Journalist, Humorist, Novelist

Excerpt from Hysterical

The year is 1918. The scene is Vienna. Eva Rosenfeld and Anna Freud are new best friends in their early twenties. Eva has generously opened her home to several girls orphaned in World War I. While Eva’s husband, Siegfried, still lives with Eva and their little girl, he and Eva are largely estranged.

Obeying her father Sigmund’s wishes, Anna works as a teacher’s assistant during the day. She cares for her aging parents and aunt in the early evening. But later every evening she joins Eva, providing homework help for the girls and coordinating group games. Foster mothering joyfully alongside Eva is beginning to seriously impinge on her time spent at home.

Anna’s own family life is “complicated.” Her mother has been silent and depressed since Anna’s childhood.

In the months during which this scene takes place, Anna is being psychoanalyzed by her own father. Lately, they’ve been discussing a dream of Anna’s in which she is a visitor to an ancient Turkish town that’s been newly destroyed by earthquake and tsunami. In the dream she helps a weeping mother try to find the daughter who has been swept away from her by the ocean’s overwhelming pull.

Eva and Anna have always been entirely chaste with each other. This is the scene of their first, oh-so-tentative, sexual encounter.

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It had been one of those glorious Saturdays. Siegfried took the children on an outing, as he usually did, leaving Eva and me to relax in her house and lovely yard. Tante Minna and Mama were caring for Papa that day. They always tried to spell me once a week. Eva and I sat in the garden and lazed in its hammock, watching the sky for much of the day. We marveled at the atmospheric changes we witnessed. Clouds and sun competed fiercely for possession of the vast, blue expanse. Sometimes we shouted out encouragement to the sun or clouds. Why not? No one was listening. When the stars came out we were inspired to get up on our stockinged feet and dance wildly together under their resplendence.

It was Eva’s idea to play Statues that night. It’s a game from almost everyone’s childhood. The “It” person grabs the hand of the “Other” and whirls her around and around, very suddenly letting go. Torn away by centrifugal force, Other stumbles about. Then It yells, “Freeze!” And, at that moment, Other becomes a statue until a touch from It releases her.

Eva was It; I was Other. She whirled me and twirled me until I begged to be set free. She let go. I flew, and then she yelled, “Freeze.” I found a very sensible posture in which to become statuesque. It was so comfortable a posture that I was sure I could maintain it indefinitely if Eva got lazy about delivering her touch of release. She had certainly been lazy about it once or twice before when we’d played.

This time, too, Eva left me frozen for far longer than I expected. It was an excruciatingly long time, but she finally did touch me.

When Eva at last graced me with her hand in the starlight, it was my breast that she touched.

She looked not at me but up at the night sky.

To this day I don’t know why I touched her. Considering the indefinitely maintainable posture I had chosen, I suppose I might have stood still all night, or at least until she touched me in some less personal place.

Instead, I melted free. My melting was almost instantaneous; that’s the way Statues usually goes.

When I touched Eva’s breast, she, too, melted. We lay back down in the garden. An hour or so later that is where we remained. Like two little earthquakes we had finally, fatally disturbed sensible ground.

As we drifted off to sleep in the warm night air I could almost see the heads of broken Romanesque statues littering the landscape around us. I had an image of myself surveying the scene from atop a lamppost perch. There were bloated heads and blackened bodies everywhere.

Let them rot, I thought to myself. It was a history forged of disaster.

But then, from somewhere I couldn’t place, I heard keening. I was sure
that I recognized the sound.

Ah! It is the mother of the little lost girl! Did her poor, dead, daughter rush again from a dusty town and die again in the greedy caverns of the earth? Did Eva and I make the earthquake that killed her?

Terror and guilt drenched me from within. What an awful thing to do to a child!

But then laughter—my own dream laughter—followed.

No, it was the girl’s. No, it was mine.

“I have been swept forever from the reach of my family,” I hear. “The crying that fills the night is that of my Mama in mourning. But Mama is always in mourning; there is nothing I can do for her. Thank Allah for warm bodies and the greedy-mouthed earth that opens and closes. Thank Allah that I am safe.”

It is the little girl calling out those words.

No, it is I.

That night I laughed myself the rest of the way to sleep.

Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story is discounted to $1.99 until 4/30/16 on all e-book platforms