Self & Society Vol. 48 No. 2 Autumn 2020, p.81
Reviewed by Gillian Proctor
This edition is the first time this labour of love has been printed in the English language, having been originally printed in German in 2000. It is the biography of a woman, the named Sidonie, who lived from 1900 until 1999, and the book comprises 362 pages of a dense personal and moving history of the twentieth century, with the central focus in Vienna, Austria.
The depth of detail in this book, and the meticulous research which must have gone into it, are staggering. The two authors, one of whom was the grand-daughter of Sidonie’s lifelong friend, met with Sidonie over a period of four years, recording her recollections, and returning after research with further questions. The accomplishment of this endeavour when Sidi was in her late 90s is remarkable. The two authors discuss their difficult decision about whether to use the pseudonym of ‘Sidi’ or her real name, Margarethe (known as Gretl) in the introduction. I found it frustrating that after this initial explanation of their roles, thereafter the authors disappear in the story, and this biography is presented as though an autobiography, with the authors’ contributions of interpretation, filling in missing detail or artistic licence completely unacknowledged. As a literary device, this works to the extent that the reader feels she is hearing Sidonie’s story directly, but I was left with a dissatisfaction that I was unsure whether Sidonie wanted to portray herself in such a superficial way, or whether this was more the authors’ perceptions.
Sidonie had a truly incredible life, worthy of a biography. She had relationships with women in a time when it was illegal in Austria and certainly frowned upon, and yet managed to regain her position in bourgeois society, only partly by also getting married to a man. She was a traveller, and spent parts of her life in other parts of the world, first escaping the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1940. She stayed in Vienna as long as she could, trying not to identify as Jewish as she had been baptised Catholic. Her journey around the world culminating in Cuba, where she joined her two brothers, was epic, and worthy of a book in itself. She also spent time in the USA, in Spain, in Paris, in Thailand and in Brazil, and for much of her life was nomadic, only owning homes for very brief periods, and often lodging with friends or taking up offers of work that involved living with her employers.
This book is marketed as the story of Freud’s ‘case of homosexuality’, yet this is not of huge significance in the book, nor for me does it state the significance of the book. Being a patient of Freud situates our protagonist in place – Vienna; time – 1918; and class – bourgeois; and it indicates her part refusal to fit with what polite society required from her at that time. The two sides of this therapy relationship are interestingly discrepant, with Freud describing her as ‘A beautiful and clever girl… enamoured of the lady in question… this one interest had swallowed up all others… neglectful of her own reputation… brazen.’ (p. 28). Sidonie’s parents sent her to Professor Freud, wanting him to ‘bring her back to the normal’ (p. 29) from her infatuation with a baroness of dubious reputation. From her side, Sidonie (p. 27) ‘in general, … finds him uninteresting; an old man with a lovely white beard who poses sticky questions and makes unbelievable assertions about her’. It seems that Freud diagnoses that Sidonie is looking for a mother substitute in her devotion to a woman, as her own is cold, distant and competitive, and she has turned away from men due to her envy at her mother having babies with her father in a classic Oedipal interpretation which Sidi finds outrageous. She uses the time to chat away and seems to be engaging to try and please her father enough to not be constrained in being able to see the woman to whom she is devoted. Freud, for his part, realised that she is resisting him emotionally and deceiving him (making up dreams!), has no desire to change in the way her parents want and finally tells her parents that he has finished what he can do, and suggests they may wish to continue with a woman doctor, which is a huge relief to Sidonie.
It is interesting to think about Sidonie’s early experiences whilst reading about the rest of her life. Of relevance are not just her cold distant mother, but also her socio-cultural environment of growing up Jewish in a climate of anti-Semitism, clearly internalised by her whole family and trying to hide their identities by being confirmed Catholic, with the constant realistic fear of losing their bourgeois position. Despite the strap line of ‘homosexuality’, Sidonie herself is more comfortable with a self-definition of asexuality, and her discomfort and even disgust with bodies is clear throughout. Her passion for certain women is explained by her appreciation of their beauty, and her fantasies of these women are much more sustainable in her psyche than any real relationships. She does have a couple of sexual encounters, however, with two of the greatest loves of her life, the aforementioned baroness Leonie and, later, a short-lived relationship with Wjera, when both women are reunited after their traumatic experiences (particularly Wjera) in the Second World War.
What is palpable to me throughout the book is her lack of close relationships, with the exception of a dog and a monkey. This is presented as neither loneliness nor independence, but more as an ever-present regret that her fantasies of the women she has loved throughout her life never translate into ongoing relationships, but her wish always seems to be to feel alive with feelings of passion, rather than for anything relational.
I was upset when Sidi died at the end of the book, despite her being very clear she had had enough of life at the age of 99 – but I didn’t want her story to end. Perhaps the sense I am left with is a regret at feeling I didn’t really get any relational sense of who Sidonie was, beyond a description of her experiences which, however amazing and fascinating in the context of history, nevertheless leave me with a sense of emptiness, which may well be the emptiness that Sidi herself experienced. If this is the case, the authors did an amazing job to evoke such a response.
I thoroughly recommend this book to all interested in understanding how we construct our lives from the particular circumstances around where, how and when we are thrown into the world, particularly the cultural impacts of anti-Semitism and heteronormativity, and who wonder about the role of therapy in relation to such issues.
Dr Gillian Proctor is Lecturer in Counselling and Psychotherapy, University of Leeds, UK.