The Story of Ida A.: From Object to Subject
The subject of Katharina Adler’s debut novel is one of the most famous case studies in the recent history of psychology: Adler’s great-grandmother Ida was none other than Sigmund Freud’s famous “Dora” (“Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria”, 1905) – and in telling her story, her great-granddaughter takes back ownership of the narrative as well.
By Friederike van Stephaudt
It all starts with Ida’s arrival in America, where she flees from Nazi Austria in 1942. She tries to settle in, come to terms with her new life and forget her old life in Viennese society, which she manages with varying success until her past unexpectedly catches up with her when she attends a reception: “Ida now heard Mrs Dux getting involved: She herself had only just started an analysis and thought it was fantastic. There he was, so many years later, so many kilometres away: the Herr Doktor.”
Conversations with Sigmund FreudThis Herr Doktor is none other than Austrian neurologist and depth psychologist Sigmund Freud who secured his spot in cultural memory as the founder of psychoanalysis. His books, providing insights into his analyses and thought processes, belong firmly in the canon of recent cultural history. They primarily describe cases of young women Freud treats and decrypts – according to himself – as a result of social conventions and suppressed desires. Ida, our protagonist, is one of these women.
Ida is sent to Freud’s practice at Berggasse 19 by her father for various conditions such as migraines, a persistent cough, weakness and repeated stomach aches. The doctor had been recommended to him by a friend.
It’s men who make decisions about Ida’s lifeAnd that’s where calamity begins: It’s men who make decisions about Ida’s life; it’s male words defining “sick” and “healthy”, “normal” and “crazy”; it’s male perspectives designating actions as appropriate and permitted; and it’s men deciding about truth and lies. One thing quickly becomes apparent: Both in the text and in Viennese society at the time, power manifest itself in the opportunity to apportion speaking rights, wrest spoken words from the speaker, infuse them with meanings and render interpretations.
In Freud’s analysis, everything becomes sexualised, every detail serves to confirm his theory. Ida sees through this strategy whose inherent humiliation she constantly feels. At one point, Adler writes: “And even while she was saying it, she knew what the Herr Doktor would turn it into.” Being a young woman, Ida has no opportunities to frame her own narrative and interpret behaviours – those of others as well as her own – according to her own position.
From case study to human beingThe analysis itself, or rather the recreation of these conversations from Ida’s perspective, only makes up a small part of the narrative. The historic novel doesn’t define itself through these moments. What matters here is not so much a refutation of Freud’s theory than the reappropriation of a life story, the correction of a violation.
Instances of productive disruption can thus be found in isolated passages from Freud’s works, distributed across the narrative: the realisation just how destructive his dispossession of Ida really is, and how equally disrespectful he is in recording her life story without her consent.
Testimony of a woman condemned to silenceThe text chronicles all this in an unhurried tone, yet this occasionally slow-moving narrative attitude works by transporting a way of life that, with regards to content, has been described many times before. Unfortunately, in doing so, the text frequently works against Ida’s character. This young, demanding woman who doesn’t fit social clichés has few opportunities to withstand the long-windedness of the text.
Ida as a young girl being harassed by an older man; Ida as a newly married woman rebelling against her family; Ida as a widow starting her own business; and finally Ida as an older woman in America, seeing her son again after years of separation. Despite failing in the occasional passage, the text tries to do these events justice. Yet the vastness of the material means that some things remain unclear, blurry, and moving strictly in accordance with dates and facts occasionally takes away from the novel’s depth.
Nonetheless: Katharina Adler’s eminently readable book describes an eventful life, a life marked by social circumstances, and gives voice to the testimony of a woman who was condemned to silence.
Adler, Katharina: Ida
Reinbek: Rowohlt, 2018. 512 p.