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.

Nothing we are told in this book suggests that any effort was made to find her heirs and to secure their permission to publish her letters and diary. Glad though I am to be able to read and hence to reflect on what her letters and diary reveal, I cannot help being dismayed by the respect shown by a Jungian psychoanalyst, Professor Carotenuto, to the sensitivity of Jung’s heirs, and the absence of a commensurate sensitivity where Spielrein’s heirs are concerned. That the rules of confidentiality are here so differently applied to the famous psychoanalyst, who as the therapist has much less claim to confidentiality than his patient, seems unfair, to say the least.


What about one of the issues that probably induced Jung’s heirs to refuse publication of his letters to Spielrein—their love affair? Carotenuto takes great pains to convince the reader that Jung’s relation to Spielrein remained platonic; however, the documents strongly suggest that this was not so. Obviously a psychoanalyst should not have sexual relations with his patient. Unfortunately it has happened from time to time, with uniformly bad results for both patient and therapist. Some seventy years later, it is of relatively little interest whether or not the great love Jung and Spielrein certainly felt for each other was sexually consummated. What seems much more important is whether the analyst behaved toward his patient-lover with respect and human decency, or whether he was concerned only for his public reputation, and not at all for the psychological vulnerability of his patient who, because he was her therapist, had no defenses against him. The evidence is only too clear that Jung behaved toward Spielrein in a scandalous manner.

Did the relation remain platonic or result in intercourse? In September 1910, Spielrein confided to her diary:

And yet his wife, who, as his diary makes clear [Jung had given his diary to Spielrein to read, telling her that nobody but his wife and her had ever read it], hesitated for a long time before marrying him…is protected by the law, respected by all, and I, who wanted to give him everything I possessed, without the slightest regard for myself, I am called immoral in the language of society—lover, maybe maîtresse! He can appear anywhere in public with his wife, and I have to skulk in dark corners. I myself would not want our love to be trumpeted through the streets, partly out of consideration for his wife, partly so that the sacredness of it not be sullied; but still, it has always pained me that we must conceal our feelings.—True, he wanted to introduce me in his house, make me his wife’s friend, but understandably his wife wanted no part of this business….

On the same date she recalls “single moments, when I rested in his arms, in which I was able to forget everything….”

In October 1910, speaking about herself and Jung, she writes, “At the time our poetry began, he had two girls….” Poetry is the word she uses to refer to something in their relation she does not want to mention openly, but the contexts in which she uses this word make clear that it refers to something intimate; most likely, to sexual intercourse. (Without quite realizing it, Carotenuto suggests as much in his note explaining “poetry,” in which he says, “For ‘poetry’ we must surmise a metaphorical significance known only to Jung and Sabina. A literary analogy can be found in Proust. Swann and Odette used the metaphor ‘faire cattleya’ to express the physical act of possession.” If Carotenuto did not think that the metaphor “poetry” stood for sexual possession, why would he have selected this example to explain the use of metaphors? Incidentally, Carotenuto frequently speaks of Spielrein as Sabina, but never of Jung as Carl, a lack of evenhandedness that is not only unfair and annoying, but also makes one doubt that his discussion treats these two persons equally.)

An unbiased reading of the material permits no other conclusion than that the relations of Spielrein and Jung were of the most loving and intimate nature, while Carotenuto’s insistence that it was platonic leaves one with the feeling that he protests too much. But the question of how far they went in their love for each other, which both freely acknowledged, pales into insignificance when one considers Jung’s scoundrelly reaction once their love became known.

The Jung-Freud letters, in light of what we learn from this new material about the singular importance of Jung’s relation to Spielrein, suggest strongly that this relation was probably what induced Jung to open relations with Freud: it was the first significant problem he presented to Freud, stating explicitly that he was in need of “abreacting” it, i.e., relieving his tensions over it; yet he was unable to do so.

According to the Freud-Jung letters, their exchange begins with a complete stranger, Jung, sending Freud a copy of his word association studies. The significance of this will become apparent in the light of what is said below about the importance of the associations to the name “Spielrein.” The very first of the letters between Jung and Freud is a note in which Freud thanks Jung for having sent him this book. Freud reciprocates by sending Jung a collection of his short papers, for which Jung thanks him in return. So far the exchange of letters is polite and remains on a professional although cordial level. Quite in contrast is Jung’s second letter to Freud, dated October 23, 1906, in which Jung suddenly introduces a topic of great personal concern. In it he writes:

I must abreact my most recent experience. I am currently treating an hysteric with your method. Difficult case, a 20-year-old Russian girl student, ill for 6 years.

