resolution which one group of people, as yet unborn and fated to misfortune, will feel acutely. Since you
can't guess whom I mean I will tell you: they are my biographers. I have destroyed all my diaries of the past fourteen years, with
letters, scientific notes and the manuscripts of my publications...1 cannot leave here and cannot die before ridding myself of the disturbing thought
of who might come by the old papers (Jones, 1953, p. xii, our italics).
According to Jones, in 1907 Freud once again completely destroyed all his correspondence, notes, diaries and
When Arnold Zweig, in 1936, approached Freud about writing his biography, Freud vehemently refused, stating that
biographical truth was unobtainable (Freud, 1970, p. 127). Earlier, in the above-mentioned letter to his fiancee, Martha,
(28 April 1885) Freud with pointed humor imagined the difficulties of future biographers.
Let the biographers chafe; we won't make it too easy for them. Let each one of them believe he is right in his' Conception of the
development of the hero': even now I enjoy the thought of how they will all go astray (Jones, 1953, pp. xii-xiii).
Freud's concern for secrecy also influenced his relationships with his followers in his nascent psychoanalytic
organization. He eventually reduced the number of colleagues he felt he could rely on to five, referred to as 'The
Committee', consisting originally of Abraham, Ferenczi, Jobes, Rank, and Sachs. Freud gave each member of the group
an antique Greek intaglio to be worn in a ring to signify their membership in this secret society. Freud's one injunction
was, 'This Committee would have to be strictly secret
in its existence and in its actions' (Jones, 1955, p.153). Secrecy,
too, enshrouded the publication of his essay 'The Moses of Michelangelo '. Freud published it anonymously in Imago
(1914c), and he delayed ten years before revealing his authorship.
We hypothesize, together with Jones, that underlying and permeating these multiple levels of early and later
transformations of a character logical disposition to secrecy lay the archaeological bedrock, concealed even from Freud
himself-the essential nature of his relationship with his mother.
FREUD AND HIS MOTHER
Freud, the devoted unveiler of Nature's secrets, was born and grew up entangled in a web of complex and confusing
human relationships, full of sphinx-like riddles.
Freud's father, Jacob, was twenty years older than his mother. Jacob's two sons from his first marriage were of a
similar age to his wife. His brief second marriage to Rebecca, and her seemingly abrupt disappearance, remains a mys-
tery not yet unraveled by historians. Whether Freud was aware of this second marriage is unclear, though there is much
to suggest that he had at least a disturbing preconscious intuition about it (Schur, 1972, pp. I 84ff; Freud, 1900, pp. 435ff;
Emmanuel, Freud's oldest half brother, had a son John, Sigmund's nephew, already a year old when Freud was born.
Freud entered this world in Freiberg, Moravia, nine months after the wedding date of his parents. They lived in one
room in the upper storey of a small house where the Zajic family had their locksmith business on the two rooms of the
ground floor (Eissler, 1978, p. II). The Zajic family used the second room in the upper storey as their family quarters.
There was also a helper, Monica Zajic, a woman of Freud's father's age who worked for Emmanuel and for Freud's
parents (Clark, 1980, p. II). She was Freud's beloved nurse, whose unexpected disappearance when Freud was 2l years
old deeply affected him. In 1897, when he was 41 years old, he learned from his mother the circumstances of his nurse's
abrupt departure. The nurse had been jailed for ten months after Freud's half brother, Philipp, had reported her to the
police for stealing money from the 2~ year-old Freud. Freud's mother, whose husband was the same age as Freud's
nurse, nonetheless described the nurse to the adult Freud questioning her as 'an old, ugly, elderly, but clever woman'.
This is in sharp contrast to Freud's description of his mother as young and beautiful (Freud, 1887-1904, pp. 268-70, n.
1). Freud, reporting his mother's description of the nurse, gives no indication of being aware that the 'elderly' woman
was his father's contemporary.
As a child, Freud was faced with the confusing perception that Philipp, a year younger than his mother, was of a more
natural age to have been his father than was his own father, who was old enough to have been his grandfather. Freud's
father was, in fact, the grandfather of Freud's nephew John and his niece Pauline, who were Freud's contemporaries. Yet,
being in the same room Freud could witness each night that his father Jacob and his mother Amalie slept together.
According to Gay (1988, p. 7) and Anzieu (1986, pp. 247-8), Freud seemingly believed Philipp to have something to do
with his mother and making babies. His father and his beloved nurse, meanwhile, were a more natural match for each
other in terms of age.
