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Sophie Freud, academic and social worker, 1924-2022

The things that might have emerged if only Sophie Freud had just once hauled herself on to a couch for a session of psychoanalysis. There was the wartime escape from Europe, the estrangement from an uncaring father and the conflicted feelings for her mother. Looming over it all was the shadow of her famous family name, both elevating and tormenting her.

But Freud spent much of her life in opposition to her famous grandfather, Sigmund, and his theories, and so took pride in a life-long refusal to submit to psychoanalysis. “I’m very sceptical about much of psychoanalysis,” she told the Boston Globe in 2002. “I think it’s such a narcissistic indulgence that I cannot believe in it.”

Freud died earlier this month, aged 97, after a long life shaped by the great tumult of the 20th century and the enduring tension between a weighty family legacy and an independent spirit.

Miriam Sophie Freud was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna in 1924. Her father was Sigmund’s eldest son, Martin, a lawyer who would take charge of his father’s publishing house. Her mother, Ernestine, was a speech therapist. Growing up, every Sunday featured a visit to her grandfather’s apartment on 19 Berggasse.

A governess would lead Sophie to the study for a 15-minute audience with the great professor, whom she loved and understood from a young age was God-like — even if she could not quite say why. Sigmund was stern, and by then suffering from cancer, but would give his granddaughter money to go to the theatre. “He would say: ‘Are you a good girl?’” Sophie recalled. “I was taught to be very much in awe of him.”

Her own family life was miserable. Her parents were ill-matched, and Sophie later wrote that “quarrels, tears and violent hysterical scenes were the background music of my childhood.”

In 1938, after a Nazi-ruled Germany annexed Austria, Sophie and her mother relocated to Paris. They were forced to flee again when the Nazis invaded two years later. Mother and daughter made a close escape by bicycling some 400 miles to Nice. From there they journeyed to New York.

Though they were poor, the patronage of an uncle, the pioneering publicist Edward Bernays, meant Sophie attended Radcliffe College and studied psychology. She would go on to earn a masters in social work, and then a doctoral degree, working at clinics, mental hospitals and as an adoption specialist. She placed a special emphasis on helping single mothers.

Sophie also taught for decades at Simmons College in Boston, where she chaired the human behaviour programme. Until she reluctantly gave it up aged 77, she could be seen riding around campus on a red motor scooter.

If Sigmund Freud believed in probing the unconscious to understand the adult, his granddaughter leaned on fate. She once said she believed people only held 5 per cent control over the course of their lives — the rest was chance.

She dismissed Freud’s concept of penis envy as silly and called the Oedipus Complex “outdated”. An early feminist, she seemed to take particular umbrage at Sigmund’s claim that only men could experience true passion. In 1998, she published a book, My Three Mothers And Other Passions, that served as a rebuttal.

“In my eyes, both Adolf Hitler and my grandfather were false prophets of the 20th century,” she said in 2003. So wedded was Sigmund Freud to what he viewed as a singular truth, she said, that “never could he be wrong”. To some observers, the intensity of her disagreement with her grandfather was, itself, Freudian.

Her own marriage, to Paul Loewenstein, a fellow Jewish émigré who had escaped from a French concentration camp, fared better than that of her parents. They raised three children — Dania, Andrea and George. Still, she asked for a divorce after 40 years, coolly deciding the union was no longer satisfying.

Later on, Sophie made a determined effort to reconnect with her aunt Anna, Sigmund’s daughter and appointed successor, even taking a sabbatical in England to do so. “I needed Tante Anna’s blessing before I could rightfully reclaim the family legacy that I had betrayed, and yet remained faithful to, in its core,” she explained in her memoir.

Even after her retirement, Sophie continued to teach at Simmons. She travelled widely, often on her own. For exercise, she walked regularly around the nearby Walden Pond and swam in its waters — the same ones where another eccentric, Henry David Thoreau, famously pondered independence and self-reliance. Joshua Chaffin


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