Mabel Dodge Luhan, A. A. Brill, and the Psychoanalytic Adventure in America, by Patricia R. Everett

Corresponding Lives: Mabel Dodge Luhan’s letters to A.A. Brill, the first American psychoanalyst

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Mabel Dodge Sterne in Taos (c. 1918) and A. A. Brill (c. 1936)

This book of letters between a spirited and cultured woman and her prominent New York psychoanalyst came unbearably close to never existing—literally saved from the fire by a mysterious decision.  My communications with the analyst’s daughter on the fate of her father’s papers revealed that, after he died, his wife “collected all correspondence between my father & his patients & had it all destroyed.  Many of his patients were still living at the time & worried about their histories being exposed.”  His daughter, in fact, said her husband took “tons of cartons over to his tannery in Hoboken N.J. where they were destroyed in large ovens that were used to tan leather.  Thus a lot of important material was destroyed” (Gioia Bernheim, personal communications, November 31, 1996; July 2, 2000).

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Mabel Dodge in New York, 1915

For over fifteen years, I periodically transcribed and annotated the existing letters from Abraham Arden Brill to Mabel Dodge Luhan, archived at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.  I longed for Mabel’s side of the correspondence, but resigned myself to Brill’s daughter’s assertions.  I also believed his son, Edmund Brill, who proclaimed to Mabel in 1951 after she herself asked about her letters:  “All of Dad’s personal letters from you were destroyed . . . thoroughly burned upon his death.”  A prophetic handwritten note, however, passed quietly to me at a luncheon, suddenly gave me dim hope.  In 1996, after I presented a conference paper on this correspondence and repeated Edmund Brill’s claim, the psychoanalytic historian John Burnham wrote to me:  “I am skeptical that any of Brill’s papers were actually burned.”

And then, unexpectedly, in 2004, Mabel’s letters to Brill, as well as eleven additional ones from Brill to her, were discovered among unsorted material during a recataloguing of the Luhan collection.  A miraculous escape from the fire thus gave rise to this book of correspondence.

 

A Life in Letters

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Antonio Luhan, c. 1918

It was in 1986 that I first became aware of the very existence of letters between Luhan and her psychoanalyst Brill.  I was then immersed in research at the Beinecke Library for my book of correspondence between her and Gertrude Stein. The letters between Luhan and Brill were sealed until the year 2000—an impossibly distant date.  At the time, I was in graduate school for psychology and immediately intrigued when I noticed a clause in the catalogue entry for these restricted letters making an exception for psychiatrists.  I spoke with Patricia Willis, then Curator of American Literature at the library, and she offered to consider allowing access to psychologists as well.  Thus, soon after receiving my doctorate, I returned to the Beinecke and the letters became available to me.  I am forever grateful for her creative approach to the early unsealing of this correspondence, and for the indescribable experience of being one of the first to open the large manila envelope of letters from Brill to Luhan, a woman whose life and work I had studied for years and now could view through the words of her analyst. As a psychologist, I was exquisitely aware of both the delicate nature of these confidential documents and the privilege in being able to hold and read them.

Mabel Dodge Luhan, an only child raised in Buffalo, New York by desperately unhappy parents, became a perpetual seeker of stimulation and meaning and an influential salon host:  first in 1911 in Italy at her Villa Curonia outside of Florence, inspired by meeting Gertrude and Leo Stein in Paris and attending their famous salons; next in New York from 1913 to 1917 with gatherings of revolutionaries from the art, literary, and political worlds at her 23 Fifth Avenue apartment; finally in Taos from 1917 on at her sprawling adobe home, Los Gallos, where she attracted writers and artists, most notably D. H. Lawrence.  There she met Antonio Luhan, the Pueblo Indian who was to become her fourth husband in 1923, a radical union that forever altered her turbulent life.

