Although the therapeutic relationship holds a central place in most theories of psychotherapy and there are many accounts of its workings from the point of view of the therapist, there are few published records of the client’s experience, and even fewer by clients who were not either in training at the time or subsequently took up the practice of psychotherapy themselves. There is, however, an account by one of Freud’s own patients, who attended him in Vienna in 1933 1934 just before he fled to England early in the War. She was an American poet called Hilda Doolittle, ‘H.D’., and she published the first account of her sessions with Freud under the title Writing on the Wall (1945-6) and then wrote a further account called Advent which she did not publish but which has been included under the title Tribute to Freud in a new edition by Carcanet [H.D., Tribute to Freud, new edition, Carcanet Press 1985, ISBN 0 85635 599 2] to which I shall refer throughout this piece.
At the time of H.D.’s analysis, Freud was seventy-seven years old. This was important to both of them, and early in Writing on the Wall, she says:
“The Professor was seventy-seven. His birthday in May was significant… I had nothing for the Professor. I said, I am sorry, I haven’t brought you anything because I couldn’t find what I wanted.’ I said, ‘Anyway, I wanted to give you something different.’ My remark might have seemed a shade careless, a shade arrogant. I do not know how the Professor translated it. He waved me to the couch, satisfied or unsatisfied with my apparently casual regard for his birthday.”
She goes on to tell of her quest throughout Vienna to find gardenias for him, following a chance remark he made months earlier. Wherever she goes in Vienna, she is told that the Professor likes orchids. Obstinately, she will not give him an orchid – which is what everyone else gives him, as witness the display of orchids on his desk that day. She goes on:
“It was sometime later that the Professor received my gardenias. It was not a birthday, it was not Vienna. I had been to see him in London, in new surroundings. He had arrived lately, an exile… But in imagination at least, in the mist of a late afternoon, I could still continue a quest, a search. There might be gardenias somewhere. I found them in a West End florist’s and scribbled on a card, To greet the return of the Gods.’ The gardenias reached the Professor. I have his letter.
I got today some flowers. By chance or intention they are my favourite flowers, those I most admire. Some words ‘to greet the return of the Gods)’ (other people read: Goods). No name. I suspect you to be responsible for the gift. If I have guessed right don’t answer but accept my hearty thanks for so charming a gesture. In any case,
I have given this passage at length because it so clearly expresses the romantic - the lover-like, I would say – atmosphere of the relationship between them. And clearly it is H.D. who is going a-courting.
Yet, she records, early in the analysis Freud had found reason to say to her:
‘The trouble is – I am an old man – you do not think it worth your while to love me. And with considerable candour, she also records her reaction:
“The impact of his words was too dreadful – I simply felt nothing at all. I said nothing. What did he expect me to say?” Her angry feelings however are plain, and lead directly into a passage where she recalls her mother’s honeymoon and possible pregnancy with a first child whom she lost (and H.D.’s own first child was stillborn), and then links back to the analysis:
“The Professor had said in the very beginning that I had come to Vienna hoping to find my mother. Mother? Mamma. But my mother was dead. I was dead; that is, the child in me that had called her mamma was dead. Anyhow, he was a terribly frightening old man, too old and too detached, too wise and too famous altogether…
“ It is Freud’s work in bringing children to life which H.D. appreciates – a kind of work which, as a poet, she regards mythologically. At several points in the account of the analysis, she expresses her gratitude for this work, and it seems to me that in a very lucid way she has made poetic sense of the real meaning of the word “transference.”
She comments, too, that “In our talks together he rarely used any of the now rather overworked technical terms, invented by himself and elaborated on by the… somewhat formidable body of the International Psychoanalytical Association. When, on one occasion, I was endeavouring to explain a matter in which my mind tugged two ways, I said, ‘I suppose you would say it was a matter of ambivalence?’ And as he did not answer me, I said, ‘Or do you say am-bi-valence? I don’t know whether it is pronounced ambi-valence or am-bi-valence.” The Professor’s arm shot forward as it did on those occasions when he wished to stress a finding or focus my attention to some point in hand; he said in his curiously casual, ironical manner, ‘Do you know, I myself have always wondered. I often wish that I could find someone to explain these matters to me.'”
It is only very much later, towards the end of her second account of the sessions in Advent, that she mentions the fact that her father was known as The Professor, and her brother as The Little Professor; and she sometimes refers to Freud himself as ’Papalie’. But the transference which she discusses with Freud is around her mother, and she expresses it with a subtlety which is illuminating:
“The Professor… said he wanted me to feel at home here. The house in some indescribable way depends on father-mother. At the point of integration or regeneration, there is no conflict over rival loyalties. The Professor’s surroundings and interests seem to derive from my mother rather than from my father, and yet to say the ‘transference’ is to Freud as mother does not altogether satisfy me. He had said, ‘And – I must tell you (you were frank with me and I will be frank with you), I do not like to be the mother in transference – it always surprises and shocks me a little. I feel so very masculine; I asked him if others had what he called this mother-transference on him. He said ironically and I thought a little wistfully, ‘O, very many.'”
