A Dangerous Method

There’s a new movie coming out in February, A Dangerous Method, about the triangular relationship between Jung, Freud and a young Russian woman who began as a patient but ended up a pioneer of psychoanalysis, Sabina Spielrein. Keira Knightley is the well-known actress who will appear in the Spielrein role. The story is an amazing one, although I have my fears for what the film version will do to it, as it is also very complex. The salient points are as follows:

1. Like most female patients, Sabina Spielrein was dropped off at the Burghölzli Hospital in 1904 by her exasperated relatives (a shopaholic mother, a tyrannical father, the former who kept her ignorant of all sexual matters until late in life, the latter who favoured spanking as his disciplinary method). She was described as a hysteric, alternating between deep depression and fits of laughing, crying and screaming. Jung took her on as his first patient.

2. He had a tremendous success with her, using an early form of the talking cure based on free association. Within the year she had resumed her medical studies, but she and Jung remained close, writing to one another, meeting always in secret. There were lots of women patients at the Burghölzli, and as one of the main doctors, Jung moved in a bevy of competitive female admirers. Spielrein slipped into this mass but rose well above the rest, due to her intelligence and her fierce idealisation of Jung and their relationship. And their intimacy deepened.

3. Jung’s wife had a baby; the son he had been longing for, and at that point the extent of his relationship with Sabina dismayed him. He tried to drop her; she attacked him with a knife, all was confusion. To add to the troubles, someone (possibly Jung’s wife) had written anonymously to Sabina’s parents, warning her that she was in danger of being ‘ruined’ by her doctor. Jung then wrote to her parents, declaring that relations were inevitably going to get out of hand while he was treating Sabina for free: ‘if you wish me to adhere strictly to my role as doctor, you should pay me a fee as suitable recompense for my trouble.’

Knightley (Spielrein) and Fassbender (Jung). Note that she grips him in this picture.

4.  Jung also wrote to Freud complaining about  ‘a woman patient, whom years ago I pulled out of a very sticky neurosis with unstinting effort… has kicked up a vile scandal solely because I denied myself the pleasure of giving her a child.’ (I’m sorry, every time I read about Jung I can’t help but feel he was a nasty piece of work.) At this time, Freud and Jung were close, and Freud saw in him the perfect torch bearer for psychoanalysis – intelligent, creative, strong, and so not Jewish. So Freud soothed him, suggesting that such experiences were a sad but inevitable part of their work. ‘The way these women manage to charm us with every conceivable psychic perfection until they have attained their purpose is one of nature’s greatest spectacles.’

5. But then Sabina wrote to Freud, enclosing some of Jung’s letters to her. Freud was rattled, but replied urging a diplomatic end to the relationship. Sabina confronted Jung, agreeing to back off if he apologised to her parents, confessed properly to Freud, and had Freud acknowledge all in writing to her. Sabina continued to write to Freud, spilling all the beans: ‘Four and a half years ago Dr Jung was my doctor, then he became my friend and finally my “poet,” i.e., my beloved. Eventually he came to me and things went as they usually do with “poetry.”’ This counted as candid in 1909, but whether the relationship was a properly sexual one, we simply do not know.

6. Well, Freud soothed everyone down, a few months passed and Jung and Sabina resumed their correspondence and their friendship, but things went not so well with Jung and Freud. Both ostensibly wanted to carry on as before. But Jung began to object to Freud’s central belief in sexuality as the basis of all neuroses. Of course he did! Having to confess his bad behaviour to Freud was one thing, but to have sex all jumbled up with psychic disturbance would have meant he had also behaved unacceptably as a doctor, too. History tends to see Jung as cleaner and purer than Freud, who got enmeshed in all those preposterous sexual theories, but Jung had his personal reasons for disavowing sex as a prime motivator. When Jung and Freud next met, and Jung began to kick up an argument about theory, Freud fainted. Whether Freud was more troubled about Jung’s theories or his morals is a moot point.

7. In the meantime, Sabina Spielrein passed her exams, was elected into the Vienna Psycho-Analytic Society (the only woman at that time) and, at 26, was one of the youngest to publish. Her work explored concepts that both Jung and Freud would go on to write about themselves, without crediting her. Jung later confessed to noticing the ‘incredible parallels’ between his work and hers, and when Sabina replied furiously in her next letter, he wrote back ‘I have expressed myself so differently that no one will think you have gotten it from me.’ Checking publication dates alone could have proved this; but Jung’s total inability to recognise the debt his intellectual development owed to her is the point here.

8. But there were other reasons for not acknowledging Spielrein’s work. She had become a disciple of Freudian thought by now, and Jung had diverged in some animosity from his former mentor. Jung discredited what she wrote because it belonged to a school he had broken allegiance with, whilst Freud thought of her so much as Jung’s thing that he couldn’t see the similarities in their concepts.

