The Interpretation of Murder: A Novel
by Jed Rubenfeld
Published by Henry Holt and Company
384 pages, 2006
An Intricate Tale of Murder and the Mind's Most Dangerous Mysteries
The Interpretation of Murder opens on a hot summer night in 1909 as Sigmund Freud -- already world famous and highly controversial -- disembarks in New York from a steamship. With Freud is his rival Carl Jung; among those waiting to greet him is Dr. Stratham Younger, a gifted physician who is one of Freud's most ardent American supporters. And so begins the visit that will be the great genius's first -- and only -- journey to America.
The morning after Freud's arrival, in an opulent penthouse across the city, a barely clad, beautiful woman is discovered murdered -- whipped, mutilated, and strangled with a white silk tie. The next day, a rebellious heiress named Nora Acton barely escapes becoming the killer's second victim. Yet the lovely Miss Acton, suffering from hysteria, cannot remember the terrifying incident or her attacker. Asked to consult on the case, Dr. Younger calls on the visiting Freud to guide him through the girl's analysis. As Younger is drawn into her story -- her desire to attend college, her rich, difficult parents, her rejection of the mogul who has fallen in love with her -- he comes to care deeply for this remarkable young woman, even as he discovers that she may still be in grave danger. Then Younger is pulled into another crisis: he learns of a series of bizarre events suggesting a conspiracy to ruin Freud's reputation.
Joining forces with the mayor, the city's eccentric coroner, and a young homicide detective named Jimmy Littlemore, Younger takes part in a murder investigation that reveals the divided soul of a great metropolis on the verge of a sophisticated, violent new era. The chase for the culprit leads through New York, from the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria to the luxurious salons of Gramercy Park, from the rising skyscrapers that seem to dot every street corner to the bottom of the East River, where laborers are working on the new Manhattan Bridge.
The Interpretation of Murder is an intricately plotted, elegantly wrought entertainment filled with delicious surprises, subtle sleights of hand, and fascinating ideas. Drawing on Freud's case histories, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the rich history of New York, this remarkable novel marks the debut of a brilliantly engaging new storyteller.
In the open-roofed car, rattling down Broadway, Ferenczi asked me if it was normal in America to eat a melange of apples, nuts, celery, and mayonnaise. Rose Brill had evidently served her guests a Waldorf salad.
Freud had fallen silent. He appeared to be brooding. I wondered if Brill's comments were troubling him; I myself had begun to think something might be wrong with Jung. I also wondered what Freud meant when he said that Jung was more important than the rest of us put together.
"Brill is a paranoiac," Ferenczi said abruptly, addressing Freud. "It is nothing."
"The paranoid is never entirely mistaken," Freud replied. "Did you hear Jung's slip?"
"What slip?" said Ferenczi.
"His slip of the tongue," answered Freud. "He said, 'America will ban you' -- not us but you."
Freud relapsed into silence. We took Broadway all the way down to Union Square, then Fourth Avenue to the Bowery Road through the Lower East Side. As we passed the closed stalls of the Hester Street market, we had to slow down. Although it was nearly eleven, Jewish men crowded the streets, wearing their long beards and peculiar outfits, black from head to foot. Perhaps it was too hot to sleep in the airless, crammed tenements in which so many of the city's immigrants lived. The Jews walked arm in arm or gathered in small circles, with much gesturing and loud disputation. The sound of their mongrel low German, which the Hebrews call Yiddish, was everywhere.
"So this is the New World," Freud observed from the front seat, not favorably. "Why on earth would they come so far, only to recreate what they left behind?"
I hazarded a question: "Are you not a religious man, Dr. Freud?"
It was infelicitous. At first I thought he hadn't heard me. Ferenczi answered instead: "It depends on what is meant by religious. If, for example, religious means believing God is gigantic illusion inspired by collective Oedipal complex, Freud is very religious."
