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Sabina Spielrein: psychoanalytic studies


I should like to take the following quotation from Kuprin’s Duel.

It should be noted that this particular story by a well-known Russian writer was written some twenty years ago, that is, long before the name of Freud was known in his native land.

While driving at about five o’clock in the afternoon to the house where the Nikolayevs were living, Romashchov noted with surprise that his cheerful conviction of the morning that the day would be a success had given way to some strange and inexplicable disquiet.

He felt that this had not suddenly happened, right there and then, but much earlier; evidently he had at some stage or other started to become afraid without noticing it.

What could it be all about?

There had been such occasions previously, from very early childhood, and he knew that in order to relax he would need to identify the original cause of his vague fear.

Once, having spent the whole day worrying, he remembered only towards the evening that in the middle of the day, while crossing the railway line to the station, he had been deafened by the whistle of a steam-engine, that this had startled him, and that, without being aware of it, he had become bad-tempered; but he recalled that he had relaxed immediately, and even become cheerful.

The analysis is not a full one: we are given no explanation of why the trauma (the whistle of a steam-engine) was suppressed from consciousness, for it was no without meaning in his mind, otherwise it would not have produced so long-lasting a sign of his ‘upset’.

If it did have a meaning in his mind, then there must have been some reason for forgetting about it; yet at the same time he had experienced a hint of some negative emotion, which must not enter his consciousness, so a whole series of associations was suppressed.

Romashchov’s negative feelings do not fit the description of the experience; he should have been happy that the fear was unfounded and that there was nothing more threatening his life.

Despite there not being a full analysis, the symptom disappeared.

We know from experience that cases like this do occur.

The individual can ‘suppress’ a part of his experience without any harm.

If linked to a further experience of the same kind, the later one becomes assimilated into the earlier one.

Pathogenic influences build up and cause the symptoms to occur.

So Romashchov – owing probably to some momentary ‘similarity’ – consciously or unconsciously made a link between the whistle and another experience, haing been touched by feelings which tormented him.

The experience (that of the whistle), being of the same nature as the other experience, thus became traumatic and was also suppressed.

Now what had been suppressed was so strong that it became pathogenic, so that in this case it put him in a bad humour for no apparent reason.

As a result of clarifying the reason which had brought the feeling about at the outset, some relief was achieved: what had been suppressed was reduced to its former bearable level.

However, the reason for the disquiet was not established and could possibly continue to convert each new similar experience into a pathogenic one.

Romashchov provides us with evidence for this: he talks of the bad moods which frequently occur, caused by forgotten (suppressed) events.

And now without any conscious reason a change in his state of mind will suddenly come about, and once more he is forced to think about a traumatic experience in childhood which for so long has remained in his memory.

Animal symbolism and a boy’s phobia

Little Misha was physically a healthy, cheerful child, quite happily spoilt by his mother.

She usually called him ‘Moonya’, or even more lovingly ‘Moonitchka’.

It is a Russian abbreviation from ‘Mamoonya’, a pet name for ‘Mama’.

The name of one’s first love-object – ‘Mama’ or ‘Mamotchka’ – is often used in Russian as an endearment, not just for females but also for males.

Educated women use this form of endearment only with children and then it has another psychological basis.

For example, a mother will say to her small child, ‘Come here, Mamotchka, do this for me’.

She feels herself to be so much a part of her child that she makes no great distinction between herself and him.

This process is particularly evident when the mother has loving dreams: here the child is regularly the mother’s ‘wished-for personality’, i.e., the symbolic representation of herself with her own physical and spiritual pains, desires and fears.

Misha’s mother too identifies with her small son, and at the same time the boy, owing partly to similar feelings, always uses male terms of endearment to his mother.

It is impossible not to recognize in this aspects of irony; ‘You too have to be manly’.

For a long time Misha chiefly called his mother either ‘the grey hare’ or the ‘devil-lad’.

Both are characters from the world of Russian stories.

‘The grey hare’ is a small timid animal which suffers much from the unfairness of those who are stronger, and so is in need of protection. ‘

Amongst mothers you are the grey one’, Misha often said to his mummy.

Nannies as a rule called their wards ‘short hare’, which means ‘young hare’. Misha too had a country nanny like that, his previous wet nurse. Now he calls his mother by her former names. ‘The devil-lad’ in contrast to the grey hare has a fully independent and sly personality, which ought long ago to have been punished, if only it could have been caught and driven off.