9. Jung and Sabina Spielrein would maintain their on-off relationship for almost a decade. She remained a restless soul, moving from country to country but never really settling down. She married, had daughters, and was extraordinarily influential not only in the development of psychoanalytic thought, but in child speech development and the work of Jean Piaget, too. Eventually she returned to her native Russia where she worked as a therapist, even after therapy was banned in Russia. But her end was tragic. When her town was invaded by the Nazis in 1941, Sabina and her daughters were rounded up with the other Jews, taken to the synagogue and shot. For decades she fell into invisibility until her papers and letters were discovered. Now she may finally receive some of the recognition she deserved. But will the film industry focus on the sexual aspect of this story or the gender political one or the intellectual one? I fear I know where I would place my bets.



34 thoughts on “A Dangerous Method

    • Tofu – thank you for that recommendation! I’m delighted you enjoyed it – not out here in the UK until the 10th February, but it’s great to be able to get some feedback from people who’ve had a chance to see it already.

  1. Your post is amazing! You’ve clearly outlined the background, actual events, relationships, and after effects of these three influential figures in psychoanalysis. And if you wish to see all of these facts realized in a 99 min. film, then you’re bound to be disappointed. I saw ‘A Dangerous Method’ over the weekend, have been long waiting for it. Without giving out spoilers, I’ve to say this is a commercial film, so you know what likely the emphasis is, and for it to include all the details you’ve outlined here is simply impossible. So there you should have some psychological preparation before you see it. But it being a fine film, you can appreciate the excellent acting of the three main characters and the visualization of a piece of history. I reserve my further comment on it, and await your opinion after you’ve watched it. Both the actors Michael Fassbender as Jung, and Viggo Mortensen as Freud as well as Canadian director David Cronenberg have all been nominated and/or won awards for their roles, but interestingly, Keira Knightly has not. I’m very curious to know why this is so, because I think she did a good job. I eagerly await your take on it. And thank you so much for writing this succinct summary. You’ve filled me in for what I’ve missed from merely watching the film.

    • Arti – thank you for your lovely comment! It is hard for any film to pack a large amount of historical information into 99 minutes, so I’m hoping it will take a good route through the possible storylines and that the actors will make the most of their roles. I am particularly interested to see it now, in the light of what you say about the nominations!

  2. I saw the book in a book shop and knew about the upcoming movie but had my doubts as well. I will watch it anyway, it’s an immensely interesting topic. Especially for someone like me who at one point wanted to train as a Jungian analyst. I never liked Freud but used to devour Jung’s books and theories. Never heard him called a nasty piece of work. Lol. While I find Freud dated, I stll find it interesting to read Jung but most certainly he had his issues as well.
    I must admit I would almost prefer if this was a movie about her alone. I think she would deserve it.

    • I wonder if there is anyone who likes Freud and Jung equally? I like parts of Jung – the idea of the neurosis as a whole other personality is intriguing – but I much prefer Freud for the breadth of his vision. A lot of what he did has been refined, but considering that over a century has passed since he first started writing about his researches, it’s surprising how much is still relevant or significant today. I didn’t know you wanted to train as a Jungian analyst – interesting. I wonder what made you change your mind, in the end?

  3. After your summary of the story, I am most interested to see the film now! I will write you later in the week. I started both Widow: Stories and The Dream Life of Sukhanov. I love Widow so far, especially the first story after which the collection gets its name. The Dream Life of Sukhanov is moving along, but you are right that it is a slower paced read. And onto Eliot soon! More in my email…

    • So glad you are liking Widow! The Dream Life of Sukhanov IS a slow-paced book , and it may take a while to ease into its pace, although given that we’re both contemplating Eliot, it’s probably a good idea to slow ourselves down! Looking forward to hearing from you – no rush, just whenever it’s the right moment for you!

  4. What an incredible and terribly sad life. I had never heard of her before reading this, though as I don’t know much at all about psychology maybe that isn’t surprising. Maybe this would be a case of better to read the book than see the movie to find out more about Sabina rather than the romantic entanglements.

    • The book it’s based on is huge – a 600 pager, so seeing the film would definitely be quicker! The original book is called A Dangerous Method by John Kerr. I also read the story in a book by John Forrester and Lisa Appignanesi entitled Freud’s Women, which I like even better. I love the sort of book that ferrets these stories out of oblivion!

      • I’m very curious about Lisa Appignanesi as I have a couple of her novels–didn’t realize she also wrote NF. Interesting! Maybe I will start with the movie first since you’ve made me curious!

  5. I’m pretty certain I won’t go to see this film, but reading the story overview here was fascinating. It reminds me of Sebastian Falkes’s novel, Human Traces, have you read that? It is all about the dawn of psychiatric theory and the battling opinions and varying theories, especially in terms of treating women for “hysteria”.

    • Michelle, I haven’t read that Sebastian Faulks. I always feel that something spoils every one of his novels, there’s always a section or a character or something that ends up putting me off! But I remember Human Traces coming out and I do recall some good reviews. So perhaps I should give him another try.

      • Human Traces was a very good ‘discussion’ book in my book group. But without that, I don’t think I would think much about the book. It was a good read, but not amazing.

