Pho­to­graph of the fam­i­ly of Sig­mund Freud, 1898. Front row: Sophie, Anna, and Ernst Freud. Mid­dle row: Oliv­er and Martha Freud, Min­na Bernays. Back row: Mar­tin and Sig­mund Freud.

Sep­tem­ber 29, 1939, 20 Mares­feld Gar­dens, Hamp­stead, Lon­don: The first Fri­day after Sig­mund Freud’s death, hav­ing accept­ed more than half a century’s imposed impi­ety at her husband’s insis­tence, sev­en­ty-eight-year-old Martha Freud start­ed light­ing Sab­bath can­dles again. Licht-bench­ing, as the cer­e­mo­ny is called. You light a pair of can­dles just as the sun goes down; cir­cle your hands in a sweep­ing motion three times as if to gath­er the light and savor the can­dles’ warmth, the spir­it of rest­ful­ness they are meant to con­vey; then you cov­er your eyes with your hands while recit­ing the bless­ing: Baruch ata adon­ai, elo­henu melech ha’olam, ash­er kid- shanu be-mitzvo­tov ve-tzivoni, le’hadlik ner shel Shab­bat.

Enter Shab­bat Ha’Malkah, Shab­bat the Queen, a pre­sid­ing fem­i­nine pres­ence in a patri­ar­chal envi­ron­ment where most of the active, time-spe­cif­ic mitzvot, or injunc­tions — such as the putting on of tefill­in, or phy­lac­ter­ies (a pair of small black leather cubes, con- tain­ing pieces of parch­ment inscribed with Bib­li­cal vers­es, one of which is strapped around the left arm, hand, and fin­gers and the oth­er of which is strapped above the fore­head) for the morn­ing prayers — fall on men, since women are pre­sumed to be busy with oth­er pri­or­i­ties, such as house­keep­ing and child­care. And now here was the wid­ow of one of the most for­mi­da­ble ene­mies of reli­gion ful­fill­ing one of the few oblig­a­tions incum­bent upon women under Judaism. It was, sure­ly, a form of poet­ic jus­tice — or per­haps a tes­ta­ment to the hold of the past, how­ev­er abjured it may be. 

She was born Martha Bernays on July 26, 1861, in Ham­burg, into a high­ly regard­ed and intel­lec­tu­al­ly advanced fam­i­ly to whom such recur­rent obser­vances meant a great deal. With her per­for­mance of the act of light­ing can­dles at a pre­fig­ured moment on the Jew­ish cal­en­dar, one might argue that Martha Freud was being more than assertive; she was being defi­ant. In doing so, she was tak­ing a step back­ward toward the live­ly, book-lov­ing girl she had been and the tra­di­tion­al­ism of her ori­gins before she became the more com­pli­ant, devot­ed care­tak­er that Freud desired her to be: the adored sweet­heart in youth” who became the beloved wife in maturity.”

She was also tak­ing a step for­ward, toward the post­spousal woman she would become (she out­lived her hus­band by twelve years), reclaim­ing a small part of the ancient, rit­u­al-laden reli­gious tra­di­tion that had been instilled in her while she was grow­ing up. It was a tra­di­tion that her avid­ly sec­u­lar hus­band (whom she always referred to as Pro­fes­sor,” as though she were his eter­nal stu­dent) ridiculed, for­bid­ding her to light Fri­day night can­dles when they set up their own home.

Accord­ing to Freud’s Women, by Lisa Appig­nane­si and John For­rester, a cousin of Martha recalled how not being allowed to light the Sab­bath lights on the first Fri­day night after her mar­riage was one of the most upset­ting expe­ri­ences of her life.” And one vis­i­tor to their house, the philoso­pher Isa­iah Berlin, observed that hus­band and wife were still argu­ing the issue of light­ing can­dles, how­ev­er play­ful­ly, as late as 1938: Martha joked at Freud’s mon­strous stub­born­ness which pre­vent­ed her from per­form­ing the rit­u­al, while he firm­ly main­tained the prac­tice was fool­ish and superstitious.”

