Coffee with Brett: A Conversation with Brett Kahr about his new book on Freud

Interview with Professor Brett Kahr, conducted at Karnac Books, London on 10th March 2017


KN [Karnacology]: Congratulations on the recent publication of Coffee with Freud.  It seems like only a short while ago that we spoke together about your earlier book Tea with Winnicott.

BK [Brett Kahr]: Thank you.  Yes, Karnac Books very kindly published Tea with Winnicott last year, in 2016, and now, I thank you all, once again, for Coffee with Freud.

KN: You have had a lot of work on your plate, proofing and indexing these two books back to back.

BK: Indeed, but in truth I have had a most pleasurable time writing these two volumes.

KN: Like its predecessor, Coffee with Freud appears in our series “Interviews with Icons”.  Tell us about the format.

BK: Well, as you know, “Interviews with Icons” endeavours to bring famous psychoanalytical thinkers back to life for just one day, so that we have a chance to talk with them in some detail about their careers and their contributions.

KN: I believe you had hoped that in writing these books you could provide a handy all-in-one volume for students and practitioners alike.

The first two titles in the new Interviews with Icons series from Karnac Books

BK: The complete works of Freud and, likewise, the complete works of Winnicott fill several library shelves.  I wish that students still approached our great forefathers and foremothers with a scholarly temperament but, alas, they do not.  Very few practitioners actually read the oeuvres complètes of these great heroes.  And so, I strove to write a series of little books that would provide as well rounded an introduction as possible in the hope of inspiring people to study these ancient texts more fully.

KN: You are being very modest.  I would hardly describe your books as merely introductory.  They contain so much more besides, including large amounts of unpublished or little known archival and interview material as well.

BK: Yes, I endeavoured to produce two readable and accessible road maps for young students.  But I also hoped to include enough new material to be of interest to old-timers!

KN: You have described the format of the “Interviews with Icons” as exercises in “imaginary non-fiction”.  I rather like that phrase.

BK: I have done my best to be as historically and archivally accurate as possible.  Having spent years working in the archives on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and having spent decades teaching the works of these great figures to my students, I would like to think that both Tea and Coffee can claim to be steeped in documentable fact.  I certainly do not regard them as fictional in any way.

KN: So you have worked hard to capture the voice of Freud and of Winnicott and to bring them back to life in this accurate, but imaginative, manner.

BK: Yes … hence the phrase “imaginative non-fiction”.

KN: Remind me why we published Tea with Winnicott before Coffee with Freud.  Should we not have done so the other way round in the interests of chronology?

BK: What a good question.  I began to play around with the Tea book first, and then I presented the idea to Oliver Rathbone …

KN: The boss …

BK: The very same … and he asked me to start with Winnicott, as I have Winnicott immediately at my fingertips, and then proceed to Freud.

KN: But surely you also have Freud at your fingertips.

BK: Well, as I have produced four Winnicott books for your publishing house already, I think that Oliver considers me a Winnicottian above all else.


KN: So in the first book, you invited Donald Winnicott back to earth for just one day, and you and he drink endless cups of tea in his old consulting-room in Chester Square, Belgravia, served by his loving secretary, Joyce Coles, whom you knew quite well.

BK: Yes, I met Joyce back in 1994 – a truly remarkable woman – and she and I developed a warm friendship.  She granted me a whole series of interviews about her life with Winnicott, having worked for him from 1948 until his death in 1971.  She knew details about Winnicott which no other survivor could tell me.

KN: Your book brims with historical authenticity.

BK: I suppose that comes from having immersed myself in the thousands of unpublished Winnicott letters and documents, and from my numerous interviews with his relatives, his patients, his colleagues, and so forth, and, of course, from the truly transformative interviews and conversations with Joyce Coles.

KN: Transformative?


“Joyce Coles, more than anyone else, brought Winnicott to life for me in an exceptionally visceral form”. Illustration by Alison Bechdel, © 2016

BK: Well, Joyce Coles, more than anyone else, brought Winnicott to life for me in an exceptionally visceral form.  She knew Winnicott exceptionally well, and during the working week, she spent more time with Donald than his own wife!

KN: Really?

BK: Yes.  Clare Winnicott worked outside of the family home for many years.  But Joyce Coles had a desk positioned only feet away from Winnicott’s consulting room.  And he spoke to her and dictated clinical notes to her after every single session with patients.  They spent an immense amount of time together.