First trauma between 3rd and 4th year. Saw her father spanking her older brother on the bare bottom. Powerful impression. Couldn’t help thinking afterwards that she had defecated on her father’s hand. From the 4th-7th year convulsive attempts to defecate on her own feet, in the following manner: she sat on the floor with one foot beneath her, pressed her heel against her anus and tried to defecate and at the same time to prevent defecation. Often retained the stool for 2 weeks in this way! Has no idea how she hit upon this peculiar business; says it was completely instinctive, and accompanied by blissfully shuddersome feelings. Later this phenomenon was superseded by vigorous masturbation. I should be extremely grateful if you would tell me in a few words what you think of this story.

With this the letter ends. Thus Jung’s involvement with Spielrein is the topic that serves to open his feelings in a more personal way for the first time to Freud.

There is little that is remarkable in Jung’s asking Freud for comments on the first case he is treating with Freud’s method, and in general it would not be unusual that he does not mention the patient’s name, ‘although patients’ names are freely mentioned in succeeding letters. But in the case of Spielrein, Jung’s not mentioning her name in this letter poses some special problems, and may be very revealing.

In addition to Jung’s not mentioning Spielrein’s name in his letter, at least two other aspects deserve attention: Jung’s remark that he needs to abreact a most recent experience, and that he fails to do so. At the time Jung wrote this letter, he had known Spielrein for over two years, so it could not have been the nature of her past history (which he describes) that was the reason for his need to abreact, since it hardly constituted a recent experience. From what we know about Jung’s intimate, probably sexual, involvement with Spielrein, it is reasonable to assume that it found its culmination just at the time when Jung sought a relationship with Freud by beginning his correspondence with him, since only then could it be a recent experience that needed abreaction. Since this experience happened during his first or one of his first efforts to apply Freud’s method in the treatment of a patient, it is understandable that Jung sought Freud’s help in what he experienced as a most difficult situation.

He alludes to this by describing Spielrein’s as a “difficult case,” when in actuality, compared to those of most of the patients treated at the Burghölzli, her case was a relatively mild one: she could not only live by herself in town but, what is much more important in this respect, she could also successfully pursue the study of medicine. This is something not mentioned in Jung’s letter to Freud, although it would make Spielrein’s case appear in a very different light. Thus she was a most difficult case only because of Jung’s erotic involvement with her.

Despite his expressed need for abreacting, Jung failed to do so; nor did he speak about the nature of his involvement with Spielrein in this letter. Thus from the very beginning of his relation to Freud, Jung could not get himself to admit the importance of sex in human relations, and in neurosis. This is why I believe Spielrein plays such a significant role in the Freud-Jung relation: Jung’s relation to her forced him to turn first for help to Freud, and his inability to face openly that a sexual involvement was pressing for abreaction presaged the issue over which his final break with Freud occurred. As happens so often in complex psychological relations, the end was evident in the beginning.

Jung, whose primary interest had been in word associations, ought to have realized that he withheld from Freud extremely pertinent information about the case he was describing by not revealing Spielrein’s name, which is of significance in a case where ideas about defecating on her father, about soiling herself and preventing herself from doing so, are the central symptoms.

Names—especially their names—have a special significance to small children. A name is an important anchor for developing selfhood; it is an obvious tie to one’s family. But if it lends itself to such interpretation, then it is also regarded as a special message of fate to the child. The German name “Spielrein” consists of a combination of two very common words, spiel and rein. The first of the two can be either a noun, meaning “play,” or the imperative of the verb “to play.” The second is an adjective or adverb meaning “clean.” In their combination the two words amount to an admonition, most particularly to a child, to play cleanly. Although the Spielrein family lived in Russia, being Jewish and well educated they were certainly familiar with the German meaning of their name, since most families are interested in what their names signify. Moreover, that the Spielreins took their daughter to German Switzerland for treatment and easily corresponded with Jung in German suggests that they were fluent in this language. It is hard to believe that Jung, whose primary interest at that time was the study of word associations, was not aware of what it must have meant to a little girl to carry a name ordering her to play clean, when for many years her most important symptom, crucially interfering with her ability to lead a child’s normal life, was a consuming ambivalence toward playing cleanly, or being clean, an ambivalence that expressed itself in her trying to defecate on herself and in trying to prevent herself from defecating altogether.

