“Forever, Your Marty”: A Review of The Flash and Outbreak of a Fiery Mind: The love letters of Martha Bernays Freud 1882-1886

by Dale Moyer, Ph.D
Reviewed by Karen Randall, Ph.D.

In this masterfully researched and cleverly imagined blend of history, biography, and fiction, Dale Moyer crafts the story of Martha Bernays Freud, who married Freud after a lengthy and complex courtship, and whose marriage spanned over 50 years.  In his preface, Moyer noted that the life and work of Martha Bernays had garnered little attention in the biographies of Freud and his family.   She is portrayed as a silent partner, in the background of his vast achievements.  As Juliet Mitchell (1974) has remarked, Martha has been portrayed as  a “good hausfrau”  who dutifully bore him six children, kept a finely organized and well-tended household, and as Moyer has noted (Moyer, 2010 personal communication),” served his soup on time each day”.  In fact, not until 2006 (Bheling, 2006) was any full biography devoted to her life, much less one which suggested that she was much more than an outstanding manager of his domestic life.

The author sets about, in the Flash and Outbreak of a Fiery Mind, to reconstruct and re-invent the lost correspondence which took place over their courtship and four -year engagement.  Moyer bases this fictional account upon an exhaustive research into the surviving correspondence between them, a smattering of letters to Martha which have been published, and an equally exhaustive research into the lifestyle and mores of Victorian Viennese society, and biographical accounts written by the Freuds’ family members, friends, and associates.  The author intends this to be a tribute to Martha’s life, and her impact on Freud’s life and work.  Yet, he does not merely tell a story of their lives, and experiences, but remarkably succeeds in portraying their inner lives, particularly Martha’s, in this pivotal developmental epoch of their lives.  He details her emergence from a vivacious but compliant and dutiful young woman, to a mature and intellectually sophisticated  twenty-five year old woman who, in the words of the author,  “acquired a distinctive style and manner of loving and contending with an obstreperous Freud” (preface, page x).

This book defies categorization.  In preparation for this review, I tried to determine, how should the reader read this book?   Although the philosopher Derrida (1980) decried the static categorization of “genre”, one cannot help but try to figure out while reading  this work, which  I have affectionately dubbed “Flash”, what is it that I am reading?

Is “Flash” best described as biographical fiction, “nonfictional fiction”, “historical fiction”, or “experimental fiction”? Consider these alternative frames of reference one at a time.

As a work of biographical fiction, “Flash” can be read as a story of the profound intimacy between Freud and Martha, and how she can be seen to have influenced his thinking, his theorizing, and evolution of his professional life.  Elsewhere, Moyer has suggested (Moyer, 1996 personal communication) that psychoanalysis is best understood via the medium of biography.

Who was Martha, according to the author?  Martha is a good natured and obedient daughter in a middle class merchant family who comes of age in the shadow of her family’s misfortune.  Her father, Berman Bernays, died suddenly and prematurely of a heart attack, in 1879, leaving Martha’s mother Emmeline bereft, and the family with limited financial resources. Homesick for her life in Wandsbek, a suburb of Hamburg, in 1882 Emmeline announced to Martha and her sister that the family would be leaving Vienna.  Despite the anguish of moving out of Vienna to the suburbs of Hamburg, which separates her from Freud for much of their four-year engagement, Martha does so with grace and dignity, performing her duty as a honorable, devoted daughter to her widowed mother and the family.