Freud now fixed on me for the first time the piercing gaze I had seen on the quay. "I will tell you your thought process in asking me that," he said. "I asked why these Jews had come here. It occurred to you to say They came for religious freedom, but you reconsidered, because it seemed too obvious. You then reflected that if I, a Jew, could not see that they came for religious freedom, it must be that religion does not signify much for me -- indeed, so little that I failed to see how important it is for them. Hence your question. Do I have it right?"
"Completely," I replied.
"Not to worry," interposed Ferenczi. "He does this to everyone."
"So. You ask me a direct question," said Freud; "I will give you a direct answer. I am the deepest of unbelievers. Every neurosis is a religion to its owner, and religion is the universal neurosis of mankind. This much is beyond doubt: the characteristics we attribute to God reflect the fears and wishes we first feel as infants and then as small children. Anyone who does not see that much cannot have understood the first thing about human psychology. If it is religion you are looking for, do not follow me."
"Freud, you are being unfair," said Ferenczi. "Younger did not say he was looking for religion."
"The boy has taken an interest in my ideas; he may as well know their implications." Freud scrutinized me. All at once, the severity disappeared, and he gave me an almost fatherly look. "And as I may possibly take an interest in his, I return the question: are you a religious man, Younger?"
To my embarrassment, I did not know how to respond. "My father was," I said.
"You answer a question," Ferenczi replied, "different from the one that was put."
"But I understand him," said Freud. "He means: because his father believed, he is inclined to doubt."
"That's true," I said.
"But he also wonders," Freud added, "whether a doubt so founded is a good doubt. Which inclines him to believe."
I could only stare. Ferenczi asked my question. "How can you possibly know that?"
"It all follows," answered Freud, "from what he told us last night: that going into medicine was his father's wish, not his own. And besides," he added, taking a satisfied pull at his cigar, "I felt the same way when I was younger."
With its grand marble facade, Greek pediments, and fantastic dome, softly lit by streetlamps, the new police headquarters at 240 Centre Street looked more like a palace than a municipal building. Passing through a pair of massive oak doors, we found a uniformed man behind a semicircular desk raised up to chest level. Electrical lights cast a yellow glow around him. He cranked up a telephonic device, and soon enough we were greeted by Mayor McClellan, together with an older, worried-looking, potbellied gentleman named Higginson, who turned out to be the Actons' family doctor.
Shaking each of us by the hand, McClellan apologized to Freud profusely for causing him so dreadful an inconvenience. "Younger tells me you are also an expert on ancient Rome. I will give you my book on Venice. But I must take you upstairs. Miss Acton is in the most lamentable condition."
The mayor led us up a marble staircase. Dr. Higginson talked a good deal about the measures he had taken -- none of which sounded harmful, so we had some luck there. We entered a large office in the classic style, with leather chairs, a good deal of brass, and an imposing desk. Behind this desk, looking much too small for it, a girl was seated, wrapped in a light blanket, with a policeman on either side of her.
McClellan was correct: she was in a pitiable state. She had been crying hard; her face was horribly red and swollen from it. Her long blond hair was loose and matted. She looked up at us with the largest, most fearful eyes I have ever seen -- fearful and distrustful.
"We've been at it every which way," McClellan declared. "She is able to tell us, by writing, everything that happened before and after. But as to the -- ah -- incident itself, she remembers nothing." Next to the girl were sheets of paper and a pen.
The mayor introduced us. The girl's name was Nora. He explained that we were special doctors who, he hoped, would be able to help her recover her voice and her memory. He spoke to her as if she were a child of seven, perhaps confusing her speaking difficulty with a difficulty in understanding, although one could tell instantly from her eyes that she had no impairment on that score. Predictably, the entrance of three more strange new men had the effect of overwhelming the girl. Tears came to her eyes, but she held them back. She actually wrote an apology to us, as if she were at fault for her amnesia.
"Please proceed, gentlemen," said McClellan.
Freud wanted first to rule out a physiological basis for her symptoms. "Miss Acton," he said, "I would like to be sure you have not suffered an injury to your head. Will you permit me?" The girl nodded. After making a thorough inspection, Freud concluded, "There is no cranial injury of any kind."
