The Arty Semite

French Feminist Cathy Bernheim Investigates a Hypnotic Ancestor

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
wiki commons

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.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sigmund Freud, Hippolyte Bernheim, Cathy Bernheim

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.