Sabina Speilrein was the Monica Lewinsky of her day. Just like Monica, she was a young woman who made a monumental mistake in her choice of romantic partner. Sabina and Monica both fell under the spell of a charismatic and older man, who was a leader in his field. The co-incidents don’t end there, Sabina and Monica were Jewish, and Carl Jung and Bill Clinton were Christians. This made me consider the question, how often does history repeat itself?
‘That’ Whitehouse scandal more was than 15 years ago, and since then Monica has had a number of reinventions: she has been a memoirist, a handbag designer, a spokeswomen, a documentary film subject, a reality TV show host, and a social psychologist (graduating from the London School of Economics with a Masters in social psychology in 2006). From 2006 onwards Monica has kept off the radar and enjoyed a quieter life as a private citizen… but – look out – Monica has recently penned articles for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, and a “tell-all” book will follow later this year.
Sabina’s scandal rocked the Viennese and other European capitals medical fraternities around 1908 and, while it was not front-page news, as was Monica’s, it had a great impact on Sabina, and most probably her subsequent life choices. Although Sabina Speilrein’s career achieved some remarkable highlights, such as bringing psychoanalysis to Russia, she is neither famous nor infamous, and was almost a forgotten footnote in history.
Interested, and what to read more?
Sabina’s voice has had the chance to be heard through the diary she kept and the correspondence she saved between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, which reveals the somewhat unknown aspects of these individuals’ lives during their decade long relationship. The personal nature of Sabina’s writing allows the public to discover the very human foibles of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, and the realisation that her contribution to their theories might have been significant.
Sabina Speilrein, along with better known Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, should justifiably be remembered as one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis. There have been several books, plays and films, the most recent being A Dangerous Method, which I saw recently, based on her writings, and they seek to redress the balance of power.
As a child I had only heard of Sigmund Freud. I had put him the ‘genius’ category, along with Albert Einstein, most probably because I had been told they were. And in my child’s worldview, the photographs I had seen of them confirmed what I thought a ‘genius’ might look like – an older, odd looking man wearing what seemed to be incredibly uncomfortable clothes – geniuses were far too preoccupied with their great work to be bothered with the trivialities of life, such as a well-cut suit and a good haircut.
At 17, I found out who Carl Jung was by reading Erica Jong’s novel Fear of flying. Having left formal education early, I always felt that I had ‘missed out’ on the intellectual development gained through further study. I had this vague idea that those who continued their education knew by osmosis the names of all the ‘great books’, and after reading them, they were somehow all the more learned and wiser because of it. The truth was I didn’t understand it. Fear of Flying was not a ‘classic’ but had been touted as being of literary importance (at least by the librarian of the now defunct Ithaca Library) and especially relevant to modern women, which is why I felt like I needed to read it.
Whatever you might think of Freud and Jung their concepts have become part of our common language. Freud is best known for the concepts of id, ego, and superego. Introverted, extroverted, and having a sense of self are Jungian terms. And even people, like me, who have never taken Psychology 101, might pepper a conversation with one of these terms or declare a situation to be ‘Freudian’ – without really knowing its true meaning.
Sabina Speilrein was a complete unknown to me, until seeing the film – A Dangerous Method, but she played an important role both as a patient of psychoanalysis in its earliest stages, and later as an analyst herself.
The story starts in 1904 when Sabina Speilrein arrives at Jung’s Zurich clinic, mad, manic, and desperate. Two burly attendants are required to constrain her. Full credit must go to Keira Knightly’s tremendous skill as an actor and complete disregard for personal vanity in capturing the traits of the mentally ill. Keira is both compelling and grotesque to watch as she battles her inner demons: her lower jaw juts forward and locks; her lips pull back baring her teeth, her head twists; her body jackknifes in the chair, then she is calm… for a few seconds and then the exhausting process begins again. Jung is Sabina’s, and her family’s, last hope from saving her from the maelstrom of madness.
Jung decides to trial Freud’s new theory of a ’talking cure’ – and this intimate style uncovers, within a few analytic sessions with Spielrein, that what incites her hysteria is not merely that her father beat her, but that she felt humiliated by her sexual arousal when he did. The ‘talking cure’ was highly controversial and deemed ‘dangerous’ because it could lead to blurred boundaries between patient and doctor. And, naturally this is exactly what happened with Jung and Speilrein, but it also proved to be a powerful therapy as Sabina’s behaviour and mental clarity improved greatly in just a year.
Jung recognised Speilrein’s sharp analytical mind, astute powers of observation, and encouraged her to pursue medical studies with the end goal of a career as a psychoanalyst. This marks a transition to their intellectual relationship, albeit with a strong sexual undercurrent. Jung resists the temptation because it is unethical and because he is happily married to Emma, a woman who he refers to as the “foundation of his house”, and considering she came from a very wealthy family, it may well be that her family’s money paid for the house and gave him the financial freedom to pursue his theories.
