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Creative Research Center

Collaboration and Psychoanalysis – by David Galef

Posted in: Guest Essay

Sigmund Freud and his wife Martha Bernays. Around 1890. (Imagno/Getty Images)

Nothing so encourages solitary pursuits as a distant parent. I took early to reading as a silent companion. My mother died when I was ten, and my father preferred adults to children.

Reading was a private pleasure, and writing eventually functioned similarly. In my late teens, when I began to write and publish my own work, the idea of sharing this process was possible only at the stage of editing. A collaboration in which two people somehow commingled their writing seemed like giving away too much. I produced stories and poetry throughout my twenties, blissfully alone. My father, who had read some of my work with noncommittal approval, had withdrawn into the background when I reached adulthood. We got along all right, but we didn’t see each other much.

When I became an academic, my writing took a critical turn. One of my ideas was to look at the psychology of camp aesthetics, and I wanted a psycho-dynamic angle for the essay. I’d recently read Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” and disagreed with her point that camp stemmed from a “generous” impulse and “a love for human nature.” My argument was that camp, like so much pointed humor, derived its energy from aggressive digs at social values and sentiment. Beyond Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, not that much had been written in the direction I was heading. I’d taken plenty of psychology courses in college, but I clearly needed to do more research. On the other hand, my father, Harold Galef, was a psychoanalyst, always an avid reader, and one afternoon we started a discussion on the topic of camp. Where I saw literary effects, he saw defense mechanisms; when I talked about the hip inside jokes that camp originated, he traced them to a hostility directed toward the boring, square world.

I found the colloquy stimulating. And though my relationship with him was defined more by absence than presence, I found myself making an offer. “Would you be interested in collaborating on an essay with me?”

After a moment’s reflection, he said yes.

What followed was a lopsided but not unequal process. While I contributed the artistic angle on camp, in works ranging from Ronald Firbank’s The Artificial Princess to Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, my father steered me toward the observations of Otto Fenichel and Anna Freud. It helped that we paced out the essay over coffee and sometimes cognac, our outline and notes growing longer the more we met. My father was not what anyone would call effusive, but he grew passionate over this topic. Though he always stated matters clearly and perceptively, he wasn’t by temperament a writer. He liked to set down words once and have done with them. So I wrote my half and revised his half, then read it back to him and jotted down his comments. The grudges we held (power imbalance, memories of curt exchanges and angry silences) fell away whenever we were at work together.

What I want to say, perhaps with some truth, is that the collaboration created a new connection, beyond the Oedipal conflict. We each wanted to show our best side and were perhaps surprised at the appearance—our own and that of the Other. This alliance lasted a few months, during which we produced an essay called “What Was Camp?” Studies in Popular Culture published it as a collaboration between the English Department at the University of Mississippi and the Department of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. We both regarded it as a success, not just in getting out an essay together but also in filling the void that our relationship had been.

Six months after its publication, the editor of Studies in Popular Culture contacted me to tell us that we had won the Whatley Award for the year’s best essay. In congratulating me, the editor added, “Someday you must tell me what it’s like to work this way with your brother. I could no more collaborate with my brother than fly.”

* * * *

A dozen years later, tenured and promoted, I got the idea for an essay that analyzed Martha Bernays, Freud’s wife of over fifty years. It seemed to me that, for anyone pondering Freud’s views on women, surely Martha must have given Sigmund some ideas. Once again, I turned to my father, who was nearing the end of his professional career. He was tired, perhaps already ailing from the symptoms that would eventually be diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease. Still, he’d been happy to see his name in print and cited for the camp essay. He also agreed that the spouse of the man who famously asked, “Was will das Weib?” (“What does woman want?”), was a subject worthy of analysis. He suggested a close look at Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality, among other sources.

We adopted the same routine as last time, discussions leading to notes and an outline. The difference was that now he relied a lot more on my authority. I didn’t want him to feel threatened and downplayed my role wherever I could. I led him out, suggested avenues he might take, and turned his talk into paragraphs.

The high point of this collaboration came when we visited the Library of Congress together to view Freud’s Brautbriefe, the cache of letters that he and Martha exchanged during their four-year courtship. In the end, our study, titled simply “Freud’s Wife,” examined a great deal of textual and biographical evidence and satisfied my father, who in his youth had idolized Freud but now had a more tempered view. We placed it in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, where it slowly gained recognition. A few years later, Katja Behling’s Martha Freud came out, and an English translation emerged in 2005. But we’d staked our claim. My father talked about our work to friends and other therapists. I’d pleased him, and that made me guardedly happy.

Father-son collaborations are rare. The power dynamic between them is over only when one of them dies, and even then it lives on in the other. Oedipal struggles are never quite resolved. Now that I have a son—who also writes—I appreciate this dynamic better. Though my father died in 2012, he lives on in citations. It’s startling to see our names together in footnotes, but that’s another aspect of collaboration: a testament to a relationship.

David Galef — fiction writer, critic, poet, translator and essayist — is Professor of English and Director of The Creative Writing Program at Montclair State University. His third novel, How to Cope With Suburban Stress, was one of Kirkus’ 30 Best Books of 2007. His second short story collection, My Date With Neanderthal Woman, won Dzanc Books’ inaugural short story collection prize. His most recent book is Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook.