by Norah Labiner; Minneapolis, Minnesota, Coffee House Press, 2009, 270 pages, $14.95
Dr. Rakfeldt is a professor with the Social Work Department at Southern Connecticut State University and a clinical assistant professor with the Department of Psychiatry, Yale University, both in New Haven.
Freud's famous case of "Dora" serves as a backdrop for Norah Labiner's third novel. Freud interprets Dora's dreams involving fire, a jewel box, a train station, deep dark forests, and death to be related to Dora's partially repressed Oedipal yearnings for her father, to a desire for Herr K—who had made sexual advances toward Dora when she was only 14, while she was babysitting his children—as well as to jealousy toward Herr K's wife, with whom Dora's father was having an affair.
Dora's symptoms of hysteria, such as aphonia, clear up after she confronts Herr and Frau K and her father with their behavior and their moral turpitude, which leads them all to confess their misdeeds. These themes from Freud's Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1901) appear and reappear throughout Labiner's book as members of a Jewish-American family (the Leopolds) travel back to Germany, from which they had fled during the rise of Nazism, only to discover dark family secrets related to their great-grandfather, the renowned psychoanalyst Jozef Apfel, and his patient "Elsa Z." Throughout the book, dark haunting images of the Holocaust recur, as do ghostly visitations by dead family members.
The book reads much more as poetry than as prose. It is broken down into 95 lessons. Each lesson begins with a German phrase along with its English translation, much like a foreign traveler's phrase book. Some lessons are longer, describing members of the Leopold family in detail, for example, whereas others are very short. Lesson 41, for example, consists of only one sentence. After the German phrase and its translation—"Johannisbeeren sind ihr ohne Sucker zu sauer. She finds red currants too sour without sugar."—comes "Pick one moment out of the past and replay it endlessly."
Psychotherapy, especially for victims of trauma, is sometimes described as a process during which patients' ghosts are turned into their ancestors. Patients learn to no longer be so tormented by visitations of past traumatic experiences. Instead, patients are able to live with these memories more as part of their lineage and heritage and more like remembered ancestors than as present-day apparitions and "things that go bump in the night," frightening and torturous. For these reasons, as well as for its lush, poetic prose, German for Travelers would be of interest to the readers of Psychiatric Services.