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Scandal in the Family


During the last months of 1977 Aldo Carotenuto, a Jungian psychoanalyst who teaches theory of personality at the University of Rome, by mere chance became the recipient of a collection of either lost or long-forgotten documents. These had been preserved, also by pure chance, in the cellar of a building that, in years past, had been the headquarters of the Geneva Institute of Psychology. The papers had belonged to Dr. Sabina Spielrein, one of the pioneering psychoanalysts who, during the early 1920s, lived and worked in Geneva. There she analyzed Piaget, among others, for a few months. In 1923 Spielrein decided to return to her native Russia, at which time she probably left these papers behind.

Carotenuto recognized immediately the importance of this newly discovered collection of papers, which contained twenty letters from Freud and many more from Jung. Not immediately apparent was the much greater significance of these letters regarding the person to whom they were addressed—Dr. Spielrein herself. In fact, the publication of these letters in A Secret Symmetry* demonstrates Sabina Spielrein’s unique impact on Jung’s life and the development of his thought, and the role she played in the development of both Jungian and Freudian psychoanalysis, as well as her contribution to establishing the relation between Jung and Freud, and then to their estrangement, All this becomes clear not so much from the letters Freud and Jung wrote to her as from the drafts and copies of her letters to them, and additionally from her fragmentary but most revealing diary. These in combination throw startling new light on important aspects of the Freud-Jung correspondence.

Sabina Spielrein was born in Rostovon-Don in 1885, the first child of intelligent, well-educated, well-to-do Jewish parents; her grandfather and great-grandfather were highly respected rabbis. As an adolescent, Spielrein suffered from what was described as either a schizophrenic disturbance or severe hysteria with schizoid features. In August 1904, her deeply concerned parents took her to Zurich to be treated at the world famous Burghölzli mental hospital. Jung had been connected since 1900 with this hospital, and in 1905 he became senior physician there. Spielrein was probably the first, or at least among the very first, patients whom Jung tried to treat psychoanalytically; before he had concentrated mostly on studying patients’ associations and what these revealed about their inner lives—studies in which Spielrein also participated.

We do not know how long Spielrein lived at the hospital as a patient, but in April 1905 she enrolled at the University of Zurich to study medicine. Either then or soon thereafter, she was well enough to leave the hospital, continuing her treatment with Jung as an outpatient. She received her doctor’s degree in 1911 on the basis of a dissertation entitled “The Psychological Content of a Case of Schizophrenia.” The former schizophrenic patient had by then become a student of schizophrenia, a doctor treating mental disturbances, an original thinker who developed ideas that later became of greatest significance in the Freudian system.

Carotenuto titled his book (originally written in Italian) A Secret Symmetry; the book reveals more than one symmetry and, in my opinion, one much more important asymmetry. The title of the Italian original, Diario di una segreta simmetria, makes it clear that the symmetry referred to is that between Spielrein’s and Jung’s development, since it is that which stands at the center of Spielrein’s diary. It was Spielrein who, through her relation to Jung, exercised a decisive influence on him and on the development of his system. He, for his part, made the greatest impact on her. This was only natural, since as her therapist he had helped her to overcome her severe psychological disturbance—but while he was still acting as her therapist, they became lovers.

Spielrein seems to have loved Jung as deeply as any young woman can love a first love in whom she also sees her savior from insanity; he was, in addition, the brilliant teacher who introduced her to the study of psychopathology, which became her vocation. She never entirely lost her deep affection for him even after he betrayed her love, or later after she married another man and had a child with him. But her feelings for Jung eventually became quite ambivalent, as is understandable, since the person whom she loved so fervently behaved to her not only callously, but in a manner that he himself later correctly described as knavery. More about this later.

To me it is not the symmetries, which become apparent as one reads these documents, or Carotenuto’s discussion of them, that hold the most interest, but an asymmetry which formed as Spielrein moved professionally closer to Freud while Jung moved toward his break with Freud and his form of psychoanalysis. The book gives evidence of the very important influence Spielrein had on Jung’s ideas, and this in my opinion gives it its great human and, as far as the development of psychoanalysis is concerned, its unique historical importance.

Both the human and the historical significance of these documents would be much greater if we were also permitted to read the letters Jung wrote to Spielrein, of which we are told forty-six survive. While Freud’s heirs gave permission to publish the letters he wrote to Spielrein, Jung’s heirs did not. In consequence all we know of the content of Jung’s letters are a very few short, carefully screened, but nevertheless tantalizing passages that Carotenuto quotes. They arouse much more curiosity than they satisfy. While it is not difficult to guess why Jung’s heirs did not want the public to learn from his own words what his relation and behavior to Spielrein were really like, the loss in this respect is not too great. Her diary, her letters to Jung and Freud, and the already published letters between Freud and Jung permit a sufficiently clear picture of the love affair between Jung and Spielrein and of what Carotenuto correctly calls Jung’s betrayal of his lover.