She urges her fiancé to abandon his grudge against Martha’s mother for moving them away…

Sigi…we are orthodox Jews.   Everything in our upbringing has a tradition attached to it; we have been taught to respect our parents, and that it is especially important for a woman to maintain fidelity with her mother….Please let it go!   (letter 112, p 241)

Moyer’s Martha reveals herself as a young girl who eventually becomes Freud’s intellectual equal, thanks to a rather fortunate and unconventional upbringing in which her erudite uncles set up a program of  tutelage in which she and her sister Minna read and discussed classical and  contemporary works of literature, poetry, history, and philosophy.  It is known from the surviving correspondence, and memoirs of friends and family,  that she had read many such works; Freud’s frequent references to these writers’ ideas pepper their surviving published correspondence, and are unexplained, which assumed her foreknowledge of them.  However, what motivated Martha, and how she came to acquire this education is largely up for speculation; the influence of her uncles, and Martha’s process of development as a self-proclaimed “autodidact”, are Moyer’s interpretations of history, not actually verified as “fact”.  As the story unfolds, Martha becomes enamored of the arts and letters, and she becomes intrigued by what was allegedly the “fashion” in her cultural milieu, the habit of lacing her ample correspondence with passages from, and allusions to, literature and poetry.

And who was Freud in this narrative?   It is tempting to tell Sigmund’s story here, of his life and family, to put him in the limelight once again, but Moyer avoids this literary blunder, which is his reason for writing the book.  In keeping with his intentions, so shall this review.  However, Sigmund’s life history reveals itself in Martha’s reactions to the complex relationships in his family,  his legendary grudges and conflicts,  his  neurotic issues and symptoms.  Moyer shows how Martha was likely to have had a profound influence upon Sigmund’s thinking and feeling about his family, even as the letters portray his rigidly entrenched character style which was, in modern parlance, a “tough nut to crack”. Subsequently, what comes alive, through Martha’s eyes, is Freud’s development, and inner turmoil and conflict in his “professional adolescence”.  The author chronicles Martha’s continual nurturance and support which kept her fiancé from despair, as he tried to launch a practice in a rigid professional community that was resistant to innovation and new ideas.  Martha helps Freud come to terms with compromises in order to attain his place in medicine, and in this process, we see Moyer alluding to a source for the core psychoanalytic idea of “compromise” as a cornerstone of mental life. The book is a unique biography of Freud because it is a relational  account of who he was,  and who he was to become, within the matrix of his love of Martha.

One could also suggest that this book, should be considered as a work of historical fiction. While painting a portrait of these two remarkable individuals,  the author also “spins a story” of the founding of psychoanalysis.  In this book, Moyer subtly advances a unique perspective on the dawn of psychoanalysis, placing it squarely in the context of Freud’s passionate dialogue with Martha.  This differs dramatically from the “standard” rendition of psychoanalytic history, which has always seated his theoretical beginnings in the intellectual circle of male medical colleagues and teachers. Conventional historical narratives of psychoanalysis lauds the tutelage of Freud by Charcot in Paris, Breuer in Vienna, and a host of male mentors, teachers, fellow  researchers in the institutions in which Freud launched his career as a neurological physician and researcher. Here, Martha takes center stage.

Moyer charts the trajectory by which Martha develops an insightful and probing approach to her own issues and the apparent anxieties and neurotic problems of her fiancé.  Martha develops into a generous, loving individual who is also strong-willed, confrontational, and challenging to Freud.  She evolves, in this story, as Freud’s companion, muse, and perhaps something more.  Moyer’s rendition of Martha  portrays her as his “first” analyst:  In her letters, she is continually pointing out, in a chiding, loving, and sometimes sharp-tongued way,  that certain of his more recalcitrant feelings and self-doubts, are irrational, not based in reality.  She teaches him that there is an unconscious.  She urges him to free associate, in their correspondence.   She confronts his projected attitudes and feelings.  She demands that HE confront his stubborn grudges and attacks of jealousy as neurotic symptoms which must be conquered if their relationship is to progress.   She describes her own relief at catharsis. She speaks at length about her impressions of his and her somatic symptoms as having a source in their mental angst and inner turmoil. All of the elements of psychoanalytic theory, such as the existence of the unconscious, the value of the talking cure, repression, conversion, are present in their fictional “conversation”.

Martha explores with Freud, in her letters, the nature of love, the nature of sexuality, and the notion of the primacy of the instincts.

