Sabina Spielrein – Russia, 1885-1942

Published in University of Toronto Quarterly – Volume 72 Number 3, Summer 2003 – Sabina Spielrein, 1885-1942: Ronald Hayman, A Life of Jung, New York: W.W. Norton and Company 2001. 522, illustrated. us $35.00 – Reviewed in University of Toronto Quarterly by Linda Munk. Until the publication of The Freud/Jung Letters in 1974, Sabina Spielrein had been forgotten, even in psychoanalytic circles.

Sabina Spielrein – Russia and Switzerland – 1885-1942

Jung to Freud, 4 June 1909: ‘Spielrein is the person I wrote you about. … She was, of course, systematically planning my seduction, which I considered inopportune. Now she is seeking revenge.’

In 1977, parts of Spielrein’s diaries for the years 1909-12, as well as her unknown correspondence with Freud and Jung for the years 1906-23, turned up in Geneva in the cellar of the Palais Wilson, the former headquarters of the Institute of Psychology. They’d been hidden away for sixty years. Edited by Aldo Carotenuto, many of her papers were published in his Diario di una segreta simmetria (1980); an English version appeared in 1982 (2nd edition, 1983): A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein between Jung and Freud. Permission to publish the forty-odd letters from Jung to Spielrein was held up; the ones we now have appear in the (indispensable) German edition of Carotenuto, Tagebuch einer heimlichen Symmetrie: Sabina Spielrein zwischen Jung und Freud (1986).

Another cache of Spielrein’s papers was discovered in 1982, this time in the family archives of Edouard Claparède, the Genevan psychologist. Among them is a handwritten folio with fragments of Spielrein’s diaries for 1907 and 1908; edited by Mireille Cifali and translated into French by Jeanne Moll, they were published in Bloc-Notes de la Psychoanalyse 3 (1983). A bibliography of the thirty-one essays she published between 1911 and 1931 is given by Carotenuto. Everyone writing about Spielrein is indebted to John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein (1993).

In August 1904, Sabina Spielrein was admitted to the Burghölzli, the psychiatric clinic of Zurich University. She was eighteen. Diagnosed by Jung as a case of ‘psychotic hysteria,’ the brilliant, troubled girl from Rostov-on-Don (Russia) was his first analysand. (He was thirty in 1904, and married to Emma Jung.) Once Spielrein was discharged from the Burghölzli in June 1905, she entered the medical faculty of Zurich University, graduating in February 1911 with a dissertation on schizophrenia: ‘Über den psychologischen Inhalt eines Falles von Schizophrenie (Dementia praecox).’ Jung cites it in his monograph of 1912, Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido.

According to Ronald Hayman, Spielrein’s ‘Jewishness disturbed and excited him [Jung], while, for her, one of his attractions was his Teutonic appearance. He could hardly have looked less like the Jews and Russians she had known.’ By 1906 ‘Jung was dangerously involved with Sabina, who said she could read his thoughts telepathically.’ ‘Her fantasy was that Jung was descended from the gods, that their child, Siegfried, would heroically blend Jewish and Aryan qualities.’

Jung writes to Freud on 6 July 1907: a ‘hysterical patient’ has a (Russian) poem running around her head:

The poem is about a prisoner whose sole companion is a bird in a cage. The prisoner is animated only by one wish: sometime in his life, as his noblest deed, to give some creature its freedom. He opens the cage and lets his beloved bird fly out. What is the patient’s greatest wish? … She admits that actually her greatest wish is to have a child by me who would fulfil all her unfillable wishes. For that purpose I would naturally have to let ‘the bird out’ first. (In Swiss-German we say: ‘Has your birdie whistled?’)

By the summer of 1908 Jung had stopped ’suppressing his feelings’ for Spielrein, according to Hayman (whose documentation is meticulous and generous). ‘They made love and collaborated on a prose poem about Siegfried … Jung loved her for the magnificence of her passion, he said, and she had taken his unconscious into her hands.’ If Hayman’s expression ‘made love’ means sexual intercourse, that’s conjecture. (Not that it matters in this painful case.) ‘Poetry was her euphemism for lovemaking,’ Hayman says; but we don’t know what ‘lovemaking’ was for Spielrein. Until we have more than her diary fragments and letter drafts to go on, the anatomy of her encoded word die Poesie (Poesie machen, Poesie haben) is up in the air. Jung to Freud, 15 November 1909: ‘Why is the phallus usually represented as winged? (Joke: “The mere thought lifts it.”)’

