That Obscure Subject Of Desire: Freud’s Female Homosexual Revisited (Book Review)

Author:  Lesser, Ronnie C. and Erica Schoenberg (Editors)
Publisher: Philadelphia, Pa: Routledge, 1999
Reviewed By: Ona Nierenberg, Winter 2003, pp. 44-47

That Obscure Subject of Desire: Freud’s Female Homosexual Revisited is a multi-disciplinary effort, including papers by academic theorists notable in the areas of film theory, the social sciences and literary theory as well as those by practicing psychoanalysts. The editors, Ronnie C. Lesser, PhD, (co-editor of Disorienting Sexualities: Psychoanalytic Reappraisals of Sexual Identity) and Erica Schoenberg, PhD, are analysts widely known for their influential work highlighting queer, gay and lesbian perspectives. This collection of essays is conceived as a “dialogue” amongst scholars, each of whom take as their starting point Freud’s 1920 paper, “The Psychogenesis of A Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” which is helpfully reprinted in this volume.

To begin “Psychogenesis…”, Freud stakes his paper’s “claim to attention” upon his observation that “[h]omosexuality in women...[has] been neglected by psychoanalytic research” (p. 13). Echoing Freud in her Introduction, Lesser tells us that the inspiration for this volume is the disregard this case has suffered throughout the history of psychoanalytic discourse as well as the marginalization of lesbians in the broader cultural milieu. However, she also points out that “Psychogenesis…” has served as a foundation for subsequent disparaging theories of female homosexuality. Thus, we are drawn to the interesting paradox that the significance of Freud’s case history lays at once in its obscurity and its influence.

Much like In Dora’s Case, an interdisciplinary collection of essays compiled nearly two decades ago spotlighting the “spiritual twin of our anonymous putative lesbian” (Grey, p. 148), the project of this anthology is to initiate discovery on the ground of Freud’s “failure,” precisely there where he encountered questions regarding what he called the “dark continent,” feminine sexuality. The authors herein seek alternatives to Freud’s account of the unconscious determinants of the adoration this “beautiful and clever girl of eighteen” lavishes upon her beloved, a woman about 10 years her senior, who was known to “live with a married woman as her friend, having intimate relations with her, while at the same time she carried on promiscuous affairs with a number of men” (pp. 13-14). Whereas Freud characterizes his narrative as one “in which it was possible to trace its origin and development in the mind with complete certainty and almost without a gap” (p.13), each author in this collection challenges the discrepancy between this bold assertion and the twisting and turning psychical trajectory Freud offers to account for his patient’s courtly love of the “cocotte.” Freud’s chronicle provides fertile ground for these writers, who call into question nearly every aspect of the case, including Freud’s decision to see the patient (despite his misgivings) since she was brought to psychoanalysis by her father; his use of the Oedipus complex to map her unconscious erotic life and his characterization of her style of loving as “masculine,” his accusation that she is lying to him through her dreams, and his termination of the treatment with the suggestion that it should be continued by a female psychoanalyst.

The papers in this volume are divided into two main sections: “Contributions from Academic Scholars,” and “Contributions from Psychoanalysts.” However, the great divide in this collection does not run along the lines of authorial profession; there is a notable schism in how these writers approach the act of reading Freud. This divergence is one that bears close scrutiny. On the one hand, several outstanding pieces by Teresa de Lauretis, Adrienne Harris and Donald Moss with Lynne Zeavin are noteworthy for their original theorizing, not about Freud the man, but about the objects of his inquiry, sexuality and the unconscious. Their creativity is achieved against a solid background of attention to the elements of Freud’s text without sacrificing careful regard to the cultural context of his work. Allowing the gaps, contradictions, and slippages in the writing to speak to us, these writers interpret Freud’s text. DeLauretis’ inventive piece works and re-works Freud’s case as she theorizes lesbian desire by re-conceptualizing the Oedipus complex, thoughtfully contemplating memory, desire and reading itself in the process. In an essay reprinted from Psychoanalytic Dialogues, Harris’ scrupulous attention to the letter of Freud’s case history opens onto a provocative analysis of psychoanalytic history, which offers a firm base for her exploration of “gender as paradox.” Moss and Zeavin’s “The Female Homosexual: C’est Nous” is a rewarding and utterly original psychoanalytic “improvisation” on sexuality and “the voice.” Using Freud’s case as their starting note, these analysts remind us of the fundamental psychoanalytic principle, which we insist on forgetting time and again: that consciousness is a manifestation of unconscious dynamics, not the other way around. At once poetic and startlingly clear, their essay does nothing less than reveal how psychoanalytic truth radically undermines conventional epistemology. In fact, Moss and Zeavin perfectly capture the strategy of reading Freud they share with de Lauretis and Harris when they write: “We aim to counter Freud’s sexual theorizing with Freudian sexual theorizing” (p.199; emphasis mine). And what is “Freudian theorizing”? Lacan defines it thus: “Not for us the synchronization for the various stages of Freud’s thought, nor even getting them to agree. It is a matter of seeing to what unique and constant difficulty the development of this thought–-made of the contradictions and its various stages–-responded. Through the succession to antimonies that this thought always presents us with, within each of these stages, and between them, it is a matter of confronting what is properly the object of our experience“(1954-55/1988b, p.147).

