Sabina Spielrein, a woman psychoanalyst: another picture by Mireille Cifali

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, Mrs Spielrein, Dr méd., former assistant of Professor Freud of Vienna, is available on Tuesday evenings for free consultation with people desirous of information on educational and scientific psychoanalysis.

Journal de Genève, 28 February 1922

She is thirty-five years old, and she is going to settle in Geneva to obtain the position to which she aspires. It is 1920.

This is the last stage of her migration, before her return to Russia, her native country.

She does not know that yet, however.

The move to Geneva is her last in a journey which began for her as an adolescent who settled in Zürich to undergo psychoanalysis and to obtain a diploma in medicine.

She went on to Vienna and became a member of the psychoanalytic society.

She set herself up next in Berlin, married and became a mother; and lastly she lived near Lausanne, evidently because of the illness of her child.

She chooses Geneva, without apparently being put out by the fact that she will have to speak French, the language she spoke to her father when she was a child, and in which he still writes to her sometimes from Rostov-on-Don.

Because of this I feel less embarrassed addressing you in French.

It is poor consolation for ‘my difficulties with foreign languages’: however, speaking French on this occasion makes some sense in relation to Sabina Spielrein’s history.

Her story has been known since the publication of the documents1 she left with Professor Edouard Claparède in Geneva.

She has been taken out of the closet; she is remembered particularly for the love she bore Carl Gustav Jung, for the indiscretions committed by him, and for the fact that she turned to Freud.

She was made to occupy a position between the two men, her story in fact bringing together the two future enemies, the father and the son, the Jew and the Protestant, the Viennese and the citizen of Zürich; at the centre was her turbulent love.

She became famous, not so much in her own right but for having her name associated with theirs.

She wrote that thoughts ‘born out of long suffering’ (Spielrein 1906/1907?)2 are more important than glory.

For me personally, I would like to see her henceforth better known for her own thoughts, that is according to her own merit.

Amongst others Was she the first woman to write about psychoanalysis?

The question is not fundamental, but it seems to me worth asking.

The women pioneers always quoted are Hermine Hug-Hellmut, Lou Andréas-Salomé, Melanie Klein and Anna Freud. Before World War I, there were a few who were less well known, such as Mira Ginzburg and Emma Fürst.

Sabina Spielrein published her thesis in the Jahrbuch in 1911, then in 1912 an article on her childhood, and ‘Destruction as the cause of coming into being’ (Spielrein 1912).

At the same time Hermine Hug-Hellmut also published in the Jahrbuch: but there was an age difference between them.

Sabina was 26 years old; Hermine was 40. Sabina is moreover often compared to Lou [Andréas-Salomé], whom she met in Vienna in 1911: Sabina was 26, Lou 50.

Melanie Klein did not write until the 1920s, and yet she was three years older than Sabina, being born in 1882.

This leaves Anna. She was 10 years younger, this daughter of Freud for whom Sabina ‘feel[s] not the slightest trace of hostility’, in spite of the fact that, as Sabina reckons:

‘She has the advantage over me of having a father who is widely known. I … must rely on my own strength, for which reason I have a much more difficult time of it’ (Spielrein 19 October 1910, p. 30).

When she wrote those words, she was 25, Anna 15.

This reference tells us simply that in 1911 Sabina was not necessarily the first woman to write and be published, but that she was the youngest.

This enables us to give a different connotation to the use of the adjective ‘affectionate’ which often appears in the writing of Freud when he writes about her to Jung and when he calls her ‘the little girl’ (Freud 1911, p. 469 & p. 473).

By her age, she is effectively so.

From ‘[poor] psychopath’ (Spielrein 19 October 1910, p. 29) or ‘degenerate’ as she sometimes referred to herself (Spielrein 1906/1907?), she soon becomes the person who discusses the components of theory with Jung and Freud almost on equal terms, the one who speaks at conferences – not only in dreams – in front of the Viennese analysts (Spielrein 1911).

She dares to expose herself in words; she even risks publication.

From its beginnings, psychoanalysis was welcoming to women compared to other institutions such as the university or medicine (see Chodorow 1986).

By what road has this young woman, Jewish and Russian, who is neither the daughter, nor the wife, nor the niece of a doctor or psychoanalyst, travelled, from being a patient to become a woman writing about psychoanalysis?

I would like to describe here some elements of her journey, based on documents, some of which are as yet unpublished.

