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The Roots of Hysteria in Sigmund Freud's 'The Dora Case'

Ida Bauer, later Freud’s patient Dora, and her brother Otto, later the leader of Austromarxism, as children [Photograph].

Ida Bauer (1882-1945), who was given the pseudonym 'Dora' in the case study, was Sigmund Freud’s famous patient diagnosed as suffering from hysteria. She has been the subject of study for many academics willing to track down the roots of the pathology and analyze the means by which the family environment and societal norms led to the development of her hysteria. This article stakes out the ground for post-Freudian re-readings of The Dora Case and the interpretations of her two dreams.

Had Dora’s father not had the idea to bring his eighteen-year-old daughter to attend psychoanalysis sessions with Sigmund Freud after an episode of “loss of consciousness” and “amnesia”, Dora’s diagnosis would never have been revealed. Her sickness was the result of a series of events that took place during her childhood and which opened the gate for the occurrence of the first symptoms. Prior to that, the family environment played a significant role in the psychological and emotional development of Dora as a child. She grew up in a dysfunctional family: her father suffered from syphilis and had a mistress, named Frau K.; her mother had an obsession with cleaning as a reaction to her husband’s illness and affair; and there was an incident whereby the husband of her father’s mistress, Herr K., attempted to sexually assault Dora when she was fourteen. When investigating The Dora Case, the American sociologist Philip Rieff criticized the way Freud gave little importance to the pathological background of Dora's family and their acquaintances, the K.s, as a precursor to her hysteria.

“The sick daughter has a sick father, who has a sick mistress, who has a sick husband, who proposes himself to the sick daughter as her lover. Dora does not want to hold hands in this charmless circle—although Freud does, at one point, indicate that she should” Philip Rieff. (Akavia, 2005, pp.196).

Dora’s symptoms of hysteria

[A Photograph of Freud’s patient : Ida Bauer (1882–1945)]

It all started when Dora was “seven or eight”, suffering from “a vaginal discharge or leucorrhea” (Akavia, 2005). After that, she got “dyspnoea” - shortness of breath - for six months while her father was absent. Dora’s shortness of breath was thought to be “purely nervous”. When Dora was twelve, her father’s health condition got worse due to syphilis and she started to suffer from severe migraines accompanied by “attacks of nervous coughing (tussis nervosa)”, explains Akavia (2005). While the migraines disappeared when she was sixteen, coughing attacks persisted, leading to “a complete loss of voice”. The successive symptoms of her health condition deeply impacted her psychological condition and caused her to interact less with people, claiming to feel tired and less focused. Due to her complicated relationship with her parents, Dora thought of committing suicide but did not succeed in doing so. Despite the suicide letter found by her parents, her health condition did not concern them greatly. However, shortly afterwards came Dora's episode of “loss of consciousness (probably accompanied by convulsions and delirious states) followed by amnesia”, argues Akavia (2005), which made her father decide that it was high time for his daughter to consult a psychoanalyst—his doctor—for further treatment and examination.

Dora and her mother

Freud’s analysis of Dora’s relationship with her mother is viewed on two distinct yet related perspectives, explains Akavia (2005). On the one hand, Dora’s mother is given attributes of “an uncultivated and foolish woman”, who suffers from what Freud calls—“housewife’s psychosis”, playing the role of the rival in the dynamics of Dora’s oedipal complex. This obsession with domestic cleaning is a defense mechanism that can be explained in Dora’s mother functioning by purifying herself through the activity of cleaning and her attempt at reordering her life as a reaction to, not only her husband’s illness prior to their marriage, but also to his liaison with Frau K. On the other hand, Dora’s mother “suffering from abdominal pain and vaginal discharge” after having intimate relations with her husband, led Freud’s patient Dora to conclude that the origin of her illness came exclusively from her father’s syphilis and was transmitted to her “by heredity”. For Freud, Dora’s interpretation of her identification with her mother was pretty obvious since she was convinced that she felt and endured the same symptoms her mother felt, which was not approved by Freud. For instance, Dora’s catarrh is explained by Freud as “a physiological manifestation”, and “not as a symptom of her hysteria, but as the organic result of infantile masturbation.” (Akavia, 2005, pp. 201). In addition to that, Dora’s first dream comes in the shape of somatization, reflecting a “somatic identification” between the daughter and the mother, according to Freud.