Another area of mystery includes his mother's parents and relatives of whom there seems to be no historical record,
not even from the time when they apparently lived in Vienna. No biographer speaks about them, except to mention their
names. Freud himself referred only once in his associations to the death of his maternal grandfather when he was 7 or 8
years old (1900, p. 583).
Furthermore, babies arrived in rapid succession for Amalie and Jacob. Freud was seven months old when his mother
conceived Julius, twenty-three months old when Julius died at seven months in April 1858 (Gay, 1988, p.8). His mother
was already pregnant at the time, with his sister, Anna. From that point on, his mother was continuously either nursing
or pregnant until Freud was 10 years old. He was surrounded by females-his mother, the maids and five sisters-until a
brother was born, in 1866, and the 11-year-old Sigmund was allowed to name him Alexander in honor of the Greek em-
peror, military leader and destroyer of Thebes.
Freud's family romance and sense of specialness to his mother makes it hard to realize that he was the oldest of seven
children, and the child of a mother who was always giving birth to new babies until he was prepubertal. By contrast,
reading Freud, one gains the impression that he was the absolute focus of his mother's love, unrivalled by competitors.
Perhaps there was fantasy, wish, and some truth in these reminiscences.
In 1866, shame descended upon the Freud family. Joseph Freud, Jacob's brother, was sentenced to ten years in prison
for dealing in counterfeit rubles. According to Gay (1988), Jacob's hair turned grey in a few days, grief was mingled
with anxiety: there is evidence that he and his older sons, who had emigrated to Manchester, England, were implicated
in Joseph Freud's schemes (p. 8).
This may have brought to Freud echoes of the abandonment by the imprisoned nurse. The 'evidence' remained a
secret, never referred or alluded to in Freud's dreams around the disclosures about his father.
We have a description of Jacob Freud from his granddaughter, Judith Bernays Heller, who had lived with Amalie
and Jacob from time to time and who had shared a room with Jacob for a year at the age of 6. She remembered her
grandfather as 'kind and gentle and humorous' but' aloof from the others in the family, reading a great deal... and seeing
his own friends away from the home', where during meals he 'took no real part in the general talk of the others'. In the
midst of an emotional household with at least six women 'he remained quiet and imperturbable, not indifferent, but not
disturbed, never out of temper, never raising his voice'. The house was run by his wife Amalie, who' had a volatile
temperament, would scold the maid as well as her daughters and rush about the house... [acting] shrill and domineering'
(Bernays Heller, 1956, pp. 335-6).
In his self-analysis and subsequent writings' Freud scrutinized in depth his relationship with his father, and described
his father's death as 'the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man's life' (1900, p. xxvi).
Freud barely mentioned the significance of a mother's life and death for her child except to romanticize the
significance of a son as a love object to his mother. He described the relationship between mother and son as the only
relation free from hostility and' not disturbed by subsequent rivalry' (1921, p. 101, n.2). Her significance to him was
left unwritten, except for a few emphatic statements such as' A man, especially, looks for someone who can represent
his picture of his mother, as it has dominated his mind from his earliest childhood' (1905b, p. 228). Amalie's death at 95
brought-as Freud wrote to Ferenczi-' no pain, no grief' and' a feeling of liberation, of release. I was not free to die as
long as she was alive' (Freud, E.L., 1960, p. 400). To Jones he said the same in stronger language,
'I can detect... an increase in personal freedom since it was always a terrifying
thought that she might come to hear of my
death...' He concluded dryly, 'Her value to me can hardly be heightened' (Jones, 1957, p. 152, our italics).
Who was Amalie Freud for him that as an elderly man he was' terrified' that his mother might hear of his death? We
have only brief portraits of her. Her granddaughter Judith Bernays Heller describes Amalie Freud as a stately,
domineering, efficient, social woman, who was very attentive to her clothing and looks, and who' preferred the male
members of her brood'. She forced her daughter, Pauline, even into Pauline's thirties, to go with her to play cards
'whether she liked it or not'. She became 'very angry' if her grandson' did not play with concentration'. When Sigmund,
her 'golden son', celebrated his seventieth birthday, she demanded a new dress and insisted on attending, even when she
had to be carried up and down the stairs of her own home and Freud's. The same happened two months before her death,
when she insisted on going to her beloved summer place, Ischl, against the collective opinion of 'her sons, the doctors,
her daughters'. Her granddaughter concluded that with her family she always was' a tyrant, and a selfish one' (Bernays
Heller, 1956, pp. 334-40).