Misha finally united these two contrasting characters of his mother in a new endearment for her, namely ‘the old rogue’.

It was as if by this new name he wanted to say, ‘You are a small frightened creature, you know, and yet so crafty that I am frightened of you; you may e a man, so you are sharp, just look at that man – yet you are at the same time a little grey hare’.

‘Oh, how crafty he is, this grey one!’ the boy would sometimes call out, pointing to his mother with admiration.

One of his favourite occupations was to deceive his mother.

When she caught him out in this, he would laughingly admit, ‘It’s only you, you know, that I’m deceiving, you’re the only one that’s cunning, you’re the grey hare. I get a lot of pleasure from deceiving you’.

For a long time the boy could not bear to have anyone around his mother except his father, towards whom he behaved lovingly, whilst towards others, especially other strange men, he was extremely jealous.

It took a long time for him to forgive his mother when, in some discussion – for example where to go for a walk – she would consider changing her mind.

Once when it happened he went wild and wanted to pinch and bite his mother.

When he had quietened down he came up tearfully to beg her forgiveness, saying that he himself didn’t know why he was trying to torment his beloved mother; he was terribly sorry because he knew he was behaving very badly but he couldn’t stop himself.

Misha was a very nervous child, and the longer it went on, the more his nervousness increased.

For example, at the age of ten he developed a phobia about monkeys.

His terror was so great that he could not bear to stay alone in a room.

He could not even bring himself to go to the toilet, unless his mother waited by the door for him. He felt as if a monkey was going to spring out at him.

By chance I remembered that the boy had earlier liked to call his mother ‘you bad marmoset’, something he had now completely forgotten.

In order to bring it back to his mind I asked his mother whether somewhere he had seen that type of monkey.

Yes, he remembered having seen one at the zoo.

It had been a marmoset.

I asked whether it reminded him of someone. Yes – he remembered that his mother had once been very angry with him; he had thought that she wanted to spring out upon him.

From that time on he called her ‘you bad marmoset’.

In Russian there is a children’s story about a boy who, despite his mother telling him not to, had teased a marmoset in a cage and got punished by the enraged animal.

Misha’s phobia about monkeys had developed in a similar way; clearly he wanted to do something that would greatly upset his mother.

The mother was threatening him and the child got some satisfaction for himself out of this threat by identifying in an amusing endearment the mother he loved with the marmoset who punished.

In time the relation between animal and mother had been pushed back into his subconscious.

Misha must have remembered from far back in his mind the association between the marmoset and his mother.

‘Marmoset’ became the symbol of punishment for a careless major misdemeanour and consequently induced the former state of dreadful fear.

What the misdemeanour had been, I unfortunately could not know, as I was rarely able to see the boy.

The child’s father told me that his parents had also been symbolized in the form of dogs.

It was a dream: Misha saw a kitten being chased by some dogs and was extremely sorry for the small animal.

The father had no difficulty in linking the dream with reality: the previous day

Misha had on frequent occasions been reprimanded by his parents and threatened with punishment.

Now, in his dream, his parents had become the dogs which were pursuing him, a poor little kitten.

In his Interpretation of Dreams Freud had analysed a boy’s phobia about a wolf.

My short paper does not of course present a full and complete analysis.

The story of little Misha only shows how animals can both give pleasure and evoke terror in a child: this corresponds with Freud’s claim that they can represent to a boy his own parents, especially his mother.

In parallel with this I was reminded of an amusing story which I heard by chance from a doctor acquaintance.

Two children, a boy and a girl, were happily playing mothers and fathers.

The father was represented by a rabbit and the mother by a goat.

The animals were even given the parents’ names – Leo and Mary. The children were severely reprimanded for their ‘naughtiness’.

The parents’ aim was achieved, namely the children no longer called their parents ‘Leo’ and ‘Mary’ but ‘Treasure’, which is how the father and mother often addressed each other.

The children related the reprimand only to the names, since it had not yet entered their young heads that a father and mother have higher status in the animal hierarchy than a rabbit and a goat.


  1. In contrast the well-known Russian expression ‘Batyushka’ (old chap) is applied only to men.
  2. The analyst should remember that a hare has a short tail. Hence, probably, ‘short hare’. Whether this is a generally accepted association, I do not know.
  3. Misha sometimes gives his mother another name, which includes the word ‘short’. This name is not a very nice one, though neither mother nor child notice that.
  4. Marmoset in Russian is a type of female monkey.