My work ‘along with his’ (Spielrein? September 1910, p. 16) One day Jung is said to have told her: ‘Minds such as yours help advance science.

You [definitely] must become a psychiatrist’ (Spielrein 13 June 1909, p. 101).

She becomes one. ‘She clings’ to her interest for scientific activity, and gets published.

With anguish she writes: ‘Sometimes it seems to me that the scholarly world which reads the article will see me as a know-it-all who wants to point out every folly to the entire world’ (Spielrein 8 September 1910, p. 10).

She is however full of the hope that in ‘[her] fantasies’ ‘a tiny bit of truth can be discovered’ (Spielrein 9 September 1910, p. 11) that in her writing is to be found ‘interesting and stimulating material …’ (Spielrein 8 September 1910, p. 10).

She dreams about future success, but soon comes down to earth, back to ‘reason’ (Spielrein ? September 1910, p. 16), to use her own words.

As a patient she develops a passion for her doctor, a love which is shared for a while. She has to renounce it, her ‘soul rent with an unspeakable pain’ (Spielrein 19 October 1910, p. 29).

She then mourns the death of the child –already given the name of Siegfried – which she would have loved to bear him, and replaces it with a ‘sublimated child’, a written work.

She says that she owes the energy put into the ‘sublimated activity’ to her mystical tendency, but also to something Freud said to her.

When she talked about the desired child (the ‘Siegfried dreams’), he said: ‘You could have the child you know, if you wanted it, but what a waste of your talents’ (Spielrein 6 January 1918, see Carotenuto (Eng. trans.) 1982, p. 71), and reminded her at the same time that ‘nothing is stronger than controlled and sublimated passion’ (Freud 12 June 1914, in Carotenuto 1982, p. 122).

And so she tries to transfer her passionate love for Jung to work in common.

There is between them a transfer of ideas, a sharing, a dialogue and a competition for priority.

Who of the two is the one first to put forward the hypothesis of the ‘destructive instinct’? And who is going to publish it first?

How is one to understand the ‘uncanny parallels’ (Jung 18 March 1912) within their respective work? Who has borrowed from the other?

Jung acknowledges her precedence:

‘The death tendency or death wish was clear to you before it was to me, understandably’ (see Jung 25 March 1912, ‘The letters of C. G. Jung to Sabina Spielrein’, 25.3.12, trans. Barbara Wharton, Journal of Analytical Psychology, 46, 1, 184–5).

He is honest and points this out in his writings long afterwards, recollecting that it is his pupil, Dr Spielrein, who had the idea, and stressing that Freud later borrowed it from her (Jung 1911–12, para. 504, note no. 38).

Her idea, his idea … Jung does not fail to state explicitly Sabina’s intellectual independence.

To be sure she does know her debt, but she tries to defend herself against Jung and ‘resist his excessive power over me’ (Spielrein 14 September 1910, p. 14).

While she is writing she hardly dares read him because she feels him to be still too much in her mind.

She is afraid however that he will publish first, that he will steal her ideas.

Generously, Jung writes that these are secret penetrations of thoughts … ‘perhaps I borrowed from you too; certainly I have unwittingly absorbed a part of your soul as you doubtless have of mine. What matters is what each of us has made of it. And you have made something good of it’ (see Jung 25 March 1912, in ‘The letters of C. G. Jung to Sabina Spielrein’, 25.3.12, trans. Barbara Wharton, p. 185).

She succeeds in writing, and is consequently recognized for her fine intelligence, her exacting mind, and her bold ideas.

Freud describes her work as ‘magnificent’ (Spielrein 7 January 1912, p. 41).

She revels in her success.

She ‘is now a member of the psychoanalytic society’ (ibid., p. 41), and her name is published alongside that of Freud and Jung.

They encourage her to write. She signs her articles.

This is remarkable, for though women are accepted as psychoanalysts, they are mainly known for being clinicians, not theoreticians.

They are not known for their writing.

It is an historical fact.

Yet in his critical appraisal of the article on ‘Destruction as the cause of coming into being’, Paul Federn (see Carotenuto (Eng. trans.) 1982 , p. 142) comments that Sabina Spielrein relies on her sensitivity and intuition, and as a result gives an impression of being rather mystical.

It is a reproach that is still levied against her.

Sabina Spielrein, however, is not only a theoretician.

Remarkably she seems to have perceived the fundamental difference that exists between the realm of theory and that of therapy.

