Love and work: what is too personal for the Freud Archive?

This piece accompanies Agnes Meadows’ article “‘To Destroy’: Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham in the Freud Archive” in History Workshop Journal 93, where it is currently free access.

In the spring of 1963 Anna Freud was working in America. The second wave of the feminist movement was about to crest, and Betty Friedan was asking about the divisions that limit and determine women’s lives. Why were women’s lives considered personal, private things, and why were women of the 1960s increasingly withdrawing themselves from the professional world? Every day, Anna Freud wrote a letter to her long-time friend and collaborator Dorothy Burlingham. The youngest daughter of Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud was the only one of his children to follow him into psychoanalysis. She would become one of the first psychoanalysts and played a profound role in shaping the discipline. A fellow child analyst, Burlingham worked with blind children and their parents. Together she and Anna Freud ran the Hampstead Nursery, taking in children whose homes had been destroyed in the Blitz. They collaborated for most of their working lives.

We know about these letters because in 1975 Burlingham collected them together to be held in the Freud Archive. Burlingham kept them in one enormous accordion binder. In the first flap she left a note to future researchers: “These letters from Anna Freud to me are especially interesting. I have withdrawn any that seemed too personal. Aug 26, 1975.” In another pocket there is a letter from Anna Freud inside an envelope that Burlingham marked “To destroy”. Did she intend to remove the letter and forget?

Freud wrote the letter on 6 April 1963, while she was working on a book that would be published in 1966. In Normality and Pathology in Childhood she wrote that childhood development should pave the way for “the adult’s two main vital functions: his capacity to lead a normal love and sex life and his capacity to work.” The letter marked ‘To destroy’ is also about love and work: full of questions about how they might coexist to make a good life. In a recent article for History Workshop Journal, I considered this letter’s revelations about Anna Freud, second wave feminism and the growth of psychoanalysis in America.

It is not immediately clear what made Burlingham want to withdraw this letter. It is intimate, confiding, but surprisingly mundane: full of life’s daily details. Yet in this it paints a picture of an enduring bond during a time of separation. “I think,” wrote Anna Freud, “I can tell you exactly what my feelings are: namely that the future is much more important to me about you than this month of the present. Above all, I want you to be safe for your health and not to do anything rash so that we can take our life together again, with you all right”. This awareness of separation colours much of Anna Freud’s work. Elsewhere in Normality and Pathology she speaks of “homesickness (a form of mourning)”. That perception of longing for home as a type of mourning makes Anna Freud keenly relevant today: her attentiveness to the suffering of children separated from their parents during the second world war was rediscovered during Trump’s family separation policy at the Mexican border, and might help us again today in light of the mass separation of families unfolding in Ukraine.

But just as love and separation occupied Anna Freud’s work, work occupies her letter to Burlingham – which is, in essence, a love letter. The letter puzzles over the tension between love and work in women’s lives. “Personally,” she wrote, “I have this detached, slightly depersonalised feeling that I get usually when I live this way, as if I were really somebody else, fulfilling a function; but I am on quite friendly terms with that somebody and also with the function. … I wonder”, she goes on, “do you think that is how men usually feel in their professional life as distant from their personal life?” (p.3). America was on the cusp on the feminist second wave, a movement that would decisively take the personal as the political and question the division between personal and professional. Betty Friedan had, in fact, published The Feminist Mystique only two months earlier, and Lucy Freeman reviewed it for The New York Times on 7 April 1963, the day after Anna Freud wrote this letter. Friedan described a generation of American women suffering from lives limited to the domestic sphere, depending entirely on their husbands’ love: these were lives of love without work. These women pose a question: can they lead meaningful lives without the presence of work? Anna Freud’s question is similar: what is the relationship between love and work? Burlingham’s removal of the letter seems to answer this question, but not in any straightforward way. In my article I try to understand Burlingham’s answer by looking at other letters in the archive that are also occupied by anxieties about the legacy of psychoanalysis.

Archives do not neutrally preserve history, ready and waiting for historians to arrive and discover its secrets. Archives shape and determine what we know of history. In the items they include, and the structures in which these items are organised, archives represent decisions about which pieces of history are significant and which are not. When certain items are removed, destroyed, we lose that dimension of the history. When Anna Freud and Kurt Eissler put together the Freud Archives, and when Burlingham removed items from it, they engaged in that process of selection and deletion. But this question of the destruction of history is peculiarly resonant in the case of the Freud archive, for which distinctions between the personal and the professional are inherently problematic. In the practice of psychoanalysis, Freud had done away with these divisions and discovered the tangled underbelly of even the tidiest, most controlled and most public-facing parts of our lives. Love and work could not be separated in psychoanalysis, and it is curious that in the preservation of its history such lines were redrawn. But, like in any neurosis, this repression revealed itself through its failure: Burlingham’s letter was not destroyed, but retained, hidden in the midst of the archive. Even – or especially – in the history of psychoanalysis, the archive’s unconscious seems to have escaped the structure of those that created it. Anna Freud’s letter, and the creation of this archive, reveal tensions in psychoanalysis: is repression a good thing? After all, how much can be said aloud?

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