KN: How fortunate that you managed to meet her before her death.

BK: Yes, I feel very privileged.

KN: So, you set Tea with Winnicott at Chester Square, in London, and Coffee with Freud is set in Vienna.

BK: Natürlich!

KN: How did that come about?

BK: While preparing on Tea with Winnicott, I had the opportunity spend some time in Vienna.  My wife went there for a work engagement, and I trailed along.  And one day, we stumbled into the Café Landtmann on the Ringstrasse – quite near to our hotel – and as we began to sip coffee in this old, historical Kaffeehaus, which Freud himself had patronised over many years, I knew instantly that I would have to set the book in Café Landtmann.

KN: So, in your newest offering, who actually looks after you and the Herr Professor?  Do we know anything about the waiters who served Freud his coffee?

BK: In the book, I resurrected Herr Wilhelm Kerl, the one-time proprietor of Café Landtmann.  He takes on the “Joyce Coles” role in the Coffee book.  And throughout my interview with Freud, this lovely man, Herr Kerl, comes to our table at regular intervals to ensure that we have sufficient coffee, not to mention platefuls of Viennese delicacies.

Café Landtmann, Vienna

KN: What a charming place to host your posthumous interview with Sigmund Freud.

BK: Have you ever visited the Café Landtmann, right next to the opera house?

KN: No, never.

BK: Oh, you must go, and you must take the entire staff of Karnac Books!  One can learn so much about Freud simply by roaming through the streets of Vienna.

KN: What do you mean?

BK: Well, walking up and down the Berggasse …

KN: The street on which Freud lived …

BK: Indeed!  The Berggasse … which means “Mountain Street” …

KN: It is a hill, is it not?

BK: Yes, a reasonably steep hill.  And one can only imagine how much good cardiological exercise Freud would have had walking up and down the Berggasse every day.

759f942daa0be5ec60eeec7bfb64d1b2-1KN: A great antidote to all those long hours sitting behind the couch.

BK: Absolutely!

KN: So, having now interviewed Winnicott and Freud, how would you characterise the differences between them?

BK: What a good question!  As you know, I regard both men as utter geniuses, and consequently, I had a deeply enthralling, deeply engaging experience interviewing each of them.  Throughout the  Tea and Coffee books, I endeavoured to speak to the imaginary Winnicott and to the imaginary Freud exactly as I would have done in real life.  So when the question of Freud’s relationship with his sister-in-law Minna Bernays arises, for instance, I talk to him with huge diplomacy.

KN: You have modelled your interviewing style on that of a thoughtful clinician, rather than that of an investigative journalist.  You are certainly not a Jeremy-Paxman type.

BK: With a patient one must always be sensitive and diplomatic – of course – but one can also be very direct and talk about difficult subjects, because one must, eventually, engage with these delicate topics, which emerge again and again.  But in a one-off interview, one has rather less licence.

KN: Nevertheless, you manage to extract an enormous amount of information from Freud.  I consider myself to be pretty well read in the Freud literature but nevertheless, I learned an immense amount, and I walked away feeling that I had met a remarkable man.  A true humanitarian.


BK: Freud, as you know, has become the target of an increasingly vitriolic “Anti-Freudian Crusade”.

KN: “Anti-Freudian Crusade”?

BK: Yes, years ago, the wonderful American psychoanalyst Reuben Fine wrote an essay entitled “The Anti-Freudian Crusade”, and I have borrowed that phrase from Dr. Fine.

KN: Many people still consider Freud to be a charlatan, a dreamer, a lunatic.

BK: Oh, yes, Freud has had to endure an immense amount of criticism.

KN: But you reveal to us a very different Freud.


Freud, c. 1884

BK: Look, we appreciate that Freud had a “shadow” side, like all human beings, and that he could be quite ruthless with some of his colleagues.  But on the whole, Freud devoted himself to the care of his patients with a unique compassion and devotion.

KN: What do you mean?

BK: Well, back in the nineteenth century, physicians treated the mentally unwell in the most barbaric fashion.  As you will know, some doctors performed surgery upon the genitals of hysterical patients.

KN: How grotesque!  How sadistic!