Dora and her father

Turning to Freud’s study of Dora’s relationship with her father and his interpretation of her hysteria, Freud thought “that the father was partly responsible for the development of Dora’s illness: through his relations with the K.’s.” (Akavia, 2005, pp.202). In these terms, Freud did not relate Dora’s engendered hysteria to her father’s illness, nor to the direct consequence of the father-daughter relationship, clarifies Akavia (2005). Unlike the Freudian explanation of the roots of Dora’s hysteria, Akavia’s opinion on the matter is quite divergent as she explains that the father’s illness, such as “having tuberculosis”, afterwards “suffering from a detached retina”, and finally getting syphilis, has primarily prepared the ground for her getting symptoms of hysteria. For instance, Dora suffered from dyspnoea, which was detected as the first symptom of hysteria, reflecting her father’s tuberculosis symptoms, argues Akavia (2005). Freud’s opinion about Dora’s dyspnoea, however, is interpreted from a rather sexual perspective, as the act of masturbation triggers “a slight shortness of breath after orgasm”, which appears to be coincidental as Dora must have been aware of her parents having intimate relations, which explains “her father’s hard breathing”.

Scene from “Sigmund Freud’s Dora: A Case of Mistaken Identity” Vintage Movie Still [Photograph]

Furthermore, Dora had to take care of her sick father from an early age, as it was considered to be a woman's duty in the nineteenth century. This presumably created a strong bond with the paternal figure along with her cognizance of his secret affair with Frau K. leading, thus, to unconsciously relate herself to her father as “her primary object of identification” (Akavia, 2005, pp.203). The fact of knowing about her father’s affair with Frau K. raises feelings of jealousy towards her father for being intimate with his mistress, explains Zechner (2020). Hence, Dora’s unconscious desire for her father is a trigger of her “infantile sexuality” accompanied by “erotic sensations” felt “while performing nursing tasks”, states Akavia (2005).

“Freud claimed that Dora was unconsciously in love with her father, and that her hysteria resulted from the need to re-repress her returning infantile desires.” (Akavia, 2005)

Dora and Herr K.

“From the get-go, Freud bases the hermeneutics of his analysis on the assumption of a series of substitutions securely enclosing Dora within a libidinal swirl flowing from guy to guy to guy: father—Herr K.—analyst.” (Zechner, 2020, pp.92)

[Movie poster of the short documentary Hysterical Girl (2020) Kate Novack]

At the age of fourteen, Dora was sexually assaulted by Herr K.—the husband of her father’s mistress, Frau K. There are two versions of the assault. While the first version of the assault is known to have occurred at Herr K.’s office in spring 1896, as reported by Lockheart and Blagrove (2020), the second version is slightly different, whereby the assault took place in Herr K.’s store after finishing his business, a short while before heading to the church with his wife, asserts Zechner (2020). Dora left the store in a hurry and succeeded in getting herself away from the man. However, once she was far from the place, she could not get rid of “a lasting sensation of disgust”. Consequently, the fourteen-year-old girl experienced “a persistent feeling of pressure on her thorax, somatic echo of the blindsiding embrace.” (Zechner, 2020, p. 96). This sensation is referred to as “the phantom erection”, located in the lower part of Dora’s body through “Herr K.’s erect penis pressing against her body”, or what Freud named “The aroused member’s “surge forward” (andrängen)", before ascending to the upper part of her body causing, thus, somatization through her “aching thorax.” In other words, the repressed feelings for her father and the episode of the sexual assault with Herr K. appeared in her two dreams as a reflection of her willingness to change the family situation for the better and to revolt against the societal norms. Nevertheless, hidden emotions about the K. relationship are decoded by Freud throughout the eleven-week period of the sessions, which Dora felt the need to interrupt suddenly in December 1900, right after telling him about her second dream.

