Freud’s Famous Case of Female Homosexuality: a book review on The Story of Sidonie C
by Jane Czyzselska
Little did Freud know when he wrote his paper on a lesbian patient a hundred years ago that his patient would still desire women into her hundredth year, and that one day, she would get to tell her own story. In the decades since the paper was first published in 1920, psychoanalysts and scholars alike have wondered who the unnamed patient was. Now the riddle has been solved. This English translation of the first German edition, provides insights for English-speaking readers interested in psychoanalysis, queer history, and Jewish studies.
Who was this teenage lesbian with no name or pseudonym who so taunted Freud that he decided, after four months of analysis, to terminate their work? As with most case studies, writers often end up revealing more about themselves than their analysands, and in this case Freud isn’t spared such revelations. Academic and writer Teresa De Lauretis believes that Freud’s understanding of the case is marred by his preoccupation with homosexuality and his fixation on the Oedipus complex, “the enabling fiction of his invention of psychoanalysis”.
When the former Freud patient met by chance with her two biographers, Ines Rieder and Diana Voigt in Vienna in the 1990s, the three were unsure about whether to reveal her name. Societal lesbophobia had left a scar. Under Austrian law, lesbianism was considered a crime punishable by up to five years in jail from the 1850s until 1971. She died in 1999 before they agreed on a pseudonym. In the first German edition published a year later, the authors chose Sidonie Csillag — Sidonie was a popular girls name at the time, and csillag is Hungarian for “star”. The lesbian patient, although still in a sense hidden, was finally the star of her own story.
So, who was Freud’s patient? Born in 1900 in Vienna, Margarethe “Gretl” Csonka was the second of four children of an upper-class Hungarian-Jewish couple, Arpad and Irma. At 17, the teenager, who was already considered a great beauty, fell in love with a striking and notorious baroness and soon became her confidante. Her father’s horror at seeing the two walking together led to the baroness saying they shouldn’t be seen together in public, precipitating Gretl’s first suicide attempt. Sent to Freud by her father for what today would be considered conversion therapy, Gretl underwent a miserable period of daily analysis in order to please her father and escape his expectations that she should be heterosexual.
In Freud’s paper, we do not get the full presence of the young patient, who feels more fully fledged under the care of Rieder and Voigt. Despite the Jewish doctor, somewhat culturally removed from largely Catholic Vienna, believing homosexual desire to be non-pathological, he repeatedly capitulates to his own patriarchal prejudices regarding the patient’s physical appearance, her passion, and her intellect. These are considered “masculine” by the heterocentric Dr Freud. Freud tries to shoehorn Gretl’s homosexuality into his Oedipal theory, casting her as infantile and narcissistic and deduces that her suicide attempt is a self-punishing expression of her mother-hatred and her desire to bear her father’s child. It’s this interpretation alone that satisfies the doctor, rendering the analytic bond still-born, and there is no way forward for either party.
Freud said he ended the therapy because he believed Gretl had no interest in being “cured” of her lesbian desire and because he felt she held men in contempt. Some Freud scholars have also implied that he attributed his failure to her misandry, saying she needed to work with a female analyst. Although Gretl married a man for appearances sake, the marriage was eventually annulled.
There may be another reason Freud terminated their work: in her introduction to the biography, psychoanalyst Jeanne Wolff-Bernstein suggests that at the time Freud was seeing Gretl, he was also concerned about his youngest daughter Anna who, then aged 22, showed no interest in men. She too turned out to be lesbian — her relationship with fellow psychoanalyst Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham spanned 50 years. Another consideration is Freud’s own internalised anti-Semitism. At the time of the analysis Austria’s Jew-hatred was on the rise and Jewish men in particular were viewed as effeminate, in part because of the practice of circumcision. Did he feel further emasculated by his unapologetic and unyielding lesbian patient?
Through the densely researched biographical work that spans the patient’s ninety-nine years before, during and after analysis, we learn about her early and later life circumstances and their impact on her. Baptised Catholic, Jewish-born Gretl didn’t refer to her Jewish heritage; the circles in which she and her family mixed considered Jews as second class. Gretl loves her warm, generous, patriarchal father, contrary to Freud’s belief that she wants revenge on him. Freud reads her dismissively as antagonistic towards men rather than as a young woman who is angered by the straight jacket of heteropatriarchy. She tried to commit suicide on two further occasions because of the pressure to marry men.
Freud was correct not to believe the dreams she brought to analysis to persuade him that she was “cured” of her lesbian desire. They were indeed co-created by Gretl and the baroness in the hope her father would sanction their friendship. We learn about her lovers before and after she flees Nazi rule from Austria via Moscow and Japan to Cuba and then to North America, Paris, Thailand, and back again in her final years to her native Vienna. Gretl finds it hard to establish and maintain sexual relationships with the women she yearns for. Freud believed Gretl’s desire for the baroness, an older stylish woman — not dissimilar to her own mother — was rooted in her feeling that her mother didn’t like her often competing with her for male attention. Gretl’s relationship with her mother Irma is the painful lifelong thread. She did indeed see Gretl as a barrier to male attention well into old age and she always favoured Gretl’s three brothers. Poor Gretl see-saws between being the target of her mother’s envy and anger or she feels she doesn’t exist for her.