Pregnant with her third child, Emma Jung had so far ‘failed to give’ Jung a son, Hayman reports. On 1 December 1908 ‘the baby was born – a boy. This put paid to Sabina’s Siegfried fantasy – Jung had fathered a child without her.’ (Later the fantasy was sublimated, weakly, in the form of Spielrein’s essay of 1912, ‘Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens’; Freud cites it in a footnote to Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920. When Spielrein sent the essay to Jung for publication in the Jahrbuch, it included a cover letter, written in August 1911: ‘Dear One! / Receive now the product of our love, the project which is your little son Siegfried’ ['Liebes! / Empfangen Sie nun das Produkt unserer Liebe, die Arbeit Ihres Söhnchens, Siegfrieds'].)

On 4 December 1908, three days after his son, Franz, was born, Jung wrote to Spielrein (part of the letter is missing). He regretted his weakness, he said (’Ich bereue Vieles und bereue meine Schwäche …’). Would she forgive him for being what he was? For insulting her and forgetting his duties as her physician? Could she understand, comprehend, that he was one of the weakest, most unstable of men? (’Werden Sie mir verziehen, dass ich bin, wie ich bin? Dass ich Sie dadurch beleidige und der Pflichten des Artztes Ihnen gegenüber vergesse? Werden Sie verstehen und begreifen, dass ich einer der schwächsten und unbeständigsten Menschen bin?’) Now he begs: don’t ever take revenge on me – in words, in thoughts, in feelings: ‘Und werden Sie niemals Sich dafür an mir rächen, weder mit Worten, noch mit Gedanken und Gefühlen?’

He proposes a date and time to meet in her apartment. Unless things are clarified, and unless he’s certain of her intentions, his work will suffer. (’Sonst leidet darunter meine Arbeit.’) If he hasn’t done it already, Jung now reverses the roles of patient and physician, transforming the circular model of revenge, nemesis, into a model of gracious reciprocity. Spielrein should pay him back in kind for what he’s done:

Give me back at this moment something of the love and patience and selflessness that I was able to give you when you were ill. Now I am ill.

Geben Sie mir in diesem Augenblicke etwas zurück von der Liebe und Geduld und Uneigennützigkeit, die ich Ihnen zur Zeit Ihrer Krankeit geben konnte. Jetzt bin ich krank.

(There’s a bad slip in Hayman’s version of the excerpt quoted above: Jung is asking Spielrein for patience (Geduld), not ‘guilt’ (Schuld) (see page 105 of A Life of Jung; the error in transcription has come in from John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method, page 205).

For all that, Spielrein ‘was too dependent on him to give up the relationship,’ Hayman writes, ‘and, unable to break it off peacefully, he went on seeing her.’ Jung to Freud, 7 March 1909:

a woman patient, whom years ago I pulled out of a very sticky neurosis with unstinting effort, has violated my confidence and my friendship in the most mortifying way imaginable. She has kicked up a vile scandal solely because I denied myself the pleasure of giving her a child. I have always acted the gentleman towards her, but before the bar of my rather too sensitive conscience I don’t feel clean … But you know how it is – the devil can use even the best of things for the fabrication of filth. Meanwhile I have learnt an unspeakable amount of marital wisdom, for until now I had a totally inadequate idea of my polygamous component despite all self analysis. (emphasis mine)

Spielrein must have been desperate, for at the end of May 1909 she wrote to Freud, identifying herself as an intern at the Burghölzli, and requesting ‘a brief audience.’ Puzzled, Freud forwarded her letter to Jung on 3 June 1909, asking: ‘What is she? A busybody, a chatterbox, or a paranoid? If you know anything about the writer or have some opinion in the matter, would you kindly send me a short wire, but otherwise you must not go to any trouble.’ Jung’s reply is dated 4 June 1909; for the first time in his letters to Freud, Spielrein’s name is used:

Spielrein is the person I wrote you about. … Since I knew from experience that she would immediately relapse if I withdrew my support, I prolonged the relationship over the years and in the end found myself morally obliged, as it were, to devote a large measure of friendship to her, until I saw that an unintended wheel had started turning, whereupon I finally broke with her. She was, of course, systematically planning my seduction, which I considered inopportune. Now she is seeking revenge. … I need hardly say that I have made a clean break.

