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HYSTERICAL: Anna Freud’s Story

Reading Guide

The life of pioneering child psychoanalyst Anna Freud (1895-1982) was, by any standards, extraordinary. It spanned two centuries, three continents, and both world wars, and was enlivened by her and her father’s relationships with some of their era’s most brilliant minds. Anna was Sigmund’s favorite child, the youngest of six. As a teenager she became his sounding board, talking with him each night as he shaped his theories. As he aged, she became his chief protector and a profoundly influential psychoanalyst in her own right. Yet despite the several serviceable biographies of Anna written by Freud aficionados, the public only knows half of Anna’s story. They don’t know all of it because Anna’s secrets would shake the foundations of the Freud legacy.

Suspecting that his favorite daughter harbored secrets that could haven shaken the foundations of his growing legacy, Sigmund broke his own steadfast rule against psychoanalyzing family members. Was that analysis the erotic echo chamber that he warned analysis always is? Who was Dorothy Burlingham, a figure that most of Sigmund’s biographers have tirelessly ignored? How did Anna manage to live a full life and become a guiding force for analysts, educators, and humanitarians, all while devoting herself to her wary father as he aged and died?  In HYSTERICAL, Anna tells her story for the first time.


  1. Memoirs that turn out to be highly fictionalized (i.e. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and Herman Rosenblat’s cancelled Holocaust memoir) raised a lot of ire several years ago for misleading readers. Do you think writing a fictional autobiography that is clearly labeled as fact-based but invented runs the same risk of deception?
  2. In HYSTERICAL, upon discovering Anna’s family exposé, Paula Fichtl (who for nearly 60 years tended to the Freud family) dusted the manuscript off and then exuberantly threw it into the trash. What do you think of this action? Do you think HYSTERICAL’s Anna would have found any humor in Paula’s having carried on her tradition of incessantly tidying up? She did, after all, write “Paula, I consider it my pleasure to have known you and to have received your care. I leave this manuscript to you. Please keep my secrets safe until I am gone, and then release them.”
  3. Now, nearly thirty years after Anna’s death, gay marriage is celebrated and in the headlines. Sigmund Freud’s theories have been roundly challenged and are almost seen as archaic. What do you think the famously private Anna Freud would have thought about HYSTERICAL?
  4. After all is said and done, do you think HYSTERICAL is a flattering or unflattering portrait of Sigmund? Of Anna?
  5. Were you aware before reading HYSTERICAL about how Sigmund’s ideas about female sexuality have informed the culture? What do you think of those ideas—ones like the idealization of female masochism as a necessary part of the chain of life?
  6. Before reading HYSTERICAL, were you aware of how Anna’s ideas have informed educators’ and psychologists’ understanding of children’s need for attachment and for learning through exploration? What do you think of those ideas?
  7. How do you think Anna found it in her heart to love Sigmund so tirelessly, even given the limitations he may have put on her? Should her love for him be seen as an example of self-loathing or of self-love?
  8. For you, who was the more sympathetic character of Anna’s two parents? Certainly both were portrayed in HYSTERICAL as flawed. But who do you think did the better job of parenting?
  9. Much historical information about Anna Freud continues to be held at bay by The Freud Archives, which holds the copyright to Anna’s diaries and papers. Given that her secrets are beginning to be leaked anyway, do you think this policy should (or will) continue?
  10. The world “hysterical” is still in common use today to describe a loss of emotional control. How is this different from its use by Sigmund Freud and his contemporaries? Do you think it has lost all of its pejorative meaning?
  11. Anna says about her ongoing polite behavior towards Ernest Jones, “The bond of victim to perpetrator can be a strange one, laced with a tie no truly free person could understand.” In HYSTERICAL, do you think this statement has any bearing on her tolerance of her father’s and sister’s failings? On interpersonal dynamics in general?
  12. A joke Anna tells:

Two fish are in a tank.

The first fish says to the second, “So, how do we drive this thing?

She tells it when introducing the idea that she allowed her father to analyze her. Might that statement also describe the inevitable failings of most parents in most families?

  1. After Anna listens to her father disclose her secrets in an academic paper, she turns for comfort to Otto Gross, a one-time colleague of her father who has for several years been struggling with madness. When Anna bemoans that she doesn’t want to be a pervert, Otto says to her that she isn’t one but that her father might be. “Perversity is whatever arouses curiosity but discourages understanding,” Otto says. What do you think of that definition of perversity? What do you think of it in relation to Sigmund?
  1. About family dynamics in general, Anna says, “Sometimes facts can behave like trick billiard balls, crashing deafeningly into one another, scattering spectacularly, careening recklessly off what is known and unknown, and then coming to rest in suspiciously tidy patterns.” Do you agree? What do you think of “suspiciously tidy patterns” when you hear or read about them? Do you have any such patterns that you have placed on your own history?
  1. Using only one, brief sentence, what would you say is the theme of HYSTERICAL?

To BuySample |  Praise | Bibliography
Readers Guide for Book Clubs | Truth vs. Fiction “Cheat Sheet” | Backgrounder |
Speaking EngagementsTo Buy