psychoPEDIA: Inside the Outpost

Vienna Triangle by Brenda Webster

Interview by Rebecca Wells with Laura Albert

Vienna Triangle is a brilliant novel that combines fact with the author's ingenious imagination to bring to life the historical figures of Freud and his disciples through the journey of a young academic in the 1960s. Kate, a young graduate student at Columbia University, is hard at work on her dissertation when a chance encounter brings her into contact with Helene Deutsch, one of the first prominent women analysts and one of only a few surviving members of Freud's inner circle.

As Kate begins to interview Helene, the narrative falls back into the mysterious and compelling world of Sigmund Freud and his disciples, where Helene introduces us to the humanity behind the masks of theanalysts. This journey becomes increasingly personal to Kate, as she begins to suspect a link between her own family and the world of the enigmatic Freud. At the same time, she is embroiled by the tangled set of questions raised by Helene's story. Who was Freud, really? Was his paranoia justified? And were his ideas even his own?

Vienna Triangle is a captivating experience. Part fact, part fiction, part imagination, this novel is a wonderfully detailed portrait of history for anyone interested in delving into the time of the analysts. Brenda Webster paints her characters effortlessly, allowing us to peer briefly into that space which any history devotee must be frustrated to miss: the space between historical portraiture and what really happened. And Kate is the perfect lens through which to view this story; her dual journey of historical and self discovery draws us intimately into the narrative and encourages us to care, deeply, both about Kate and those whom she studies. Below is an interview with author Brenda Webster.

Where did the inspiration for Vienna Triangle come from? Was there something specific about this historical period and its characters (Freud etc.) that sparked your interest?
I had written two books of psychoanalytic criticism, one on Blake, one on Yeats, so I was very familiar with Freudian theory. Then in 2000 I wrote a memoir, The Last Good Freudian, which chronicles my history in therapy and what amounts to abuse on the part of my therapists. I had gone on to other things in my next novel, The Beheading Game, and certainly had no conscious intention to do anything further about psychoanalysis. But one day I was in Rome reading Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar, Mann was describing how the great Goethe sucked the life out of people close to him and used them for his own purposes. This made me think of Freud and Viktor Tausk. I wondered if genius couldn’t tolerate the existence of great talent in its vicinity. Since my artist mother thought of herself as a genius this had some resonance for me. Also, Helene Deutsch who briefly analysed Tausk and adored Freud, was my mother’s analyst.

Then I had to create a way of telling the story…how to engage the reader and that brought in another time period, the 1960’s. I created a frame in which a young scholar, Kate, gradually finds out what happened between Tausk and Freud while interviewing the elderly Helene Deutsch. So Kate’s research roughly echoes mine.

Did you find it difficult to allow yourself the freedom to craft fictional characters out of historical figures?
Helene Deutsch was difficult at first. I got bogged down in her biography and the result was wooden. I was simply transcribing facts into fiction. That went on for several months. But after I had created a narrator, Kate, and set her to interview Helene, the character came alive and I ended up being very fond of her. Tausk on the other hand was easy. I started writing a diary for him and it just flowed. Critics steeped in psychoanalysis have told me that they can't distinguish his fictitious diary from the real documents. That is one of the miracles that sometimes happens. You feel as if you are channeling someone. After the book was published an astonishing thing happened. Someone wrote from Amsterdam asking if any of the relatives of my 60’s heroine were still alive because she wanted to meet them. She was the great grand-daughter of Viktor Tausk! I had to tell her that Kate was a fictional character.

What sort of research did you do in order to prepare?
I read everything I could get my hands on about that period biographies of Deutsch and Lou Andreas Salome and Tausk--background material. My own analyst, Kurt Eissler had written two books defending Freud’s treatment of Tausk. I had no impulse to write a polemical book—either pro or con. I wanted to explore what happened, to re-create the people and the situations to decide for myself what motivated them, what their conflicts were. For me fiction was from the beginning a way of answering questions, a way of gaining insight. And as I researched my story, I came to feel that Freud had really played an important role in Tausk’s suicide and a subsequent cover-up. It became clear to me that because they feared Freud’s power, no analyst dared talk about what happened.

What is your favorite part of Vienna Triangle?
Brenda: I like the last part where all the strands of the double plot come together with what I hope is striking effect. Kate who has idealized Helene Deutsch as a model for her own life has to face the fact—along with the reader who must re-evaluate her feelings about Helene-- that Helene has colluded in hurting her friend, had put her career above everything. The question is what lesson will Kate take from that? What does she learn?