Loving you I feel I have abandoned a serenity and durability within myself. An army marches out of my inner tranquility toward the turbulence of intimacy with you … (letter 20,p.33).

            …desire changes ill-humor and impatience; and a woman accustomed to wait passively now wants to step out of her usual confines, wants to become active….I want to emerge from the cocoon of your Princess to a woman who can freely expose her need to touch and be touched by her lover… (letter 98, p 205).

A critical element of this story of their engagement, is the impact of their prolonged absences from each other during Freud’s medical training and Martha’s “exile” in Wandsbek.  In their correspondence, the struggle over loss and tortured longing for each other fuel the bonds of love, but also, if we are to presume the author’s intention, purportedly fuel Freud’s later ideas about the damaging impact of repressed sexual desires.

Our separation? You want to know its effect on me? In a word, deleterious.  Let me list even more; loathsome, odious; wretched ;an impediment to mental and sensual satiety….I must confess, what drives me more…is the frustration of an intensifying desire to be alone with you…as much as I try to find distractions by becoming “lost” in reading socializing or household  responsibilities, nothing seems to work. Daydreams of receiving your kisses and being in your arms thrust themselves upon me.  I am saturated with unfulfilled desire for you…My body now knows as it never did before, how Venus felt confounded by Adonis.  (letter97, p 204).   

  In the middle of the engagement, when the longing is reaching a painful intensity, in a “flash”, she comes into her own as the consummate lover, assertive intellectual partner, the “fiery mind” which captures Freud’s imagination, and passionate engagement for the next  half century.

The difference between manifest and latent content is mirrored in Moyer’s representation of her personality and their dialogue.  The surface details of her life history and circumstances reveal the “manifest” Martha.  The latent content, is revealed through the instrument of the letter:  She describes the rift between what is seen on the outside and what is felt on the inside.  She experiences the conventional “self” opposing the passionate, erotic, and imaginative self revealed in her written conversation with her future husband.

It is in these exchanges, portrayed throughout the text of “Flash”, which embody the implication of Moyer’s novel that the true founding of psychoanalysis lay in their dialogue.  One might suggest, that because of the verifiability of most of what is rendered, that this might move “Flash” into the genre of “nonfictional fiction”, in which factual events and life stories are bound together with a “fictional thread”, in this case, Moyer’s personal “theory” of psychoanalytic history.

If one chooses to read “Flash” as a work of historical, or ‘non-fictional” fiction with social and political subtext, we view through the author’s eyes, a history of Vienna’s Golden Age, a critical look at Victorian society and social mores, as it was expressed in Freud’s and Martha’s communities. In the letters, Martha is openly critical and questioning of their cultural Zeitgeist…

Darling I know why the world is turning so evil.  It is what drives the merchants, the bankers….the politicians, the mindless and sycophantic bureaucrats, even the farmer and small shopkeeper and all those in between; it is greed and more greed!! Wealth and property are the emblems of status , position, and power in our bourgeois society.  Perhaps this is why the aristrocracy despises the presumptuous parevenue who sees man as something to be cheated or as an object to be manipulated and swindled out of her or his wealth… (letter 109 p 236).

The book also is a political commentary which registers Moyer’s perspective on Eastern European history at fin de siècle.  Through the medium of their correspondence, he chronicles the domination of the bourgeois ethos where Martha laments, it is a world of “incessant playacting, and “making the correct impression”, where “nothing is undertaken and nothing completed” in the way of significant social or political change  (letter 133, p. 283).

In the text of Martha’s worried letters to Freud urging him not to be so blasé about the anti-Jewish sentiments of modern political writers and even of his colleagues, Moyer laces into the story, the rise of anti-semitism in pre-war Europe, and German nationalism as an organizing force for the doctrine of racial purification.  A woeful Martha laments to Freud the rationalization and denial of the middle class European Jews regarding the potential impact of these developments on their lives.