In 1917, she writes to Jung, ‘In practice what matters is less the precise classification than one’s intuitive understanding of the patient, because practical psychotherapy is a healing art.

You say that too, after all. We need scientific findings only [as points of reference]’ (Carotenuto (Eng. trans.) 1982, pp. 66–7).

She thus seals her agreement with him, and he acknowledges it in a letter.

Later she disagrees with Melanie Klein and Hermine Hug-Hellmut about the use of explanation in child analysis, which she considers to be too suggestive (Brinkmann & Bose 1986).

She understands,as Freud did, that analysis does not aim at ‘explaining’ to the patient. Has she already realized the danger of applying theory in the clinical situation?

Jung as well as Freud considered her hypotheses as having been personally determined.

That is because they did not yet know that this incontrovertible subjectivity is one of the conditions of psychoanalytic discovery.

Creativity Sabina Spielrein builds her theory out of her transferences, always with somebody else in mind, out of the sufferings of her own life.

Confronted with the emergence of violent feeling in the analytic situation, she continues to ask herself, ‘What really is this abominable thing that is love?’ (Spielrein 1906/1907?

See ‘Unedited extracts from a diary’, Journal of Analytical Psychology, 46, 1, p. 157).

‘What do we love in the other? Our own ideal’ ibid., p. 162, she concludes.

But then what differentiates the love of a woman from that of a man?

How can this essentially human feeling be distinguished from sexual attraction?

And above all what enables us to renounce it?

How do we move from erotic attraction to a sublimated affection, or create something out of unbearable separation?

These are magnificent pages that she writes to Jung.

She addresses him as a woman: confronting her love, her desire to bear a child, she speaks of her renunciation, of the possibility of other creations.

Her writing is full of passion, suffering and doubt.

She tries to find meaning in her life: she consults Freud, Jung, but it seems that that is not enough.

From then on she does not miss an opportunity to point out the connection between the feminine and creativity.

It is 1913. In a short text on ‘the motherin-law’ (‘La belle-mère’/ ‘The mother-in-law’, see this issue, pp. 205–8), she insists on one difference between man and woman.

Not that woman is less intelligent, or that she has fewer fantasies.

The important quality of a woman, she affirms, is her intuition, her capacity to feel and to put herself in the place of others, as it were to live their life.

Moreover, ‘her biological role, her ability to be a mother and a teacher in a human way, a role which corresponds to her very mode of being, takes up so much of her feeling that she is left with very little capacity to live her own feelings objectively’ and to distance herself so as to create works of art.

She wonders whether a woman would want women’s behaviour to match the more ‘lofty behaviour of men’.

She is not sure about this. She remains cautious in the matter.

In 1913, she becomes the mother of a little girl, Renata, and between 1914 and 1919, she (Spielrein 6.1.1918) voices her anxiety to Jung: Who is she?

What is her vocation?

In which field can she achieve something? Is it in her scientific activities?

By composing music?

She resists this temptation; she even chooses to work in a surgical clinic for a while.

Then she allows herself to compose songs, simply for her own pleasure and equilibrium.

But she knows that she will never be a Bach or a Beethoven, nor a leading light in psychology.

Does this reflect suppressed megalomaniac ambition, or are these genuine questions about her status as a woman? Who will tell her which it is? Jung thinks that the unconscious will provide the answer.

So would it be sufficient for her to continue her analysis to discover which direction to take? Or should she allow herself to be guided by her dreams?

She abandons her dreams after seemingly believing in them for a while.

She has too many talents.

They all recognize this: she has to choose, and ‘to choose is to suffer’ since one can hope to ‘achieve excellent training in a given area only by sacrificing the other “vocations”’ (Carotenuto (Eng. trans.) 1982, p. 73; Spielrein 6.1.18).

Will she opt for psychoanalysis as a profession? Will she develop her talent as a musician? Will she devote herself entirely to being a mother?

And why not devote herself to her task as a housewife, adds Jung when he replies to her, pointing out: ‘Those are but mere functions. You have not thereby become yourself’ (see Jung 21 January 1918, in ‘The letters of C. G. Jung to Sabina Spielrein’, trans. Barbara Wharton, JAP 46, 1, p. 192).

Sabina is preoccupied with questions about the ideal, while the reality of the war is misery, hunger, cold and illness.

She is chronically short of money, but ‘can view all such discomforts with humour’.