On the other hand and in contrast, the majority of writers in this collection deploy a reading strategy which Lesser describes in her Introduction as “viewing knowledge as a sociopolitical product” (p. 1). Their works foreground critiques of Freud the misogynist, Freud the homophobe, Freud the heterosexist, and Freud the oppressor, seeking to address and redress the injustices they believe Freud perpetrated upon his patient Fueled by what Goldner (in her publicity blurb) describes as “feminist indignation” regarding the case Freud so “willfully misunderstood,” these authors point to his “appalling behavior”(Lesser, p. 1) as he is “blindsided by his need,” (ibid, p. 4) thus “denying subjecthood” to his patient (ibid, p. 8). Freud is called to task for his “profoundly digressive and incoherent essay”(Gagnon, p. 78), and accused of “simply perpetuat[ing] the heterosexual myth of his time (and ours)” (D’Ercole, p. 118) as well as “react[ing] with thinly disguised rage to challenges to masculine authority and prerogative” (Grey, p. 151). He is also denounced for enforcing a “determined silencing of one female homosexual” (Schoenberg, p. 216) that results in “a blaming, self-serving account” (ibid, p.228). And with a large dose of the “Schadenfreude” Dimen notes in her Conclusion, we are even told that “the only thing that makes this particular text pleasurable to read is that ultimately, Freud is shown, despite his own attempt to have it otherwise, to be unsuccessful...”(Woolwine, p. 103). It is this emphasis on Freud as the agent of deprivation which leads Lesser, in her Introduction, to state, “we wished to remove the patient from Freud’s shadow and give her a voice” (p. 1).

But let us listen to what happens when the attempt is made to actualize this “wish”: in place of the fantasied restoration of the patient’s singular voice, we encounter a profusion of imaginary authorial identifications. Perez-Foster reflects upon her experience of “Carribean gender training”; Schoenberg reviews a dream and narrates her struggles writing her essay; Carolyn Grey recounts her Wellesley college education. Thus, in response to this impossible wish, to give what one does not have to give, we find the authors repeating the very thing for which they inculpate Freud. That is, they substitute their own voices there where they damn Freud for “confus[ing] the voice in his own head for that of the patient” (D’Ercole, p. 119). Dimen’s Conclusion recognizes this problem, but excuses it by concluding, “If you discredit the personal voice, the first-person narrative, you risk eliminating one of the most important resistances to disciplinary power” (p.250). However, such an assertion misses the mark by refusing to engage the penetrating questions raised by Moss and Zeavin’s powerful psychoanalytic argument for the “unreliability” of the first person voice, even when (or perhaps especially when) it speaks in the name of moral authority.

Replacing Freud’s reading of his patient’s unconscious conflicts, we find here hypothesized portrayals of her supposed conscious experience as a “self” in conflict with the social order. “Imagine,” writes D’Ercole, “the excitement this 18 year old girl must feel as she catches sight of the possibilities of life lived with a freedom her own mother never enjoyed... Her words suggest a determination and confidence, a sense of agency that is minimized by Freud’s psychoanalytic story” (p.119). Perez-Foster asserts that the girl was “courageous” and that she “protested her confinement and squarely faced her father and eventually his surrogate” (p. 138). “She shines through as a remarkable resistor to authority and to what has come to be called patriarchy,” states David Woolwine (p.110). The problem with such portrayals of a lesbian activist avant la lettre is their complete collapse of conscious experience and unconscious dynamics. Such a breakdown obfuscates the specificity of Freudian discourse on sexuality, and its singular achievement in deciphering the trajectory by which the ideas and laws of human civilization come to inhabit us and live us, despite our ignorance, renunciations, and manifest repulsion. As Russell Jacoby writes, “If Freud was conservative in his immediate disregard of society, his concepts are radical in their pursuit of society where it allegedly does not exist: in the privacy of the individual” (1975, p.26). The question is, why do so many of these authors find it necessary to bypass the question of “psychogenesis,” altogether in order to avoid psychopathologizing same-sex desire?