Freud's son Martin (1967, p.207), who remembered his grandmother well, described her as 'a typical Polish Jewess,
with all the shortcomings that that implies. She was certainly not what we would call a "lady", had a lively temper and
was impatient, self-willed, sharp-witted and highly intelligent' (cited by Gay, 1988, p. 504). The evidence we have
suggests that she did not hear what she did not want to hear. When her 22-year-old granddaughter Sophie died
tragically while pregnant, she did not ask a word from her bereaved son Sigmund or his wife. She gave no indication
that she knew about it, even when she seems according to Bernays Heller-to have been fully aware of
happened (1956, p. 339).
On Sundays Amalie Freud would gather around her every member of
the family, from oldest to youngest. 'Professor
Freud' writes Judith Bernays Heller (1956), 'would always find time to pay his mother a visit and give her the pleasure
of petting and making a fuss over him' (p. 339, our italics).
What was Freud's relation to this handsome, imposing, willful mother, who had selected him as her favorite, her'
golden' son, one whom she expected would fulfill the gypsy's prophecy made when he was an infant, that she had
brought a great man into the world? Freud himself asked the question, 'Could this have been the source of
my thirst for
grandeur?' (1900, p. 192).
There is much to suggest that Freud's relationship to his mother was not only ambivalent but also fraught with
complex wishes linked to fear of
death and to feelings of
neglect. Perhaps we could say that his mother, like Nature, was
a compelling enigma to him. ‘We are surrounded by her, embraced by her, impossible to release ourselves from her and
impossible to enter more deeply into her'. It seems difficult to imagine this formidable woman entering into' the mutual
truth' hungered for by the creative and questioning mind of
the young Freud. A more likely conjecture would
be an atmosphere in which externally-directed intellectual questions might not only be permitted, but encouraged, while
curiosity regarding the many family issues might encounter a powerful unspoken taboo (with the gate of
guarded by the sphinx-like mother). As an adolescent of
17 years, Freud complained in a letter to his friend Silberstein
(4 September 1872) that in the case of
their mothers the' spiritual development [of Silberstein and Freud] has been taken
their [mother's] hands' (Stanescu quoted by Clark, 1980, p. 26).
On the one hand, it could be suggested that Freud had two' mothers', his own and his nurse. On the other, it can be
said that he barely had his real mother only to himself. The birth of
his brother, Julius, his jealousy of
him, and Julius'
death at seven months marked Freud for
life, as he himself indicated on many occasions. This first rival--conceived
when Freud was seven months old-may have deprived him of
emotional closeness to his mother and certainly deprived
her full attention. When Freud was twenty-three months old, his mother was in a state of
mourning over Julius'
death and over the death of
her 20-year-old brother, also named Julius (Krull, 1986, p. 116). Her pregnancy with his
sister Anna may have aggravated his loneliness even more. Anna was born before Freud was 2 years old, soon after he
lost his nurse, who had been in charge of
his physical care and who had taken him out with her, even to church. He had
become terribly fond of
her. She ministered to his bodily needs, something Freud later connected to his belief that she
had been his teacher 'in sexual matters' (4 October 1897, p. 269). Freud acknowledged his debt to her with moving
words: 'I shall be grateful to the memory of
the old woman who provided me at such an early age with the means for
living and going on living' (3 October 1897). One can hear in his words the desolation of
a young child struggling for
Hardin (1987, 1988a, b) has argued that in his self-analysis Freud's nurse was largely concealed behind the figure of
his mother. Hardin concludes:
unable in his self-analysis to relive the latent tie with his nursemaid and the anguish following her loss, Freud again turned to his
mother and, consequently, to oedipal issues (1987, p. 643).
Hardin believes that, despite poor health at the time, Freud's decision to send his daughter Anna as his surrogate to his
mother's funeral (attended by the entire family, was a para praxis based on the talion law. He 'sent a surrogate son to his
mother's funeral, just as his mother... had given over a major part of
his care to a surrogate...' (1988a, p. 85).
