A Woman to Know: Bertha Pappenheim

Psychoanalysis in the hands of the physician is what confession is in the hands of the Catholic priest. — Bertha Pappenheim (Anna O.)

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Bertha couldn't sleep. She hallucinated snakes crawling along the walls and consuming her fingertips. She made up elaborate fairy tales to calm her troubled brain, often confusing her own fictions with her real life in Vienna. Bedridden at 21. Diagnosed with "hysteria."

But in 1880, a legendary doctor, Josef Breuer, and his younger colleague, Sigmund Freud, visited Bertha's house in Vienna. They first came to treat her father's cough, but Bertha's strange illness captured both doctors' curiosity. So they began visiting regularly.

Over the course of eight years, the duo tested a new treatment for Bertha's mysterious maladies: talking. They'd sit with the patient for hours, asking her about her day, her dreams, her sexual proclivities, her memories of childhood and her visions of snakes and phantoms. In talking out her affliction -- and tracing the roots of her visions to previous experiences -- Freud and Breuer developed a map for psychoanalysis. They gave Bertha a pseudonym ("Anna O.") in their now-famous research, and Bertha herself called her process "the talking cure." She claimed "chimney sweeping" her mind of its demons had saved her life. " the talking cure."

But Bertha was in and out of a sanatorium during her years with Freud and Breuer, for hysteric fits and sudden muteness. According to Freud, she obsessively fantasized about a life with Josef and his wife, one time crawling along the office floor, claiming she was "having Dr. B's child." Freud suspended the study and encouraged Bertha to leave Vienna and live with her cousins in Frankfurt. There, she became involved in Germany's burgeoning feminist movement, leading social work reform and opening a home for orphaned girls. At one point politicians referred to her as "the most famous woman in Germany." But Bertha never married; she claimed that after spending so many of her courtship years in treatment with Breuer and Freud, she didn't know how to experience romantic love.

In 1891, she recorded the same fairy tales that once calmed her turbulent mind. She published a story collection under her patient pseudonym: Anna O.

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