The woman who became the “founding myth” of psychoanalysis takes center stage in novelist Brownstein’s The Secret Mind of Bertha Pappenheim (PublicAffairs, Apr.).

Can you describe how this project began?

I had dinner with my dad, a psychiatrist, the night before he died and he gave me an essay he’d written about Bertha Pappenheim, which he said was his masterpiece. I started the book just trying to find what he was interested in, and became really fascinated by this woman who’d been a great writer and was diagnosed with hysteria and became the source of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud called her Anna O, and she came up with the term talking cure. I got really interested in the different stories that had been told about her and about her illness. There’s mystery around what happened to Pappenheim and her “hysteria,” and I didn’t want to be another person who said they had the solution. I wanted to talk about all the ways that we’ve misunderstood her and struggled to understand her, which are like miniature ways we’ve tried to understand the human mind and ourselves and others.

How did you think about Pappenheim’s condition while writing the book?

There are historians who have written about what she and her “hysteria” meant, but maybe what’s important is to understand that we just do break down this way. It’s something that we don’t like to believe happens to people, which is that they lose control of their bodies without knowing why. According to the neurologists I talked to, it happens not infrequently—people have seizures, they lose control of their hands, they lose control of their speech. It can just happen and usually it’s for very complicated reasons.

Can you describe the approach you take to writing nonfiction?

For me, writing a book of nonfiction is like finding an area of the woods that you’re interested in and sitting down. Suddenly what seemed still and uninteresting comes to life in small ways; you notice where the birds live and what the bugs are doing, and the longer you sit and look, the more the world transforms. I guess that’s what I tried to do. The “place” I tried to look was Bertha Pappenheim, her life and her story. I hope some of that feeling of discovery comes through to the reader.

You wrote the book during a period of personal loss. How does that connect to Pappenheim’s story?

I believe that Freud once said the mechanism of poetry and the mechanism of hysteria were the same. I don’t know exactly what he meant by that, but I certainly felt desperate in writing this book. People fall apart through trauma and people hold themselves together through stories, and that’s what Bertha Pappenheim knew, I think. And that informed my storytelling profoundly.