Painting by Julia Lockheart of the first dream that Dora told Freud, of being rescued from a burning house; painted during the online Swansea Science Festival Freud and Dora event, October 2020. [Illustration]

However, long before Dora’s analysis was interrupted there was another episode of assault that took place in June 1898, when Dora and her family were invited to spend a few days at “the K.’s house near a lake in the Alps” (Lockheart and Blagrove, 2020), which was the reason why her father insisted on taking her to be examined by Freud. For the second time, Herr K. attempted to molest Dora “on a boat trip on the lake”, which led Dora to slap the man and attempt to escape him another time. Unlike the previous episode of assault, Dora was more exposed to Herr K.’s sexual advances as he tried to sneak into her room while she was taking a nap. Dora’s desperation pushed her to tell her parents about Herr K.’s true intention towards her, but nobody believed her version of the story, which Herr K. denied. Consequently, for four successive nights, Dora had the same dream. Dora's first dream—what Lockheart and Blagrove (2020) refer to as “the burning house dream”—represents another “phantom erection”, which Dora experienced in the shape of “an instance of conversion disorder: erection as hysterical symptom” (Zechner, 2020). According to the British academic Jacqueline Rose (1985), the interpretation of Dora's first dream is similar to Zechner's. It is depicted as an "oedipal and hysterical" reaction to Dora's "repudiation" of her desire towards Herr K.

Dora’s first dream

“As Dora recounted, “A house was on fire. My father was standing beside my bed and woke me up. I dressed quickly. Mother wanted to stop and save her jewel-case; but Father said: ‘I refuse to let myself and my two children be burnt for the sake of your jewel-case.’ We hurried downstairs, and as soon as I was outside I woke up.” (Akavia, 2005, pp.209).

Freud’s interpretation of Dora’s first dream, which was a reaction to the episode of assault at the lake, is based on a deeper and more complex analysis of her desire to escape Herr K. and the lake house. Rose (1985) argues that Dora’s first dream is interpreted on two layers. The first layer of interpretation is deeply connected to Dora’s “infantile affection for the father”, whereas the second one is embedded with an unconscious sexual desire towards Herr K., paving the way to another “homoerotic” desire towards Frau K. In her dream, Dora was saved by her father. Akavia (2005) argues that in the dream, Dora’s father is given the role of the “protector and caretaker”, whereby despite the fire, he risked his life for the safety of his children. In the real world, Dora’s father is unable to protect his daughter because of his illness, his stubbornness, and because he does not believe Dora’s version of the story. Also, the fact that her father persisted in having an affair with Frau K., in spite of Dora’s insistence on putting an end to their intimate relationship, led the girl to suffer from other symptoms of hysteria: “aphonia, or loss of voice” (Rose, 1985, pp. 133).

“[…] I failed to discover in time and to inform the patient that her homosexual (gynaecophilic) love for Frau K. was the strongest unconscious current in her mental life.” Freud (Hertz, 2005, pp.132).

It is through “aphonia”, another hysterical symptom in Dora’s case, expressed in her unconscious desire of fantasizing about her father and Frau K. when getting intimate, claims Rose (1985), that another aspect of Dora’s dream was explored in terms of “female homosexuality” (Zechner, 2020). According to Freud, Dora is unconsciously driven to Frau K. because she is caught in the psychodynamics of being a “gynaecophile”. The German term Freud used is “gynäkophil”, which means “slightly unusual”, claims Zechner (2020). In these terms, Freud’s explanation of “gynaecophile” is to be “male”. In Dora’s case, the girl unconsciously seeks to be in her father’s place in order to undergo the erotic process of having Frau K. for herself . According to Zechner (2020), Freud’s reading of Dora’s hidden desire for her father’s mistress is a “phallic reading”, a means by which to confirm his mistake in not comprehending Dora’s love for Frau K. This is another illusionary reference to the “phantom erection” as long as Dora is kept in the masculine triangle—her father, Herr K. and Freud himself.