All the same, the Freud mar­riage was reput­ed to have been excep­tion­al­ly har­mo­nious — one of their few dis­putes over fifty-three years was said to have been about the cor­rect way to cook mush­rooms. While her hus­band worked up to six­teen and occa­sion­al­ly even eigh­teen hours a day, Martha (also known as Frau Pro­fes­sor) car­ried around an enor­mous bunch of keys, the bet­ter to over­see a house­hold that includ­ed a cook, a gov­erness, and a nan­ny, and keep it run­ning like a well-oiled machine. Lunch was served prompt­ly at one every day, a for­mal meal often fea­tur­ing tafel­spitz (boiled beef and veg­eta­bles, with a horse­rad­ish sauce), a favorite of Freud’s. The Freuds’ six chil­dren were well behaved, hav­ing had instilled in them the impor­tance of their father’s work. As one of Freud’s sons, Mar­tin, not­ed in his rem­i­nis­cences: There was nev­er any wait­ing for meals: at the stroke of one every­body in the house­hold was seat­ed at the long din­ing-room table and the same moment one door opened to let the maid enter with the soup while anoth­er door opened to allow my father to walk from his study to take his place at the head of the table at the oth­er end.” The crit­ic Jen­ny Dis­ki sug­gest­ed in a 2006 review of a trans­lat­ed biog­ra­phy of Martha Freud by Kat­ja Behling in the Lon­don Review of Books that the exem­plary bour­geois sur­face Martha helped pro­vide — the rigid table man­ners, ordered nurs­ery and bustling reg­u­lar­i­ty” — enabled her hus­band to orga­nize his deep­er, hard­ly think­able thoughts” into some­thing that looked like a sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry. By pol­ish­ing that sur­face and keep­ing clocks tick­ing in uni­son,” Dis­ki con­cludes, Martha was as essen­tial to the devel­op­ment of Freudi­an thought as Dora or the Rat Man.”

Still, the couple’s diver­gent atti­tudes toward Judaism remained a source of under­ground con­flict. On the face of it, they were whole­sale de-Judaized Jews, cel­e­brat­ing Christ­mas and East­er; their son Mar­tin recalled that none of the six chil­dren had entered a syn­a­gogue, and it is com­mon­ly assumed that nei­ther Mar­tin nor either of his two broth­ers was cir­cum­cised. Freud, a con­firmed athe­ist with lit­tle tol­er­ance for reli­gious belief in any form, would delight in rib­bing Martha about her reli­gious attach­ment, pre­tend­ing not to know the Hebrew name for can­de­labrum” in a note he wrote her in 1907 after vis­it­ing the Roman cat­a­combs: In the Jew­ish [cat­a­combs] the inscrip­tions are Greek, the can­de­labrum — I think it’s called Meno­rah — can be seen on many tablets.” As if he didn’t know that it was called a menorah!

Although Freud nev­er denied his Jew­ish­ness and went so far as to cred­it his reli­gion with a lack of prej­u­dice and an uncowed sin­gle-mind­ed­ness, he also went to great lengths to sep­a­rate the the­o­ries and prac­tice of psy­cho­analy­sis from both the reli­gious and the Jew­ish, espe­cial­ly giv­en how anti-Semit­ic thinkers attrib­uted a Jew­ish char­ac­ter to his work, which in turn led to a resis­tance to their views. But, Freud wrote in a let­ter to Fer­enczi, there should not be a thing as Aryan or Jew­ish sci­ence. Results in sci­ence must be iden­ti­cal, though the pre­sen­ta­tion of them may vary.”

To bet­ter under­stand the Freuds’ respec­tive posi­tions on the issue of Jew­ish­ness, one need go no fur­ther than their imme­di­ate back­grounds. Where­as Sig­mund Freud came from an Enlight­en­ment-influ­enced assim­i­lat­ed Vien­nese fam­i­ly, Martha’s back­ground was one where tra­di­tion­al obser­vances were scrupu­lous­ly main­tained. Her moth­er, Emme­line, wore a shei­t­el, or wig, and was a tena­cious and dom­i­neer­ing per­son­al­i­ty though out­ward­ly com­ing across as mild and soft. (These traits would antag­o­nize her future son-law; he described her as alien” and wrote his fiancée that I seek for sim­i­lar­i­ties with you, but find hard­ly any.”)

Martha’s fam­i­ly was renowned in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty for their schol­ar­ship and lead­er­ly qual­i­ties. Isaac Bernays, her grand­fa­ther, was the chief rab­bi of Ham­burg; upon his death, he was acknowl­edged by no less a fig­ure than Hein­rich Heine to have been an extra­or­di­nary per­son­al­i­ty. (Despite Bernays’s strict com­mit­ment to Ortho­doxy, he was con­sid­ered to be some­thing of a reli­gious mod­ern­iz­er, known for his inno­v­a­tive ser­mons and for his will­ing­ness to incor­po­rate Ger­man into the syn­a­gogue ser­vice. In an odd coin­ci­dence, my great-grand­fa­ther, Sam­son Raphael Hirsch, was a stu­dent of Bernays and fol­lowed in his tra­di­tion of bring­ing togeth­er Jew­ish and sec­u­lar realms.) Two of Martha’s pater­nal uncles were uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors: one, Jacob, was a clas­si­cist whose adher­ence to reli­gious con­vic­tions pre­vent­ed him from becom­ing a full pro­fes­sor at Bonn Uni­ver­si­ty; the oth­er, Michael, was a Goethe and Shake­speare spe­cial­ist who con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty and was bap­tized, which estranged him from his fam­i­ly at the same time as it fur­thered his career. Martha’s father, Berman Bernays, was a mer­chant, as were the par­ents of his wife; her father lat­er became the sec­re­tary to a well-known econ­o­mist and con­sti­tu­tion­al law expert named Lorenz von Stein, and when Martha mar­ried in 1886 his pro­fes­sion was giv­en as jour­nal­ist.” Martha grew up in fair­ly mod­est cir­cum­stances, and when she was six her father served a stint in prison for crim­i­nal fraud; she is said nev­er to have talked of this inci­dent. (Freud’s uncle was impris­oned for trad­ing in coun­ter­feit rubles, and rumor had it that his father was impli­cat­ed in the scan­dal. Dis­ki argues in her Lon­don Review essay that the cou­ple was unit­ed by the lega­cy of pub­lic shame.)