The withholding of Jung’s letters, however, prevents us from asserting, for example, to what degree, and in what respects the ideas and theoretical formulations that we have come to regard as constituting the basis of Jung’s system are entirely or in large parts really Spielrein’s. Jung’s relation to Spielrein, who was not only his muse but also in many respects his collaborator and, at the very least, his helper in his intellectual development during the years when he formed some of his basic theories, suggests that her influence on him was very far-reaching. Without having his letters, or other pertinent information, we can say no more with any certainty.

What we are given leaves no doubt that Jung discovered in Sabina Spielrein his “anima,” the “soul image” of the woman in the unconscious of man. In doing so he formed his idea about the all-important role anima plays in a man’s life. Sabina Spielrein thus was if not the originator of, certainly the person who served as inspiration for, the anima concept. That much we learn from Carotenuto’s book. It also highlights Spielrein’s great contribution to the mature Freudian system. A few years before Freud incorporated the concept of the death impulse into his system and assigned to it a central role, Spielrein wrote and published in the Yearbook for Psychoanalytic and Psychopathological Research for 1912 her germinal paper on destruction as the cause of creation, in which she presented for the first time within the frame of psychoanalysis her ideas about the destructive or death impulse, and its intricate and inextricable relation to the sexual drive. A year earlier she had presented the ideas that form the essence of this essay to Freud and the Viennese psychoanalytic group.

Given Spielrein’s high intelligence, the originality of her thought, and her extraordinary psychological intuition, which permitted her to make an important contribution to Freud’s thought at a time when his system was in many respects fully developed, it seems reasonable to assume that she contributed much more significantly to Jung’s system at its inception, when he was working closely with her. In fact, the newly discovered papers presented in Carotenuto’s book seem to suggest that possibly all of the central Jungian concepts might be owed directly or indirectly to Spielrein.

For example, it seems quite possible that not only the concept of the anima but also the concept of the “shadow”—the suppressed, unconscious, and autonomous personality—either comes from Spielrein or was developed around Jung’s relation to her. In a letter to Freud in which Jung falsely accuses Spielrein in an effort to whitewash his own behavior, he says that because of what has happened, he understands that he had “a totally inadequate idea of my polygamous components,” and that because of what he has learned he now knows “where and how the devil can be laid by the heels.” Here, by speaking about the devil in himself, he uses but another word for shadow. We cannot know how he talked about these issues to Spielrein, or she to him, but we may assume that they expressed themselves to each other with much greater freedom than Jung did when he wrote about these matters to Freud.

There is no knowing which of the two—Jung or Spielrein—spoke first about the devil at work in them, or of the shadow. Carotenuto, from his study of Jung’s still unreleased letters to Spielrein tries hard to give the impression that all the basic concepts of Jungian psychology were Jung’s own creation. But Carotenuto still comes quite close to suggesting that many of Jung’s concepts are directly or indirectly owed to Spielrein. He writes: “It is not hard to imagine that in a curious way the hypotheses of persona, shadow, and anima represent the distillation of these old experiences” (meaning Jung’s experiences in relation to Spielrein). And further on: “Any attentive reading of the phenomenological description of the anima and the shadow takes us immediately back to those early years” (of the relation to Spielrein).

Finally he quotes from one of the last known letters of Jung to Spielrein, dated September 1919: “The love of S. for J. made the latter aware of something he had previously only vaguely suspected, that is, of the power in the unconscious that shapes one’s destiny, a power which later led him to things of the greatest importance.” Thus, whatever the specific contributions of Spielrein or of Jung to the Jungian system, Jung asserts, and Carotenuto follows him in this opinion, that it was in their love affair that the system itself originated.

The importance of these all too few short quotations from Jung’s letters makes one keenly aware of the loss that they remain unavailable. At the same time, and by implication, the refusal of Jung’s heirs to permit publication of his letters to Spielrein presents a troublesome problem in regard to the publication of her diary and letters. From all available evidence it seems that Spielrein worked in Russia as a psychoanalyst until psychoanalysis was outlawed there in 1936. She probably perished in 1936 or 1937, during Stalin’s purges. But she had a daughter and also three younger brothers, and so it is quite possible that some of her heirs are still alive, particularly since we know that at least one of her brothers lived outside Russia.

  1. *

    A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein Between Jung and Freud, translated by Arno Pomerans, John Shepley, and Krishna Winston (Pantheon, 1982). Reviewed in The New York Review, May 13, 1982.

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