HYSTERICAL GIRL, directed by Emmy-nominated producer and director Kate Novack, re-examines Sigmund Freud’s famous case study of “Dora”—his only case study of a female patient—from a feminist perspective. The film was set to premiere at this year’s now cancelled SXSW, so instead made its premiere online as part of The New York Times’s series Op-Docs. It is embedded below where it is free to stream in full. We spoke with Novack by phone, from isolated locations in New York, about how she came to the story and her perspective on Freud’s work.
Science & Film: When did you first read Freud’s “Dora” case study and what was your initial response?
Kate Novack: I read the case history in a freshman English class and I remember loving the book and loving Freud as a writer—the sort of novelistic qualities of his writing. I don’t recall having a negative reaction to the book, which actually kind of horrifies me now, because when I did go back and read it there are so many parts that are so egregiously awful. [Re-reading the case] was a very eye-opening experience for me, personally, in terms of understanding where I was in college versus where I am now.
S&F: It’s clear after watching HYSTERICAL GIRL, but for those who haven’t seen it yet, what parts of the case in particular did you find egregious on re-reading?
KN: Sigmund Freud published five major case histories, and the one that the movie focuses on was his treatment of a young woman whose real name was Ida Bauer. He gave her the pseudonym "Dora" to protect her identity. Her father brought her to Freud when she was seventeen years old after she had accused an adult friend of the family of sexual assault. The quote in the book, as Freud recounts the instruction from Dora’s father, is “please bring her to reason.” So that, right off the bat, is the sort of trope of the young woman who comes forward and is told that she’s being unreasonable. This [trope] is one that audiences today are unfortunately still very familiar with.
There are two assaults that happen. The first occurs when Dora is thirteen years old and this middle-aged man who is a friend of Dora’s father kisses Dora. Freud’s response to this is, “‘this was just the situation to call up a distinct feeling of sexual excitement in a girl’ ‘he gets her age wrong and he says fourteen,’ ‘of fourteen who had never before been approached but instead Dora had a violent feeling of disgust. Her behavior was already completely hysterical.’” To me, that is the worst line.
As awful as some of the lines in the case are, what was actually more upsetting as I was doing the research was the degree to which the thought patterns behind his ideas in the case are still so present. When I went back and watched the Anita Hill testimony it's—they’re talking about repression and fantasy and the idea of the woman who ‘wanted it.’ Some of those themes also came up in the [Christine] Blasey Ford testimony. The idea that 120 years later we’re still talking in the same kind of way was even more upsetting, frankly.
S&F: Yeah, Freud is the key pioneer of understanding the unconscious, and to say that he came up with this idea that women “want it,”…
KN: Within the psychology community, I heard a lot of who cares about Freud, Freud is dead. I hope that the film excavates the ways in which he is so present that he is invisible. It’s kind of easy to feel like he’s not around anymore because so much of his thinking is so baked into how we think today.
I showed the movie before I locked picture to a friend who is an accomplished psychiatrist at Mass General Hospital in Boston, and I was nervous. He was one of the first people within the world of psychology and psychiatry that I’d shown it to. And he said, I always thought that the Dora case was history, but I realize now that I’m wrong. I was so happy; it was exactly the kind of thing I was hoping he would come away from it with.
Still from HYSTERICAL GIRL
SS&F: Were there any other reactions of note from people you showed it to in the psychiatric or psychoanalytic communities?
KN: I would say that the response from folks in the psychoanalytic and psychiatric and psychological world has been positive so far. I didn’t know if there would be defensiveness, but I haven't experienced that so far.
S&F: I have heard critiques of Freud’s Dora case study, just not from a feminist perspective.
KN: Freud viewed the Dora case as a failure partly because she quit after 11 weeks. But what he viewed as the failure was his failure to recognize the transference—that she had transferred feelings onto him that she had toward the other adult men in her life and I think specifically her father. To me, the fact that Freud viewed that as the failure of the case is another layer of failure.
By the way, I’m a big believer in therapy and the movie isn’t meant to be a broad critique of the therapeutic relationship.
S&F: Why do you think Freud’s ideas have been so culturally pervasive?
KN: I view psychoanalysis as a story that helps us make sense of how we live. I think that Freud was right about a lot—his idea of childhood experiences shaping us, and also shaping our behavior in adult life, that's pretty profound and powerful, and I think it’s something that we take for granted now, but that's a very profound way of looking at the human experience.
S&F: Do you see yourself doing anything with this subject matter in the future in another form?
KN: Yes. One of the things I have wanted to do for a really long time, and now that I’m locked in my house it’s a good opportunity, is to work on a pilot script about a group of analysts in New York City. It’s a period piece with parallels to the current moment.
Another idea is to make a series of shorts in which marginalized figures from history are reimagined, and based on the history, tell their version of the story. That’s something that I’m also really interested in.
HYSTERICAL GIRL was directed, produced, and written by Kate Novack, and produced by Andrew Rossi. Novack’s other films include THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRE (2017) and PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES (2011), on which she was a producer.
For related content, check back on Science & Film next week for an interview with the science advisor on the new Netflix series FREUD.