BK: Absolutely!  But Freud approached the neuroses in a very different manner.  He adopted a truly “hands-off” treatment.  Although he began his work in private medical practice by prescribing rest cures and hydrotherapeutic baths and electrical stimulation of the muscles, he eventually abandoned all of these techniques.  And under the influence of Josef Breuer, his mentor, he simply offered his patients the opportunity to speak.

KN: It sounds so very simple … almost too easy … the talking cure!

BK: By inviting his patients to recline on a couch and to engage in confidential conversation … well, I regard the formalisation of this approach as truly radical within its historical context.

”inviting his patients to recline on a couch and to engage in confidential conversation”: Freud’s original consulting room, Berggasse 19, Vienna

KN: Perhaps this approach is still quite radical by twenty-first century standards.  After all, how many people really feel truly understood?

BK: Indeed.

KN: You stress in Coffee with Freud that most of the psychiatrists at that time … the 1880s, 1890s … believed that madness resulted from brain pathology, and that if only they could conduct enough post-mortem autopsies, they might come to find the cause of madness.

BK: Absolutely true.  The biopathological model really developed in full force during the late nineteenth century, although one can trace its roots back to ancient times.

KN: But Freud did not find this research impressive.


Theodor Meynert (1833 –1892)

BK: His mentor in academic psychiatry, Theodor Meynert, dissected countless numbers of brains, but in truth, he found little to excite his colleagues.  He never succeeded in identifying a tumour responsible for insanity.

KN: A brilliant neuroanatomist though?

BK: Oh, yes, Professor Meynert made a massive number of contributions to the basic neurosciences and to neuroanatomy.  But in psychiatry …

KN: Not at all.

BK: Well, one must realise that Meynert spent very little time with patients.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he devoted more of his time to dissecting dead psychiatric patients than to conversing with living ones.

KN: So Freud did something very, very different indeed.

BK: He expanded the art of conversation and he helped to develop it in the most serious manner imaginable.  Freud created the conditions in which such conversations could take place, and consequently, his patients appreciated the deep interest.  In due course, they began to improve.

KN: But various critics have lambasted Freud, and many have claimed that he faked his data.  Am I not right in thinking that the famous “Anna O.” had various breakdowns after her ostensible “talking cure” with Josef Breuer?

BK: Yes, many historians have scoured through Bertha Pappenheim’s hospital records …

KN: Bertha Pappenheim … the real name of “Anna O.”?


Bertha Pappenheim (1882)

BK: Yes, indeed.  Fräulein Pappenheim.  She became ill with a host of hysterical symptoms, and Dr. Breuer, her family physician, afforded her a great deal of attention, visiting her daily.  An intelligent woman, she began to talk.  She began to converse.  And gradually, her symptoms started to diminish in intensity.

KN: But she had various hospitalisations.

BK: Yes.  Breuer knew virtually nothing about the erotic transference.  And he knew little about the need for trust to unfold in psychotherapy over a long period of time.  And why should he have known this?  After all, he preceded Freud!  So, yes, of course, he helped “Anna O.” to experience a short-term catharsis, but he did not possess the requisite experience to facilitate change over the long-term.  As you know, psychoanalytical treatment requires a lengthy investment from both parties.  And patients will often experience ups and downs along the way.

KN: But that does not mean that the treatment fails.

BK: Most intensive psychoanalysis and psychotherapy effects very profound changes in patients, but predominantly, such treatment does so only over an extended period of time, in order for any changes to be internalised quite profoundly.

KN: In other words, Freud discovered the notion of “working-through”, whereas Breuer did not really understand that.

BK: Durcharbeiten … working-through … absolutely!

KN: So, in spite of Freud’s shadow side, you really position him as a great humanitarian.

BK: Yes, I do.  I would argue for Freud’s humanitarian status most passionately.  Obviously, many other biographers have done so – Ernest Jones, most especially – but critics have assassinated these sympathists for idealising Freud and for being hagiographical.

KN: Unfairly so?

BK: Yes.  Freud really provided us with the most profound and the most detailed theory of human psychology and psychopathology … ever … and to deny this genius represents, in my estimation, a poor reading of the historical literature.

KN: So you are a passionate, classical Freudian.


Winnicott and Klein

BK: You know, nowadays, with so many schools of psychoanalysis from which to choose, people invariably ask, “Are you a Kleinian?”, or “Are you a Winnicottian?”, and so forth.  And most of us struggle to answer, since we have all studied the entire range of writings and have endeavoured to integrate so many of these ideas.  For a long time, I called myself a “Kleinicottian”.

