In search of Freud


The London home of the father of psychoanalysis is well worth a visit, not least to see the study that inspired his successors, both real and fictional, writes BRENDAN KELLY

EARLIER THIS YEAR Gabriel Byrne won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Dr Paul Weston, a gifted, troubled psychotherapist, in the HBO series In Treatment. Weston is generally believable as a therapist: his style is empathic and sensible; his personal troubles are involving and realistic.

Clearly, the directors and writers took considerable care to create an accurate, credible therapeutic environment and to ensure that the structure of Weston’s therapeutic engagements – time limits, boundary issues and the like – were depicted as realistically as possible.

Best of all is the room in which Weston works his magic. He sits on an armchair and his clients sit, lie and (occasionally) perform acrobatics on a couch. From time to time Weston or his clients move about the room, to break the tension at critical moments, or fidget when there is an impasse.

The room is large and sprawling and filled with distractions: a desk, a telephone, books, photographs, ornaments, model boats, even a coffee machine. It is a crowded room, bursting with evidence of Weston’s myriad interests and busy life, and crammed with hundreds of distractions for wandering eyes.

In this respect Weston’s room is reminiscent of the room in which another celebrated psychotherapist spun his web, almost 100 years earlier: that of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, at 20 Maresfield Gardens, in South Hampstead, London.

In 1938, after Austria was annexed by Germany, Freud finally agreed to leave his beloved Vienna, and moved to London. At this time Freud was 82 and ill with cancer of the palate. He was to spend the final year of his life in London, writing and practising psychoanalysis. After his death, in 1939, Freud’s daughter Anna lived on in the house until her own death, in 1982.

Four years later 20 Maresfield Gardens opened as the Freud Museum. Today, 70 years after the death of Sigmund Freud, this remains a powerful, moving place, filled with memories and mementoes of Sigmund, Anna and the Freud family.

The house has a cool, languid elegance that fits perfectly with its leafy surroundings. This is a quiet, tranquil place, suffused with birdsong from neighbouring gardens; it might as well be a million miles from the bustle of central London.

The centrepiece of any visit to Maresfield Gardens must be Freud’s study, the room in which he spent long hours reading, writing and, most of all, analysing. The room is unmistakably rich in memories and ghosts, and the shelves are impossibly laden with innumerable antiquities brought from Vienna in 1938.

These strange little objects are everywhere, recalling the mythologies of ancient Rome, Greece and the Orient, and evoking Freud’s insatiable curiosity about the world and the peculiar, puzzling creatures who inhabit it.

Freud’s study also contains his original analytic couch, brought from Vienna. It is not unlike Weston’s: sensible, comfortable and seeming to invite engagement, confidence and, with luck, disclosure.

This couch, and the confidential engagements it invited, formed a critical element in Freud’s most important and arguably most revolutionary therapeutic manoeuvre: listening. Freud listened and listened and listened. He also interpreted, argued and disagreed, and his interpretations, arguments and disagreements continue to generate interpretations, arguments and disagreements. But most of all Freud spent his time here listening to what his clients had to say, and that, in many ways, is his most enduring legacy.

Freud also read here. He read voraciously and widely, and Freud’s library contains a fascinating selection of books that he chose to bring with him from Vienna. The shelves emphasise the breadth of his reading in myriad fields, including psychology, medicine, philosophy, art, history and literature. There is a particular emphasis on the work of writers who helped shape Freud’s own writing: Goethe, Shakespeare and Flaubert.

There is much to enjoy at Maresfield Gardens. The bright, airy rooms are filled with Austrian furniture that the Freuds were, miraculously, able to transport from Vienna in 1938, and the upstairs rooms contain valuable mementos and photographs of family life in the house.

The life and career of Anna, who was also an analyst, are explored in depth, and the museum also houses a research centre and archive, with an unrivalled collection of books about the history of psychoanalysis. These resources are complemented by lectures, seminars and symposia, devoted to themes related to psychoanalysis.

In different ways, both the museum and In Treatmentbear elegant testimony to the enduring power of the life and work of Sigmund Freud. Although the seven decades since his death have brought considerable change to psychotherapy, there is little doubt that Freud’s approach and insights have indelibly changed the way people view their minds.

Many of the key elements of the therapeutic encounter have also endured since Freud’s time: the couch, the confidence and the essential unpredictability of insights that emerge during therapy.

Weston’s room may not be a carbon copy of that at Maresfield Gardens, but the spirit of Freud is palpably present throughout the cluttered, inviting room in which Weston sees his clients. The ghost of Sigmund lurks in every corner, every detail and every distraction – and although Freud would have scarcely approved of the addition of a coffee machine to the therapeutic milieu, it seems likely that he would have approved of Weston’s room in every other respect.

* Dr Brendan Kelly is a senior lecturer in psychiatry at University College Dublin; brendan

* The Freud Museum is at 20 Maresfield Gardens, South Hampstead, London (00-44-20- 74352002,