Who was Sabina Spielrein? Her diaries and letters were unearthed in Geneva in the 1980s, but what we know comes largely from a book published in 1994 that brought her relationship with Carl Jung to the mainstream, since she was his first patient, diagnosed with hysteria when she was 19 years old.
She is often presented from the vantage of sexual intrigue, the did-she-or-didn’t –she have an affair with Jung, rather than presented as a woman who spent 30 years as an analyst in her own right. She was a pioneer of child psychology, an early advocate of female sexual health, and originated the so-called “death wish” a full decade before Sigmund Freud expanded on her idea. Her theory of mythic archetypes was published in an article one year before Jung’s work on the same subject in 1912. She taught, practiced and published in 3 different countries and in 3 different languages. She was the first woman to research the link between childhood trauma and adult behavior; she was the first woman to become director of a Psychoanalytic Institute in Moscow.
She was also the first woman to be unanimously voted into Freud’s analytic society in Berlin, where she very pointedly stated to a room full of men that penis-envy was not an accurate depiction of female sexuality. Later in her career, Freud actually invited her to replace Jung on the masthead of his quarterly journal, after they had become friends and colleagues and kept a correspondence for almost fifteen years.
When Freud attempted to dissuade her from becoming a mother, writing “it would be a waste of your talents,” she vehemently defended her ability to be both mother and scholar.
And what of her success? Dates are important here: in working with patients, she began to describe mythic symbols as patterns of the psyche, or archetypes, in her dissertation research in 1909. Jung served on her dissertation committee. She confronted him in a letter, concerned that he was stealing her work to write his own, and wrote in her diary “I am greatly afraid that Jung, who wanted to reference my idea in his article in July, with a mention that I have rights of priority, . . . now wants to refer to in January. Is he stealing my ideas? Is he a friend or a cunning rival?”
His reply, “Yours is an extraordinary study whose priority I am happy to acknowledge as yours. I express myself so differently from you in my work that no one could imagine that you had borrowed in any way from me.” He was true to his word. In quite a few footnotes to his own publication on the topic, he credits Spielrein explicitly and plainly. Unfortunately, in every edition subsequent to 1953, the footnotes have been deleted and her influence erased.
This is not merely an issue of being dismissed in her historical context; she wasn’t, at least not entirely. Why, then, in the past few decades has she been degraded or demeaned? Is it incidental that a campaign to smear her name began when her papers were being newly discovered, papers that seemed to challenge the field’s history and its idols?
When she became a wife and mother in 1913, she focused her academic interest primarily on child psychology and dreams, and went on to teach, publish, and practice in Geneva, Berlin, and Zurich before finally moving back and settling in her homeland of Russia.
Sadly, as a Jewish and intellectual woman in the 1930s, her life was under constant totalitarian threat. Joseph Stalin proclaimed “We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts—yes his thoughts!—threatens the unity of the state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin.” As an analyst, a proponent of individual deed and thought, Spielrein became a suspected terrorist. During the Great Purge, Spielrein’s three brothers—also professors—were taken to a gulag and executed. Nevertheless, she persisted, and continued to see clients in rooms with blacked out windows and doors. Strangely, instead of viewing this courageous act heroic or as a demonstration of her passion, scholars have labeled it suicidal painting her once again into the corner of psychosis.
In addition to the threat at home, Nazi troops from Germany were advancing on her town and occupied for the second time in 1942. That summer, infamous SS officer Heinrich Himmler had a vision of extermination: “I herewith order that the resettlement of the entire Jewish population … be carried out and completed by December . . . a total cleansing is necessary.” A few weeks later, Spielrein, alongside her two daughters and 27,000 other Jewish citizens, were murdered in Rostov, Russia, their bodies covered in clay in a nearby ravine.
These are the facts that we know: for a few short years in her adolescence, Spielrein suffered from emotional trauma resulting from a host of personal and social factors. She was then treated with the innovation of talk therapy and deemed cured. For over thirty years she was a doctor, teacher, mother, writer, and a gifted pianist. She was also a woman who lived life with intense passion, intellect, and courage in the midst of continuous political conflict. In effect, it is important to remember her achievements and grant her a full and complex humanity in the face of historical silencing. As she reminds us in her Last Will: “I too was once a human being. My name was Sabina Spielrein.”
[References within manuscript; excerpted from Sabina Spielrein: The Woman and the Myth; changes made by author.]