Uncovering a Hidden Life: The Story of Sidonie C: Freud’s Famous “Case of Female Homosexuality”
Ines Rieder and Diana Voight. Translated by Jill Hannum and Ines Rieder
2020 (first published in the original German in 2012), Helena History Press, 371 pages.
One hundred years ago Sigmund Freud published A Case of Female Homosexuality (1920). His patient was barely 18. She was taken to Sigmund Freud by her father who wanted her amorous (yet chaste) pursuit of an older woman ended. Female and male homosexuality had been illegal in Austria since 1857, and Sidonie’s behavior threatened her family’s social standing and her future in a conservative patriarchal society. Freud’s case study was the earliest account of the purported psychodynamics of lesbian women, and of an attempt to change sexual orientation through psychotherapy.
This biography of ‘Sidonie C’ is only just now available in English. It presents a portrait of this woman’s entire life during some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th Century. A woman of the Viennese upper class from a family of assimilated Hungarian Jews, her life spanned dramatic changes in world history, including the end of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in WWI and the persecution of Jews through WWII. Throughout these events, Sidonie remained romantically and sexually involved with women, despite many social barriers. At the time of the original publication, still fearing the negative implications of being ‘out’, she requested a pseudonym, however in this edition’s introduction her real name is published.
Freud wrote that he took on the case reluctantly as he did not think an unwilling participant could be helped (Freud, 1920). His goals were modest as he believed that human beings were inherently bisexual, while Sidonie’s account of her psychoanalysis provides additional insight into Freud’s account. Her treatment was the last effort by her family. Sidonie recounts feeling trapped by her desire to remain in close contact with the particular woman in question, and her father’s prohibition. The dilemma was so serious that just prior to the start of treatment she made an attempt at self-harm. However, once in psychoanalysis, Sidonie reports a complete lack of interest in change. She often refused to speak, or alternatively lied to Freud, and used the appointments as a ruse to see the banned female friend. Sidonie says that she found Freud’s explanation on the cause of her sexual orientation vulgar and obscene. As a young woman from a conservative environment, speaking bluntly about sexuality was unheard of. She found his explanation of the female Oedipal complex (father-daughter incestuous longings) scandalous. After four months the treatment was ended by Freud, who described his efforts as unsuccessful in any regard. Sidonie’s parents, having tried everything, stopped their focus on her attachment to problematic woman. From then on, Sidonie tried to navigate the very complex world she lived in; amorous attachments to women while remaining within mainstream society.
Although her treatment with Freud made Sidonie significant to the history of psychoanalysis and lesbian psychology, this biography provides readers with a portrait of women within Viennese and Austrian society in the 20th century. Sidonie did navigate the era with some success, finding a way to be part of the social circles of central Europe while engaged romantically with women. She did marry a man, but as a vehicle for social acceptance and survival. She avoided death and joined the Jewish diaspora living in Cuba, and briefly in the United States. However, she was not a classically heroic figure. Despite her many adventures, this biography makes her appear extremely self-centered and arrogant, but perhaps these traits served her survival.
Of interest for mental health professionals, is how Sidonie’s life was shaped both by historical events as well as her own psychological issues. To a degree they may be inseparable. Despite her family’s wealth, Sidonie’s life was shaped both by stigma toward homosexuality and an economic, political, and social system where women were completely dependent on men. The criminalization of homosexuality in Austria, the lack of female economic independence, and strict social mores for women’s conduct made a lesbian life and living even in discrete relationships difficult, if not impossible. This profoundly affected the relationships that Sidonie had with her partners, and also shaped her own psyche. Sidonie may have limited the negative social and legal consequences of her desires by pursuing unavailable women, or sabotaging potential fulfilling relationships.
The social and economic limitations for women described in this work still exist today. The lack of political and economic opportunities that prevent women from being independent of heterosexual marriage are still factors that impact lesbian women’s lives. Many LGBT individuals still struggle with discrimination, criminalization, and pathologization. In some socially conservative countries, lesbians are targeted for both political, social, and sexual oppression (Eurocentralasian Community, no date). Finally, for some, being taken to treatment against one’s will to change sexual orientation still occurs in the United States and elsewhere (UNESOGI, 2020).
This biography provides a great deal of historical and political context to aide the reader in understanding the era; the historical detail is particularly helpful in understanding Austrian and German societies. However, at times the narrative loses focus on Sidonie’s life story amid the plethora of historical detail. The authors are also not mental health clinicians, so this work is not a reflection on Freud’s psychoanalytic technique or theories of female sexuality.
This work is rather a cultural and personal history that makes visible unknown lesbian lives. Ultimately, this work is an important contribution to our understanding of the history of women, lesbians, and psychology. Because the lives of so many others have been lost or silenced, this book provides us with a window onto a woman’s personal persistence and resistance.
Eurocentralasian Lesbian* Community (no date). [Online]. Available at https://europeanlesbianconference.org. (Accessed October 21, 2020).
Freud, S. (1920). 'The psychogenesis of a case of homosexuality in a woman'. Standard Edition, Volume 18, pp. 145-172.
United Nations Independent Expert on Protection Against Violence and Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity - IESOGI. (2020). Report on conversion therapy. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/SexualOrientation/ConversionTherapyReport.pdf