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What’s Anna O Got To Do With It?

Here’s a really short history lesson. In 1880, a 21-year-old Jewish Viennese woman went to Sigmund Freud’s colleague, Dr. Josef Breuer, for help because she felt suicidal. Breuer diagnosed Anna O — whose real name was Bertha Pappenheim — with hysteria, a common label for distressed women in the late 1800s. I suspect that given how many of Freud’s patients labeled as hysterical were actually sexually abused, Pappenheim was victimized as well. But since she didn’t write anything about herself, we only have others’ unreliable accounts to go by. All we know is that Pappenheim was sent away to a sanatorium for several years; after her release, she went on to form the largest organization for Jewish women in Germany. She became the most outspoken Jewish leader against the trafficking of Jewish women who were sold into prostitution in what was known as white slavery, and opened a shelter for former prostitutes and their children. Pappenheim wrote articles, stories, prayers and plays — but nothing about her past.

What does Anna O have to do with my sense of gender, writing, and being a Jewish woman? Plenty. Because today, Jewish women can write about our own experiences, and while there is still silence and shunning and shaming among ultra-Orthodox Jews, I am convinced that women are opening doors in those communities as well.

So, as a Jewish woman writer, I’m taking a momentary pause to acknowledge this achievement. Over the years, we have slowly and painstakingly worked for the right to write our own words. We can be authors, and therefore authorities: no longer do we have to ask so-called experts to explain us to ourselves. We can trust our own perceptions (there really is some creep watching us in the mikveh) so we can dismiss claims that we’re suffering from fantasies or — to borrow a nineteenth-century concept — hysterical hallucinations.

Image by Sigrid Estrada

I can run my fingers along this keyboard and write about what matters to me. In fact, each time I sit and type away, I think about how I was taught typing in high school not so that I could write articles and books but so that I could work, if need be, as a secretary—which meant I’d always have a job to fall back on.

But I wanted to write about what I believed. In high school and college in the 1970s, I wrote about how the stereotypes of the Jewish American Princess and the Jewish Mother thwacked against my self-esteem. I sometimes couldn’t believe what I read about Jewish women: Lawrence Durrell’s character, Justine, was labeled a neurotic Jewess; Henry Miller wrote of a “thick Jewish c—t” (I won’t even bother to type out the word); and Sartre wrote that his secret fantasy was dragging a beautiful Jewess by her hair through the streets of a burning village during a pogrom. Those days of merely reading about us Jewesses instead of our doing the writing are over. We might still have to tackle dismal jokes and negative portrayals but there is also an explosion of Jewish women writers.

I know it is still hard for women — sometimes it feels like we’re leaning in so hard we’re toppling over — but just for a moment I want to take a break and acknowledge how we can write, write, write. We can proclaim our perceptions, ideas, and insights.

My new novel, “A Remarkable Kindness,” is about four American women who are members of a hevra kadisha, a burial circle, in northern Israel in 2006. The four friends speak about the usual stuff — relationships, emotions, parents, partners, children — but they also ask the big questions. What is the purpose of life? Are accidents of fate God’s secret plans for us, or do things happen randomly? The novel is about four female characters’ search for deeper meaning and spirituality set against the background of ordinary and sometimes terrible moments, delineated by an ancient Jewish ritual for the dead that ultimately helps transform their lives.

More than one hundred years ago, a tormented young woman identified as Anna O hinted that something bad had happened to her but she could not speak about it. Today, we have the freedom to write down the traumatic and the terrific, the humdrum and the transcendent. We can write about how we feel and who we are and what happens in our lives. That may not be much, but it’s still quite a lot; and to me, that’s cause for celebration.

Diana Bletter’s latest novel, “A Remarkable Kindness” is out this month.


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