The Arty Semite

French Feminist Cathy Bernheim Investigates a Hypnotic Ancestor

By Benjamin Ivry

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An interest in family roots can appear without warning. A new biography, “Hippolyte Bernheim: a Destiny Under Hypnosis” (“Hippolyte Bernheim, un destin sous hypnose”), appeared in March from Les éditions Hugo & Cie, recounting the life of a French Jewish neurologist and pioneer of hypnotic therapy.

Its author is French novelist and essayist Cathy Bernheim, the subject’s great-grand-niece. Bernheim herself, born in 1946, admits surprise at recently feeling fascination for her Jewish ancestors, especially male ones, as her previously published works express little, if any, affection for men in general. In 2003, Les éditions du félin published Bernheim’s 1991 treatise “Almost-Perfect Love” (“L’amour presque parfait”), slating the lack of “truth or equality” in male-female relationships, and concluding:

The only way I would have been able to put up with loving men was if I were one myself.

In 1970, as expression of her feminist ethos, Cathy Bernheim joined a group who placed a wreath at Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, dedicated to the “unknown wife of the unknown soldier.” Forty years on, in August 2010, Bernheim and fellow Parisian feminists commemorated that gesture, which she had already described in a 1983 history of French feminism from Les editions du Seuil, “Disruption, My Sister: Birth of a Women’s Movement,” 1970-1972 (“Perturbation, ma soeur: Naissance d’un mouvement de femmes, 1970-1972”), reprinted in September 2010 by Les éditions du félin. So this homage to a male forebear represents an unexpected new step for Bernheim.

Great-grand-uncle Hippolyte, born in Alsace in 1840, fully deserves this new-found affection, as his 19th century work in hypnotism drew distinguished medical visitors to his hospital in Nancy, France, including such eminent German-speaking Jewish doctors as Albert Moll and, in 1889, Sigmund Freud himself. Cathy Bernheim even quotes the French Jewish psychiatrist Serge Leclaire to the effect that Freud’s later discoveries were “already implicit in his meeting with Bernheim.”

Yet Freud, then in his early 30s, arrived merely hoping that Bernheim would help him to cure a patient. Freud brought along Anna von Lieben, whom he later described as a “hysteric of great distinction” under the pseudonym Frau Cäcilie in his landmark “Studies in Hysteria.” But Bernheim, author of several books on the subject was unable to hypnotize Frau Cäcilie.

This, however, did not lessen the cordiality of the doctors’ meeting (Freud later translated Bernheim’s books into German). Bernheim wrote to a fellow doctor, describing Freud as a “charming boy” (un charmant garçon). Clearly, even a radical feminist would delight in such a brilliantly convivial male antecedent.

Watch a French TV tribute to Hippolyte Bernheim from 1980.


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