The stumbling block, which is cited again and again in this volume, is Freud’s reliance on the inseparable concepts of bisexuality and the Oedipus complex, which can provoke the mistaken conclusion that he is simply endorsing a biologically-based heterosexual imperative. De Lauretis, Harris, and Dimen each highlight the gap between the Freud who rejected such an imperative in “The Three Essays…” by radically positing the arbitrariness and contingency of the object and the Freud who asserts that his patient “changed into a man and took her mother in place of her father as a love object” (p. 22). Nevertheless, even if one believes Freud is fundamentally reactionary vis-à-vis sexuality (a belief which would have to ignore much of his writing and practice) building a psychoanalytic theory without structural principles such as the Oedipus complex forces one to either presume what one wishes to explain (how human subjects become sexed and sexual) or to abandon the question all together. After all, these concepts, problematic as they may be, make it clear that for Freud, men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, are not born, but made. ”Ultimately,” writes D’Ercole, “what we need to develop is a theory of sexuality devoid of gender and sex that is based of feelings, erotic and otherwise...”(p.127). This recommendation for a sexual theory without sex endorses the idea that we must rid psychoanalytic theory of sexual difference altogether in order to avoid supporting socio-political inequality. Such a recommendation does not take into account that sexual difference is psychical, not anatomical according to Freud. That is, sexuality is “simply” how human subjects are constituted as sexed and sexual in relation to lack, and only to each other as an effect of the misapprehension of lack. How the psychical consequences of anatomy and the illusion of sexual complementarity (that the other has what one does not) come to figure lack is the crucial question here. And if Freud falters on this point, it is this very faltering which can show us the way.

De Lauretis is right to point out that despite its title and Freud’s manifest intentions Psychogenesis “leaves the reader with no clearer view of homosexuality” (p. 45). Indeed, this case history clearly fails in its attempt to offer us a thesis of the etiology of homosexuality. Despite Freud’s boasts of a certain and seamless theory, he tells us “It is not for psychoanalysis to solve the problem of homosexuality” (p. 31), and he consistently undermines his own arguments. However, it is Freud’s lapses that reveal to us that this essay is not “about” female homosexuality at all, but that its topic is feminine sexuality Let us take a little detour back to Three Essays where a significant repetition awaits. Recall that Freud begins the Three Essays by questioning all conventional theories of sexuality. Homosexuality is the linchpin of his attack on the established view that sexuality is natural. He rejects all existing theories of homosexuality, like degeneracy or “acquisition” through social influence as unsupportable. But just when you think he will offer his own peculiarly psychoanalytic theory of homosexuality, he completely bypasses the question. “It will be seen,” he writes, “that we are not in a position to base a satisfactory explanation of the origin of inversion upon the material before us” (1905, p.146). But it is precisely through his attempt to answer this question that he discovers one of his most radical premises: “Nevertheless,” Freud tells us, “our investigation has put us in possession of a piece of knowledge which may turn out to be of greater importance to us than the solution of that problem” (ibid, pp. 146-147). That “piece of knowledge” is that the object has no necessary connection to the sexual drive, that they are utterly independent of one another. Jumping from 1905 to 1920, we find Freud again unable to account for “homosexuality” (this time, specifically “female homosexuality”) despite his boasts to the contrary. But it is this very impasse that leads to another momentous leap in Freud’s theory: the advance to Oedipal asymmetry.

It is clear that in “Psychogenesis…” Freud struggles mightily to maintain the “positive Oedipus complex” which would simply have the boy love his mother and the girl her father without explanation. But as he works through the unconscious life of his patient, this clearly becomes untenable. It a statement so subtle that its importance could easily be missed, Freud shatters his own simple equation: “From the very early years, therefore, her libido had flowed in two streams, the one on the surface being one that we may unhesitatingly designate homosexual. This latter was probably a direct and unchanged continuation of an infantile mother-fixation” (p.29; emphasis mine). This represents a new and significant addition to Freud’s thought. With the introduction of a girl’s “infantile mother-fixation,” girl and boy can no longer be seen as mirror images of one another vis-à-vis their libidinal relationships to their parents. The discovery of Oedipal asymmetry, which Freud will continue to flesh out in his later essays on feminine sexuality, shows us that psychoanalytic sexuality cannot possibly be reduced to the fruits of a biological instinct, nor does it represent a merely conventional view of sexual desire. The remarkable paradox is that the innovation of Oedipal asymmetry in “Psychogenesis…” will turn the question of female homosexuality on its head. Henceforth, the mystery for Freud becomes how any woman could possibly become heterosexual given the mother’s status as her first Other. This is a difficulty he was never able to resolve and this irresolution has been left to question us.

