Frieda’s Song

Written by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
Review by Jane Ann McLachlan

In 1935, Jewish psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann fled Nazi Germany and began her innovative work in treating mental illness at Chestnut Lodge Sanitorium in Rockville, Maryland, where she practiced until her death in 1957. Interwoven with Frieda’s story is the tale of an imaginary female psychotherapist, Eliza, and her troubled teenage son, living in Frieda’s historic cottage at the time the empty sanitorium building burned down in 2009.

The chapters on Dr. Fromm-Reichmann are written as fictional diary entries being read by Eliza. As such, they use a style of reflective narration, which highlights the psychologist’s melancholic mood and her personal trauma over the attempted genocide of the Jews in Nazi Germany and the racism in the rest of the world, including the United States in which she has sought sanctuary. She also observes the racism endured by her housekeeper, a Black woman named Sally, and compares it to racism against Jews. This part of the story brings home the often-overlooked traumatic experience of Jewish Americans and refugees living through the war in “safe” countries, terrified for loved ones caught in Germany and occupied Europe.

The “diary” style works well for setting a mood and allowing for a first-person, memoir-like reflection on the events as they are occurring. However, the drawbacks of this manner of telling Frieda’s story are the lack of direct active scenes and the abrupt sentence structure, which make it difficult at times to piece together a full picture of the life and accomplishments of Dr. Fromm-Reichmann, and keep the reader at a distance from the unfolding story. I was left feeling I would have liked to know more about her actual accomplishments during this time and to see her developing her psychoanalytic methods by watching her apply them to these patients in active scenes.