More than a century ago, Sigmund Freud published a case study about a young woman he called “Dora.” She was diagnosed with hysteria following allegations of sexual harassment and assault by a family friend (possibly through a deal made by her own father). The teenager was analyzed by the famous neurologist and said to be repressing feelings for not just that one older man but also her father. And, of course, the diagnosis labeled her as being irrationally emotional about something that didn’t happen. Basically, “Dora,” whose real name was Ida, was not just a victim of sexual harassment but also of gaslighting.
The study, titled Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (also published as Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria) has been viewed from a feminine perspective for decades, but perhaps never so visually dynamic and concisely poignant as in the short documentary Hysterical Girl. Directed by Kate Novack (The Gospel According to André), the film was meant to debut at SXSW 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the festival; instead, it’s just premiered as part of the New York Times‘ Op-Docs series. I guess recontextualized history counts as opinion.
Hysterical Girl revisits, in just 13 minutes, the story of “Dora” by casting actress Tommy Vines as a modern version of the patient. As if being interviewed for the documentary, she tells her side, a confession intercut with a voiceover reading of Freud’s analysis. Also mixed in is the kinetically compiled montage of movie clips, archival films of the doctor, news footage of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford and other accusers of sexual harassment or assault, as well as shots of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and other rapists and predators, plus other materials that create an effective collage overlapping historical parallels.
As usual with Op-Docs, the director has written an accompanying article. Novack’s is very brief, which is good since her doc (produced with Andrew Rossi) perfectly speaks for itself — expressing through a powerfully overwhelming amount of imagery without the possibility of overstating its point. But just in case you need it more spelled out: “During the 11-week treatment,” she writes, “Freud chipped away at the case: Why would you continue to see the man you say assaulted you? Are you out for revenge? Did you secretly want it? A century later, the questions women face in similar circumstances haven’t changed much.”
Dora, or Ida, was not just a case study of psychoanalytic scholarship but a human being who represented many women throughout history before, during, and after her own time. She’s literally the model for the “difficult woman” as well the girl who’s to blame for her own abuse. But that’s not to say she’s the singular specimen of any study or that this is the be-all and end-all of explaining the #MeToo movement backward and forward. Every woman like Ida “Dora” Bauer deserves to, and needs to, be heard and believed, but not interrogated or scrutinized, whether psychologically or otherwise.
Watch Hysterical Girl: