Spielrein, a highly educated 19-year-old from a prosperous Jewish family, traveled over a thousand miles from her home in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, to be admitted at the Burghölzi in August 1904, exhibiting severely agitated symptoms. As Jung would say years later: “Her condition had got so bad that she really did nothing else than alternate between deep depression and fits of laughing, crying and screaming.” Jung diagnosed her with “hysteria,” an illness attributed nearly always to women, not men. Hysteria (from the Greek hystera, or uterus) is not much understood today, as a patient exhibiting symptoms like Spielrein’s is likely to be sedated before their condition gets into such an extreme state. But hysterical symptoms like Spielrein’s were common in her day.
As is seen in the film, Jung’s treatment of Spielrein involved regular talk therapy sessions where she sat on a chair and spoke about her life and history of psychic troubles, while Jung sat behind—out of her line of sight. Contrary to Freud’s Seduction Theory, there is no evidence that Spielrein was sexually abused in childhood. What undeniably happened is that her father struck her and she received the blows in an erotic way, leading her somehow to masochistic fantasies, frequent masturbation, and an obsession with defecation, all of which made her feel confused and guilty.
In June 1905, less than a year after her arrival at the Burghölzi, Spielrein began her studies at the Zurich Medical School, while continuing her therapy with Jung. During this time, their situation was ambiguous, as Spielrein was in one sense still a patient, but—as someone studying to be a psychologist, and developing her own theories—she was a colleague. With Freud in Vienna, there’s no question that Spielrein provided the most stimulating conversation in Zurich (aside from Otto Gross’s brief sojourn), something he hungered for, and Spielrein’s obsession with Jung grew.
Initially Freud was incensed that Bleuler would allow the young doctor to utilize his method, saying: "I am sure he (Jung) would not be allowed to examine an extirpated tumor unless he had convinced his chiefs that he was conversant with histological technique." But by 1906 he began a steady correspondence with Jung which would continue for seven years. Freud and Jung were drawn together out of mutual needs: Jung needed an idealized father figure, and Freud needed a close colleague and an heir apparent.
In one early letter, Jung described the symptoms of a "20-year-old Russian girl student" he had been treating—obviously Spielrein—submitting her symptoms for Freud's analysis. This exchange turns up in A DANGEROUS METHOD in the initial 1907 meeting between Jung and Freud; Jung describes Spielrein's anal fixation, and Freud responds by classifying her as a classic Freudian "anal type" personality, with attributes that were the opposite of Spielrein's. Therefore, before Jung ever met Freud, Spielrein was already in the middle, exemplifying the strains that were evident in Jung and Freud's relationship from the outset.
A second conflict was Jung's belief in the occult. In the scene involving the noises from the bookcase, Jung attributes a meaning between his intuition that another knock would occur—and the fact that it did occur. (Jung would later call this "synchronicity.") This line of thinking was anathema to Freud and, in the film, he argues that it is an unscientific idea that could threaten the respectability of psychoanalysis while adding fuel to the fire of his critics.
The third and most profound difference between the two men is that Jung didn't believe in the Seduction Theory, the centerpiece of Freud's thinking at the time. But Jung kept differences like this to himself and became a forceful promulgator and defender of Freud's ideas.
Freud convinced Jung to accept the maverick psychologist Otto Gross as a patient at the Burghölzi. Gross was a Byronic figure—as brilliant and charismatic as he was dangerous—as his scandalous ideas in favor of free love and not repressing any desires were leading him beyond the edge of criminality. Like most people who came under Gross’s spell, Jung took to him immediately, and Gross was soon psychoanalyzing Jung as much as Jung was analyzing Gross. After Gross escaped the Burghölzi, Spielrein wrote that Jung had told her about “the great insight he has just received (i.e., about polygamy); he no longer wants to suppress his feeling for me…”
While some historians maintain that Spielrein and Jung’s intimate relationship included actual sexual intercourse, there is no way to know for sure. Jung denied it to Freud, and Spielrein always refers to their lovemaking as “poetry,” an odd word choice from someone who was hardly squeamish about sexual matters. On the other hand, Spielrein often expressed herself through lyrical self-defined metaphors—notably “Siegfried,” the titular hero of Richard Wagner’s opera—whom she associated both with the son she wanted to have with Jung, and the heroic destiny she envisioned for her life.
In 1909, in anguish over Jung’s coldness, Spielrein wrote to Freud, requesting a meeting. Believing she was out to expose his breach of patient-doctor ethics, Jung declared his innocence to Freud and convinced him to write a dismissive letter to Spielrein, whom he maintained had fallen prey to the Freudian concept transference, where the patient falls in love with the doctor. (This letter was the first time Jung gave a name to the patient he had described in such detail so many times before.) Jung and Spielrein continued to see each other until her graduation from medical school in 1911, when she moved to Vienna and became member of Freud’s entourage, the “Vienna Pschoanalytical Society.” In time, Freud came to be convinced of the truth of Spielrein’s telling of her relationship with Jung, writing her: “Since I received the first letter from you, my opinion of him [Jung] has been greatly altered.” As Freud never mentioned anything about this to Jung, this was another example of an unspoken rift in their relationship involving Spielrein.
