TUESDAY TALKS: Historical Novel Melds Past And Present While Exploring The Life And Times of Trailblazing Psychiatrist
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By Jim Arvantes
In 1935, a German psychiatrist named Frieda Fromm-Reichmann fled Nazi Germany and immigrated to the United States, leaving behind family, friends, and colleagues as well as a flourishing career that made her one of the most revered and sought-after psychiatrists in Germany.
Frieda settled in Rockville, Md., and went to work as a resident psychiatrist at the Chestnut Lodge Psychiatric Hospital in Rockville where she played a key role in establishing the Lodge’s reputation for innovative treatments of mental illness.
Frieda lived and practiced out of a little white cottage that she designed and which still stands today. (In 2021, the Secretary of the Interior designated Frieda’s Cottage as a National Historic Landmark, the first such designation in Rockville.)
Frieda practiced at Chestnut Lodge for 22 years until her death in 1957, treating scores of patients and earning international renown for her pioneering treatment of schizophrenia and other mental health conditions.
In the process, Frieda overcame many of her own challenges, mastering the English language as a German/Jewish refugee, for example, while battling a degenerative hearing condition. Despite many challenges, Frieda always managed to forge ahead, providing a high level of care to her patients.
Cleveland Park resident and novelist Ellen Prentiss Campbell has captured the life and times of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann in a riveting and beautifully written historical novel, Frieda’s Song, published in 2021.
That novel and the remarkable life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann served as the basis of a Tuesday Talk webinar with Campbell on Jan. 18. Author Virginia Hartman, whose own novel, The Marsh Queen will come out in September, moderated the discussion, sharing her own perspectives about Frieda’s Song and the writing process in general.
Before turning to writing full time, Campbell worked as a social worker and psychotherapist, a profession that gave her rare insights into the life and career of Frieda.
Strength and resiliency characterized Frieda’s life, attributes that naturally appealed to Campbell.
“I believe that for Frieda, practicing and helping profoundly mentally ill individuals was something that pulled her through during challenges and losses in her own life,” said Campbell.
That theme of healing resonates throughout Frieda’s Song.
Campbell grew up in Rockville, but moved away as an adult. She returned with her husband and children in the mid 1980s, settling in an old home in Rockville’s West End, a few blocks from Chestnut Lodge, which was still operating at the time.
Former residents, who previously lived in the house, visited Campbell periodically to look at the dwelling and reminisce about their time in the home. The visitors always asked if they could come in and look around.
“I am a house junkie, and I am incredibly connected to places where I used to live so I would never, ever, say no,” explained Campbell. “I learned so much from these folks who came and visited, usually just once.”
One woman who came by explained that she, her sisters and mother lived in the house in the 1950s so they could be close to their father, a long-term patient at Chestnut Lodge.
“We only met that once, but we became pen pals of a sort,” said Campbell, whose short story collection, Contents Under Pressure, was nominated for a 2016 National Book Award.
The local surroundings — the proximity of Chestnut Lodge — and the occasional visitors who stopped by Campbell’s home conspired to pull her in, giving her motivation for writing Frieda’s Song. Frieda’s Cottage served as the primary inspiration for the novel.
“I really believe that houses and walls contain our lives, and they continue to be the imprint of the people who have lived within them,” explained Campbell.
That was certainly the case with Frieda’s Cottage.
Relationships & Healing
In Frieda’s Song, psychotherapist Eliza Kline and her teenage son Nick live in Frieda’s Cottage next door to a now shuttered Chestnut Lodge. (The Lodge closed in 2001 and burned to the ground in 2009.)
The mother and son’s relationship is troubled, mired in distrust and tension.
“The book is partly about Frieda, but it is also very much about the questions of relationships – of strong relationships and transgressive relationships,” said Campbell.
In early drafts of the novel, Frieda did not have a speaking role. But as Campbell pointed out, “Frieda absolutely demanded in.”
“So I had to find a way for her to speak to Eliza,” recalled Campbell.