Here it should be mentioned that at the time Sabina Spielrein was a little girl sexual matters were never mentioned to children, certainly not by the type of good middle-class people that her parents were, but instead some circumlocution was used. When at that time a child touched herself sexually, as most children do, the typical critical admonition was “not to do something dirty.” For this reason, carrying the name Spielrein, with its implication that she ought to play cleanly, could have been a particularly difficult burden to bear for a little girl as bright and sensitive as, from all we know about her, Sabina Spielrein must have been. This admonition not to be or do something dirty was so prevalent in talking to children in German-speaking countries that it is likely that it had also been used in the upbringing of Jung, particularly since his father was a strict country parson. If so, each time he used Spielrein’s name or thought of it, Jung, feeling that he was already “playing dirty” with Spielrein, was reminded, as he had been as a child, not to play or do something dirty. This may have prevented him from telling Freud her name, particularly when her symptoms and his feelings about her made this name so significant and at the same time so revealing.

We do not know when exactly Jung and Spielrein became aware of their deep love for each other, or when it found open expression, and in what form. Carotenuto concludes from Jung’s letters that at the beginning of 1908 he knew how deeply in love he was with Spielrein, but since according to Carotenuto the extant letters of Jung to Spielrein begin only then, we have no information on what Jung’s feelings for her had been more than a year earlier, when he wrote his second letter to Freud, expressing his need to abreact with respect to her. But even should he at that time not yet have been overtly sexually involved with her—having by then known her intimately for over two years, and having not only treated her but also invited her to participate in his experiments—is it not reasonable to assume that whatever their overt relation then was, subconsciously Jung may have felt deeply and potentially sexually involved with her? Particularly since about a year later Jung, without naming her, writes Freud that one of his patients’ greatest wish is to have a child by him. Because he was a married man and a father, a sexual relation with her would have been illicit; such situations easily evoke in the subconscious the injunctions given to us in our childhood.

Jung does not identify this patient as the “difficult” one about whom he had previously written, and he again withholds an important piece of information—the proposed name of the fervently wished-for child. From Spielrein’s diary we know about her consuming desire to bear Jung a child to be named Siegfried, and about her idea that this child would bridge the gap between her being Jewish and his being an Aryan. In a later letter to Jung she connects this idea directly with Jung’s relation to Freud: “My Siegfried problem, for instance, might just as well yield a real child as a symbolic Aryan-Semitic child—for instance, a child that resulted from the union of your and Freud’s theories.” Thus in her mind her relation to Jung paralleled that of his to Freud, and she writes about it in a way suggesting that Jung was well familiar with such ideas.

We do not know how Jung reacted to Spielrein’s wish not only to have a child with him and name it Siegfried, but also to make the child a symbol of the union between his and Freud’s thoughts. Since Spielrein and Jung were deeply absorbed in Wagner and repeatedly discussed the great meaning his work had for them, they could not possibly have been unaware that Siegfried was Sigmund’s son. Since Sigmund was Freud’s first name, Spielrein desired a son whose physical father would be Jung, but whose name would suggest that his spiritual father was Freud. This idea was very pleasing to Spielrein but probably most obnoxious to Jung; reason enough for Jung not to reveal to Freud that the patient who wished for a child from him was Jewish, and that she planned to give the child the name Siegfried.

There were other powerful reasons why Spielrein’s great desire to bear such a child must have aroused strong negative, or at least ambivalent, feelings in Jung. He was aware that his great value for Freud was that he, through his person and his influence, could achieve the acceptance of Freud’s “Jewish” psycho-analysis in the Aryan world. Freud had made no secret of these hopes of his. It was thus understandable, probably predictable, that, in reaction against thus being used, Jung some time later developed his own, non-Jewish psychoanalysis; a reaction that, again later, when the time was opportune, may have induced Jung to embrace some of Hitler’s ideas.

