A Fine Romance

A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein between Jung and Freud

by Aldo Carotenuto, translated by Arno Pomerans and John Shepley and Krishna Winston
Pantheon, 250 pp., $16.95

Sabina Spielrein was the daughter of a well-to-do Jewish family from Rostovon-Don in Russia. Her grandfather and great-grandfather had been rabbis. From early childhood, her rich imagination strained both to the heights and to the depths: in Goethe’s words (quoted by Freud as applicable to sexuality), “from Heaven, across the world, to Hell.” She thought of herself as a goddess, in possession of a great strength that would allow her to achieve anything she wanted. She also became obsessed with feces, once sitting on her heels in a way which hampered defecation for two weeks. By the age of eighteen she could no longer look at anyone without imagining that they were defecating. Fits of depression alternated with hysterical outbursts.

Around this time (1904) she traveled to the Bürghölzli clinic in Switzerland to seek a cure. She came into the hands of Jung. “Difficult case,” he informed Freud, “a twenty-year-old Russian girl student, ill for six years.” Jung designated the case as one of “psychotic hysteria,” and reported it to the First International Congress. By 1911, she was well enough to gain a degree in medicine. She also wrote to Freud saying that Jung, her analyst, had been her lover and had cast her off.

Hitherto it has been assumed that Sabina was fantasizing. But in 1977, two Italian psychoanalysts, Aldo Carotenuto and Carlo Trombetta, discovered documentary material, in the basement of the former Institute of Psychology in Geneva, that substantiates Sabina’s claim. Her diaries, letters to Freud and Jung, and twenty letters from Freud to her, form the basis of Aldo Carotenuto’s study. A serious loss is that forty-six letters from Jung have been withheld by his heirs.

The nature of the relationship, however, seems not to be in doubt. Sharing Jung’s passion for Nordic myths and for Wagner, Sabina fantasized that they would have a blond son, whom they would name Siegfried. In reality they confined themselves to kisses and speechless gazing…. “We could sit in speechless ecstasy for hours…he wept in my presence, etc., etc.” The love was platonic, in the deepest sense. He became, she says, enraptured at their telepathic sympathy.* Eventually someone (Sabina suspected his wife) sent her mother an anonymous letter, and the mother wrote to Jung. Jung brazened it out in his letter of reply, explaining that since her daughter had not been paying him for the consultations he had not felt professionally obligated, and therefore it was easy to move from a relationship of doctor and patient to one of friendship: “Therefore, I would suggest that if you wish me to adhere strictly to my role as doctor, you should pay me a fee as suitable recompense for my trouble. In that way you may be absolutely certain that I will respect my duty as a doctor under all circumstances…. My fee is 10 francs per consultation.” He then broke with the young woman. She writes to Freud that she is tortured not so much by the actual breaking off…

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