Enter Sigmund Freud who was regarded as a celebrity in Vienna and perhaps much of Europe in the 1900s. Freud was not from a rich family and had to delay his marriage several times until he could afford a wife. The ‘talking cure’ would bring Freud riches as well as fame, but at the time of his relationship with Jung, he, his wife, and six children lived together in an apartment.
Jung had been a long admirer of Freud’s prior to their first meeting in Vienna in 1907, and so great was their rapport that they engaged in a thirteen hour long conversation. Throughout their six-year partnership, Freud and Jung challenged, debated, and explored many concepts to search to find out what was the basic driving force behind human behaviour, and what led to episodes of mental illness.
Freud was so impressed with Jung that he anointed as both his protégé and heir apparent to his theories. As an Austrian Jew, Freud’s choice was also influenced by the fact that Jung was Swiss and ‘Aryan’, which he seemed to think was appropriate for the new face of psychoanalysis.
Freud also entrusted the treatment of fellow psychologist, Otto Gross, to Jung. Gross, strongly believed in not repressing any desire, lived a life of excess and indulged in all things forbidden by society. Jung, against his better judgement, was influenced by Gross, and sought validation and approval to act on his desire for a sexual relationship with Spielrein. This transgression proved to be powerful and healing for Spielrein, as it normalised her ‘taboo’ desires and strengthen her mental health, but it had the opposite effect on Jung, and weaken his.
When Jung ceased the affair Spielrein was bereft and, after much angst, requested that Freud take her on as a patient. When Freud learnt of the affair, he used this information as a weapon in his ideological struggle with Jung. Not only did Freud question Jung’s intellect, talents, and sense of ethics, but also it weighed heavily on him that the woman Jung had smeared and taken advantage of was a Jew. “We are and remain Jews,” were Freud’s words to to Spielrein.
Freud’s and Jung’s relationship began to cool in 1909, during a trip to America, which gets off to an ominous start when they board the ship. Emma, the ‘foundation of the home’ has booked Jung a ‘first-class’ passage and he walks up the stairs, leaving Freud in his ‘third-class steerage’ accommodation. Things go from bad to worse when they attempt to entertain themselves by analysing each other’s dreams, and Freud said they would have to stop because he was afraid he would lose his authority! Jung regards this as an insult, and the relationship never recovers.
Jung and Freud met face-to-face for the last time in 1913 for the International Psychoanalytical Congress in Munich, Germany, and this marked both their physical and ideological separation. Jung gave a talk on psychological types, the introverted and the extroverted type, in analytical psychology. This constituted the introduction of some of the key concepts, which came to distinguish Jung’s work from Freud’s in the next half century.
And what of Sabina Spielrein? In the film, she says her final good-bye to Jung in 1912 after she has married fellow Russian-Jewish physician, Dr Pavel Naumovitsch Scheftel, and is pregnant with their first child. This poignant farewell takes place in the Jungs’ picturesque garden, which overlooks a lake. It is here that that the depth of Jung’s feeling is revealed. As Sabina goes to leave, Jung pulls himself out of his near catatonic depression long enough to offer an explanation for his abandonment of her: “Sometimes you have to do something unforgivable, just to be able to go on living.” (In real life, the last letter Jung wrote to Spielrein ended with that line). Jung transgressed his professional ethics and only he knows the inner torment this might have caused.
Sabina Spielrein did go on to do some brilliant work but she did not have an easy life. During World War II she lived in in Switzerland but had difficulty finding a place to settle down and practice, and was plagued with financial worries. Her husband was elsewhere. In 1923 Spielrein returned to Russia, firstly to Moscow and then her hometown of Rostov-on-Don, where she was reunited with her husband, who had been busy fathering a child with another woman. Sabina stayed with her husband and gave birth to her second daughter in 1926.
Spielrien founded a psychoanalytic children’s nursery and taught at the university but her career was cut short in 1936 when Stalin banned psychoanalysis. Sabina’s tragic end came in 1942 when she and her two beloved daughters, Eva and Renata, were shot for being Jewish by the Germans in World War II.
Spielrein appears to be almost but forgotten in the history of the development of psychoanalysis, her theory of the sexual drive as being both an instinct of destruction and an instinct of transformation preceded both Freud’s “death drive” and Jung’s views on “transformation.” This illustrates how she inspired both their most creative ideas but what the film (and other work) suggests is that, psychoanalysis as a scientific system may have been harmed by the struggle between these two founders, and that Spielrein, indeed, may have arrived at more useful conclusions than the two duelling male approaches.
And back to Monica, what will history have to say about her? We know she has had a number of career reinventions and has had difficulty sustaining relationships … her “tell all” book will give her the opportunity to tell her story, with the benefit of maturity and insight. Let’s hope this tome puts the saga to rest and allows Monica to get on with the business of living her life in the present, and not the past. What ever she chooses, I hope she has a brighter future than Sabina Spielrein did, and that she is honourably remembered for whatever contributions she has made or is still to make to society.