But Jung’s attitude toward Jewishness was very complicated, because Jewishness also fascinated him, particularly in women. Later Spielrein, in one of her letters to Freud, elaborated on this, because of information Jung must have given her when they were most intimate. Jung told her that his cousin Helene Preiswerk—with whom he had conducted some of his first psychological experiments (described in detail in his dissertation, where he refers to her as “S.W.”) and whom he seems to have loved, possibly without being conscious of it—pretended to be Jewish. Jung connects his infatuation with this girl who pretended Jewishness with his relation to Spielrein in a letter to Freud in which for the first time he mentions Spielrein by name. There he writes: “Then the Jewess popped up in another form, in the shape of my patient” (meaning Spielrein).

Sometime before March 1909 the love affair between Jung and Spielrein became known. Someone, in all likelihood Jung’s wife, wrote to Sabina Spielrein’s mother an anonymous letter, warning her that the relation might undo her daughter and asking her to put an end to it. All this we learn from Spielrein’s diary and her letters to Freud. But before Freud knew anything about it, or that the patient involved was the one about whom Jung had written him twice before, Jung wrote him on March 7, 1909, that “a woman patient, whom years ago I pulled out of a very sticky neurosis with unstinting effort, has violated my confidence and my friendship in the most mortifying way imaginable. She has kicked up a vile scandal solely because I denied myself the pleasure of giving her a child.” And this although the person who wrote to her mother, not Sabina Spielrein, had created the scandal. Jung himself admitted this a few months later to Freud, whom Spielrein had by then informed of the facts.

Unfortunately the very words describing the nature of Jung’s relation to this patient are mistranslated, which is particularly regrettable because Carotenuto uses “unstinting effort” as the title of the chapter in which he discusses these matters. Jung actually wrote, “eine Patientin, die ich vor Jahren mit grösster Hingabe aus schwerster Neurose herausgerissen habe….” The German words mit grösster Hingabe are wrongly translated as “with unstinting effort.” While it would not be incorrect to translate the German words Jung used as “with unstinting devotion” or “with greatest devotion,” it would not be as close to the German as it should be, since it fails to render the full meaning of the word Hingabe, which means “surrender.” Hingabe is most frequently used to mean sexual surrender. Thus the words Jung used, while overtly asserting only the extreme degree of devotion with which he had dedicated himself to the treatment of this patient, covertly suggest, or at least allude to, the sexual nature of his relation to his patient through the common use of the word Hingabe.

Carotenuto, an Italian, is not to be blamed for this misleading translation, or for not recognizing the psychological significance of the name Spielrein. “Unstinting effort” is also used in the official English translation of The Freud-Jung Letters. But at least in the text of the chapter called “Unstinting Effort” it is mentioned that “Jung speaks of unstinting effort (grösster Hingabe, literally ‘greatest devotion’).” Thus either Carotenuto or those who translated his book into English were aware that “unstinting effort” is a distortion of the meaning Jung tried to express. The translation “greatest devotion” evades the sexual connotations of the word Jung used, but it is at least much closer to the German original than “effort,” which would have been a correct translation if Jung had spoken of having worked with this patient with grösster Anstrengung, an expression signifying a deliberate and conscious process. Hingabe, on the other hand, denotes a deep emotional involvement and suggests, contrary to Carotenuto’s implication, that it is of a sexual nature.

More interestingly, Freud did not react to Jung’s use of the word “surrender,” or to his speaking of denying himself the pleasure of intercourse, even though a few sentences earlier he had described his attitude to his patient as one of greatest surrender. This should have been sufficient to permit Freud to guess the true nature of Jung’s relation to his patient, particularly since, as he wrote Jung, he had been told by Muthman, a Swiss psychiatrist, about “a lady who had introduced herself as your mistress”—unless Freud wished to blind himself to something that might jeopardize his relations with Jung.

Deeply hurt by Jung’s bad behavior toward her and her mother, Sabina Spielrein wrote Freud, asking for an interview. At first Freud refused, permitting nothing to interfere with his relations with Jung, which were so important to him. For Jung was to be the Aryan link between psychoanalysis and the wider world, which, Freud hoped, would make it acceptable by freeing it of the taint of Jewishness clinging to it because he and his closest collaborators were Jews.

