Did Susan Sontag Write the Seminal Book Attributed to Her Husband?

An upcoming biography claims that before she became a towering literary figure, Sontag was the true author of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist

Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag photographed in 1972. Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

In 1959, sociologist Philip Rieff published Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, which explored the psychologist’s impact on contemporary culture. It has long been acknowledged that Rieff worked on his now-classic book in “close collaboration” with his wife, Susan Sontag, a revered author in her own right. But as Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, an upcoming Sontag biography claims that she was not just a collaborator, but in fact the book’s true author.

The upcoming Sontag: A Life by Benjamin Moser draws on hundreds of interviews with people who knew Sontag, including some who have never spoken publicly about her, among them photographer Annie Leibovitz. Moser was also granted access to parts of Sontag’s UCLA archives that are not currently accessible to the public. His conclusions about the authorship of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist are based on both textual evidence and anecdotal reports.

Sontag and Rieff met at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s, when she happened to wander into a class he was teaching. Rieff was 28 years old at the time; Sontag was 17. They got married 10 days later. Moser told Flood that Freud: The Mind of the Moralist “is so sophisticated that it hardly seemed possible that [Sontag] could be the true author”—she was, after all, very young when the book was being written. But while Moser’s research indicated the text was based on Rieff’s research and notes, he believes the scholar “almost certainly did not actually write the book upon which his career was based.”

In August 1957, according to the new biography, Sontag noted in her diary that she had “continued to sort Freud materials, made notes, worked on some rough passages in Ch. 2.” She also wrote to her mother to say that she was “in third gear now on the book—working about 10 hours a day on it at least.”

Her involvement in the writing process does not seem to have been a particularly well-kept secret. One friend, Minda Rae Amiran, told Moser that while Sontag and Rieff lived together in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sontag spent “every afternoon rewriting the whole [book] from scratch.” Per Flood’s reporting, Moser also cites a 1958 letter from Sontag’s friend Jacob Taubes, who asked if she had “relinquish[ed] all rights” to the Freud book. When Sontag replied that she had, Taubes was distraught.

“I am without consolation,” he wrote back. “You cannot give your intellectual contribution to another person.”

Indeed, why would Sontag agree to conceal her purported authorship of the text? According to Moser, she struck an agreement with Rieff following their bitter divorce in 1958: She would get to keep their son, David, and in exchange would surrender any claim to Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. When the book was published the next year, Sontag was acknowledged with “special thanks” in the preface. But in subsequent editions, that acknowledgement was left out.

After her divorce, Sontag moved to New York City with David. She established herself as a towering literary figure, as a novelist, short story writer and cultural critic, known particularly for her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” which inspired the theme of this year’s Met Gala.

“Ms. Sontag was a master synthesist who tackled broad, difficult and elusive subjects: the nature of art, the nature of consciousness and, above all, the nature of the modern condition,” the New York Times wrote in her 2004 obituary. “Where many American critics before her had mined the past, Ms. Sontag became an evangelist of the new, training her eye on the culture unfolding around her.”

Sontag far eclipsed her husband in recognition and fame—and before he died in 2006, Rieff may have felt remorse over the way their intellectual partnership had played out. Decades after Freud: The Mind of the Moralist was published, according to Moser, Rieff sent Sontag a copy of the book. “Susan, Love of my life, mother of my son, co-author of this book: forgive me,” his inscription read. “Please. Philip.”

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