Five months later, by November 1910, ‘they were lovers again,’ Hayman tells us, ‘and she was writing in her diary about their passionate “poetry.” He loved her, he said, because of her magnificent pride, and because her thoughts ran parallel to his. But he would never marry her.’

Excited though Sabina was by his passion, she was nervous he [Jung] might steal her idea of the death wish. He wanted to mention it in an article: what if he presented it as his own idea?

… Though she hated the idea of being just a ‘diversion’ for Jung, their affair continued. Her whole being was ’suffused with love,’ and she prayed to Fate: ‘Let me love him nobly.’

More on the complicity of Jung and Freud: on 21 June 1909, after much back and forth, Jung wondered if Freud would do him ‘a great favour’: ‘please write a note to Frl. Spielrein, telling her that I have fully informed you of the matter … I would like to give my patient at least this satisfaction [Genugtuung]: that you and she know of my “perfect honesty.”‘ Freud understood and was glad to oblige; his letter to Jung is dated 30 June 1909:

Immediately after receiving your letter I wrote Fräulein Sp. a few amiable lines [ein paar liebenswürdige, Genugtuung bietende Zeilen] giving her satisfaction, and today received an answer from her. … And the matter has ended in a manner satisfactory to all. [Der Abschluß ist doch für alle Parteien befriedigender.]

Ten days later, on 10 July 1909, Jung acknowledged Freud’s ‘kind help in the Spielrein matter, which has now settled itself so satisfactorily.’ The German text is nuanced: ‘Ich möchte Ihnen zu allerst herzlich danken für Ihre freundliche Hilfe in der Spielrein-Angelegenheit, die sich ja so günstig erledigt hat.’ In this context günstig connotes more than ’satisfactory’: the matter was settled conveniently, advantageously for Jung. There had been no scandal.

Spielrein left Zurich once her final exams were over in January 1911; a few months later she settled in Vienna and became an active member of Freud’s Psychoanalytischen Vereinigung. In 1912 she married a Russian physician, Pawel Scheftel. When Freud knew she was expecting a child, he wrote a letter, dated 28 August 1913. By then he’d severed his ties to Jung and the ‘Aryan cause’:

Dear Frau Doktor, … I can hardly bear to listen when you continue to enthuse about your old love and past dreams, and count on an ally [Bundesgenossen] in the marvelous little stranger [the baby expected in December 1913].

I am, as you know, cured of the last shred of my predilection for the Aryan cause [fürs Arientum], and would like to take it that if the child turns out to be a boy he will develop into a stalwart Zionist. …

We are and remain Jews. The others will only exploit us and will never understand or respect us [uns immer nur ausnützen und uns nie verstehen older würdigen].

A daughter, Renata, was born in early December, and Freud sent a letter of congratulations dated 29 December 1913: ‘It’s better that the child is a “she.” Now you can still think over [reflect on] the blond Siegfried and, before his time [before a son is born], perhaps have smashed a pagan idol.’ ‘Es ist besser, daß es eine “Sie” ist. Da kann man sich den blonden Siegfried noch überlegen und bis zu seiner Zeit vielleicht ein Götzenbild zerschlagen haben.’

The last, or next-to-last, letter written by Jung to Spielrein is dated 1 September 1919: The love of S. for J. made him conscious of something he had only suspected previously – a power of the unconscious that shapes one’s destiny [eine schicksalsbestimmende Macht des Ubw.], a power which later led him to things of the greatest importance. The relationship had to be ’sublimated,’ for otherwise it would have led him into delusion and madness (the concretization of the unconscious).

Sometimes one must be unworthy, simply in order to survive. [Bisweilen muß man unwürdig sein, um überhaupt leben zu können.]