The mother-in-law

The problem of the mother-in-law is one of the most grievous and at the same time one of the most interesting of psychological problems.

In his article ‘The horror of incest’ among primitives and neurotics Freud points out that primitives have a resistance towards their mother-in-law, and take a series of precautions against her.

Freud deduces part of this resistance from the fact that the mother-in-law, as the older woman, is a reminder to her daughter’s husband of the rapid ageing of his young wife.

However, the mother-in-law is certainly not always an ugly old woman, as popular rumour usually has it.

Especially today she is frequently the modern woman in full flower that many men find desirable.

She is seen not as a mother but as their daughter’s older sister.

Some mothers-in-law are so full of vitality and power that they want to rule over the young married couple, as if these were their own children; they interfere in everything, require obedience and by doing so create difficulties for their sons-in-law, although these are a minority of cases.

First, why is so much heard about bad mothers-in-law and so little about fathers-in-law?

To answer that question we need first of all to start with an understanding of female psychology; a woman has considerably less ability in real life to fulfil her own personal desires.

To compensate for this she has a much greater ability to ‘identify’ with others and so to experience her life through them.

One only has to think, for example, of how old maids, who have themselves been denied the happiness of love, will assist in other people’s weddings.

I find in the very widespread exercise of this gift of identification the reason why women, while in no way yielding advantage to men in their level of development and power of imagination, have nevertheless not created any works of art of equal importance.

In order to create a work of art, one must to some extent objectivize either one’s own experience or that of another so that it can be assimilated in an impersonal way, as the world outside, and only then can one talk about a form of representation which expresses the essence of a work of art.

This objectivization brings some relief to the artist.

Women’s ability to do this is much less, for as a rule it is outweighed by a counter-mechanism; a woman conjectures about others’ experiences in ways which correspond with her desires or fears and makes them her own, she frees herself from her feelings, mentally goes through these experiences for herself anew, and transforms them along the lines of her own desires.

It is in this ability to live through another person that a woman’s great distinctive social significance is to be found, and I do not know how far it is either possible or desirable to wish to embody in women the masculine aspects of feeling of the ‘highest’ sort of quality.

In any case I believe that it would scarcely succeed in full; the woman’s biological roles, as mother and as governess of the human race, are roles which make such great use of the gift of sympathetic feeling that

fundamentally the woman can rearrange only a comparatively small part of her feelings in her objectivization.

There will of course be creative female artists around, as there always have been, but it seems to me that they will always lag behind the greatest of the male artists.

Of course, when discussing such important questions one always needs to be careful and prepared to be mistaken.

In the first instance a mother lives in the life of her own children and would like to direct them in the way that she, benefiting from her experience, would like to lead her own life.

Her daughter, being female, is closest to her mother, and hence there is an intimacy but also a continual competition between mother and daughter over relationships.

The good mother always loves to be loved by her child, even more so when the child who loves her is male.

In this way she relives her own youth and would like to appear pleasant and attractive to her son-in-law: both of them buy new clothes, they surgically remove a few minor flaws to their beauty, blotches to which they never used to pay attention, and so on.

To excuse this coquetry, the mother persuades herself that she is doing it for her daughter’s good; the husband will love his wife still more if her mother’s ugly example does not frighten him away, and we analysts might also add that some small part of this love, which of course has its uses for the daughter, is subconsciously often tied up with being a beautiful mother-in-law.

All the same, these high-sounding reasons are not the only ones, for if she is quite honest with herself, the mother-in-law has to admit to being ashamed of being considered ugly by the son-in-law, as if it were she who were being subjected to critical examination as his love object.

The loving mother does not allow to enter her consciousness the thought that her daughter’s freshness and youthfulness are to be envied, but she does feel young and fresh herself when she sees those qualities in her daughter.

The mother-in-law is often quite sensitive and easily hurt; she would not be like that, were she thinking only of her child’s good.

Nevertheless she also tries to get her new ‘child’ to love and appreciate her as if she were his real ‘mother’.

Because she continually identifies with her daughter, she projects her own feelings of dissatisfaction on to her daughter; it occurs to her that her daughter is not loving enough, that she must prepare for everything and protect her not only with advice but with her actions.