  6. Is there by any chance a book about these people that’s going to be pumped up alongside the film once it arrives here? You’ve made the whole situation sound so interesting and have shown up another woman who has gone under the radar of popular history. I’m excited to see Arti’s comment above that this may be a good Keira Knightley film (who I think like George Clooney makes about 1 great performance every 10 – 15 films, but now gets all the parts). Dreading Anna Karenina when it comes out with her in the lead and I think Ralph Fiennes who was the dashing and thoughtless lover was in an earlier version and will now be playing Anna’s husband. Umm, have wandered away from the point…

    • Ha! What you say about Keira Knightley and George Clooney made me laugh. I remember when people used to talk about the quality of a Kevin Costner film being in indirect proportion to the length of his hair. The longer the hair, the worse the movie. I haven’t yet made it through Anna Karenina, and so I feel I really should manage the book first… There is a book this film is based on, and it’s called A Dangerous Method by John Kerr, but it is quite a long and academic read. Still, I don’t want to put you off, as I expect it is very interesting, too.

  7. I had not heard any of this prior to your post. I probably will order the movie if and when it comes out on DVD, but I would love to read more about Sabina Spielrein.

    • Grad – I was planning to write a biographical essay on Freud, Jung and Spielrein, but then when I heard there was a movie coming out (typical!) I thought I wouldn’t bother. The information about this triangular relationship is at present only available in huge and quite technical books. But if you feel like trying A Dangerous Method by John Kerr, do go ahead – I’d love to know what you think of it!

  8. VoR – umm, I think you’ll find the book is actually by John Kerr. I don’t think you need feel defensive towards the film – several commenters here are expressing their desire to see it. Quite a lot of us who read a great deal and go to the cinemas have had our fingers burned before with poor adaptations of books. And the relationships between Spielrein and Jung and Freud are, I think, very subtle, something that only rare directors manage to convey really satisfactorily. I would be sorry to think that the movie insists on a sexual relationship between Sabina and Jung, for instance, when we do not know whether anything like that really took place. When I saw the trailer, it seemed as well to be placing a lot of significance on Spielrein’s hysterical period, which ended after only three months in treatment with Jung. Their relationship carried on for years and years afterwards and Sabina was such an important figure in early psychoanalytic research I would hate for that to be lost in deference to the sensational images of her madness. What I’m saying is that, in advance of seeing the movie, I fear there are a lot of potential pitfalls that I really hope will be avoided. If the film does that, then great! I shall say so when I review it.

    • Yes, my mistake. Kerr is the author and Dimock was the editor. Of course, as noted in the article I linked, more material about Spielrein has come to light after that book was written. Including her actual patient records from Burghölzli, found by Christopher Hampton while he was doing research for his script.

      The hysteria in the film is pretty much over and done with within the first 15 minutes. It opens on the day Spielrein and Jung first meet and ends on the day of their final parting – not long before the first world war.
      Her philosophical influence on both Freud and Jung is indeed shown.

      Giving Spielrein and Jung an actual sexual relationship is, of course, conjecture. But I don’t think it’s very far fetched to interpret Spielrein’s “poetry” references in that way. And without actual infidelity i think Emma Jung’s anonymous letter writing and Freud’s disapproval would have made less sense – certainly to this viewer.

      • Well I’m delighted that you can recommend the film so wholeheartedly and I do look forward to seeing it. I suppose it’s a bugbear of mine that when women feature in films they so are so often significant primarily as love interest. What intrigues me about Spielrein’s relationship with Jung is its ambiguity, and after all, at the start of the 20th century, it would have been a very shocking thing indeed for a young woman of good family to enter into a sexual relationship before marriage. But as we don’t know, of course it can be argued either way. And I’m very glad indeed to know that her importance to psychoanalysis is indeed fully represented.

  9. Interesting! A friend of mine saw the film recently and she was disturbed by its portrayal of women, so I’m very curious to see what you think of it when you see it. Her response made me want to skip it, but many commenters here liked it, so perhaps I should give it a try.

  10. I want to see this very much! I’m fond of all these three actors (though Keira Knightley can be a trifle mannered), and I’m very interested in the early history of psychology.

    Does Jung indeed always come off as a nasty piece of work? It isn’t just that one quite nasty letter excerpt? I’ve always thought of him rather fondly, for reasons unknown to me — not much of an illusion to shatter, but I still do like it better when people are nice, than nasty.

  11. I saw the movie during the holidays and enjoyed it very much. Of course it is a commercial movie, but it still highlights quite a lot the intellectual issues (so much so that a few people in the audience left because they found it boring…). I found all three characters complex enough to be convincing and would love to read some more Freud this year!

  12. So much for ethics and of course it is all the fault of those manipulative female patients! Fascinating story. I am throwing my hat in with your suspicions on which aspect of the story the movie will focus on most. I hope we both end up being surprised.

  13. Pingback: Frank Tallis, Death and The Maiden (2011) « Smithereens

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