Beyond an entertaining book, do you hope your readers would also come away with perhaps another way to understand this time period and its characters? And who do you imagine as your audience?
I think I have given a fairly accurate picture of the very closed, hermetically sealed analytic world that may startle some people: The incestuous nature of their interactions. As when Freud analyzed his daughter, Anna. But beyond that, the way they put each other under the microscope, watching for slips, interrogating each other’s dreams. Freud kept a tight hold over them, not allowing the slightest deviation, banishing opponents and labeling them as psychopaths. I would imagine that many people don’t realize these things and it might cause them to wonder whether Freud, by keeping such a tight hold not only hurt people but kept psychoanalysis from developing freely.

There are other things I would want readers to think about, too. As my heroine, Kate develops a close relationship with Helene Deutsch, I was able to explore Deutsch’s views about women, about masochism in particular,which I had written about earlier defending her to the feminists. Now she was able to defend herself to Kate. Other issues came up: the conflict between motherhood and work, female loyalty and friendship how strong or weak it was in relation to a bond with a strong man. Thinking of my potential audience, these subjects should appeal to women more generally. The book became Tausk’s story filtered through the eyes of two women, one old, one young.

When did you discover you wanted to be a writer?
When I was little I thought my mother was a magician. She made things come to life on canvas. Branches weighed down with fuzzy peaches, blue-green bulls, enormous lilies, goldfish in an underwater world. Naturally, I assumed I would be able to do that too—but I was hopelessly bad at it. By the time I was ten, I’d resigned myself to painting with words. I started writing seriously when I was in High School. I was fourteen. My father had just died and my mother was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I wrote to save my sanity, alternating between Laurentian hymns to my boyfriend’s body and images of despair: black pools, screaming gulls wheeling over a lonely place. The poems were extravagant but they gave me a feeling of control. I was hooked.

When you write, do you find, beyond the story you tell, you have particular themes or a goal?
Several of my books have dealt with mother/daughter issues but my only longterm goal is to improve with each book. It has been a slow process. When I was in my twenties I wrote two autobiographical novels. I had a good agent and got encouraging letters from big presses but they mostly wanted me to change things I thought were essential and I wouldn’t. At that point I had no idea that much of writing is re-writing. I thought you just wrote down your story, typed it up and that was that. Discouraged I veered into criticism and wrote Psychoanalytic Studies of Blake and Yeats. It wasn’t until twenty years later after a divorce and re-marriage that –with the encouragement of my new husband–I dared go back to fiction. With my autobiographical novel Sins of The Mothers, I was fully aware of re-writing but took too much wrong advice and compromised too much. I think the subject, a masochistic marriage, was too painful and I didn’t yet have the tools yet to carry it off. I By the time I got to my memoir, The Last Good Freudian, I was able to put things in perspective and situate my life—much of it spent in analysis—in a historical and social context. But it is only with my new novel, Vienna Triangle, that I’m starting to do what I was meant to do: meld my understanding of psychoanalysis with what a lifetime has taught me about my subjects and my craft. Of course there is always more to learn and as one of my characters says in Vienna Triangle: “It is hard to get things right.” But trying and getting closer, is what makes writing so compelling.

What is your writing process?
Brenda: I work every morning for a couple of hours. In the beginning my thought is very fluid. Sometimes the “idea” is very slight. For instance for the novel The Beheading Game, I knew that I wanted somehow to revise the classic tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and make it more favorable to women. Otherwise, all I knew was that my hero Ren must be a drag queen. His voice came to me almost immediately but it took me many drafts before I decided that he would have to so something other than fantasize about the Green Knight. So I made him a theatre director putting on a transgendered version of the play. From there it was clear that the conflicts in his life should echo the events in his play and the book took off. The fact that I don’t work with a real outline and that I don’t know ahead of time how a novel will end makes it exciting to write. Unexpected things are always happening.

What literature do you read?
For the last 8years I have been on the Northern California Book Reviewers committee for the annual prize and so I have read a great many California authors. When I am feeling worn down and need nourishment, I tend to go back to certain old favorites, Tolstoy, Mann. Proust and especially Virginia Woolf. Every year in Rome, I treat myself to a re-reading of one of her books.

Is there a story that you are waiting to tell?
Again, chance came into it. When I finished Vienna Triangle, I was very unclear about what would come next. Then a producer in New York called and told me she loved Vienna Triangle and asked me to collaborate on a play. And that’s what we are doing! All I can say is that it turns out to be full of new stories.

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