Freud, S., Bell, A., & Robertson, R. (2013, April). [Book Cover of A Case of Hysteria (Dora)]

Furthermore, Dora’s unconscious desire of the K.’s relationship, noticed by Freud while analyzing her first dream, was severely denied by the girl. Nevertheless, when being analyzed with a psychoanalytic approach, the “motif of the jewel-box” is misinterpreted by Freud, explains Akavia (2005), whereby the Freudian association of the jewels with the feminine sexual organs, referred to and defined by Freud as “Schmuckkästchen”, are connected only to Dora’s relationship with her mother. Since her mother is fond of jewelry, Dora is tempted to own jewelry of her own; something she had never acquired before because of her illness. Moreover, the jewelry box owned by her mother in the dream is interpreted by Freud as the unconscious desire of Dora to be attached to her mother—"the preoedipal attachment between mother and girl child”. This “attachment” is advocated by Freud as being part of the “feminine sexuality”, argues Rose (1985). Akavia (2005) has an opposing opinion about the figurative meaning of the jewelry box. The jewelry box is not emblematic of “the female genitals, but the familial-social system that used disease as a means of discursive exchange.” (Akavia, 2005, pp.211).

Dora’s second dream

Dora’s second dream takes place in a town that she does not recognize where after walking for some time, she finds herself in front of a house. Once she enters the house, she recognizes the way to her room. Surprisingly, she is alone in the house as she finds her way back to her room, where she finds a letter from her mother. She opens the letter and reads the message. Her mother tells her that her father had been ill and died. As her mother invites her to join everybody at the cemetery, Dora decides to attend her father’s funeral.

As the dream continues, Dora goes to a train station but cannot find the right way. However, when looking around, she finds the way to “a thick wood” where she meets a man. She refuses his help before she sees the train station far away. She tries to reach the place many times but fails. She feels anxious for not being able to reach the train station, and later on she comes back home. The “maidservant” informs her that her mother and family members are attending her father’s funeral at the cemetery. Afterwards, Dora heads to her bedroom where she lies on the bed and starts to read a big book, expressing neutral feelings about her father’s death.

Blagrove and Lockheart (2020) relate elements of Dora’s life that appeared in her second dream, such as the description of the unfamiliar town she once visited. By coincidence, Dora received a Christmas gift of “an album of views of a German health-resort”, which refers to the same unfamiliar town she had visited before. The town in Dora’s second dream may also be a reference to the German city of Dresden, where she had the chance to go for a walk by herself after refusing her “male cousin’s offer to be her guide.” Her mother's letter is reminiscent of the suicide letter that Dora wrote to her family. Last but not least, the man in the woods reflects Dora’s memory of Herr K. and the episode of the sexual assault on the lake. The second dream highlights Dora’s desire to subvert the societal norms and revolt against the patriarchal power. Dora’s decision to put an end to her therapy with Freud, incited the Austrian analyst to dig deeper into his patient’s psyche in order to unravel the mystery behind her story and two dreams.

[Book Cover of Freud’s Dora: A Biography of Ida Bauer Adler by Marge Thorell (2022)]

On the whole, The Dora Case remains an intriguing subject to treat, analyze, and study despite the hysteria which Dora—"feminist heroine and epochal icon of analytic collapse” (Zechner, 2020)—had been through. First, enduring her father’s illness and affair with Frau K. was not easy to bear over the years. Second, Dora’s complicated relationship with her mother triggered unconscious homoerotic dynamics in her emotional and sexual development. Third, the trauma of Herr K.’s abuse impacted Dora in her social life and rapport with men. Other readings of The Dora Case are recommended for a better grasp of her story, such as Dora, Hysteria and Gender: Reconsidering Freud’s Case study (2018), In Dora’s case: Freud-Hysteria-Feminism (1990), Freud and the Dora case: A Promise Betrayed (2012), and Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria by Sigmund Freud (1997). Accordingly, another creative project entitled “Dora’s Room: Digital Dreams”, prepared by Clara Chin for her senior fellowship at Dartmouth College, has revolutionized and recreated the world of Ida Bauer from an artistic perspective.

Image sources

Carrion, T. (2015, August 27). [A Photograph of Freud’s patient : Ida Bauer (1882–1945)]. Thisblogrules.Com. (n.d.). Scene from “Sigmund Freud’s Dora: A Case of Mistaken Identity”Vintage Movie Still [Photograph]. Collectors.Com.

