Joseph Breuer described Bertha Pappenheim as an intelligent, curious twenty one year old woman, trapped in a genteel existence. Bertha would later condemn this life as made up of “insipid trivia,” directed merely at “passing the time.”
If we imagine the emptiness of Bertha existence, it is evident that she had to make internal psychological adjustments in response to her despairing situation. To remain emotionally in touch with the severe psychological limitations of her environment, would have been too painful, and traumatising.
It would have been psychologically damaging. Bertha could have become withdrawn and depressed, angry and difficult, good and compliant, or fiercely driven.
Rather, she disappeared into her “private theatre”, daydreaming. In contrast to the powerlessness in her dreary life, she would have created engaging fantasies where she was the heroine.
When patients realise the internal compromises they made in order to emotionally survive painful events or circumstances, they often get angry with themselves.
They think they should have demanded the love and attention they deserved. If they were abused, they should have stood up to the perpetrator. They can also suddenly feel exposed and embarrassed about how they have been acting unconsciously.
They can particularly feel ashamed about people they have hurt or opportunities missed. These responses are understandable.
However, it means the patient doesn’t fully grasp their achievement. It takes a great deal of creativity to develop a functional life, against the odds. The accomplishment is life affirming and awe inspiring.
As we shall see, Bertha’s retreat into her private theatre not only kept her sane in a deathly situation, it helped prepare her for her work with Joseph Breuer.
In the meantime, Eric Burdon helps us understand how Bertha might have passed the time.