KN: Oh, I like that … “Kleinicottian”.

BK: Yes, synthesising the best of Klein and the best of Winnicott.

KN: But now?

BK: Well, although I love Klein and I love Winnicott, as you know, I have an even greater passion for Freud, and now I feel much more comfortable describing myself as a nineteenth-century Freudian.

KN: A nineteenth-century Freudian?  Why not a twentieth-century Freudian?  Or even a twenty-first-century Freudian?

BK: I have come to the view that if one really reads the Studien über Hysterie carefully …

KN: The Studies on Hysteria?

BK: Yes, published in 1895, in the last days of the nineteenth-century … I have come to the view that virtually everything of deepest value in modern psychoanalysis can be found in this text.  To me it encapsulates the talking cure, the traumatological origins of psychopathology … well, pretty much everything … even the theory of the unconscious.

319-1KN: I shall have to re-read that book.

BK: Please do.  I think that you will be richly rewarded.

KN: You really do transmit your great love for the early Freud.

BK: Well, I hope so.  I have lived with his texts for a long time, and I appreciate them more and more with each passing year.  The richness of Freud never fades.

KN: So, what kind of terrain do you cover in Coffee with Freud?

BK: The book begins with a conversation between me and Wilhelm Kerl, the cafetier at Café Landtmann.  He teaches me quite a lot about the historical and cultural background of Freud’s Vienna.

KN: How fascinating.

BK: And then Freud arrives at the café, ready for his interview.

Inteior of the grand old Cafe Landtmann in Vienna

Inteior of the grand old Cafe Landtmann in Vienna

KN: And you speak to him about his life and work … in chronological order?

BK: Well, we begin by discussing his disbelief that a man might actually be resurrected from the grave.  As a rational scientist, Freud would not have given much credence to the notion of an afterlife.  So our interview commences with Freud’s scepticism.

KN: That interchange already gives us quite a good insight into Freud as the rational scientist.

BK: Yes.  I hope so.

KN: And then?

BK: Well, thereafter we begin to survey Freud’s life and ideology in linear fashion.

KN: You start out with his infancy?

BK: Yes, of course.

KN: And you cover his childhood, his schooling, his adolescence, his university studies, and so forth.

BK: Indeed.

KN: You made a very bold decision, I believe, to go into everything about Freud’s early life in great detail, did you not?  I mean, we learn about so many little details, as well as the broad sweep of his biographical arc.  You undertook a phenomenal amount of research.


Alison Bechdel has again provided the wonderful illustrations for the book, as she did for Tea with Winnicott. © Alison Bechdel 2017

BK: Of course, this created a huge structural difficulty for me.

KN: What do you mean?

BK: Well, I seemed to encapsulate all of Winnicott’s life and work quite snugly in one volume.  I really worked hard to shape his story with concision.

KN: But not so with Freud?

BK: Well, I think that I did approach Freud with concision, but we know so much more about his life, his world, his works, his colleagues, his patients … everything, really … that by the time I came to “interview” Freud about the discovery of the talking cure, I had already filled some three hundred pages.

KN: So how did you solve this problem?

BK: Well, I had reached page 300 very quickly indeed – having taken Freud only from his birth in 1856 until the publication of the Studien über Hysterie in 1895.

KN: And Freud died in 1939.

BK: You see the problem.

KN: So?

BK: I realised that if I carried on in this vein, the interview would be seven or eight hundred pages long … far too much for Coffee with Freud.

KN: What did you do?


Oliver Rathbone

BK: I sent the typescript to Oliver Rathbone, and then, a short while later we had lunch.  In his wonderfully Oliveresque manner, he told me that I must not worry.  He would be happy to publish Coffee with Freud as the first of two volumes, offering a glimpse of Freud from 1856 until 1899, and that afterwards, I must write the sequel – Cigars with Freud – covering the maestro’s life from 1900 until his death in 1939.

KN: What a creative solution!

BK: Oliver specialises in creative solutions.

KN: He does, indeed.

BK: Certainly, I would never have undertaken any of these “Interviews with Icons” without Oliver’s blessing.

KN: So, have you begun work on the sequel, Cigars with Freud?