Freud, S., Bell, A., & Robertson, R. (2013, April). [Book Cover of A Case of Hysteria (Dora)].

Lockheart, J. (2020, October). Painting by Julia Lockheart of the first dream that Dora told Freud, of being rescued from a burning house; painted during online Swansea Science Festival Freud and Dora event, October 2020. [Illustration]. Swansea.Ac.Uk.

[Movie poster of the short documentary Hysterical Girl (2020) Kate Novack]. (2020). Abstract.Productions. (2013, March 26). Ida Bauer, later Freud’s patient Dora, and her brother Otto, later the leader of Austromarxism, as children [Photograph]. Thecharnelhouse.Org.

Thorell, M. & McFarland. (2022, February 24). [Book Cover of Freud’s Dora: A Biography of Ida Bauer Adler by Marge Thorell (2022)].


Akavia, N. & Johns Hopkins University Press. (2005). Hysteria, Identification, and the Family: A Rereading of Freud’s Dora Case. Project Muse, 62(2), 193–216.

Blagrove, Mark, and Julia Lockheart. “The Two Dreams in Freud’s (1905) Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (‘dora’) (draft of Chapter to Be Published in the Forthcoming Routledge Book the Science and Art of Dreaming, by Blagrove and Lockheart.).” PsyArXiv, 14 July 2020. Web.

Dartmouth. (2019, April 3). Clara Chin ’19 on Rethinking Freud’s Most Famous Patient [Video]. YouTube.

DreamsID. (2020, October 27). Discussion and painting of Dora’s dream of being rescued from a burning house, told to Freud in 1900 [Video]. YouTube.

Hertz, N. (1985). Dora’s Secrets, Freud’s Techniques. In The Internet-First University Press (Ed.), The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime (pp. 122–143). Columbia University Press. Copyright 2005 by Neil Hertz

Rose, J. (1985). Dora: Fragment of an Analysis. In C. Bernheimer & C. Kahane (Eds.), In Dora’s Case: Freud-Hysteria-Feminism (pp. 128–148). Columbia University Press.

Zechner, D. (2020). The Phantom Erection Freud’s Dora and Hysteria’s Unreadabilities. In J. Braun (Ed.), Performing Hysteria: Contemporary Images and Imaginations of Hysteria (pp. 87–101). Leuven University Press.

Additional readings

Billig, M. (in press). Freud and Dora: repressing an oppressed identity. British Journal of Social PsychologyR.

Boyce, N. (2015). Dora in the 21st century. The Lancet Journal, 386(9997).

Cherry, K., & Block, D. B. (2020, March 16). What Is Hysteria? The Past and Present. Verywellmind.Com. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from

Dartmouth. (2019a, March 4). Rethinking Hysteria in ‘Dora’s Room: Digital Dreams.’ Home.Dartmouth.Edu. Retrieved January 4, 2022, from (2019, October 11). Somatisation: Demystifying the “ghost in the machine.” Retrieved January 4, 2022, from


Apr 28, 2023

The woman whose photo is shown here is not Ida Bauer (Dora). She is Ellen Ida Benham, a pioneering Austrialian scientist and teacher.

The only photo of the adult Ida that I am aware of was taken in 1917. It shows her stood by a piano with her young son Kurt. A version appeared in Der Spiegel in 2018


Jan 11, 2022

Thank you very much Mrs Neyra for this amazing and well documented analysis about Dora's case.

I will definitely share your article with my students at the university in my courses of introduction to psychoanalysis and psychopathology.

Neyra Behi
Neyra Behi
Jan 11, 2022
Replying to

Thank you very much, Mrs. Mrabet 😊 that's thoughtful of you, I really appreciate it.


Patricia Estenoso
Patricia Estenoso
Jan 10, 2022

This article is very comprehensive and makes you want to read more about the topic! Well done!

Neyra Behi
Neyra Behi
Jan 10, 2022
Replying to

Thank you very much Patricia. That's kind of you 😊


Unknown member
Jan 09, 2022

Another great piece - such an intriguing analysis of the case.

Neyra Behi
Neyra Behi
Jan 09, 2022
Replying to

Thank you very much Natalie! I really appreciate it 😊

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Neyra Behi

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