In 1923, Sabina Nikolayevna Spielrein-Sheftel returned to Russia, first to Moscow, then to Rostov-on-Don, where she founded a psychiatric hospital for children and held a teaching position at the university. Psychoanalysis was outlawed in Russia in 1936. In 1935 and 1937, her three brothers, Isaak, Jan, and Emil, vanished in Stalin’s purges. The family’s property was confiscated. Her husband died in 1938. In 1941 the Nazis and Arientum moved in. Rostov-on-Don was ‘occupied twice by the German army, but most of the Jews succeeded in leaving. The rest were exterminated in August 1942′ (Encyclopedia Judaica). In August 1942, Sabina Spielrein (fifty-seven) and her two daughters, Renata (twenty-eight) and Eva (eighteen), were herded into the Rostov synagogue and murdered.

Freud’s Forgotten Pupil, Woman Who Could Have Surpassed the Teacher: Professor Obendick from Dortmund wrote in his letter to a colleague from the Rostov State University: “I once again look at pictures I took since I came to Rostov. Bright September flowers in the Theatre Square and a fountain. There is a rainbow seen in tiny countless sprays of the fountain (it has become the symbol of the city’s life for me); I see small courtyards where domestic problems are mixed with romance; the boulevard in Pushkin street. Suddenly the name of Sabine Spielrein comes to my mind. Why don’t they hang a memorial plaque on the house number 83 in Pushkin street where Sabine Spielrein lived? The woman was Sigmund Freud’s pupil and the founder of psychoanalysis in Russia; she fell victim to fascists in the years of Holocaust. The city of Rostov must remember her and be proud of the fact that the woman lived there!”

The name of Sabine Spielrein is rather popular in the west; there are many books and films about the woman; scientific conferences in commemoration of Sabine Spielrein are often held there. A musical was staged in Broadway on the basis of the conjecture on relations between Spielrein, Jung and Freud. However, just few facts about the woman are known in Russia. Even in the Russian city of Rostov, where Sabine was born, studied and later perished, only several people, mostly psychologists and psychotherapists, know details of her private life and scientific activity.

The woman is still a mystery, even now. Although, it seemed that she never made any secret of her life; on the contrary, she always involved in it people whom she knew, relatives, friends, doctors, teachers.

Sabine Spielrein was born in 1885. Her father, Naum Spielrein worked as entomologist in Warsaw; when the family moved to Rostov, he took up commerce. Sabine’s mother Heva Spielrein (maiden name Lyublinskaya) was a dentist, but she dedicated her life to upbringing of her daughter and three sons. She had one more daughter Emilia, but she died of typhus at a very young age. The death seriously shattered Sabine’s psyche. Despite this fact, she left gymnasium with a gold medal in 1904 and in summer of the same year her parents sent Sabine to the Burghelzli mental hospital in Switzerland; the diagnose was mental hysteria.

Young and unknown doctor Carl Gustav Jung was the doctor in charge of Sabine’s case. Being keen on ideas of Sigmund Freud, he applied methods of the psychoanalyst from Vienna on Sabine for the first time. Jung described success of medical treatment of the young Russian girl with usage of these methods in letters to his friend and teacher. Jung didn’t conceal the fact that Sabine fell in love with him (it is frequent in medical practice when female patients attribute features of a hero, father or God on their doctors). He wrote, the girl “sincerely” told she wanted to give birth to his son whom she wanted to name Siegfried. However, Jung didn’t mention that the “request” of Frau Spielrein was carried out. The liaison between Sabine Spielrein and Carl Gustav Jung lasted for five years. It is believed that these relations turned out to be some kind of a catalyst that speeded up the breakup of relations between the pupil and the teacher. Freud wrote to Sabine later: “We will be happy to meet you even further if you wish to stay with us, but you must learn to discern the difference between friends and enemies (I mean Jung).”

The medical treatment went successfully. In a year Sabine felt perfectly well, and head physician of the clinic, famous psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler allowed the girl to leave for the Zurich University medical school for studies.

In 1911, Sabine wonderfully defended a thesis on the subject “On psychology of material on one schizophrenia case”. The same year, she delivered a report “Destruction as the cause of formation” at one of the popular Freud’s “Wednesday” sessions. It was that session when Sabine expressed the idea of a strong connection between Thanatos and Eros, the instinct of death and the instinct of generation prolongation.

At that time, Great Freud listened to the report of the young psychoanalyst indulgently and said the speech was “logically well-composed”. Only in several years, he himself expressed the dual theory of attractions; at that he didn’t refer to Spielrein’s report delivered in 1911, that anticipated Freud’s later ideas of attraction to death. In 1930, when Freud once again mentioned his former resistance to the theory of attractions, not a single word was said that criticism of that kind was given in response to Sabine Spielrein’s article.