Eliza’s troubled son finds Frieda’s diary in a crawl space in the attic in Frieda’s Cottage, giving Frieda a way to speak in the novel and to thus establish a direct presence in the cottage while becoming more involved in the lives of Eliza and Nick.
Eliza is lonely as a psychotherapist and parent. She turns to Frieda’s diary for support and mentorship, using Frieda’s words to help heal the relationship with her son and to find her way in life.
In writing the novel, Campbell had to devise a reason for Frieda’s diary to be written in English instead of Frieda’s native German so Eliza could read it. So in the novel Frieda writes her diary in English to perfect her English skills.
When Campbell explained the contrivance to a book group made up of non-native English speakers, they burst out laughing, remembering that their English teacher instructed them to write a diary in English to find their own voice in their new language.
An Act of Empathy
Frieda’s Song melds different time periods, bringing the past and present together while demonstrating how the past is always present, shaping our lives.
Nazi Germany represents a tragic part of Frieda’s life, something that Campbell naturally writes about in Frieda’s Song. Moderator Virginia Hartman compared writing fiction to “an act of empathy because you have to put yourself in the shoes of your character, however different from you they might be.”
Hartman noted that Campbell did not endure what Frieda endured – escaping from Nazi Germany and leaving her family and friends behind to start over in America, for example. Yet, Campbell is able to write about these feelings from the perspective of Frieda even though she never experienced them in the way Frieda did.
“I love to have history as a jumping off point,” said Campbell. “One of the things that seems true to me is there is such a thread that runs through history.”
That timeless thread underscores the commonalities of what people endure: universal feelings of loss, sadness and longing, thus making it possible to share compassion and empathy for what people go through.
Frieda sought refuge in the United States to escape violent anti-Semitism practiced by a barbaric and murderous regime. But in Frieda’s Song, Campbell points out that structural anti-Semitism also existed in the United States. In Montgomery County, which encompasses Rockville, Jews could not buy and own land in certain parts of the county, including parts of Rockville in the 1930s and 40s.
“I think it is important when we look back in time not to idealize other times,” said Campbell.
And when writing historical fiction, “you don’t have to be solely wedded to fact and history,” she said.
“If you want to be wedded to fact and history, you can write biography or you can write history,” said Campbell. “But if you want to write fiction, let yourself experience some of the fun and magic of filling in the blanks of what is happening and why.”
In one part of Frieda’s Song, Frieda appears at a picnic. She is a re-enactor, but Nick interprets her appearance as a ghostly visitation. This reinforces her influence on Eliza and Nick.
“Part of what (Frieda’s Song) is about is that death is not the end of the story,” Campbell said.
Campbell benefited greatly from visiting the grounds of Chestnut Lodge even though the Lodge itself was destroyed by fire while she was writing Frieda’s Song.
Perhaps most importantly, she was able to visit Frieda’s Cottage, which was restored and turned back into a livable residence in 2009 by Peerless Rockville, a nonprofit, community-based organization that works to preserve buildings, objects and information important to Rockville’s heritage.
Campbell urged other writers to visit the places they are writing about, if possible, saying it is a wonderful way to tap into the power of their writing subjects.
Peerless Rockville now rents Frieda’s Cottage as a home.
About a year ago, Campbell’s husband learned that Frieda’s Cottage was for rent. He joked, “Ellen — that would be some writing studio.”
Editors Note: Frieda’s Song can be purchased at Politics and Prose, at Peerless Rockville, other major bookstores in the Washington, D.C. area and online. The novel is available at public libraries, including the Cleveland Park Library as are Campbell’s first novel, The Bowl With Gold Seams, (Indie Excellence Award for Historical Fiction) and her collections of stories, Content Under Pressure, (nominated for the National Book Award) and Known By Heart.
For more information about Campbell’s work see www.ellencampbell.net
Hartman’s book, The Marsh Queen, can be pre-ordered from local stores or online.