One way to confront this is to follow many of the essays in That Obscure Subject of Desire, to condemn Freud for his “failures” and “mistakes” and condemn ourselves to repetition. After all, many of the objections these writers raise are precisely those addressed in 1975 by Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism. DeLauretis, Harris, and Moss with Zeavin, whose critical attention encompasses a psychoanalytic appreciation for the irreplaceable value of “failure,” show another way us. Even the unfortunate “failure” of so many of the essays in That Obscure Subject of Desire nonetheless reveals how condemnations, by remaining entrapped in the terms of the discourse they decry, actually support the very problem they protest. Thus, the predominance of arguments in this collection which turn on the idea of “who has it and who doesn’t” only serve the phallic myth of wholeness and the fantasy of eradicating lack. In fact, I would argue that the very asymmetry of the masculine and feminine positions, which Freud begins to unveil in this essay, can lead to an opening onto a radical Otherness, to the possibility to sustain and appreciate difference, as well as the opportunity for a discourse which would not be structured by this mythical ideal of completion. As Mieli points out, the issue of rightful political equality should not be confused with a denial of the Real of sexual difference, because such a denial only supports “the phallic illusion of avoiding symbolic castration” (1993, p.424). An alternative to such a position certainly necessitates our encounter with a “beyond” of Freud. Sadly, however, taken as a collection, I do not find that That Obscure Subject of Desire can take us there.

In the end, it is not a question of defending Freud. As H.D. quotes her analyst, “Please, never–-I mean, never at any time, in any circumstance, endeavor to defend me... You will do no good...The only way to extract the fear or the prejudice would be from within, from below...” (1956, pp. 86 -87). As this famous female patient teaches us, defending Freud would be of no use. And so we discover it is the question of reading him that can make all the difference.


Andre, S. (1999). What Does a Woman Want? tr. S. Fairfield. New York: Other Press.

Bernheimer, C. & Kahane, C., Eds. (1985). In Dora’s Case: Freud-Hysteria-Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Copjec, J. (1994). Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dean, T. (2000). Beyond Sexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Freud, E., Ed. (1970), The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Arnold Zweig, tr.E. and W. Robson-Scott, New York: Harcourt Brace.

Freud, S. (1905). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Standard Edition, 7: 123-246. London: Hogarth Press, 1953.

Gallop, J. (1982). The Daughter’s Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Harari, R. (2001). Lacan’s Seminar on “Anxiety”: An Introduction. tr. J. Lamb-Ruiz. New York: Other Press.

H.D. (1956). Tribute to Freud. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Jacoby, R. (1975), Social Amnesia. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lacan, J. (1976). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II (The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955). ed. J.A. Miller; tr. S. Tomaselli. New York: W.W. Norton.

Lacan, J. (1998). Encore: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XX (On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge 1972-1973), ed. J.A. Miller; tr. B. Fink. New York: W.W. Norton.

Laplanche, J. (1976) Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, tr. J. Mehlman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Unversity Press.

Lewes, K. (1988). The Psychoanalytic Theory of Male Homosexuality. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Mieli, P. (1993). Femininity and the Limits of Theory. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, Vol. 16, No. 3.

Millot, C. (1990). Horsexe: Essay on Transsexuality. tr. K. Hylton. New York: Autonomedia.

Mitchell, J. (1975) Psychoanalysis and Feminism. New York: Vintage.

Mitchell, J. & J. Rose, Eds. (1982). Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne New York: W.W. Norton.

Verhage, P. (1999). Does The Woman Exist? From Freud’s Hysteric to Lacan’s Feminine. tr. M. du Ry. New York: Other Press.

Wright, E. (2000). Lacan and Postfeminism. Cambridge, UK: Icon Books.

Ona Nierenberg. is the Mental Health Director of HIV Services at Bellevue Hospital. She is also in private practice in New York City, and is a member of the Apres-Coup Psychoanalytic Association.


© APA Div. 39 (Psychoanalysis). All rights reserved. Readers therefore must apply the same principles of fair use to the works in this electronic archive that they would to a published, printed archive. These works may be read online, downloaded for personal or educational use, or the URL of a document (from this server) included in another electronic document. No other distribution or mirroring of the texts is allowed. The texts themselves may not be published commercially (in print or electronic form), edited, or otherwise altered without the permission of the Division of Psychoanalysis. All other interest and rights in the works, including but not limited to the right to grant or deny permission for further reproduction of the works, the right to use material from the works in subsequent works, and the right to redistribute the works by electronic means, are retained by the Division of Psychoanalysis. Direct inquiries to the chair of the Publications Committee.