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.’
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.