Only once in his entire opus does Freud use a loving word to refer to his mother, and it is in the highly ambivalent
an anxiety dream about her death. When he was 7 or 8 years old, "he saw his comatose maternal grand-
father's facial expression. A few days later, in a vivid nightmare that woke him up 'in tears and screaming', he saw 'my beloved mother,
with a peculiarly peaceful,
sleeping expression on her features,
being carried into the room by two (or
beaks and laid upon the bed'
(our emphasis). Freud states that the expression of the maternal
face was a 'copy' of that of the dying grandfather. He commented that the' secondary revision' interpretation 'must...
have been that my mother was dying'. He did not attribute the anxiety to her dying but rather 'to sexual cravings' (1900,
pp. 583-4). Whatever the sexual component, it is curious that he would refer to his mother so lovingly only once in his
writings-in describing his dream of her death. Is it not possible to surmise that he might have wished her dead to be
'free', as he was, by his own account, when she actually died? Her death might have permitted him a less demanding
and frustrating life, and also allowed him to be less' terrified' about his survival debt to her (see below), in addition it
might have satisfied rageful feelings about his deprivation and her contradictory behavior. He was her 'goldener Sigi
'but at the same time she had neglected him. It was his nurse who had given him 'the means for living and going on
Could it have been hostility and fear that led him to suggest that there were no hostile feelings in the relationship of a
mother to her son (1933, p. 133)? Might Freud at twenty-three months have held his mother responsible for his brother
Julius' death and consequently feared that she was dangerous? In fact, in his writings Freud repeatedly held himself
responsible for Julius' disappearance. Perhaps his sense of guilt might have helped to reassure him that he was not in
danger from a mother on whom he was so totally dependent after the loss of his beloved nurse. As Lehmann (1983,
p.242) has conjectured, Freud as the only surviving son may have felt an obligation to remain alive for his mother, and
to please her as a compensation for her grief.
Evidence that Freud connected his mother with deadly powers can be found in the 1898 dream of the Three Fates
(1900, pp. 204-8, 233). In the dream, Freud was hungry and waiting to be fed. He felt' impatient' and' a sense of injury'.
His associations led to the Three Fates who give' great happiness and sorrow' in life, and to 'the mother who gives life'. In
further associations, he remembered that when he was 6 years old, his mother rubbed her palms together to demonstrate
that' we were all made of earth and must therefore return to earth'. The young child was astonished and, believing the
demonstration to be real, associated it later with the words 'Du bist der Natur einem Tod schuldig' (Thou owest Nature
death). This was a para praxis. The quotation evidently referred to a line from Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV, v.
1: 'Thou owest God
a death'. The substitution of Nature for God in relation to mother, like a Fate demonstrating
oncoming death, appeared to Freud to be significant. God, nature and mother were in a continuum, and could be
interchanged. The sentence could then read 'Thou owest mother a death'. Julius had paid his debt, but Freud had not.
Could this be the obverse of Freud's' terrifying' possibility of dying before her? Further associations led Freud to cocaine,
a substance connected with' one of the most troubling episodes in Freud's life' (Gay,1988, p. 45). At this point Freud
chose not to continue the analysis of the dream: 'I must desist... because the personal sacrifice demanded would be too
great' (1900, p. 206). The choice suggests a resistance to looking more deeply into his associations to death and into
other issues pertaining to his mother.
Many authors have believed that Freud could not deal with the questions of his pre-oedipal development and that his
analysis stopped at the oedipal level. Schur (1955) said it most explicitly: 'There are many evidences of complicated pre-
genital relations with his mother which perhaps he never fully analyzed' (quoted by Gay, 1988, p. 505, footnote). Gay
there is no evidence that Freud's systematic self scrutiny touched on his weightiest of attachments, or that he ever explored, and tried
to exorcize his mother's power over him (p. 505).
Similarly his relative neglect of the maternal transference has been noticed, as has his limited exploration of the
psychology of women and of the maternal role in psychological development. His patients' mothers are passing ghosts,
'exiled to the margins of his case histories' (p. 505).
Gay concluded that Freud's ignorance of women had a willful component, a defiant refusal to deal with them and to
know about them. In his adolescence he had proposed a pact to his friend Emil Fluss, which was the obverse of his own
wish to ignore women-a, pact to keep them ignorant:
Let us, therefore, pledge-each within his own circle to keep all the ladies known and accessible to us-in ignorance, especially in matters concerning nature,
so as to make them lovable (Freud, 1969, p.422, our italics).