Her husband, Paul Scheftel, remains with her only a short while: he goes back to Russia in 1915.

Her parents cannot get money out to help her.

They urge her to return home.

Renata is often ill. Sabina observes her, and from Berlin her brother Isaac encourages her to do so: Freud thought it good that ‘parents should observe and take note of the psychic life of their children’ (Spielrein, I. 1918).

She dreamt that her father (or perhaps her grandfather) said to her something to this effect: ‘A great destiny awaits you, my child’ (Carotenuto 1982, 80: Spielrein 19 January 1918).

Freud to whom she had told the dream saw in it only the realization of her desire.

She, on the other hand, tries to imagine how she can fulfil ‘this high religious vocation’ (Carotenuto 1982, p. 88: Spielrein 28 January 1918): ‘… in the form of a child or in the form of an artistic or a scientific work?’ (ibid., p. 88).

Her two daughters would become musicians.

As for her, she would leave behind some writings. Her musical compositions have not been found among the papers left behind in Geneva.

Did she take them with her as precious keepsakes or did she destroy them?

It seems that she continued to ask herself what prevents, on the whole, a ‘normally developed person attaining his life’s goal?’ (ibid., Spielrein 6 January 1918).

Fear of life? But then where does that feeling of powerlessness come from? For her ‘to live is to create. And whoever no longer creates is already dead’ (Spielrein 1983).

What is this heroic disposition that has characterized her since infancy, and which makes Freud say of her that she belongs to the ‘“saviour or sacrifice” type’ (Carotenuto 1982, p. 90: Letter of Spielrein to Jung, 28 January)?

Some express surprise that she did not go into politics, like her brother, and numerous young Jewish and Russian women in exile (Ljunggren 1983). She remains silent on the subject in her writings.

Yet in 1906, on the page of an exercise book addressed to Jung, she exhorts him to leave behind his egoism, to join the innovators with their noble ideas; she makes a plea in favour of new ideas, of socialism, and against class injustice.

She predicts an individualism of a different order, in a world, she writes, where the study of psychology and pedagogy would acquire increasing importance (Spielrein 1906).

She is at the time twenty-one, and in analysis with Jung.

A clinician in Geneva

It is 1920, and Geneva is her last stop.

Now she seems to have made the choice of becoming a psychoanalyst.

She continues to write articles.

She is once more a clinician, and her patients are not run of the mill: they include not only Jean Piaget, but also very likely Pierre Bovet and Edouard Claparède, and undoubtedly Charles Odier.

She reorganizes the Genevan Psychoanalytic Society. The letters (in the private archives of Georges de Morsier’s descendants, Geneva)

she receives from people in Geneva, whether from Henry Flournoy or Charles Odier, show how much she is appreciated; she is invited to a meal or to make music.

She follows Piaget’s classes, reads Flournoy, listens to Charles Baudouin and his way of referring to suggestion.

She works with the linguist Charles Bailly.

It is as if in the society of the people of Geneva she were going straight to the essential. She is praised for her moral qualities, her serene stoicism and her intellectual qualities.

Even Dr François Naville, who is opposed to psychoanalysis, is full of praise for her and asks her to excuse his vehemence, acknowledging with some irony: ‘Freud is great, Spielrein is his prophet’ (Naville 1920).

Her name appears with Piaget’s, who mentions her in his work entitled The Language and Thought of the Child (Piaget 1926).

Her writings become more psychological. But she resists confining herself to a solely Piagetian orientation.

In an article in Russian dated 1927 (Brinkmann & Bose 1986: ‘Referat zur Psychoanalyse’), she regrets that Piaget, in ‘his construction of reality in the infant’, is, like Adler, too one-sided.

She prefers Freud and his ‘sociogenic’ approach to the understanding of symptoms.

Her later articles are as remarkable as the earlier ones.

Like many women analysts, she turns her attention to the child.

She is especially interested in linguistics, and in the development of speech.

She collaborates with Charles Bailly, the theoretician of language (Cifali & Vidal 1986).

Once again she places herself at the junction between intuition and the relevance of theoretical questions.

And she always remains loyal to Freud.

We have little information on the clinical orientation of Sabina Spielrein.

Charles Odier seems to have had analytic sessions with her between December 1920 at the earliest and July 1921 (Odier 1921?).

Their relationship continues after the analysis and the Genevan tries to send her patients.

She is perhaps enticed by Ferenczi’s active therapy.