The calm Jews have enjoyed in Vienna for years and the winning of our civil rights in 1867 may be shattered in the years ahead…I feel a dread deep within me of impending disaster..I refuse to forget; I must always remember the fragile nature of our security in a world which feels threatened by the mere presence of Jews…. (letter 129 pages 274-75).

Imbedded in the book is also a proposal about Martha’s relationship to feminism and Jewish life:  Martha, in her letters to her beloved, questions the values and ideals of her culture and the oppression of women within that framework.

I am quite perturbed about the dismissal of women in certain ways by Orthodox Judaism.  I find distasteful the following: women are excluded from testifying as witnesses in Jewish courts of law; we cannot be called to read the Torah in the synagogue, we cannot become rabbis, the husband can initiate divorce proceedings while a wife cannot do so, the birth and rites of passage of a boy are celebrated with elaborate ritual, while a girl receives minimal response; women are required to maintain distance from men during menstruation, and in the marriage ritual, it is the groom who repeats the vows that consecrate the woman to him, she is to remain silent; and especially, men must recite a daily prayer thanking God for not having been made a woman.  These conditions rankle my soul, Therefore it is becoming more difficult to abide by them (letter 46, p 47).

The letters reveal Martha’s identity as both traditional and subservient but breaking out of the bounds of her cultural context, becoming educated, articulate and well-read.  As Freud’s intellectual equal, she challenges him on his enslavement to bourgeois values and Victorian sexual mores.  She protests the prevailing gender oppression of her time and particularly the devaluation of women’s work in the domestic sphere.  In a witty, but sharply toned and rather sardonic letter to Freud, she confronts a condescending attitude from his colleague Josef Breuer, who once lauded the surgeon’s gifts in comparison to the frivolity of women’s needlework.  She details the dozens of stitches, threads, techniques, and materials and notes that “embroidery is so advanced and complicated that it makes the surgeon’s stitch work look like something performed by a child” (letter 73, p 144)

In speaking through Martha’s voice, Moyer shows himself as the possessor of a “transgendered imagination” as he praises and defends feminine experience and integrity in an age of profound limitations for ambitious and creative women.

Lastly one might consider Flash as “experimental fiction”.  At first it seems that Moyer has revived a form of fictional storytelling known as an “epistolary novel” in which a story is told through a series of letters.  Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia explains that the form was first popularized in two novels by American novelist Samuel Richardson in the 18th Century.  Classic epistolary novels such as Pierre Choderos de Laclos’ (1782) Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Bram Stoker’s (1897) Dracula immediately come to mind.  The form largely disappeared after the late 19th century only to re-appear in the late 20th and 21st centuries in many works of American and European contemporary fiction, for example in  Francoise Sagan’s (1988) novel, Dear Sarah Bernhardt, in which the author’s protagonist “interviews” the actress through their imaginary  correspondence.    However, Moyer does not simply use the letter for a literary convention.  He creates the letters as “bridges” between actual known events, and actual known correspondence, which essentially develops a narrative of their life histories, much as the actual process of a psychoanalysis accomplishes in the reconstruction of an individual’s “narrative truth” about his or her  life.

The letter as a methodology, does more than just allow the reader to have a more intimate knowledge of the characters’ inner lives.   Its use in “Flash” has a significance which again mirrors the advancing of psychoanalytic history.  The entire proposal, between Martha and Sigmund, in their first “letters” is for an “Experiment” to take place between them, in which they agree to “write to each other without restraint”…

…it is a daunting proposal for us to write to each other freely without contortions, without the deliberate deceptions required by social propriety.  To write freely without hesitation, shame, or embarrassment.  To write with complete candor, without any form of opprobrium, disgust, or alienation.  It means abandoning any doubt, qualm, or caution.  It will take great effort and frequent attempts to achieve such a state of mental freedom with you….”  (letter 7, p.17).