Taking Jung as his acolyte allowed Freud to assert his ideas in Zurich as well as Vienna. While, to the outside world, Jung founded and became editor-in-chief of the official periodical for psychoanalytic theory—the Jahrbuch (Yearbook) in 1909—in fact, Freud was behind every aspect of the journal behind the scenes. The following year, when the International Psychoanalytic Association was formed in Zurich, Jung—through the activities of Freud and his followers—was installed as its President-for-Life. By merging Vienna and Zurich, Freud’s hope was to raise the level of psychoanalysis to the status of a respectable scientific field—a status it had not yet reached—with properly trained practitioners following unified standards. Very importantly, as the Vienna group was largely Jewish during a time of rampant anti-Semitism—psychoanalysis was disparaged as a “Jewish Science” by some—Freud found it advantageous that Jung, the son of a Christian cleric, would be the public face of psychiatry.
Unfortunately, what Freud meant by psychoanalysis was rigid Freudianism. Soon, many people whose opinions diverged from Freud’s were forced out, and the movement splintered. By serving the interests of his “father,” Jung found himself thrust into the heart of a battle that was not of his own making.
Meanwhile, Jung’s reputation was growing equal to Freud’s, and his theories began to increasingly diverge from his idol. The tensions between the two come out into the open in the pivotal scene in A DANGEROUS METHOD on the deck of the ship. After Freud interprets Jung’s dream about the ghost customs official as Jung’s subconscious desire for Freud’s death, he refuses Jung’s request to relate his own dream, saying “To do so I would lose my authority.” This angers Jung, as Freud derives his primacy over Jung by interpreting Jung’s dreams, which requires a knowledge of Jung’s experiences and inner life—but he withholds corresponding information about himself from Jung. This was particularly ill-timed on Freud’s part as the trip to America marked a turning point for both of them, as they were hailed by an extremely prestigious audience at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. As he had just been celebrated more than he had ever been before in his life, Jung could not help but feel empowered.
From this point on, the relationship between Jung and Freud began a steady decline. Jung published theories that increasingly diverged from Freudianism, particularly in regard to the Libido Theory. Jung also put Spielrein’s undogmatic essay “Destruction as a Cause of Coming into Being” (discussed by Jung and Spielrein in A DANGEROUS METHOD) into the Jahrbuch. On the surface, Freud and Jung’s correspondence remained affable, but Freud often placed sarcastic digs into his remarks, while Jung’s manner was to sweep open dissent under the table. Jung knew that Freud was having an affair with his wife’s sister, Minna Bernays, something he strongly disapproved of, and he suspected that Freud knew the truth about Spielrein. It all came to a head in 1912, when Freud visited Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, forty miles from Jung’s home in Zurich, and didn’t make plans to see Jung. Jung would angrily refer to this slight as the “Kreuzlingen Gesture.”
Freud, unsurprisingly, came to think that Jung had an Oedipal Complex, and was out to destroy his father. At a conference in Munich later in 1912, while discussing the Egyptian ruler Amenhotep (whose son Freud believed had partricidal intentions), Jung said, “The father has a name, but the son must go out and make one for himself.” After more heated discussion, Freud fainted. Jung later wrote that when he picked the fragile old man off the floor, Freud looked up at him as if he were the father. “How sweet it must be to die,” said Freud. Later, Freud attributed his fall to a migraine, which infuriated Jung, who felt he was dishonestly minimizing its true meaning.
A few weeks later, on January 3rd 1913, Freud wrote Jung, saying, “I propose that we abandon our personal relations entirely.” Jung responded with a quote from “Hamlet” —“The rest is silence.”
Otto Gross starved to death in Berlin in 1919.
Sigmund Freud was driven out of Vienna by the Nazis and died of cancer in London in 1939.
Sabina Spielrein returned to Russia and trained a number of the most distinguished analysts of the new Soviet Union before finally returning to practice medicine in her native town, Rostov- on-Don. In 1941, by now a widow, she and her two daughters were taken by Nazi occupying forces to a local synagogue and shot.
Carl Gustav Jung suffered a prolonged nervous breakdown during WWI from which he emerged to become, eventually, the world's leading psychologist. He outlived his wife, Emma, and died peacefully in 1961.
Having played a role in the lives of two legends of psychoanalysis, Sabina Spielrein lived for a time in Geneva, where she served as analyst for another giant, Jean Piaget. Upon her return to Russia, where she joined the Moscow Psychoanalytic Institute, Spielrein, now an elder statesman, brought her vast knowledge to a younger generation of psychoanalysts, including future greats Alexander Luria and and Lev Vygotsky. Sadly, her life would end too soon, when she and her two children were murdered by a Nazi Death Squad in 1942. She was 55.
After leaving Europe, Spielrein’s name evaporated from the history books of psychoanalysis, until the rediscovery of her diaries and writings led to an explosion of interest in her life and work: there have been countless books, conferences dedicated to her work, a documentary (MY NAME WAS SABINA SPIELREIN), a biopic (THE SOUL KEEPER), and three plays (Willy Holtzman’s “Sabina,” Snoo Wilson’s “Sabina” and Christopher Hampton’s “The Talking Cure”). While most sources adjudge Spielrein’s legacy through the degree of influence she may have had on the work of Freud and Jung, as well as the impact she had on their ultimate breakup, her rediscovery has cast a shaft of light on her own work. Spielrein’s writing has finally been awarded the careful scrutiny it never received when she was alive, and scholar—notably John Kerr—now celebrate her brilliance. Ironically, the act of being forgotten has led Spielrein to capture the attention of the public, and become one of the most well-known psychoanalytical theorists of her time.