She institutes what she calls ‘abortive psychoanalysis’ (Brinkmann & Bose 1986), followed by lessons in will power – in fact, a rather odd mixture.

On her return to Russia via a period at the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, she starts a psychoanalytic clinic for children and seminars in the psychoanalysis of children.

Not much is known from then on of the practice of the woman who, in her relationship with Jung, had sometimes occupied, as she writes to him, the ‘role which is not natural to a woman’ while he had adopted the ‘feminine role’; she who sometimes proves herself to be more of a clinician than her analyst, when she confides: ‘It is striking that with the analytical qualities that you possess you were not aware of the pathological constructions you assigned to me’ (Spielrein 1906/1907? See ‘Unedited extracts from a diary’ JAP, 46, 1).

A theoretician in psychoanalysis In their introduction to Sabina Spielrein, between Freud and Jung, Michel Guibal and Jacques Nobécourt (1981, p. 7) place Sabina on a par with Lou Andréas-Salomé. ‘Without having been his patients’, they write, ‘these two women were recognized by Freud as having contributed to the development of his theory’.

Indeed the young Russian woman in exile was a pioneer in more than one issue.

If her hypothesis of the ‘destructive drive’ is the best known, she breaks further new ground with her pertinent questions on love, sublimation and the feminine.

Above all she has the art of addressing problems which are later taken up by others: for example, those who are concerned with linguistics in relation to psychoanalysis.

Thus I. Fonagy recognizes that she is the ‘first analyst (among men as well as women) to try to link language to the Freudian theory of instincts’ (see Guibal & Nobécourt 1981, p. 377).

Are her ideas on the analysis of children original?

Her departure and the historical circumstances of her return to Russia have drawn a veil over her subsequent development (see Ljunggren 1983).

As for her theoretical influence on Jung, this would need a study other than that of Aldo Carotenuto (see Guibal & Nobécourt 1981, pp. 15–90).

A further aspect claims my attention.

Reading Sabina Spielrein’s writings, her published articles, is often difficult.

There, her writing is very complex, even arduous, and the ‘scientific’ framework of these articles is even more ponderous.

We could blame Spielrein’s awkwardness in using the German language perhaps. Besides, did not Freud very soon detect her ‘gaucherie’?

That is a little hasty. In fact the style of her publications is neither that of her diary nor of her letters to Jung or Freud.

I admit to having a weakness for her diary and letters, with all their questions, arising out of her painful transference to Jung, about love, creation, sublimation, the place of the unconscious and technique: words that seek to continue the analysis that was so intimately bound up with theoretical concepts: her own analysis, and the analysis of her relationship to Jung, together with an analysis of Jung.

Is it between the purely theoretical contribution and the intimately personal, between the public and the private, that one must look for the fundamental difference in styles?

It is manifestly in her drafts, in her diary and her letters that she does the real work of theoretical elucidation: these texts, addressed to various individuals, which she sometimes asks to be returned, are the precious and original material on which she builds her articles.

It is the way she manipulates these fragments, which contain the essentials of her theory-building, that makes them so vivid. It is a method that I would describe as ‘close to the work of psychoanalysis’.

In them Sabina Spielrein comes across as a person, with her violence, her theoretical victories and her doubts, while in her articles she seems to have imposed on herself a strict schema of scientific writing.

This analysis is worth taking further.

However we will stop here and summarize thus: whether in her articles, in her diary or in her letters Sabina Spielrein reveals herself as having opened up many theoretical areas.

In this respect, and without any doubt, she belongs to that category of people who are designated pioneers.

‘A grave mistake’

I want to say in conclusion that my aim was not only to bring Sabina from oblivion, out of fear of the silence that ordinarily follows our lives.

What I have tried to show is that she has left her mark in theory and in clinical practice, a mark that is truly hers.

I have not dismissed her questions about the feminine that she has well and truly taken up on several occasions, far from it.

To finish here, because I must, I would like to say again that she was not a case – as some have suggested – but rather a woman who was marked by her encounter with psychoanalysis.

This was the woman who wrote to Jung about the child that she would have liked to have with him:

‘You would be seriously mistaken to think that I identify my happiness with a high destiny. I have never thought that my son was destined for me; I know only too well that he will  have his own life to live and that he belongs to me as little as I belong to my parents. It is then that I realize how alone I am’ (Spielrein 1906/1907?).  Journal of Analytical Psychology, 2001, 46, 129–138