So Freud was not quite straightforward in his dealings with Spielrein either. In his letter to Jung of June 7, 1909, Freud wrote: “I understood your telegram correctly [its content is unknown, but in it Jung must have informed Freud about some aspects of his relation to Spielrein, because Freud, not knowing how to react to Spielrein’s letter, had asked him for information]; your explanation confirmed my guess. Well, after receiving your wire I wrote Miss Spielrein a letter in which I affected ignorance, pretending that her suggestion was that of an over-zealous enthusiast….”

But Spielrein did not give up. Since Freud had refused to permit her to state her case in person, she wrote to him on June 11, 1909:

Four and a half years ago Dr. Jung was my doctor, then he became my friend and finally my “poet,” i.e., my beloved. Eventually he came to me and things went as they usually do with “poetry.” He preached polygamy, his wife was supposed to have no objection, etc., etc. Now my mother receives an anonymous letter that minces no words, saying she should rescue her daughter, since otherwise she would be ruined by Dr. Jung. The letter could not have been written by one of my friends, since I kept absolutely mum and always lived far away from all the other students. There is reason to suspect his wife. To make a long story short, my mother writes him a moving letter, saying that he had saved her daughter and should not undo her now, and begging him not to exceed the bounds of friendship.

The truthfulness of Spielrein’s account to Freud is attested to by Jung’s letter to Freud on June 21, 1909, about the affair, in which he writes, “I nevertheless deplore the sins I have committed, for I am largely to blame.” Later on he adds: “My action was a piece of knavery….”

Jung also wrote to Spielrein’s mother in these terms:

I moved from being her doctor to being her friend when I ceased to push my own feelings into the background. I could drop my role as doctor the more easily because I did not feel professionally obligated, for I never charged a fee. This latter clearly establishes the limits imposed upon a doctor. You do understand, of course, that a man and a girl cannot possibly continue indefinitely to have friendly dealings with one another without the likelihood that something more may enter the relationship. For what would restrain the two from drawing the consequences of their love? A doctor and his patient, on the other hand, can talk of the most intimate matters for as long as they like, and the patient may expect her doctor to give her all the love and concern she requires. But the doctor knows his limits and will never cross them, for he is paid for his trouble. That imposes the necessary restraints on him.

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 doctor under all circumstances.

As a friend of your daughter, on the other hand, one would have to leave matters to Fate. For no one can prevent two friends from doing as they wish…. My fee is 10 francs per consultation.

Jung’s declaration that he, a physician, felt that his role as therapist did not put any restraints on his behavior if he was not paid for his professional services is inexcusable. Carotenuto says that this passage “almost altogether eludes one’s understanding,” which is putting it more than mildly. (It should be added that according to Spielrein’s account, her parents thought that Jung, as an employee of the Burghölzli hospital, in which their daughter had been his patient and where he continued to treat her as an outpatient, was not permitted to accept private patients and hence had given him gifts all along in lieu of money.)

Although Freud knew from this letter the impossible situation into which Spielrein had been projected by Jung’s behavior, he still refused to meet her and continued to dissimulate to her. This we learn from the letter Freud wrote to Jung on June 18, in which he said: “My reply [to Spielrein’s second letter] was ever so wise and penetrating; I made it appear as though the most tenuous of clues had enabled me Sherlock Holmes-like to guess the situation (which of course was none too difficult after your communications) and suggested a more appropriate procedure, something endopsychic, as it were.”

In his letter of June 21, 1909, Jung finally admits that he has wronged Spielrein. In it he deplores “the sins I have committed, for I am largely to blame for the high-flying hopes of my former patient,” and says,

Caught in my delusion that I was the victim of the sexual wiles of my patient, I wrote to her mother that I was not the gratifier of her daughter’s sexual desires…. In view of the fact that the patient had shortly before been my friend and enjoyed my full confidence, my action was a piece of knavery which I very reluctantly confess to you as my father. I would now like to ask you a great favour: would you please write a note to Miss Spielrein, telling her that I fully informed you of the matter, and especially of the letter to her parents, which is what I regret most. I would like to give my patient at least this satisfaction: that you and she know of my “perfect honesty.”

