The life of Russian psychologist Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942) began in emotional and physical abuse, and ended with the murder of herself and her two daughters, and in between those two dim poles she experienced professional and personal character slander at the hands of one of the century’s most famous intellectuals, the systematic destruction of her family at the hands of the Soviet state, and an almost constant poverty at the hands of her own intellectual standards.
And yet, in spite of the almost constant misery that attended her ill-starred existence on this Earth, she managed in her fifty seven years to produce clusters of works that pointed to a new, scientifically-centered approach to psychoanalysis nested in biological fact and Darwinian theory that was decades ahead of its time, and a psychoanalytic approach to children that directly influenced many of the twentieth century’s most prominent child development specialists. She eschewed the tribalism of early psychoanalysis in search of higher syntheses in a way that guided the future of that movement but did little to help her in her own fractious time.
Synthesizer and Innovator, Spielrein’s insight into the human condition was perhaps so well developed because her experience of its darkest depths was so foundational to her person. Born to a Jewish family in Rostov-on-Don, in that section of the Russian Empire where Jews were permitted to live and work, Sabina experienced physical beating and emotional humiliation from her deeply troubled father, a man of great intelligence and natural curiosity but also profound depression and explosive rage. Alternately pressured to perform at the highest possible level of academic achievement and beaten for no other reason than the shifting state of her father’s suicidal instability, Sabina developed a robust array of obsessions and neuroses that determined the course of her young life.
Synthesizer and Innovator, Spielrein’s insight into the human condition was perhaps so well developed because her experience of its darkest depths was so foundational to her person.
Slowly broken by her youthful experiences, she developed a keen hunger for punishment and humiliation, and a sexual interest in the idea of people eating while defecating, all accompanied by splitting headaches, pains throughout her body, and uncontrollable urges that grew into full neurotic episodes after the death of her sister. In 1904 her parents sent her to the Burghölzli mental hospital in the hope that the new, progressive psychological techniques practiced there by Eugen Bleuler might do her some good.
At that time, there was on the staff of Burghölzli a young psychologist by the name of Carl Jung who was one of many professionals charged with recording Spielrein’s behavior and progress. At the time, Jung was just at the start of a career that would lead him to international fame in spite of a character that was, let’s be frank here, execrable, and a bevy of ideas that sounded vastly more clever than they actually were. A serial philanderer who was not above using the power of his connections to bury fallout from his bad behavior who went on to hitch his star to the rising Nazi party in order to shove his Jewish colleagues out of psychology so as to make more room for himself, Jung was a person of grotesque personal morality and a bottomless need for praise and worship, and Spielrein had the great misfortune of being placed squarely in his path during one of her weakest moments.
She fell wildly in love with the handsome Christian psychologist who played the role of tormented genius to the hilt. As he had before, and would do multiple times in the future, he ignored any considerations of professional ethics and allowed their relation to grow into a romantic one, all while mining her case for material to put in his own early papers, all be it in a form that distorted the facts to fit his own ideas. Spurred on by the discovery of this great love, and not yet aware that she was just one in a series of victims, Spielrein’s condition improved to the point that she became less of a patient at the hospital and more of an assistant, developing her knowledge of the nascent theories of psychoanalysis as promulgated by Freud and filtered by Jung.
After a year’s time at Burghölzli, Spielrein applied to medical school at the University of Zurich, which had one of Europe’s longest traditions of admitting women to its departments. Jung was a lecturer there, and Spielrein his enthusiastic student, and of course the difference in power and position made not the least difference to him as the relationship continued under the nose of Jung’s wife and his growing family of children. These were the times of the great psychoanalysis turf wars, when Sigmund Freud was fighting to root out alternate practices from his own, and his heir apparent, Jung, was slowly developing his own idiosyncratic, occult-infused version of psychoanalytic theory based on universal archetypes.
Spielrein’s family was aware of her relationship with Jung, and while her father generally accepted the idea, her mother Eva was concerned, particularly after she received an anonymous letter (possibly written by Jung’s wife) in 1909 warning her that if she allowed her daughter to continue seeing Jung it would only end in her ruin. Eva wrote to Jung expressing her concerns, at which point Jung, panicking that his behavior might impact his career, wrote to Sigmund Freud to attempt to pre-smear Spielrein’s name, saying that she was “kicking up a vile scandal” in revenge for his refusal to impregnate her. He cast her as a deranged former patient who had abused his virtuous friendship terribly.
Jung and Spielrein would go on to reconcile, but throughout the rest of their correspondence, Jung’s tone was one of condescension as to her own intellectual efforts, and flat-out irritation any time she mentioned the value of theories that weren’t his own. In 1911 she finished her studies at the University of Zurich on the strength of a paper which represented an early attempt by psychoanalytic methods to understand schizophrenia, and the first by somebody possessing an actual medical doctorate. The next year she moved to Vienna, where Freud held court over the course and development of psychoanalytic theory.