And this emotional set-up gives rein to every possible combination of action which of an instant turns the most desirable and dearest of mothers into the most dangerous of mothers-in-law.

Contemporary society pays attention almost exclusively to the husband’s mother-in-law, although young wives too, especially those among the less well-off, certainly have difficulties with their mothers-in-law.

On average the wife’s mother is much happier than the husband’s mother about the wedding.

The reason is to be found not only in a woman’s lack of social independence, but also in the fact that one loses a son, while the other, who is living through her daughter, gains a son.

We know that a mother’s relationship with her son differs from that with her daughter; it contains more of the erotic and less of the intimate.

Especially where families are fatherless, a son will be seen by his mother as the man of the house, to whom she can come for advice and protection.

In the subconscious world of fantasy he is the boyfriend.

That is why she is not easily able to identify with his love for another woman.

Her daughter-in-law continues to be a rival until such time as her love as a mother freely enables her to accept without envy her son’s good fortune in loving another.

That marriage where a man and a woman are totally free of their parents’ families, so that the two could belong completely to each other, would be the ideal one.

Only an analyst lacking in experience could look for this: if a man and woman’s love were completely separate from their love of their parents, then their love of the parents would not disturb the harmony of their marriage, as is actually almost always the case.

There are quite a number of neurotic men and women who are unable to love anyone, because they are too closely attached to their own family.

There are people who are able to love the object of their affections so long as that object does not develop a closer relationship with their family; when that happens, the object immediately loses its attraction.

The natural impulse of a lover is to love the relatives of his beloved, so that they may belong to him too, but there is a counter-impulse which affects surface consciousness in a way which we understand but little: our leanings towards our own family which we love, and which remain fundamentally heartfelt.

Along with this is also the feeling of having betrayed one’s father, or one’s mother in the case of a son, by giving the love and attention which are hers by right to another’s mother who in the child’s mind will after all never measure up to the real mother.

A partly conscious but basically unconscious comparison will reduce still further the standing of his or her mother-in-law.

Deep down the real mother will always remain young and attractive.

Hence every other woman not conforming with one’s image of mother will be old and unattractive by comparison.

This is the attitude to the mother-in-law on either side who has unfairly taken for herself the happiness which rightly belongs to the mother.

Sensitivities can be so heightened, pathologically speaking, that the son, himself a future husband, who is much more strongly attached to his mother, develops an antagonism, indeed hatred, towards his mother-in-law, finding in her every word some slighting reference to his family or criticism of his mother.

This is even more likely if he is similarly critical of her, and he justifies himself by blaming his behaviour on his mother-in-law.

In this situation any loving treatment of the wife’s parents is useless, for love demands that love be returned, something which he cannot achieve.

Only a well-analysed knowledge of the processes of one’s own mind can help.

This will tell us that from the very beginning every small child sees his parents as the sole godlike authority; there then follows a phase of breaking free from parental power, beginning with intense opposition to and criticism of everything his parents do.

Later these two extremes will even out, and the boy or girl will learn to love others without blaming themselves for betraying their own family, so that they can also hold on to the love and gratitude due to their own parents.

It is where, because of an excessive fixation, such a development fails to occur smoothly, that the prerequisites for neurosis are to be found.

In such cases analysis will help by creating out of an anti-social being, who acknowledges only himself and what is his, a social being who can also love and appreciate other people.

True, despite every conscious effort, some people cannot escape a feeling inside them that they themselves and their own parents are the most important people in the world.

This feeling can give them peace:

it is not so much a matter of coping with this feeling inside themselves as of not showing it and, if it becomes difficult to retain a sense of balance, then it is better to let the contrary feelings take over, in other words to treat others rather more kindly than one’s own relatives.


  1. Imago (trans. The image) 1st year edition, issue no. 1.
  2. In her unconscious, a woman is able to objectivize much more, and hence, generally speaking, totally uncreative women can sometimes in their dreams or in dreamlike states see themselves as poetesses.
  3. An experience similar to that in the saying of Rabbi Jeshua ben Levi: ‘Where the first son-in-law is concerned, look after your wife’. Quoted from ‘Sexual problems’, November 1913, p. 783.

~Sabina Spielrein – Journal of Analytical Psychology, 2001, 46, 201–208 0021–8774/2001/4601/201 © 2001, The Society of Analytical Psychology

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Sabina Spielrein: psychoanalytic studies (Translated from the Russian by C. J. Wharton)