In the same paragraph Jung refers to Spielrein both as his former patient and as his patient in the present tense. That is, when talking about their love affair he calls her his former patient, but when asking Freud to write to her and convince her of his honesty in having told Freud everything (after she had written Freud twice), he calls her his patient. He evidently thought that Freud would have to abstain from any further communication with her, in order not to interfere with the patient-therapist relationship. Jung also sought to prevent her meeting Freud, claiming there would be no reason for it, since he had already told Freud everything. Thus Freud would be prevented from learning that there was much more to the affair than Jung had admitted, despite his claim of “perfect honesty.” These two words he wrote in English and put in quotation marks in a letter that otherwise was written entirely in German, an unconscious admission, it would seem, that “perfect honesty” was a foreign element in this letter.

Jung’s letter contains various instances of dishonesty—omissions and possibly commissions. One is in giving Freud the impression that his letter to Sabina Spielrein’s mother had been a spontaneous action, whereas it was written only in response to the mother’s asking him not to continue to seduce her daughter. Nor did he reveal that Spielrein’s mother had written in response to a letter (Carotenuto and Sabina Spielrein both assume it came from Jung’s wife) asking her to break up Jung’s relation with her daughter. Lastly, Jung did not reveal the most scandalous part of his letter to Spielrein’s parents, in which he stated that a sexual relation with his patient would be only natural as long as he was not paid for treating her, while if he received payment, an affair could not happen.

Although Freud thus tried to cover up for Jung, Jung’s betrayal of a person whom he had loved, who still loved him, and who had given him no reason to turn against her, must have worried Freud. In January 1913, when it had become obvious that a break with Jung was unavoidable, Freud wrote to Spielrein: “Since I received that first letter from you, my opinion of him [Jung] has greatly altered,” but he gives no indication whether, when, or to what degree this first letter had contributed to his change of opinion.

Another matter might be mentioned in connection with the false accusations Jung made against Spielrein in his letter to Freud of March 7, 1909, after he learned from Spielrein’s mother that his affair had become known. Since he had learned from Freud’s reply that Muthman knew that it was his patient who claimed to be his mistress, it was by then clear to Jung that a scandal was brewing. In the same month, Jung resigned his position at the Burghölzli; we do not know why, or on exactly what date. But since his resignation occurred in March 1909, it seems reasonable to assume that he hoped to prevent the even greater scandal that would have resulted if his letter to Spielrein’s mother, in which he had declared that whether he had sexual relations with a patient he was treating at the Burghölzli depended on whether he was paid for her treatment, became known. Given the very strict morality of the Swiss, this would certainly have resulted in his dismissal from the position of trust he held at this famous institution.


The first time Freud and Jung met after Freud learned about Spielrein was on August 20, 1909, the day before they sailed for the United States. During lunch on that day Freud had one of the two fainting spells he had in Jung’s presence, which Freud explained were caused by their relationship. On this occasion he said that he had fainted in reaction to the death wishes Jung harbored against him. That Jung, knowingly or not, may have had such death wishes is quite possible, since the position of Freud’s successor, heir, and quasi-adoptive eldest son, into which Freud had forced him, clashed with Jung’s wishes for independence from a father figure. It created an Oedipal situation which, according to Freud’s theories and convictions, was conductive to death wishes.

On the other hand, Oedipal situations that bring about death wishes are so frequent that if the reaction to them were fainting, people would be fainting right and left. It seems much more likely that fainting from psychological causes is the result of processes in the fainting person, in consequence of his effort to prevent himself from saying or doing something he wishes to do but feels compelled not to do. When in Munich, in November 1912, a time when the Freud-Jung relation was drawing close to its breaking point, Freud fainted for the second time in Jung’s presence, Freud explained that “repressed feelings…directed against Jung…naturally play the main part.” So one may assume that the same emotional constellation accounted for the first fainting spell.