Perhaps people reading these extracts may be rather surprised themselves at the things which Freud expressed to H.D.? The fullness of his personal presence in these accounts completely shatters any idea that he found it necessary to be a ’blank screen or wall’ to her and it is no coincidence that the main work of the sessions as she records them is to confront and seek to understand a vision she experienced of signs or symbols forming on a real blank wall in a cottage in Greece some years before. She feels confident in the work with Freud because he himself has in his room a number of Greek and other anitiquities (his famous collection) and they talk about them.
“Freud took me into the other room and showed me the things on his table. He selected a tiny Athene from near the end of the semicircle, he said, ‘This is my favorite.’… He opened the case against the wall and displayed his treasures, antique rings.”
Clearly, the the old man is trying to make her feel ‘at home’ and she quickly responds.
“I found I was not so shy…”
In short, in the most vivid way, Freud really does ‘share’ himself with her and makes it possible for her to reciprocate at a level which allows her to do the psychological work of reintegrating the wild, strange and frightening experiences of her breakdown.
Even from the first session, the old man seems to have the key to opening this relationship with her. She comes, full of a sense of privilege, or as she puts it: “it seems to me, in some curious way, that we were both ‘miraculously saved’ for some purpose.” In the waiting room just before her first session she identifies vividly with ‘the macabre, detailed, Dureresque symbolic drawing, a Buried Alive or some such school of thought …’ and yet when she actually walks into his room for the first time:
“Automatically, I walk through the door. It closes. Sigmund Freud does not speak. He is waiting for me to say something. I cannot speak. I look around the room. A lover of Greek art, I am automatically taking stock of the room’s contents. Pricelessly lovely objects are displayed here on the shelves to right, to left of me… But no-one had told me that this room was lined with treasures. I was to greet the Old Man of the Sea, but no one had told me of the treasures he had salvaged from the sea-depth.
He is at home here. He is part and parcel of these treasures… He is the infinitely old symbol, weighing the soul, Psyche, in the Balance. Does the Soul, passing the portals of life, entering the House of Eternity, greet the Keeper of the Door? It seems so. I should have thought the Door-Keeper, at home beyond the threshold, might have greeted the shivering soul. Not so, the Professor. But waiting and finding that I would not or could not speak, he uttered. What he said – and I thought a little sadly – was, ‘You are the only person who has ever come into this room and looked at the things in the room before looking at me.'”
“ I feel that H.D.’s lucid and expressive prose leaves the reader plenty of room to appreciate that moment, when already the old man had found the key and the alliance was able to be formed.
I feel that I learned an immense amount about the nature of a therapeutic alliance from this book. It is full of moments which will be familiar to every therapist when H.D. doesn’t want to talk, when she is afraid that something in her may harm him, and most touching of all, when she comes to him through a Vienna which is deserted because of a Nazi rally, the maid and Freud himself amazed that she has come and also somehow wonderfully respectful of her courage in doing so, though it is the same courage that brings her to him every time. The closing-in of the War forms a tragic backdrop to the sessions – sometimes coming into the foreground, as when Nazi atrocities are in the papers,”I cannot talk about the thing that actually concerns me, I cannot talk to Sigmund Freud in Vienna 1933 about Jewish atrocities in Berlin.” Her own story emerges, of course, but it is the extraordinary perceptiveness with which she records the process of the relationship with Freud throughout the sessions which makes the book so rare. And she has no other axe to grind – no theory to advance, or point to make – but treats the entire account as if it were music, with movement flowing on from movement: as, for examp le, here, where she describes Freud’s voice:
“The tone of his voice, the singing quality that so subtly permeated the texture of the spoken word, made that spoken word live in another dimension, or take another colour as if he had dipped the grey web of conventionally woven thought, and with it, conventionally spoken thought, into a vat of his own brewing – or held a strip of that thought, ripped from the monotonous faded and outworn texture of the language itself, into the bubbling cauldron of his own mind in order to draw it forth dyed blue or scarlet, a new colour to the old grey mesh, a scrap of thought, even a cast-off rag, that would become hereafter a pennant, a standard, a sign again, to indicate a direction or, fluttering aloft on a pole, to lead an army…” She seems to appreciate him as a poet himself.
The editor of this new edition has included Freud’s letters to H.D. at the end of the volume. This is a very wise inclusion, for it confirms the sense of the relationship throughout:
”Vienna, May 1936
…I had imagined I had become insensitive to praise and blame. Reading your kind lines and getting aware of how I enjoyed them I first thought I had been mistaken about my firmness. Yet on second thoughts I concluded I was not. What you gave me, was not praise, was affection and I need not be ashamed of my satisfaction. Life at my age is not easy, but spring is beautiful and so is love.
[All quotations are from Tribute to Freud by H.D., revised edition 1985, Carcanet Press.]