The word ‘lovable' suggests that women who are ignorant about nature are safer objects of love, perhaps less
dangerous than the very nature they represent. At the end of his life he declared the sexual life of adult women a 'dark
continent' for psychology (1926a, p.2l2) and especially 'obscure to me' (Abraham & Freud, 1965, p. 376). Freud confided
to Marie Bonaparte his failure to unravel the feminine desire:
The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research
into. the feminine soul, is" "What does a woman want?" (Jones, 1955, p. 421).
This statement is all the more remarkable given his own history with a mother who reportedly made her conscious
wishes explicit and demanded their fulfillment. Freud must have suspected other wishes and set himself out to eavesdrop
on Nature, the great mother. But nature, the maternal and eternal female, did not betray 'her secret' to him.
We may now attempt to summarize our reconstruction. Freud's temperamental, willful, demanding mother selected him
as her golden child. Her commitment to him was restricted by her continuous childbearing, and her surrendering of his
care to a surrogate mother, his nurse. He was jealous of his first sibling and fearful, because, taken by death, Julius had
vanished. To that frightful tragedy was added the sudden disappearance of his nurse just at the time of his mother's
confinement and delivery of her next child, Anna. He was now deeply bereft and greatly confused about who was father
of whom. His oedipal development confronted him with more riddles than Oedipus himself faced. However much he
loved his mother, her repeated pregnancies must have allowed less and less time for him, and for his 'spiritual
Rage, frustration and fear were likely concomitants of his confusing psychological and factual reality. As we have
suggested, he seemed to have linked his mother with death and with the power to bring it about: to die before her was'
terrifying'. He never did rid himself of the belief that his own death was imminent.
For Freud to scrutinize the various aspects of his relationship with an imperious mother who not only demanded his
love but also would not die to free him, may have been a psychologically impossible task. Curiosity, fear, and
exhilaration came upon him while hearing the essay 'On nature'. There it was-a magnificent opportunity to explore, in displacement
the dark and dangerous maternal continent to which he 'owed a death'. Danger and safety,
daring and caution were possible from the safe eavesdropping position of a 'Natural Scientist'. As the essay 'On nature'
suggested he might be, he was' dragged' inexorably into Nature's 'circle', much as his mother had done by making him
her favorite child-and he committed his life to her. At the end of his life, having unraveled more psychological mysteries
than any man before him, he felt
the weight of her unrelenting secrecy: 'Here we have approached the still shrouded
secret of the nature of the psychical' (1940, p. 163). A similar mood of quiet resignation had come upon him when his
mother died. He could read only his own surface without knowing what could have changed in his 'deeper layers' (Letter
to Jones-IS Sept1930, cited by Gay, 1988, p. 573). His mother had kept her secrets to the last.
FREUD'S THEORIES AND THE RELATION TO THE UNVEILING OF SECRETS Early discoveries and early complications
Our preceding exploration of Freud's family history, childhood predicaments, and conflicts with his mother document
our main points. Firstly
we suggest that his ambivalent relationship with his mother and the' secrets' in it provided the
motivational source for his sublimated and displaced wish to find scientific means to unveil the secrets of nature.
Conversely, his relationship with his mother may also have provided motivational sources for Freud's own conscious and
unconscious' secretiveness' about his and others' prephallic ties to the mother, with all attendant implications for the
avoidance of pre-oedipal development and theories. In other words, rooted here were his conscious and unconscious
efforts both to reveal and to keep secrets from himself and from others. Secondly
we endeavor to describe the
vicissitudes of Freud's scientific search for the secrets of the mind as a dialectical process. Repeatedly, Freud found a
'secret', then lost it, and then found it again in an altered form. The body of Freud's theory may be presented historically
as Freud's successive creation of conceptual models to describe his progressive understanding of the mind's processes to
keep and to reveal secrets.
Freud's commitment to unveiling the secrets of nature began with biological studies in Briicke's laboratory. There he
showed a sharp capacity for observation, the ability to follow through on comprehensive systematic research, and an
unusual tenacity to pursue his studies until they yielded results. In the mid 1880s two events brought Freud to focus on
the human mind's capacity to harbor secrets and secret processes. They were Breuer's revelation in 1882 of his treatment
of Anna 0 and Freud's trip to Paris in 1885 to study with Charcot. That Anna 0 was relieved of her symptoms by being
induced 'to express in words the affective fantasy by which she was at the moment dominated' (1925, p. 20) impressed
Freud very deeply. He believed it to be 'of so fundamental a nature' that he began to repeat Breuer's investigations to the
point that with his usual passion he 'worked at nothing else' (p. 21). In this way he launched a career in pursuit of the
secrets of the mind.