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D. H. Lawrence and Frieda Lawrence, who were among a large number of writers and artists to visit Mabel Dodge’s sprawling adobe home in Taos, Los Gallos

During the fall of 1916, in her fervent search for understanding, Mabel entered psychoanalysis with A.A. Brill—the first American psychoanalyst who tirelessly devoted himself to English translations of Freud after meeting him in Vienna in the winter of 1907-1908, and walking with him there, discussing psychoanalysis and interpreting each other’s dreams.  She was analyzed by Brill until she moved to Taos in December 1917, returning to New York for several periods of treatment with him until 1938.

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“Mabel first wrote to Brill in 1916, and their correspondence lasted until 1944”

Mabel first wrote to Brill in 1916, and he soon replied.  Their correspondence lasted until 1944, four years before his death, spanning crucial periods of development for each—a rare archival treasure of letters back and forth for almost thirty years, preserved by both intention and chance.  There are forty-six letters from Mabel to Brill, and seventy-six from Brill to Mabel.  No other such extensive and elaborate written conversations exist between patient and analyst.  They offer an uncommon opportunity to understand the complex relationship between patient and analyst during the early practice of psychoanalysis in the United States.

This book is not just a chronological presentation of the correspondence between Mabel and Brill, but a narrative organized around the letters, with passages introducing and linking them to provide background and context.  It is a story of one woman’s sustained connection to her psychoanalyst through writing and a revelation of the vital role that an analyst can play years after formal treatment.  Mabel wrote to Brill about her emotional states and conflicts, seeking his advice and understanding.  In return, Brill offered opinions, affection, and his particular grasp of her character and struggles.

In her letters, as in life, Mabel was despairing, insightful, inspired, questioning, talented, willful, creative, and insecure.  Brill met her with warmth and frankness, humor and authority.  He did not shy away from delivering strong interpretations when replying, and he wrote to her in an intensely personal manner.  He encouraged her to keep their communication alive and acknowledged the importance of their bond:  “There must have been something wrong in your conscious relationship to me.  Let’s hear about it” (April 9, 1928).  And he combined these interpretations with expressions of love:  “Well stop brooding over some of your putative transgressions.  You have no real cause to complain . . . At any rate I love you just as much as ever” (c. July 25, 1940).  These written exchanges between Luhan and Brill illuminate a continually developing relationship, humming with the quality of an ongoing analysis.

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Mabel Luhan, 1920s

Patricia R. Everett is a psychologist in private practice in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the author of A History Of Having A Great Many Times Not Continued To Be Friends: The Correspondence Between Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein, 1911-1934. Since 1983, she has researched the Mabel Dodge Luhan archives at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Her current writing projects include an annotated collection of the dreams of Mabel Dodge and the unpublished correspondence between Brill and Freud.

Her latest book, Corresponding Lives: Mabel Dodge Luhan, A. A. Brill, and the Psychoanalytic Adventure in America, has recently been published by Karnac.

Reviews and Endorsements

corresponding-lives‘A fascinating collection of letters, superbly edited and brilliantly explicated by Everett. To be interested in the history of psychoanalysis is to be interested in this book.’
— Professor Mark Edmundson, University of Virginia

‘If Corresponding Lives only provided us with the letters between a pioneering American psychoanalyst, A. A. Brill, and his patient, Mabel Dodge Luhan, a giant of American cultural history who introduced psychoanalysis to New York intellectuals, it would be well worth reading. But it delivers so much more. Through sensitive editing of their correspondence and a beautifully written narrative, Patricia R. Everett brings us inside psychoanalysis in the early twentieth century and gives us a sense of knowing this dazzling and conflicted woman.’
— James William Anderson, PhD, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Northwestern University

‘The extended correspondence between a psychoanalyst and his sometime patient offers unparalleled historical glimpses of the two most important figures in introducing and spreading Freud’s ideas among American physicians and avant-garde intellectuals, with first-hand, multilevel samples showing how both psychoanalytic practice and intellectual fashion changed between 1915 and 1944. Best of all for the reader, this intimate correspondence, along with other unpublished material, is placed richly in biographical and historical context by Everett, a sensitive and wellinformed clinician scholar. In the process, a whole narrative raises fundamental questions about human relationships, boundaries, and creativity.’
— John Burnham, editor of After Freud Left: A Century of Psychoanalysis in America

 

 

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