Sheila Kohler’s Dreaming for Freud and Stealing from Case Studies

Friends, after writing my piece about her story “Magic Man,” Sheila Kohler was kind enough to bring her novel Dreaming for Freud to my attention. (Do I wish I already knew about every cool book out there? Yes. Is it possible to read or even to know about every great novel out there? Sigh…no.)

Great Writers Steal readers (and anyone interested in writing craft) would do well to take a look at her book. Why? Because Ms. Kohler is a good writer and an interesting human being.  Sure. Why else?  Because she has “stolen” in the most magnificent manner, in a way that we should emulate.

Dreaming for Freud is a fictional retelling of a real-life story, that of “Dora,” one of Sigmund Freud’s patients. (Ms. Kohler has an advanced degree in psychology in addition to all of her other accomplishments…go ahead. Be healthily jealous.) The case itself looks very interesting and has a lot of significance in the field of psychology. Dr. Freud–get this–talked to Dora about her life and used his experience with other patients to figure out the specific problems that were holding Dora from happiness.

Freud wrote up his observations and described the treatment he provided in a case study that subsequently became a controversial milestone in the field of psychology. I’m having trouble finding a public domain copy of Freud’s writings about Dora in English; it looks like the English translations were completed decades after Sigmund put dip pen to paper. I did, however, find what seems to be Dora’s diary.  Is your German better than mine?  Check out “Bruchstück einer Hysterie-Analyse” as Freud intended.

Ms. Kohler used the real-life story as her starting point for Dreaming for Freud; Dora and her relatives are all characters in the book, breathed to life by the author’s muse. Although based on the factual case study, Dora and Herr und Frau Z. are rendered in fiction.

Why is the book’s conceit so cool and such a good idea on Ms. Kohler’s part?

  • The story itself has a lot of inherent natural conflict. A young woman in turmoil. A world-famous figure treats her. The suggestion of something…interesting happening between a man and his wife.
  • You know…it can sometimes be hard to come up with stories. This one is offered to all of us on a silver platter. (Though you should wait a while to write about Dora; Ms. Kohler just did it.)
  • Sigmund Freud has a lot of name recognition. Readers are often willing to give a story a chance if they have an entry point.
  • It can be a LOT of fun to work with real-life characters or situations that already appeal to us. Each of us has our special, personal interests that we would like to share with others; writing this kind of work allows us to play in a favorite sandbox.

Have other writers fictionalized real-life stories? Oh yeah. Here’s Two of Us, a film whose writer decided to tell the story of a day in the life of Lennon and McCartney as they hung out several years after the breakup of The Beatles:

Did John really say all of those things to Paul? Probably not. Did you realize that the actor portraying John Lennon is the same guy who played Lane Pryce in Mad Men? Probably not. (It’s weird; I don’t know why.) As writers of fiction, it’s our job to spin reality out of fiction…people like Ms. Kohler simply start out with a little more “fact” in the hopper than J.K. Rowling when she wrote her Harry Potter books.

Here’s another example: As the Allies spent the Spring of 1945 closing in on Berlin, the evil Josef Mengele and other high-ranking Nazis did indeed find their way to South America. Decades later, rock star Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal did indeed dedicate their lives to finding these war criminals. Ira Levin used these real-life truths as a springboard for his novel The Boys From Brazil. (Thankfully, we have no reason to believe that Hitler was cloned.)

Lauren Weisberger was a personal assistant to a big-time fashion magazine editor.  She used these true experiences as the basis for The Devil Wears Prada.

The Bell Jar is, more or less, the autobiography of Sylvia Plath’s young adulthood.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the somewhat true story of Hunter S. Thompson traveling to Las Vegas.

You’re under no obligation, of course, to fictionalize your own story.  Ms. Kohler adapted a case study.  You can do the same.  Here are some examples from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.  “Stealing” from case studies–provided you don’t violate anyone’s privacy, of course–is great because the mere existence of a case study means that a real human being has a problem.  The person in question has family and friends who care…there’s tension everywhere!

I happen to have read a few case studies recently; the psychologist’s prose also makes them great seeds for writers.  When composing his or her document, the mental health professional is doing what they can to write very clearly for colleagues.  You’ll get the basics: the protagonist’s age, family relations, relevant childhood traumas, problematic behaviors and the probable causes for those behaviors.  You’ll also read about the protagonist’s treatment and whether or not it worked.  You have the right (and perhaps the obligation) to use those basics as you will.

I am also reminded of another favorite story repository: court decisions.  I know…I know…these are all boring legal documents.  Except they’re not. Plessy and Ferguson were not just names you had to learn in middle school. They were real people who had a great story!  So the decision didn’t exactly go the right way for Fred Korematsu, but his honest-to-goodness struggle is a story waiting to be stolen and fictionalized.  (Why not put a manque of Mr. Korematsu in a work of science fiction?  Sadly, there will always be a “next” Korematsu v. United States, even if there are different names involved.)  A few months ago, I happened to pluck a law book off of a shelf in the library and read a harrowing story.  I only recall the broad strokes.  The case was deciding who was at fault for the death of a child.  It was something like 1919 in New York City.  The utility company turned on the gas in an apartment at a time the landlord wasn’t expecting, so the landlord hadn’t make sure the gas pipes were plugged.  The new renter entered his apartment with his son, struck a match so he could see around him and…well, you can figure it out.  (Interestingly, this was in the days before natural gas was spiked with mercaptan, the chemical that now gives it that tell-tale rotten egg smell.

See how many captivating stories are out there waiting to be stolen?  Why not pick up a copy of Dreaming for Freud?  And maybe discuss the novel with your book group?  And then pilfer a story of your own?

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