Sabine, a little energetic woman with dark curly hair would have made a wonderful career if she had stayed in Europe. As Bruno Bettelheim said, she would have been then among “the greatest pioneers of psychoanalysis”.

But in 1923, on recommendation of Sigmund Freud Sabine Spielrein left Germany where she had been living for 23 years and got back to Russia. For 1.5 years she lived in Moscow, then she moved to Rostov, where she lectured at the University and worked as a doctor.

August 11, 1942. Old residents of Rostov remember perfectly well that thousands of civilians were led along the central street of Rostov. Those were Rostov Jews. The escort led them toward Zmiyevskaya Balka (the Snake Gully), to the place where they were later shot together with hundreds of captured red Army soldiers. In accordance with different sources, there are 18-27 thousand people in that common grave, and each of them was with his own fate. Sabine Spielrein with her daughters Renata, 29, a talented cellist, and Eva, 14, who, as famous musician David Oistrakh foretold, cold have become a wonderful violinist, is also together with the shot people in the common grave.

It is said that in the years of the first occupation of Rostov, in 1941 Sabine Spielrein refused to leave the native city. She said: “I know Germans, they are a civilized nation. They are not capable of evil doings.” Such was her motive when she explained the decision not to leave Rostov to the second wife of her husband, pediatrician Pavel Sheftel. Before the war, the abandoned women understood perfectly well that each of them may be sent to the Soviet GULAG camps, that is why they agreed that the one who remains alive will bring up all children. (Pavel Sheftel died in 1937 of heart attack. Within the same period Sabine’s three brothers: Academician Isaak Spielrein, researcher of labor psychology in the Soviet Union, Emil Spielrein, dean of the biology department in the Rostov State University, and Ian Spielrein, dean of the electrotechnical department in the Moscow Energy institute, were killed in the torture chambers of the National Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD).

Scientist Movshovich studying history of the Rostov region wrote: “By the time of the second occupation of Rostov, Spielrein very likely had already no illusions concerning the possibility of combination of the civilized German nation with their cruel doings.” However, all the same she refused to save her daughters: a friend of Sabine’s offered to give forged documents to the girls in accordance with which they could be passed for Armenians. It is a mystery why Sabine Spielrein several times rejected methods of salvation.

Over 25 years ago, diaries of Sabine Spielrein dated with 1908-1912, letters she received from Jung and Freud were found in the basement of the Wilson Palace in Geneva (the Psychology Institute used to be there).

The documents were published for the first time by Italian psychoanalyst Aldo Carotenuto. He understood that the discovered materials would once again confirm the liaison between Jung and his patient, his subsequent pupil, that Freud was also involved there indirectly, Carotenuto (either out of gentleman’s solidarity, or because of his respect to the founder of psychoanalysis) supplied the letters with comments in accordance with which it looked so that the woman was guilty in the situation herself. He wrote: “Babe Sabine …behave so that Jung willy-nilly acted mean.”

So, it was already second time that Sabine Spielrein, even after her death, fell victim to the severe struggle for affirmation of positions in the psychoanalyst hierarchy.

Several years ago a work by Peter Kuter under the title Modern Psychology was published in Germany. The scientist depicted a genealogical tree of the psychoanalytical school and mentioned Sabine Spielrein among prominent scientists as well. Scientist Ulyanitsky from Rostov was astonished to see that when the book was translated into Russian in 1997 in St.Petersburg, the genealogical tree was cut off and Sabine dropped out of it.

As we see now, Sigmund Freud, following Sabine Spielrein, believed that negotiation is just a form of affirmation. He thought that in order to admit something, you must first reject it; in order to give birth to something, you must first die. Does it mean that Sabine Spielrein is not yet dead enough that her name is not included among prominent fathers of psychoanalysis?

In conclusion we would like to add that recently, on the initiative of the president of the South Russian Humanitarian Institute V.Pigulevsky and scientist Vlad Yermak studying the life and work of Sabine Spielrein, a memorial plaque was fixed on the house number 83, Pushkin street, in the Russian city of Rostov where the scientist lived in 1887-1904. Nonna Mirzabekova, Kultura, Translated by Maria Gousseva. Read the original in Russian.

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