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In 2006, a juicy headline in The New York Times caught TV producer and author Karen Mack‘s eye: “Hotel Log Hints at Illicit Desire That Dr. Freud Didn’t Repress”. The article shed light on new evidence which suggested there was truth to the old rumor that Sigmund Freud had an affair with his wife’s sister Minna Bernays.
Mack showed the article to Jennifer Kaufman whom she had collaborated with in the past.
Kaufman, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, said she knew immediately that they had their next book. “I thought, Oh my gosh, here’s the lede,” Kaufman said. “We have a whole book right here, all we have to do is research it.”
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Mack and Kaufman spent the next three years doing just that in order to write Freud’s Mistress, a fictionalized account of the affair told through Bernays’ point of view.
Mack is a TV producer who won a Golden Globe for 1991’s Hallmark Hall of Fame movie One Against the Wind.
Freud’s Mistress explores Bernays relationship with Freud when he was on the cusp of realizing some of his most famous theories.
The novel captures the sights and sounds of early 20th century Vienna, from the orthodox Jewish community where Bernays’ mother lives, to the creeping anti-Semitism, which was already apparent by the time Bernays moved in with the Freud’s household.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the duo about their research, what people don’t know about Freud, and their dream casting for a movie version of the book.
The Hollywood Reporter: Why Freud’s Mistress?
Jennifer Kaufman: There was so much there. The two of us were at this point we were looking for a third book and we both jumped on it. It was like the Downton Abbey of Vienna, all this intrigue and drama. Also, the fact that Sigmund Freud is the greatest thinker in history who has explained human sexuality and desire— he’s this narcissistic genius, and here he was caught up in this love affair just at the time when he was making this Earth- shattering discovery. And, in addition, it wasn’t just any love affair, it was with his wife’s younger sister who lives in the house with them and some called her his closest confidence.
THR: What are some common misconceptions about Sigmund Freud?
Karen Mack: People think of Sigmund Freud as this old sickly guy and the pictures that we have of him mostly are this old kind of frail guy with a beard because in 1895 when he was in his 40s, there weren’t many photographs. All the research that we have read about him during that time was that he was a charismatic, dynamic, just seductive character. When he would speak in the lecture hall, he would speak for two hours without notes and he would sprinkle his lectures with jokes and anecdotes and you could have heard a pin drop in the entire classroom and in that way he’s one of these guys like Bill Clinton, seductive, charismatic.
THR: Is there any doubt whether the affair happened now?
Mack: I think the argument now is not whether the affair happened, but how the affair affected his theories. If you look at his theories during that time through the prism of this affair it sort of sheds a new light on some of his famous quotes like “Passion and marriage cannot coexist” and the whole thing about guilt: “Guilt is simply self-imposed punishment thrust on us by civilization” or Guilt: you don’t need to suffer it unless you choose to. I mean if you look at those quotes and you understand how he was living, it’s interesting to think about how many of his theories were affected by what he was doing at the time.
THR: You spent three years researching , why tell story in a fictional fashion as opposed to straight nonfiction?
Kaufman: We’re fiction writers, we write stories, fiction. Doing historical fiction in this particular area was perfect for us because we could write a story framed by a world that was the nonfiction and use all of the facts, and there were plenty of them, to create the whole universe and recreate the time, but we could also use our imaginations for the relationships themselves and the dialogue and that’s what we do. We tell stories and this was the best story.
THR: What do you think you were able to bring to Freud through Freud’s Mistress?
Kaufman: I think a lot of Freud scholars may know a lot about his theories, but I don’t think a lot of people have studied for three years his personal life, so I think in this book, we did recreate the relationship, but everything around the relationship, almost everything around the relationship is accurate so I think we learned a tremendous amount about the man personally, about his family, about how he lived. For me he was this brilliant charismatic thinker but he was also so narcissistic and obsessive. I love that he always had to have a beloved friend and a hated enemy and he said, “I can always create these people anew.”
THR: Minna’s relationship with her sister really takes on a central role in the story, sometimes even overplaying her relationship with Sigmund. Why do you think that’s the case?
Mack: This is a story about the sisters as well as a love story, there’s a lot of open questions and mystery between Minna and Martha: How did that work for 42 years, the two of them loving the same man and living in the same household? And if Martha knew [her sister was having an affair with Sigmund] when did she know and how did she handle it? These are all really provocative questions for a novel. Writing about sisters was very appealing to us. I’m one of three sisters and Jennifer has sisters. How at some point they were confidants and how the mother viewed both of them that was certainly part of the appeal of the story.
THR: Sigmund considers himself a cultural Jew. Minna’s family are orthodox Jews. Where does Minna stand on the spiritual spectrum and what does that say about the time period?
Kaufman: Let me start with Minna’s family: her grandfather was an orthodox rabbi and her mother was an orthodox Jew, as were most of her relatives and Martha. When she married Freud he was, today you’d call him a delicatessen Jew, but back then they’d call him a cultural Jew. He wrote about the fact that he really didn’t believe in a god and he really didn’t like celebrating and of the Jewish holidays or observing the Jewish traditions so he forbade Martha from practicing Sabbath in the house. Minna’s stance was kind of in between, she was an orthodox Jew when she moved into the house but there isn’t much in her writings or in her communications that was offended by Freud as much as Martha and her mother were.
THR: What’s your writing routine like?
Mack: We have a regular writer’s room just like the entertainment business and we come there in the morning and we sit with our two computers and sometimes we write things separately and sometimes we put things together when we’re thinking out loud, so we discuss the story: where we are, where we’re trying to go. I think talking it out, thinking it out loud, speaking it out loud really helps.
THR: Has your process changed since you wrote your first novel together?
Kaufman: When we first started out because Jennifer was a journalist she had more of a descriptive bent and since I was from the world of screenplays, dialogue and character were easier for me. So I think when we first started writing she would tend to do a lot more of the descriptions and I would do tend to do a lot more of the dialogue. Once we got halfway through the first book we both started doing both.
THR: Are you interested in having Freud’s Mistress being made into a movie?
Mack: I think it would be a great movie and the characters are certainly compelling. We do have a movie agent and he’s sending it out so we’ll see what happens.
THR: What would be your dream cast?
Mack: There is a picture of Minna when she was about 33 and she looks just like Rooney Mara, but I’m not sure who our dream cast is right now, we’ll leave that to the agent.
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