In a critique of Freud’s paper, Anne D’Ercole suggests Gretl’s object choice of the unavailable baroness, “protects her from facing the social rejection” not to say banishment she’d experience if her love was consummated and became public. The chapters on Gretl’s two further “great loves” Wjera and Monique reveal more about the complexity of her desire. Like the baroness, both women ticked Gretl’s all-important boxes: gentile, tall and slim, stylish, with good posture and of high social status. Gretl’s girlish obsessions with Wjera eventually turn sour when Gretl is unable to reciprocate Wjera’s desire for a sexual and romantic ongoing relationship.
For Gretl, the biographers note: “Beauty is her aphrodisiac, longing drives her. Fulfilment, reality crush her.” Reflecting on her life and loves a few years before she dies, Gretl remembers the hospital doctor who treated her after her third suicide attempt, when the bullet she tried to shoot herself with missed her heart by two centimetres. The doctor suggested she was “a classic asexual”. Gretl agreed, and said she fet she lost out on a lot of physical pleasure. “I ended up like this because of my mother,” she says. “Every woman was her enemy.”
So, Gretl’s great beauty and desirability to men and women was both a threat and barrier to being loved by both parents, albeit for different reasons. Her internalised anti-semitism meant she could not be allied with lowly Jews. Was this a factor that drove her need to be the most elegant and beautiful, and turned her into a snob? She remembers old Professor Freud with a mixture of rage and contempt and I wonder whether her experience with him — the attempted conversion therapy — compounded her difficulties? Doomed, like her mother, to live her romantic life largely in fantasy, Gretl remains somewhat invisible not only in the pages of Freud’s case study but also in real life: passing as gentile and not being able to physically express her desire for women. Perhaps today she might identify as homoromantic asexual?
As in Freud’s paper, we don’t get much direct speech from Gretl, so it’s unclear how much has been filled in by her biographers and how accurately the complex Gretl is portrayed. She is written as a woman for whom surface appearances often seem more important than good character, who looks down her nose at those who don’t meet her standards. Freud’s parting words to his patient were “I wouldn’t want you as my enemy”. He astutely picks up on how harsh she can be, yet she loves and is loved by many throughout her life, forming lasting deep friendships with humans and animals — her beloved dog Petzi and a monkey named Chico — alike.
In 2014 I met Rieder unexpectedly in Vienna’s gay bookshop, Loewenherz, located on Berggasse, just a few doors down from the Freud Museum, where Gretl would have met the doctor for her daily analysis. As well as being a psychotherapy trainee, I was also the editor of the British lesbian and bi women’s magazine, DIVA. I was on a press trip with my partner, to cover the city’s queer credentials. We arrived on a freezing cold January evening, as the city’s police were cordoning off the centre in advance of a weekend of a far right political rally. Our deep-dive into Viennese queer culture echoed something of Gretl’s experiences. In the course of discussing the book with Rieder, I was shocked to learn that my paternal grandmother had been one of Gretl’s lovers. The news was a revelation, not only to me but also to my father who was an infant when the secret affair began. Suddenly I felt an unfamiliar embodied sense of recognition and validation: I had queer ancestry! And unlike Gretl’s father, or Freud and his daughter, mine now shared in the joy of this knowledge with me. In discovering Gretl’s story and my uncanny personal connection to her, something had come full circle.
In all, the book is a fascinating and valuable contribution to queer and Jewish history and psychoanalysis. Despite his “failure” both to his patient and the analysis, there was much that Freud got right. A question remains about why Freud agreed to take the client on. Freud is surprised that the wealthy Arpad Csonka enlists his help because of the “low estimation in which analysis is generally held in Vienna”. Perhaps Freud saw his patronage as a key to acceptance into high gentile society? Unusually, especially for clinicians who rarely learn about their patients’ lives after therapy, readers can draw their own conclusions about the patient, and about Freud’s analysis.
The Story of Sidonie C: Freud’s Famous Case of Female Homosexuality
Written by Ines Rieder & Diana Voigt
Translated by Jill Hanum & Ines Rieder
Helena History Press 2020
Jane Czyzselska is a psychotherapist and writer. She works in private practice and combines her love of writing, psychotherapy and documenting LGBTIQ+ lived experience in contributions to journals, magazines, websites, blogs and events.
Freud, S. (1920) The Psychogenesis Of A Case of Homosexuality In A Woman. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 1, 125–49 (Tr Barbara Low and R. Gabler)
Lesser, R.C. & Schoenberg, E. editors (1999) That Obscure Subject Of Desire — Freud’s Female Homosexual Revisited Routledge