Blog - 'A Dangerous Method' staring Keira Knightly doesn't do Sabina Spielrein justice, says John Launer

If you have heard of Sabina Spielrein, it is probably because of David Cronenberg’s movie about her – A Dangerous Method. This showed Keira Knightley in the star role, being deflowered and spanked by Michael Fassbender as her psychiatrist, Carl Jung. In real life, the young medical student did indeed have an affair with Jung. He then conspired with Freud to keep it secret. However, much of the rest of the movie was based on myths. As I show in my biography, Spielrein’s life was far more interesting than the movie.

Sabina Spielrein came from a wealthy family in southern Russia. Her mother had a rabbinic background, her father a businessman. As a child, Sabina suffered physical and probably sexual abuse. After the death of her sister Emilia in 1901, she had a breakdown, and ended up at the mental hospital in Zurich, where Carl Jung was one of the doctors. According to mythology, Jung treated her there as his first psychoanalytic patient. I found the evidence for this extremely thin. Her hospital notes record only a few conversations with Jung. There is nothing that would qualify as psychoanalysis, even by the loose standards of the time. 

This myth, and others about Spielrein, arose because Jung wrote about her ‘case’ several times in the next 50 years. There are huge discrepancies between his accounts. Some are demonstrably false, including letters to Freud where he tried to deny having an affair with Spielrein, and then accused her of ‘ruthlessly seducing’ him.  As her diaries make clear, Jung tried to analyse her as a friend and without her consent, and then seduced her, before panicking and breaking off the affair.

What has been lost in all the mythology is that she was a brilliant thinker herself. She was the first person to progress from being a psychiatric patient to becoming a psychoanalyst. She made one of the first attempts to link human psychology with the biology of sexual reproduction, taking a feminist perspective on this. She was one of the first to use play therapy with children. She took the thoughts and language of patients with schizophrenia seriously. She was Jean Piaget’s analyst and carried out important research in child development. She helped to run a progressive kindergarten in Moscow, before a dispute between Stalin and Trotsky led to its closure. 

Freud and Jung both denigrated her as a thinker. This was partly because she refused to take sides between them. On Jung’s part, they also had an anti-Semitic flavour. In spite of this, Freud credited her with inspiring his idea of the ‘death instinct’. Many Jungians claim she was the origin of his notion of the ‘anima’ – the idealised image of a woman that each man carries in his mind. Both claims have little basis. They were a way of turning Spielrein into a sideshow. 

Sabina Spielrein was a bridge-builder and a peacemaker. She refused to play by men’s rules. Her tragic death in the Holocaust in 1942 deprived psychology of one of its most far-sighted thinkers.

- John Launer's book Sex versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein is published by Duckworth and is available through all good retailers