Escaping Life on the Couch

The Last Good Freudian
by Brenda Webster
Holmes and Meier, $24.95

“I was born and brought up to be in psychoanalysis and, as a result, much of my adult life was spent on the couch,” begins The Last Good Freudian, Brenda Webster’s absorbing and deftly written memoir, intriguing as much for its blind spots as for its insights. Her final page concludes; “I was lucky. I escaped…and got another chance at life.”

The daughter of prominent entertainment lawyer Wolf Schwabacher and abstract expressionist painter Ethel Schwabacher (a protegee of Arshile Gorky), Webster is heir to both Park Avenue privilege and loony genes. At the time of her birth in 1936, her mother had already undergone two analyses, the first with a doctor she shared with her own frenetically anxious mother, Agnes, a member of the German-Jewish Oppenheimer banking dynasty. This disastrous oedipal triangle ended with Ethel’s first suicide attempt, triggered by the doctor’s refusal to become her lover.

Arguably, Webster’s blood family was not much worse off than her extended family of eminent Freudians, refugees from Nazi Europe who changed America’s intellectual landscape. There was her first analyst, Berta Bornstein, who wanted to have the 15-year-old Dalton-educated virgin fitted for a diaphragm, and spoke, in her heavily accented English, of enjoying “ze penis” as a sign of health in teenage girls. There was her second analyst, Kurt Eissler, the founder of the Freud Archives (whose public quarrel with Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is recounted in Janet Malcolm’s In The Freud Archives), who advised her not to many Richard Webster, her first husband, out of fear that his frequent trips to pee during the night signified a worrisome need “to keep checking to see if his thing was still there.” And there was her final analyst, Anna Maenchen, whom she would see on and off over the course of 20 years, like “a battered wife who can’t stay away from her abusive husband,” in this case, a “husband” who poisonously noted, “Some people never get better, no matter how talented their analysts are.”

Webster, the author of two novels and psychoanalytic studies on Yeats and Blake and currently the president of the writers’ rights organization PEN West, crafts her personal saga into an intellectual coming-to-terms that touches on Judaism, libido theory, penis envy, clitoral-versus-vaginal orgasms, oedipal rage, and the cornerstone of psychoanalysis, transference—not to mention the women-hating underlying it all. Maenchen, like most female analysts of her day who considered themselves honorary men and were hardly feminists, subscribed to an ideal of housewifely submission and motherhood, implying that Webster’s brainy pursuits were a form of penis envy.

Perhaps analysis was not the appropriate treatment for Webster. After all, it was thrust upon her, not freely chosen, and she left the fold in a furious storm, attempting “to bring the whole analytic establishment crashing down” with a prospective book called What Do Women Want.

Webster’s raw polemical edge leads the reader to wonder whether some sort of resistance—psychoanalytically speaking—is at work. Do her tenacious attacks on Freudian flaws serve to ward off painful self-understanding? At times, Webster is psychologically minded and writes graphically and unsparingly about herself. At others, however, the attentive reader may see a thing or two that even the well-analyzed Webster has missed. Webster recalls, for example, her parents’ and analysts’ demands that she own up to her naturally murderous feelings over her brother Chris’s birth. But where is Chris? We hear nearly nothing of him, a primary relationship, except a couple of tidbits about his selfishness. Give us a couple of facts, Brenda. Or would that be endowing him with…well…an existence?

Judith Solomon is a writer living in New York.