Correspondingly, then, this book is a work of experimental writing for the author; fusing historical truth with narrative truth, presenting a thesis on erotic and romantic love, while telling an old fashioned love story.  The instrument of “letter” is used like the couch of the psychoanalytic future; the letter frees Martha up to reveal her innermost thoughts, feelings, passions and fantasies which are denied expression in her everyday life. ”.   In their letter-writing  “experiment”, she finds self-understanding, an outlet for her intellectual interests, as well as a vehicle for sublimation of unfulfilled desire.

In the end, one must follow Derrida’s lead and abandon the search for easy characterization of this work as fitting into a certain genre.  Dale Moyer creates something much more complex and textured than anything in these respective genres ought to produce ….He takes us on a journey which fuses  self-reflection,, passion, eroticism, and everyday life.   He causes us to identify with the thoughts, dreams, doubts, fears, and hopes of Martha and Sigmund Freud.  Through his disciplined research of correspondence, biographies of Freud, and accounts of those who knew and worked with Freud and his family, he cleverly and deftly portrays how Martha was likely to think, feel, and respond within this relationship,   In order to accomplish this, he also clearly had to  master the library of texts on German and Austrian history  between the /mid nineteenth century and 1930’s including the known biographies of Freud, and texts on Freud’s relationship to politics, religion, and philosophy. He had to immerse himself in works which examined the life and lifesyles of Victorian-era Europeans, the rise of the bourgeois ethic, and values.  The book is not only entertaining and enchanting, but a work of monumental scholarship.

“Flash” finally defies categorization, just as Moyer intended.  Once freed up from that burden, the reader can allow him/herself to be caught up by the engaging, textured inner life of Martha, and the stunning portrait of her intimacy with Freud, set against the cultural backdrop of Victorian Vienna, the embroiled politics, and the deepening anti-Semitism in Europe.  This book’s creation is the  “Flash and Outbreak” of Dale Moyer’s  “Fiery Mind”, as he deftly conjoins  his gifts as a historian, psychoanalyst, and biographer, with the unique capacity to imagine gendered experience in the nineteenth century from both sides of the spectrum, in this astonishing work.  Moyer brings us to a more finely tuned appreciation of Freud and a deeper understanding of his life-changing partnership. We cannot help but admire and envy the depth of that partnership, and wish that our lives could or will contain such a brilliant and enduring intimacy.  The Flash and Outbreak of a Fiery Mind is a “must read” for anyone with an appreciation for sychoanalysis and psychoanalytic history, but also for all of us who are passionately hopeful about the potential for deep and enduring love.

Karen M. Randall

Chicago, IL

Flash and Outbreak of a Fiery Mind: The Love letters of Martha Bernays Freud 1882-1886 by Dale Moyer is available through Authorhouse, 1663 Liberty Drive, Bloomington IN 47403 www.authorhouse.com or by contacting Sandmeyer Books, Chicago IL  www.sandmeyerbookstore.com 



Benet, 2008. Reader’s Encyclopedia Fifth edition, NY: Collins Reference.

Behling, 2006. Martha Bernays Freud; A Biography. NY: Wiley and Sons.

De Laclos, P.C., 1782. Les Liaisons Dangereuse.s

Derrida, J. & Ronell, A., (Autumn 1980). On Narrative: The law of genre.  University of Chicago Press 7 (1): 55-81.

Mitchell, J. (1974) Psychoanalysis and feminism: Freud, Reich, Laing, and Women. NY Random House.

Sagan, F. 1988. Dear Sarah Bernhardt, NY: Henry Holt.

Stoker, B. 1897, Dracula, NY: Grosset and Dunlap.

Karen Randall is a former Vice President of the Board of Directors at the Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis, where she still mentors and teaches graduate students in their Fellowship Program. She is also a past president of the Chicago Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology. Dr Randall received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Loyola University of Chicago. She is also an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, in the PsyD program. Dr. Randall has been in private practice in long-term psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, for over 20 years, but as of recently, spends much of her time sailing on the Great Lakes, Caribbean, Central America, and Mediterranean, with her husband, which is how she finds time to read and review wonderful new books.

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