In the '30s and '40s when I was growing up, very very few people my age had heard of my Great-Uncle Sigmund Freud. It was only in the early '50s that the fact of my relationship to the inventor of psychoanalysis was passed from friend to friend. The dead doctor's shadow seemed to lengthen over me. Since then, it's been upsy downsy, sometimes a nuisance and sometimes an amusement. But one thing remains constant: whatever role Freud has played in my life has been assigned him by others, not by me.
One day -- back in the '50s -- I was paying a call on my grandmother, Freud's sister, a woman then in her upper 90s with spidery hands and an integrated ego. She grasped me by the wrist and, more or less out of the blue, told me, "Siggy was such a clever man." This was the first time I realized with what innocent directness the close relatives of the great are apt to size them up.
Ancestor worship is not my strong suit. In fact, I admit that occasionally I get a peverse twitch of pleasure out of seeing people take potshots at the old guy. This is a sort of knee-jerk iconoclasm I have no control over and consider more healthy than neurotic -- and certainly more fun.
Thus, when Vladimir Nabokov referred to Freud as "that Viennese quack," I smiled.
I smiled again when, in 1970, John M. Billinsky, a psychologist, published an article that claimed Freud had carried on a lengthy and passionate affair with his wife's sister, a fat woman named Minna who never married and lived in the Freud household. Time magazine picked up the story and ran it with a picture of Minna looking somehow both formidable and demure. I refused to take sides on the truth of this story, unlike several members of the psychoanalytic establishment, who wrote letters of outrage -- and denial -- to Time, and unlike members of the family, one of whom assured me that Uncle Sigmund "would never have slept with Minna. She was too unattractive." The Billinski episode prompted my husband to compost the following verse: Said Freud to Schnitzler Over Pilsener, "I had Minna before dinner," "What," said Arthur, "Not Martha?"
From time to time people still ask me if Freud really messed around with his sister-in-law. When I assure them I don't know but that it doesn't sound plausible -- he was too busy, for one thing -- I'm sure they don't believe me.
Several years ago an obsessional student of Freud's life and times, a writer I had not met, called me and invited himself over. After only a few minutes, it was clear why he was there drinking our booze: he was determined to get a rise out of Freud's grandniece by confronting her with shocking and "gamy" facts about Freud's life and times. "Did you know," he said, leaning toward me, "that Freud didn't go to his own mother's funeral -- he sent his daughter Anna instead?"
When this failed to produce the reaction he was apparently after, he tried to make me believe daughter Anna had stolen a good many of her psychoanalytic notions from another woman.
"Ach so," I said. "And ziss troubles you?"
Then there's the other, less piquant side to all this; namely, the worship and whimsy that inevitably follow a legend. Such as the movie "Freud" with Montgomery Clift. I was sure this was a historic case of miscasting; I went to see the film mostly for laughs but came away subdued. Clift, the accident-prone public neurotic, was somehow right for the part.
A few years ago someone gave me a pen that had a ballpoint on one end and a kumquat-sized head of Freud on the other, complete with hairy beard and the unmistakable turned-down mouth. When you were not using the pen, you inserted it into its holder, a metal Ionic column with a felt base. I've also sat against a Freud-shaped pillow. My all-time favorite item of Freudiana is a foot-high talking doll called Sigmund Owl, with an owl face and a chain you pull to get it to say, "There's something you're not telling me," "That will be $100," "Why do you hate your mother?" and a couple of other predictable phrases, all in a stagy Viennese accent.
So far, my children seem to be Freud-free, but I'm not surprised -- their generation isn't even interested in last names. Not so my husband. A month or so before we were married, he reported to his former therapist that he had found a measure of mental health in the form of his engagement to a young woman who, incidentally, was the grandniece of you-know-who. Deadpan to the last, this doctor had only one thing to say in response; "Does she speak English?"
My only direct communication with Freud is the card he sent me just short of a month after my birth in 1930. It reads: "Welcome to a new output of life on the day great-grandmother was buried." It is signed,"Greatuncle Sigm."
When I showed this message to the obessional writer, he said, "See? I told you the old man was hung up on his mother."