"Damage to the larynx could cause aphonia," I remarked, referring to the girl's loss of voice.
Freud nodded and invited me, by gesture, to examine the girl myself.
Approaching Miss Acton, I felt inexplicably nervous. I could not identify the source of this anxiety; I seemed to be afraid that I would appear to Freud as inexperienced, yet I had performed examinations infinitely more complicated -- and these in front of my professors at Harvard -- without any such unease. I explained to Miss Acton that it was important to determine whether a physical injury might be causing her inability to speak. I asked if she would take my hand and place it on her neck in such a way as to minimize her own discomfort. I held my hand out, two fingers extended. Reluctantly, she conducted it toward her throat, placing my fingers, however, on her collarbone. I asked her to lift her head. She complied, and as I ran my fingers up her throat to the larynx, I noticed, despite her injuries, the soft, perfect lines of her neck and chin, which might have been carved in marble by Bernini. When I applied pressure to various points, she squinted but did not draw back. "There is no evidence of laryngeal trauma," I reported.
Miss Acton looked even more mistrustful now than when we first came in. I didn't blame her. It can be more upsetting for a person to find out there isn't anything physically wrong with her than to find out there is. At the same time, she was without her family, surrounded by strange men. She seemed to be assessing us all, one by one.
"My dear," Freud said to her, "you are anxious about the loss of your memory and your voice. You need not be. Amnesia after such an incident is not uncommon, and I have seen loss of speech many times. Where there is no permanent physical injury -- and you have none -- I have always succeeded in eliminating both conditions. Now: I am going to ask you some questions, but none about what happened to you today. I want you to tell me only how you are at this moment. Would you care for something to drink?" She nodded gratefully; McClellan sent out one of the officers, who returned shortly with a cup of tea. In the meantime, Freud engaged the girl in conversation -- he speaking, she writing -- but only on the most general of facts, such as, for example, that she was to be a freshwoman at Barnard starting next month. In the end, she wrote that she was sorry she could not answer the policemen's questions, and she wanted to go home.
Freud indicated that he wished to speak with us outside the girl's hearing. This prompted a grave trooping of men -- Freud, Mayor McClellan, Ferenczi, Dr. Higginson, and me -- to the far corner of the spacious office, where Freud asked, in a very low voice, "Was she violated?"
"No, thank God," whispered McClellan.
"But her wounds," said Higginson, "are conspicuously concentrated around her -- private parts." He cleared his throat. "Apart from her back, it seems she was whipped repeatedly about her buttocks and -- ah -- pelvis. In addition, she was cut once on each of her thighs with a sharp knife or razor."
"What kind of monster does such a thing?" McClellan asked.
"The question is why it doesn't happen more often," replied Freud quietly. "Satisfying a savage instinct is incomparably more pleasurable than satisfying a civilized one. In any event, the best course of action tonight is certainly inaction. I am not convinced her amnesia is hysterical. Severe asphyxiation could bring about the same effect. On the other hand, she is plainly suffering from some deep self-reproach. She should sleep. She may wake up asymptomatic. If her symptoms persist, analysis will be in order."
"Self-reproach?" asked McClellan.
"Guilt," said Ferenczi. 'The girl is suffering not only from attack but from guilt she feels in connection with it."
"Why on earth would she feel guilt?" asked the mayor.
"There are many possible reasons," said Freud. "But an element of self-reproach is almost invariable in cases of sexual assault on the young. She has already twice apologized to us for her memory loss. Her voice loss is more puzzling." | October 2006
Copyright © 2006 Jed Rubenfeld
Currently the Robert R. Slaughter Professor of Law at Yale University, Jed Rubenfeld is one of this country's foremost experts on constitutional law. As a Princeton undergraduate, he wrote his senior thesis on Freud. At the Juilliard School of Drama, he studied Shakespeare. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with his wife and two daughters.