Who was Martha Freud, and why is she so hard to find?

The fam­i­ly moved to Vien­na when she was eight, and one of two elder broth­ers, Isaac, died at the age of six­teen, when she was eleven — a kind of loss she shared with Freud, who also lost a broth­er ear­ly on. Despite being por­trayed in lat­er years as cul­tur­al­ly indif­fer­ent (in par­tic­u­lar to her husband’s pro­fes­sion), Martha devel­oped an inter­est in art and lit­er­a­ture dur­ing her years at school. She had a keen appre­ci­a­tion of music and was an avid read­er who knew the Ger­man clas­sics and some world lit­er­a­ture; dur­ing their courtship, Freud shared his thoughts on John Stu­art Mill with Martha, and his first present to her was a copy of David Cop­per­field, although he warned her off the rude parts in Don Quixote. By the time he met Martha in April 1882, her sharp mind, attrac­tive appear­ance, and coquet­tish charms had attract­ed many suit­ors, and she had already turned down one pro­pos­al of marriage.


One of the more intrigu­ing ques­tions about the Freuds’ mar­riage, espe­cial­ly giv­en Freud’s own inter­est in the age-old prob­lem of how to main­tain both pas­sion and dura­bil­i­ty in a con­nu­bial rela­tion­ship, was the con­spic­u­ous­ly dero­man­ti­cized and pos­si­bly desex­u­al­ized nature of his own mar­riage after its roman­ti­cal­ly impas­sioned begin­ning. (The ana­lyst Mar­tin Bergmann quipped: We have won­der­ful court­ing let­ters before mar­riage. After mar­riage we only get laun­dry let­ters. It’s all prac­ti­cal. We don’t have a sin­gle love let­ter after marriage.”)

The union pro­duced six chil­dren in nine years, after which the cou­ple decid­ed to prac­tice absti­nence as a means of con­tra­cep­tion. (Freud believed that birth con­trol led to neu­ro­sis.) Freud made a ref­er­ence in a let­ter on Octo­ber 31, 1897, when he was forty-one, to his col­league Wil­helm Fliess, about ceas­ing con­nu­bial rela­tions: Sex­u­al exci­ta­tion is of no more use to a per­son like me,” although he hint­ed at some inci­dences of sex­u­al inter­course with Martha lat­er on, record­ing in his diary at age six­ty that he had suc­cess­ful coitus Wednes­day morn­ing.” He also wrote to Fliess that he often suf­fered from impo­tence. One paper I have read argues that Freud’s deci­sion to abstain from sex, although osten­si­bly to avoid hav­ing more chil­dren, may have stemmed in part from a desire to get back at Martha for her sex­u­al retreatism dur­ing their pro­longed engagement.


This is as good a moment as any to men­tion the spec­u­la­tion, orig­i­nal­ly start­ed by Carl Jung and fanned over the decades by Peter Swales, also known as the gueril­la his­to­ri­an of psy­cho­analy­sis,” that after ceas­ing to sleep with his wife Freud had an affair with his sis­ter-in-law Min­na Bernays, Martha’s smart, wit­ty, and acer­bic younger sis­ter. The two had cor­re­spond­ed while Freud was pur­su- ing Martha, and they had a com­pan­ion­able rela­tion­ship, not least because they lived togeth­er in the same house­hold for forty years — first on Berggasse 19 in Vien­na, where Min­na moved in in 1896, and then at 20 Mares­feld Gar­dens in Hamp­stead, Lon­don. Indeed, the sleep­ing arrange­ments in Vien­na were weird­ly inti­mate: Minna’s small sleep­ing quar­ters were right next to Freud and Martha’s bed­room, sep­a­rat­ed only by a flim­sy par­ti­tion rather than by a wall and door. The only way Min­na could get to her room was to go through the bed­room that the Freuds shared.