In his early work on hysteria (1.895) and dreams (1900) Freud conceptualized the secrets which the patient needed to
put into words as:
1) Historical sexual events and their associated affects.
2) Conscious fantasies related to people of or the present, including the physician.
3) Unconscious fantasies and affects related to figures from the past or the present.
With time Freud's clinical interest in secrets shifted from a focused search for specific hidden aetiological events, to a
complex appreciation of the pervasive role of secrecy in psychic life.
Conceptually he began with the notion of a consciously suppressed secret historical event, shifted to that of a
conscious/unconscious amalgam of fact and fantasy, and finally to the idea that the unconsciously repressed secret
fantasies continuously exerted their influence on the emotional lives of patients. Furthermore, his understanding of the
secret-keeping process began with pathogenesis, and progressed to include normal development.
The first phase of his interest is exemplified by 'Studies on hysteria' (1895), in which he conceptualized secrets as
traumatic events of childhood, hidden from conscious awareness by suppression, and consisting of mental contents re-
lated to factual events.
Secrets caused illness through their association with strangulated affects, which led to dissociative
splits in the psyche. The pathogenic secret acted like a foreign body in a passive host:
We must presume rather that the psychical trauma or more precisely the memory of the trauma-acts like a foreign body which long
after its entry must continue to be regarded as an agent that is still at work... (Freud, 1893-5, p. 6).
In his ‘Preliminary communication' of 1893, Freud stated, 'Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences' of traumatic
historical events (p. 7). At this point, Freud's techniques of exploration included hypnosis and the pressure of hands
applied to the patient's forehead. He thought of the' secret' as residing either in, or close to, the patient's awareness, but
suppressed by the patient. He had not as yet evolved a theory of repression.
The analyst conducted the search for secrets using active approaches such as hypnosis and suggestion. Freud
The principal point is that I should guess the secret and tell it to the patient straight out; and he is then as a rule obliged to abandon his
rejection of it (p. 281).
Implicit in this approach was the belief that there was something pathogenic about an unspoken secret; revealing it to
the patient was felt to be curative.
Freud's technical recommendations in later chapters of 'Studies on hysteria' (1893-5) suggested a beginning change in
emphasis from one in which past events were suppressed but could easily be made conscious, to one in which past events
were repressed, and therefore unconscious. Hence:
The complete consent and complete' attention of
the patients are needed, but above all their confidence, since the analysis invariably
s to the disclosure of
the most intimate and secret psychical events (p. 265).
In his writing at that point, there was still considerable ambiguity regarding the nature and the topographical level of
the secrets he was trying to discover.
In his concluding essay on the psychotherapy of
hysteria, Freud indicated his suspicion that there is a relation between
secrets and hidden motives.
A breach in a train of
thoughts can be attributed 'to the existence
of hidden unconscious
(p. 293). Freud introduces here the notion of
'secret motives' beyond secret mental contents.
At this stage, the analytic physician was in charge of
extracting the secret. Soon Freud realized that the patient's
acquiescence to his request was not enough; the patient's active participation was required if the secrets were to come to
light. Freud had to consider the patient's 'will' as a factor to be dealt with, and the importance of
the patient's trust in, and
attachment to, the physician. In 1898 he reflected:
It would be a great advantage if
sick people had a better knowledge of
the certainty with which a doctor is now in a position to
interpret their neurotic complaints and to infer from them their operative sexual aetiology. It would undoubtedly spur such people on
to abandon their secretiveness from the moment they have made up their minds to seek help for
their suffering (p. 266).
Freud's writings during this period suggested a subtle shift in the technique of
discovering secrets, from one in which
the physician was active and the patient passive, to one involving the patient's conscious willingness to trust the
physician with thoughts and memories leading to the underlying secrets. Accompanying this shift was a growing sense of
the role of resistance in the secret-keeping process.
Hysterical people do not know what they do not want
to know... the bringing back of
those lost memories is opposed
by a certain resistance which has to be counter-balanced by work proportionate to its magnitude (p. 296).
Freud went through a transitional period in which he oscillated between the belief that the locus of
the secret was in
the external event (the memory of
which mayor may not be available to consciousness) and the belief that the locus was
internal (the defense against conflicting wishes). He consolidated his understanding in a second phase, exemplified by
'The interpretation of
dreams', in which the secret had become clearly intrapsychic-an unconscious childhood wish.