Sophie Freud, granddaughter of the father of modern psychiatry, analyzes a dark century
Merging memory and love, Sophie Freud has chronicled the struggles of her famous family and its stern patriarch in an affecting memoir of searing power and poignancy.
The 83-year-old Lincoln resident illuminates the hypocrisies, horrors and quiet heroisms of a dark century in "Living in the Shadow of the Freud Family," a domestic saga that is a valuable document of our times.
Growing up in Vienna, young Sophie regularly visited her intimidating grandfather Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychiatry. When the Nazis invaded Paris, the 16-year-old child and her mother bicycled across France, hearing German artillery booming behind them. Setting out of a new life, she sailed to the United States in 1942 to forge a distinguished career as a social worker and teacher.
Part historian, part dutiful daughter, Sophie Freud has honored her late mother by incorporating her unpublished memoirs into the larger tale, revealing a flawed but deeply humane person.
"I'm trying to nail down one piece of history before it disappears," she said recently. "I didn't want them to disappear with my life."
Freud will discuss her book in several appearances at libraries, bookstores and other venues over the next several months.
She hopes her family's story, published amid the recent Middle East strife, reminds readers how religious hatred, demagoguery and fanaticism have fueled humankind's violent instincts. "I hope my book gives people a sense of history and how people developed and how they changed and how they didn't change," said Freud. "It's a tragic book in so many ways. It's my way of giving testimony."
Despite their international celebrity, Sophie Freud and her family encountered but didn't always survive several of the 20th century's monumental events: World War I and World War II, the Holocaust and the Jewish diaspora.
Her story ranges from Austria to war-torn France and Italy, from Morocco to Lincoln, where she's lived for 40 years.
A clear-eyed realist, Freud refuses to take false comfort for her escape from the suffering inflicted on her own family. "It's a survival story but a bit of an accidental survival story at that," she said.
As if weaving a tapestry, she examines the Freud family legacy by stitching together memories of others, their letters, diaries and even obituaries.
It incorporates letters from Sigmund Freud and his eldest son Martin, who is Sophie's father, her mother Esti Drucker Freud, and numerous aunts, uncles and extended family members.
The effect is mesmerizing, even Proustian. Instead of writing a memoir that observes history from a single fixed perspective, Freud pulls her readers into her extended family's kaleidoscopic lives over decades of personal drama and international conflict.
Relaxing in her study, Freud recalled her grandfather giving her coins at the end of their weekly visits. She remembers hearing Hitler's "hypnotic" anti-Semitic rantings on the radio. And she remembers her beloved mother dying without her children by her side.
A bust of Freud sits on a bookshelf not far from a Marc Chagall print. A framed drawing of herself as a dark-haired younger woman hangs on the wall.
After coming to the United States, Freud attended Radcliffe/Harvard University and the Simmons School of Social Work. For years she worked as a clinical social worker and supervisor in the field of child welfare and child-parent guidance. After earning a doctorate from the Florence Heller School of Social Welfare in 1970, she spent 30 years as a social work educator, chairing the Human Behavior Sequence at Simmons College, where she's presently professor emeritus of social work.
Freud had two daughters and a son with her husband, the late Paul Lowenstein, a German immigrant and Holocaust survivor. She's still active, walking and swimming several times a week at Walden Pond.
In her aptly titled book, Freud recalls the physical and psychic cost of living under the numerous "shadows" of her imposing grandfather, Hitler and the Holocaust and a pervasive 20th-century culture of anti-Semitism and violence. Freud remembers grandfather Sigmund as a severe and mostly silent presence, then suffering from mouth cancer who "reserved" his speaking voice for his patients.
"We had regular contact in Vienna until I was 14. They were visits of respect and quite formal. I'd talk and tell him about things, but talking hurt him. We didn't have real back-and-forth conversations. When it was over, he'd give me some coins for pocket money," she said.
As if exorcising long dormant ghosts, Freud writes compassionately of the sorrows her mother endured from both families as a result of her marriage to Freud's eldest son. "It's sort of a feminist book," she said. "Men don't come out so well in it."
Her book incorporates elements of her mother's autobiographical manuscript, "Vignettes of My Life" and parts of 40 letters, that reveal a woman deeply troubled by low self-esteem yet trying desperately to do the right thing. "Her unhappiness was unbearable. I try to mention the good times," she said.
Freud described writing "Living in the Shadow" as "an act of love."
Some of the most touching passages include heartfelt letters her mother wrote her then-fiance and later husband during the nine months in 1918 and 1919 he was a prisoner of war in Italy.
"The main goal of my memoir was to focus on my mother. People who read it will appreciate her courage and tenacity," she said. "After writing the book, I appreciate her more and feel more empathy."
One of the books many high points focuses on Freud's June 1940 escape by bicycle with her mother from Nazi-occupied France.
Recalled through her mother's memoirs and her own teenage diaries, it vividly captures war's chaos and fear. Looking back more than six decades later, Freud regards it as a revealing example of the randomness of survival.
"My mother's plan to leave Paris by bike was really harebrained. It was a crazy decision. We got away accidentally. I wasn't realistic enough to be properly scarred," she said. "I kept looking back to see if we were followed. I'm lucky to have survived. Some people who got out too late were sent to the (concentration) camps and gassed."
Freud remains intensely skeptical of much of her grandfather's legacy as the founder of modern psychology. Yet she considers it a grim irony that her extended family was so impacted by the man credited with "discovering the unconscious mind," and Hitler, the dictator who manipulated its worst impulses and unleashed them on the world.
"I try to give (Sigmund Freud) credit but he was a problematic figure. He was intolerant of any criticism," she said. "Hitler had a hypnotic, seductive voice that put people in a trance. He used his demagoguery to control people and make scapegoats."
More than half a century later, Freud fears "false prophets ... who speak with charismatic voices" are still fueling violent religious hatred in the Middle East and around the world.
"I am so pessimistic about what's happening to our world, our planet today," she said. "We've reached a perfection of violence as never before. I have a very apocalyptic vision of things."
For Freud, no comfort can be found in religion or the "long view" that justice prevails in the end.
"I'm not into Higher Purpose. I'm into accidental happenings," she said with quiet conviction. "I'm a very stringent non-believer. The idea that there's a Higher Power watching over us is totally absurd."
Despite her refusal to seek false comfort in the face of history's brutalities, Freud said she treasures "precious and unforgettable experiences" like visiting Venice as a child or watching sunset in the Alps.
"I feel grateful life has been so kind to me," she said. " Now I want to die before the worst happens."
Yet Freud hopes her memoir encourages young readers to understand their parents and holds the faint hope the masses can turn away from the "false prophets" of violence and hatred.
Asked how readers might react to finding her book 50 years from now, Freud paused before replying.
"I can only guess what the world will look. I think it will be a very different place," she said smiling."I hope my book will be part of what they dig up."
Sophie Freud will discuss her book "Living in the Shadow of the Freud Family" and sign copies at several locations in the coming months:
- Monday, Aug. 27, 7 p.m., at the Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard St., Brookline
- Monday, Sept. 17, 7 p.m., at Newton Free Library at 330 Homer St., Newton
- Tuesday, Sept. 18, 7 p.m., at Porter Square Books at 25 White St., Cambridge
- Tuesday, Oct. 9, 7:30 p.m., at the Weston Public Library at 87 School St.
For information about ordering Freud's book, visit www.greenwood.com or visit your local bookstore.
"Living in the Shadow of the Freud Family"
written and edited by Sophie Freud (Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.)
446 pages; $34.95