Books

Sabina Spielrein: from psychiatric patient to psychoanalyst

A review of John Launer’s Sex Versus Survival tells the impressive story of a young patient of Jung who became a leading child psychologist in her own right

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

Sex Versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein John Launer

Duckworth, pp.307, £20

Sabina Spielrein was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with groundbreaking ideas about the role of the reproductive drive in human psychology and the link between Darwinism and psychoanalytic theory. She was a pioneer of play therapy for children, and the first hospitalised psychiatric patient to progress to practising psycho-analysis.

She worked with, among others, Freud, Jung and Piaget; she was regarded as Freud’s standard-bearer. Yet she is remembered, if at all, as Jung’s mistress, a hysteric with a taste for spanking; David Cronenburg’s film A Dangerous Method, with Keira Knightley as Spielrein, has provided the only readily available version of her. John Launer’s aim is ‘to promote her recognition as one of the most original and underestimated thinkers of the last century’.

Spielrein grew up in Rostov, gateway to Tsarist Russia, in a ‘sugarcake’ rococo palace. Her father, a rich Jewish businessman, was a polyglot vegetarian, musical and politically aware. He was also depressive and unstable. Sabina recorded an incident when two of her brothers fell out over a torn picture book: ‘Papa then ordered them to beat each other for a whole hour… He gave Sanya a fork, so he could poke out Yasha’s eyes.’ The brothers turned into able scientists, but they were violent men who met violent ends. Sabina was afraid of them; her father was an object of fear, fascination and revulsion. He often beat her, which excited her. ‘She developed an obsession with the sight of her father’s hand, and also with images of him defecating.’ He may have abused her sexually: ‘It is time to sleep, otherwise Papa will come… it always seems that Papa comes and I freeze.’


This is from her diary, written in code to keep her father out. As Launer says, the story of her private papers is almost as remarkable as that of her life. Her journals and letters lay unobserved for 50 years in the basement of the Rousseau Institute in Geneva, where Spielrein was working at the time of her abrupt departure for Russia in 1923. She assumed she would soon return to Switzerland, but the political and social catastrophes of the next two decades meant that she never did. Extracts from these papers have appeared before, but Launer is the first writer to have obtained permission to use unrestricted quotations.

Like her father, Sabina was highly intelligent, neurotic and eccentric. In her teens she developed unsuitable crushes (a schoolteacher, an uncle). The death of her little sister triggered a breakdown. Psychiatric help was nonexistent in Russia; the Spielreins had Sabina admitted to the Burghölzli hospital in Zurich, under the care of Jung. This encounter was the most significant of her life. Jung was experimenting with word-association as treatment; Sabina was an early patient. Hetreated her so successfully that she was soon ready to apply to medical school.

Jung was Freud’s heir-apparent in the precarious but rapidly developing realm of psychoanalytic practice; he wrote to his mentor about Sabina, claiming: ‘By using your method I have analysed the clinical condition fairly thoroughly and with considerable success from the outset.’ Jung (married with children) began an erotic relationship with Sabina, who fantasised about bearing his son ‘Siegfried’. Later, ‘Siegfried’ became her name for the magnum opus that she was to produce as a result of her contact with Jung: a new theory about sex and death that would transform understanding of the human mind. When Jung rejected her, Sabina sought help from Freud, who secretly sided with Jung, arranging a cover-up to protect the reputation of psychoanalysis.

Spielrein emerges from the murk with more credit than either man. She pushed on with her career at the forefront of child psychology. A lukewarm marriage to a doctor produced a daughter, Renata, whose development Spielrein examined as part of her research. On her return to Russia she worked at an experimental children’s home. Stalin’s son Vasily was one of the inmates. Trotsky, a supporter of psychoanalysis, though mainly as a means of producing ‘socially valuable’ individuals, turned the home from being a centre of excellence for the psychological care of children to ‘an experimental laboratory for the production of the new Soviet toddler’.

Spielrein returned to Rostov; she bravely mounted a defence of Freud, and had a second daughter, challenging official Soviet hostility. In July 1942 the Germans bombarded Rostov. The Jewish population was tricked into identifying itself. Spielrein and her daughters were driven to a ravine where they were stripped, shot and thrown into a pit.

There could be many ways of telling this extraordinary story. Launer is a psychologist; he is so respectful of the reader’s state of mind that he takes us almost too carefully through Spielrein’s case history, constantly preparing us for what lies ahead. Anxious not to go down the Keira Knightley route, he delivers Spielrein’s startling confessions so flatly that we might be reading her temperature chart or list of prescriptions. But these are faults on the right side. I’m not qualified to say whether the claims he makes for Spielrein’s psychoanalytic significance are justified, but I’m impressed by the humane dignity with which he recounts her lurid life.

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