In any case, the explanation Freud gave for fainting the first time the two met after the Spielrein affair broke makes one think that the affair had shaken Freud’s trust in Jung and evoked conscious or subconscious fears that Jung might betray his pseudo father as he had betrayed his lover. Be that as it may, Jung reports that on the ship he was for the first time repelled by Freud’s authoritarian attitude toward him. Jung writes that Freud told him one of the dreams he had, Jung tried to interpret it, and in doing so he asked Freud to supply some additional details from his private life. “Freud’s response to these words was a curious look—a look of utmost suspicion. Then he said, ‘But I cannot risk my authority!’ At this moment he lost it altogether.” Since this was written many years after the events described, and we have only Jung’s word, we should accept this story with considerable caution. For if Freud indeed lost his authority for Jung entirely at that time, then his many expressions of deep respect in his letters to Freud during the following few years would have been false.

I mention this incident only because it shows how strongly Freud reacted after Jung had asked him for information about his private life. It may have reminded Freud how Jung had behaved where his most private life was concerned. Jung, on the other hand, might have been more inclined to continue to respect Freud’s authority had Freud been more critical of Jung’s behavior toward Spielrein and not connived with him in dissembling to her, since there seems no question that Jung afterward felt guilty about his behavior. But this is, of course, only speculation.

What we know for sure is that after Jung realized that he had been wrong to accuse Spielrein, there were some stormy scenes between them. In a draft of a letter to Freud, Spielrein describes how, not knowing what she was doing, she hit Jung in the face in a fit of desperation because he had defamed her, and how when doing so she had held a knife in her left hand, again without knowing what she intended to do. Jung grabbed her hand and she began to bleed; her left hand and forearm were covered with blood. To control herself, Spielrein writes in the draft of her next letter to Freud (June 12, 1909), she left Zurich for the country and received there two letters from Jung. One of them told her he would be leaving town on the day of their next “rendezvous,” because he considered it better that they should not see each other that day. “Thus the whole painful business will be more easily laid to rest.” In the draft of the same letter Spielrein writes that, despite everything that has happened, she still loves Jung.

In the meantime Spielrein’s mother, reacting to Jung’s letter, rushed to Zurich to talk things over with him. He at first refused to see her. She seems to have threatened to turn to Professor Bleuler, the head of the Burghölzli and thus Jung’s boss, but did not do so in order not to make the scandal worse. Still, a few weeks later things seem to have settled down; relations between Jung and Spielrein continued. She was working on her dissertation, which he supervised, and they seem to have continued their regular meetings.

Next we learn that Spielrein was supposed to present a paper at the Weimar Congress of the Psychoanalytic Association in September 1911 but, according to Carotenuto, found a “psychosomatic” pretext for not attending the congress. While he claims to know this from a letter from Jung to Spielrein, Carotenuto does not say what the so-called pretext was, although this would betray no more of the content of the letter than what he has already said, and would permit us to understand better Spielrein’s feelings toward Jung at the time.

From a letter of Freud to Jung, we know that by October 1911 she was in Vienna where she remained at least until March 1912, when she moved to Berlin. While in Vienna, Spielrein attended the meetings of the group around Freud and became a regular member of Freud’s psychoanalytic society. On November 12, 1911, Freud writes Jung that “at the last meeting Miss Spielrein spoke up for the first time; she was very intelligent and methodical.”

Jung’s reply to this comment is interesting. His letter of November 14, 1911, begins:

Many thanks for your very nice letter which I have just received. However, the outlook for me is very gloomy if you too get into the psychology of religion. You are a dangerous rival—if one has to speak of rivalry. Yet I think it has to be this way, for a natural development cannot be halted, nor should one try to halt it. Our personal differences make our work different.

This ostensibly refers to their both being interested in the psychology of religion, but given Jung’s deep involvement with Spielrein who, as he learned from Freud’s letter, had become a respected member of Freud’s group, it may have as much to do with Freud’s being a dangerous rival with respect to Spielrein as to do with religion.

In his reply, Freud once more asserts his respect for Spielrein by stating categorically: “Spielrein’s paper certainly belongs in the Jarhbuch [which Jung edited] and nowhere else.” Two weeks later he writes Jung: “Miss Spielrein read a chapter from her paper yesterday [it was the paper in which she developed her ideas about the death impulse] and it was followed by an illuminating discussion. I have hit on a few objections to your…method of dealing with mythology, and I brought them up in the discussion with the little one. I must say she is really nice, and I am beginning to understand.” Thus when talking about Spielrein, Freud interjects a remark stating his objection to some of Jung’s methods, an aside that was probably not lost on Jung, since in his reply he expresses his ambivalence by saying both critical and positive things about her: “I’ll gladly take Spielrein’s new paper for the first [half of the] Jarhbuch 1912. It demands a great deal of revision, but then the little one has always been very demanding of me. However, she is worth it. I am glad you don’t think badly of her.”