Who was Martha Freud, and why is she so hard to find? Was she real­ly just a con­tent­ed Haus­frau, an effi­cient man­ag­er of a house­hold staff, a firm but affec­tion­ate moth­er (although she and Anna, Freud’s youngest daugh­ter and his torch­bear­er, were not par­tic­u­lar­ly sym­pa­ti­co), and most of all, a devot­ed wife who tried as much as pos­si­ble,” as she wrote in a con­do­lence let­ter after her husband’s death, to remove the mis­ere of every­day life from his path”? Assum­ing that Freud’s the­o­ries on every­thing from domes­tic­i­ty to sex­u­al­i­ty to patho­log­i­cal con­flict were drawn even part­ly from his own expe­ri­ence, what influ­ence did Martha’s per­son­al­i­ty and the couple’s inter­ac­tion have on psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic the­o­ry? It’s hard to imag­ine her liv­ing with him for fifty-three years and not hav­ing had some impact on him beyond mak­ing sure his lunch of boiled beef was served on time. Why, then, does she appear to be of so lit­tle inter­est or con­se­quence to the many biog­ra­phers of her hus­band? (There has been one biog­ra­phy of her, writ­ten in Ger­man, as well as a nov­el called Mrs. Freud trans­lat­ed from the French; both books were pub­lished in 2005. There is also a short mem­oir by the Freuds’ long­time house­keep­er, Paula Fichtl, that I had trans­lat­ed from the Ger­man but that didn’t add much except for a spir­it of adu­la­tion for Herr Dok­tor and admi­ra­tion for Martha’s capa­ble han­dling of the house­hold and the vicis­si­tudes of their life together).

Is Martha’s fea­ture­less, sphin­x­like pres­ence an odd gap in the sto­ry — a patri­ar­chal glitch in and among the her­met­ic, all-con­sum­ing nar­ra­tive of male genius — or does it point to some deep­er absence, some way in which Martha will­ing­ly went along with being side­lined from her husband’s larg­er con­cerns the bet­ter to ensure a peace­ful home life from which Freud could ven­ture out with his uncon­ven­tion­al, often alarm­ing the­o­ries? One might argue that in a cer­tain fash­ion she was her husband’s muse, albeit not a par­tic­u­lar­ly glam­orous one, but more the con­sis­tent, enabling fig­ure who helped him freely roam about in his head. It was per­haps Martha’s very ordi­nar­i­ness — her ful­ly devel­oped and well inte­grat­ed” per­son­al­i­ty, as Ernest Jones put it — that off­set the dam­age and abnor­mal­i­ty that Freud found every­where he looked.

Still, Freud’s atti­tude toward Martha, which verged on the fond­ly dis­mis­sive, is not irrel­e­vant to the sense one has that psy­cho­analy­sis missed out on some of the big ques­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly about women, and fell short of its lib­er­at­ing aspi­ra­tions. But it seems too easy to dis­miss her as a mar­tyr, unless one adds that she was a will­ing and seem­ing­ly con­tent­ed one. Not every wife, no mat­ter how intel­li­gent, wish­es to com­pete with her husband’s aura. One might even see Martha’s sus­pen­sion of self as an exam­ple of altru­is­tic sur­ren­der,” which was the term her daugh­ter Anna Freud coined for chil­dren who abjure the pri­ma­cy of self in the ser­vice of anoth­er. In any case, Martha seems to have gone through some­thing of a change after her husband’s death at the age of eighty-three in Sep­tem­ber 1939 after sev­er­al years of excru­ci­at­ing jaw can­cer. Aside from light­ing Shab­bos can­dles, she took to read­ing again and even devel­oped a curios­i­ty about Anna’s patients, mar­veling at how expen­sive child analy­sis was. Although she said life had lost its sense and mean­ing” with­out her hus­band, she appears to have rel­ished being at the cen­ter of the crowd of dot­ing vis­i­tors who came to pay homage and to have con­tin­ued on with her order­ly, ener­getic exis­tence. She out­lived her hus­band by twelve years, dying at the age of nine­ty, tak­ing the mys­tery of who she was with her.

Excerpt­ed from the anthol­o­gy On the Couch: Writ­ers Reflect on Sig­mund Freud, edit­ed by Andrew Blauner pub­lished by Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Daphne Merkin is a nov­el­ist, mem­oirist, and lit­er­ary crit­ic who writes for many pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing the New York Times Book Review, the Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, and Air­mail. She is the author of This Close to Hap­py: A Reck­on­ing with Depres­sion, and two col­lec­tions of essays, Dream­ing of Hitler and The Fame Lunch­es. Her first nov­el, Enchant­ment, has been reis­sued with an intro-duc­tion by Vivian Gor­nick and her most most recent book is the nov­el 22 Min­utes of Uncon­di­tion­al Love. She has taught writ­ing at Mary­mount Man­hat­tan Col­lege, Hunter Col­lege, the Nine­ty- Sec­ond Street Y, and the MFA pro­gram at Colum­bia University.