BK: No, not at all … at least not in a formal sense.

KN: Why not?

BK: Well, I have various other projects which I must complete first …

KN: You still owe us the final manuscript for your book on the traumatic origins of schizophrenia!

BK: Yes, precisely so.

KN: But when you finish that, you will start work on Cigars?

BK: No, not quite.  The next book in “Interviews with Icons” will be my interview with John Bowlby.

KN: I believe that you actually met Bowlby in real life?

BK: Several times.

KN: Unlike Freud and Winnicott.

by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies, bromide print, 1988

John Bowlby, 1988

BK: Yes, obviously, I never met Freud in “real life” and alas, I never met Winnicott.

KN: How did you encounter Bowlby?

BK: As a very, very young student, I invited him to give a lecture at my university, and he accepted with tremendous graciousness.

KN: So you actually had the pleasure of hearing Bowlby’s voice.  You know something about his actual tone.

BK: Yes, I had the privilege of meeting him on a number of occasions thereafter, and interviewing him.  He impressed me more than I can possibly say, not only as a wonderful thinker but, also, as a very, very kind and very, very decent personality.

KN: Well, we look forward to your resurrection of Dr. Bowlby in the “Interviews with Icons” series.

BK: Yes, I have begun work on the Bowlby book, but I will need some more time to bring that one to life.

KN: And who else will appear in the series?

BK: Well, let me grapple with Bowlby and with the latter part of Freud, and then we shall see if I have any energy left!

KN: The series has already attracted a lot of coverage, and The Guardian newspaper chose Tea with Winnicott as one of its books of year for 2016.

BK: I think that colleagues and students in our profession crave a new style of engagement with the weighty tomes of our ancestors.  I know that I do.  And reading about theory in the form of a dialogue … in the form of a theatrical script …

KN: Much more fun than heavy encyclopaedias of theory.

BK: I do hope so … in spite of the fact that I do like fat encyclopaedias and textbooks as well.

KN: From a sales point of view, it pleases me to report that Tea with Winnicott has become one of our most popular titles of all time.

BK: Oh, that is very gratifying.  Returning to Freud, if we may, what did you think of the Freud that you encountered in the Coffee book?

KN: Well, not being a Freud scholar, I suppose I had the usual preconceptions about Freud as being rather stuffy, rather “old school” … a bit of a cold fish.

BK: And after having read Coffee?

KN: Far from it!  He really does come across as a warm, compassionate man … an ambitious man, without doubt, and quite single-minded in his pursuits … but a warm and compassionate man nonetheless.


From Coffee with Freud. Illustration by Alison Bechdel © 2017

BK: Oh, that pleases me.  I do think that we need to reconsider some of the crude stereotypes about Freud.  Alison Bechdel’s magnificent cartoons really help us in this respect.

KN: Ms. Bechdel drew the cartoons of Winnicott for the Tea book?  And now she has produced these wonderful drawings of Freud for Coffee.

BK: I do not know any artist better qualified for the job.  She has captured the deepest essence of both Winnicott and Freud perfectly.  I count my lucky stars that she agreed to work on these projects.

fun-homeKN: A remarkable artist.

BK: And hugely passionate about psychotherapy and psychoanalysis … and quite public in her passion and in her appreciation for our profession.

KN: She has written about her own experience in her books … her memoirs.

BK: She has indeed … and I think that both her books and her profile as a great cartoonist and artist will do much to destigmatise psychotherapy.

KN: I thank you for your time in speaking with me.

BK: No, please, let me thank you and everyone at Karnac Books for embracing the “Interviews with Icons”.  An author cannot function without a publisher, and I feel very blessed to be one of your authors.

KN: Thank you so much.

258sProfessor Brett Kahr is Senior Fellow at the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, in the Tavistock Institute of Medical Psychology, London, and Senior Clinical Research Fellow in Psychotherapy and Mental Health at the Centre for Child Mental Health. A registrant of both the British Psychoanalytic Council and the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy, he has written or edited nine books and serves as Series Editor or Co-Editor to the ‘Forensic Psychotherapy Monograph Series’ and the ‘History of Psychoanalysis Series’ for Karnac Books. He is also a Trustee of the Freud Museum London. He has worked in the mental health field for over thirty-five years.

His latest book, Coffee with Freud, has just been published by Karnac.