Here, she placed herself on the intellectual map with the reading of her paper “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being” before the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. In it, she proposed that evolutionary theory and biological knowledge be employed in the analysis of humanity’s psychological drives. She posited the foundational importance of living beings’ reproductive drive as a biological imperative that percolated into the psychological realm, which was a challenge to the primacy of the Pleasure Drive as theorized by Freud. She wanted to investigate how the biological facts of reproduction and death as honed by millennia of evolution might color individuals’ experience of sexual intercourse, and the neuroses that spring from the suppression of the sexual drive.
As an attempt to import biological knowledge into the practice of psychoanalysis, the paper was decades ahead of its time, and though the idea of a death drive (though in a far different form) would make its way into Freud’s later theory, the reaction of the assembled notables was not a favorable one. Psychoanalysis was to be a pure practice based on observation and subjective interpretation of individual cases, the reining minds declared, and any attempt to drag biology into it was essentially heresy.
Undeterred, Spielrein would continue to work out her theories, about the competing biological claims of the need to reproduce and the need of the individual to survive, and how our brains negotiate between the energy needed to maintain our individual integrity and that needed to raise a new generation. The ensuing years represented a time of professional creativity but financial and personal hardship. She married a Jewish doctor in 1912, though she spent most of their marriage separated from him, tending to their daughter Renata while attempting and failing to build a psychoanalytic private practice for herself in Berlin and Switzerland, perhaps largely due to her unwillingness to declare Freud, or Jung, or Adler absolutely right and the others absolutely wrong, which hurt her standing in the psych wars of the 1910s and 20s. Reduced to living off the handouts of friends, but still maintaining her professional if unremunerative commitments that included a new interest in the development of language in children, Spielrein’s life was intellectually rich if materially meager during this time.
Working with another rising intellectual star of the century, the young Jean Piaget, she began developing theories about how to apply psychoanalysis to children to help them recover from traumas such as those that marked her own childhood. She developed games and other forms of play that would draw the children into healthily revealing the roots of their extreme behavior and safely expressing their angers and frustrations, all while developing ideas about how babies acquire language which would be influential to her more celebrated successors, Anna Freud and Melanie Klein.
In 1923, at the insistence of her family, and in anticipation of a better life promised by the apparently pro-science Soviet state, she returned to Russia and lived a fruitful and satisfying life so long as psychoanalysis was an officially accepted branch of psychological theory. With the death of Lenin and the fleeing of Trotsky (who was a primary supporter of psychoanalytic methods in the Soviet Union), however, and the subsequent denigration of pedology (which Spielrein advocated as a union of biological knowledge with educational theory, and which we spoke at more length about in our feature of Siberian doctor Anna Bek) as ideologically suspect, Spielrein found her career prospects radically curtailed.
One by one, members of her family who had once had positions of intellectual promise were targeted by Stalin’s regime. Her brother Isaac was executed by firing squad in 1937 for his position at the head of industrial psychology in the Soviet Union, followed by her other brothers Jan and Emil in 1938. Her husband had died in 1937 of a heart attack, and her father, after having been arrested and tortured in 1935, died in 1938 following the loss of a third son to state-sanctioned murder in the span of a year. Spielrein, alone with her two daughters, one in her twenties and the other a teenager, carried on as best she could until the invasion of the Soviet Union by the German army in 1940. As the army approached Rostov, she was urged to flee with her children, but for some reason she did not, and in 1942 Einsatzgruppen descended upon her town and began rounding up its Jewish residents. She, aged 57, and her two daughters, aged 28 and 16, were loaded into vans which were taken to great trenches outside of the city, where they were shot and buried along with some twenty thousand other Jewish residents of the city.
Carl Jung, who had used the machinery of the Nazi state to remove his Jewish rivals from their positions and protections, lived until 1961. In his autobiography he left an account of Spielrein that referred to her as a “talented psychopath” whose characteristics and life story he altered to serve the purpose of magnifying his own legend, but whose name he declined to mention.
FURTHER READING: Sabine Richebacher did a huge amount of the legwork in bringing Spielrein’s obscure last years to the light of day, and you can find the results of that in her Eine fast grausame Liebe zur Wissenschaft (2008) but if you are looking for an English source, then you’ll probably want Sex vs. Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein (2014) by John Launer. If you want further reasons why Carl Jung was just a terrible, terrible person, and a not much better thinker, I’d recommend Walter Kaufmann’s Freud, Adler, and Jung (1980).
Photo credit: Sabina Spielrein (circa 1918) by Unknown author – Family photo, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons