Sex Versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein
A woman who made huge strides in a world dominated by men, became a leading light in the early days of psychoanalysis, and who fought her own psychiatric problems whilst diagnosing and helping others, Sabina Spielrein is a figure of great importance who has gone relatively unnoticed over the years. Overshadowed by the greater fame of Freud and Jung, ignored due to sexism and anti-Semitism, she is now remembered mainly as a footnote in the lives of those infamous men. Whilst 2011 saw the release of A Dangerous Method, a Cronenberg film that centred around Keira Knightley’s Spielrein and her interactions with Viggo Mortensen’s Freud and Michael Fassbender’s Jung, the film was largely a clinical affair which focused on Spielrein as a catalyst to the debates that Jung and Freud would have, rather than a clever, modern and fascinating woman in her own right. The performances were excellent though – Mortensen as good as always, Knightley accomplished and brave, and Fassbender spellbinding, despite not taking his clothes off once (something which should be made mandatory for all of his films, in my humble opinion).
Sabina Spielrein was born Sheyve Naftulovna Spielrein to a family of traditional orthodox Jews. Her mother was one of the first Russian Jewish women to attend university, and her agronomist Father was a polymath whose success allowed the family to live in considerable style. Both had achieved much despite the massive limitations put on Jews in that time, and Sabina was born into an intellectual home, although one that was often turbulent, with physical violence a regular occurrence that would psychologically scar the young Sabina terribly. References in her early diaries suggest that sexual abuse by her father may have been an issue too.
It is no wonder then that mental health problems would plague Spielrein throughout her youth – hearing heavenly voices, hallucinating kittens and becoming infatuated with first a history teacher, and then a paternal uncle, Spielrein did not have an easy childhood, yet graduated school with honours and prepared to train as a doctor.
It was the death of Emilia, Sabina’s only sister, that would plunge Spielrein into a severe breakdown, and after a brief stay in a Swedish sanatorium was complicated by yet another infatuation, Sabina was admitted to a Zurich mental hospital. Here she would meet the director’s assistant – Carl Jung. The relationship between Jung and Spielrein is handled with sensitivity by the author, noting that whilst Spielrein was infatuated with Jung when she was his patient, no relationship began until Sabina was training as a doctor herself, and not receiving any form of therapy from Jung. Morally he was still on extremely precarious ground, but his professional integrity remained relatively intact.
Details-wise, we don’t know a huge amount about the affair, or the “poetry” as Spielrein described it. Letters survive, but we don’t know if the two ever had full sexual intercourse, and there is no evidence that the sadomasochistic spanking sessions that have oft been rumoured ever happened. So whilst the “vulnerable patient meets doctor and is cured by sex and spanking” notion sounds like the plotline of a fantastic porno it is very much not what happened here. In fact, we have little evidence as to what occurred, and whilst Spielrein clearly had some strength of feeling for Jung, Jung’s reputation as a serial womaniser means that the nature of this relationship remains unclear.
Where this book really excels is in the study of Spielrein’s life post Jung – not something that has been documented particularly well outside of academia. Moving to Vienna, Spielrein published the paper “Destruction as the cause of coming into being”, a major moment in the history of psychoanalysis and a work influenced by Freud that, in turn, influenced Freud’s later work and is still hugely relevant today. It’s available on the internet should your curiosity be piqued, and is a fascinating document which was years ahead of its time, incorporating ideas about sex, shame, and the impulses that drive us. Academically celebrated, Spielrein produced a great deal of papers in the rest of her life, married, had two children, and ultimately perished aged 56, killed by a Nazi Death squad with 27,000 other Jews.
Spielrein’s papers were lost until the 1980’s, and she was granted little more than a mention in the biographies of Freud and Jung for many years – probably as a result of being both a Jewess and a woman, neither qualities particularly celebrated at that time.
A sensitive study, the author’s background as a doctor means that this book can occasionally seem too academic – a little dry with no real tension or drama, despite the complexity of its subject’s life. Sabina Spielrein is such a fascinating woman though, that this book still makes for a great read – and my fingers are crossed that her name will grow in importance as time goes by.
Sex Versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein by John Launer, £20.00, Overlook Press, ISBN: 9781468312591