Within a year of the time Jung stated so concisely his rivalry with Freud, the chosen heir and crown prince, as so often before in history, had become so competitive with his father figure that the latter was forced to break off all relations. There were, of course, many sound psychological causes for this break, such as the unresolved Oedipal situation Freud had created by choosing Jung as his elected son and his heir as leader of psychoanalysis. Freud had embraced Jung in large measure because he was the son of a Swiss pastor and had a position of importance in the famous Burghölzli mental hospital, hoping through Jung to make psychoanalysis much more acceptable to the Gentile world. The remark in Jung’s letter about personal differences with regard to the psychology of religion hints at the difficulties originating in Freud’s Jewishness and Jung’s Protestantism. Even if Jung had been a less proud man, that he was embraced by Freud because he was a Gentile would have been reason enough to break with him.


Without for a moment neglecting the many other psychological reasons that explain the course, and the end, of the friendship between Jung and Freud, from all that has been said before it seems reasonable that the vicissitudes of Jung’s relation to Spielrein must have played an important role. Their friendship had begun when Jung turned to Freud with a request for help in dealing with his feelings for Spielrein, while doing so in an ambivalent way; and their friendship ended after Spielrein had changed from being Jung’s lover and disciple to becoming Freud’s follower—after she had changed her allegiance from Gentile to Jew. Here it ought to be recalled that as far as theoretical positions are concerned, both men, each in his own way, agreed that the main issue of contention was Jung’s refusal to accept the central role of sexuality in human affairs, on which Freud insisted. What had originally been a personal need to deny the importance of sexuality became a theoretical issue.

Freud was well aware that the Gentile-Jewish issue was important, not only in his relation to Jung—this had been well known all along—but also in the relation of Spielrein and Jung. Referring to Spielrein’s wish for an Aryan-Jewish child named Siegfried, a symbol as much of the Freud-Jung as the Jung-Spielrein unity, Freud wrote to her: “I must confess…that your fantasy about the birth of a Saviour to a mixed union did not appeal to me at all,” and a few months later: “My personal relationship with your Germanic hero has definitely been shattered. His behavior was too bad.” Of course, Freud had received the first clear intimation of this bad behavior when he learned of Jung’s false accusation of Spielrein, although at the time he had chosen to disregard it as much as he could, hoping that psychoanalysis would find in Jung a “Germanic hero.”

In August 1913, after Freud had learned first of Spielrein’s marriage to a (probably Jewish) physician and then of her pregnancy, he wrote her:

I can hardly bear to listen when you continue to enthuse about your old love and past dreams, and [I] count on an ally in the marvelous little stranger.

I am, as you know, cured of the last shred of my predilection for the Aryan cause, and would like to take it that if the child turns out to be a boy, he will develop into a stalwart Zionist….

We are and remain Jews. The others will only exploit us and will never understand or appreciate us.

Here Freud, deeply hurt by Jung’s defection, conveniently forgets that he wanted to exploit Jung’s being a respected Swiss Protestant psychiatrist. This Spielrein, because of her continuing affection for Jung, or her greater objectivity, or both, could not disregard. Maybe that is why, one month later, after Freud had learned of the birth of Spielrein’s daughter Renate, he wrote: “Well, now, my heartiest congratulations! It is far better that the child should be a ‘she.’ Now we can think again about the blond Siegfried and perhaps smash that idol before his time comes.”

But this Spielrein could not do, nor did she want to do it. Despite her professional allegiance to Freud’s camp, she continued relations and correspondence with Jung, certainly well into 1918, and probably much longer, as he did with her. From her own bitter experience she knew only too well that the theoretical disagreements between Jung and Freud, and Jung’s development of his own, different system of psychoanalysis, had much more to do with Jung’s personal difficulties in his relationship with Freud and with her than with differences of theoretical conviction. Those, she was sure, could have been readily resolved if personal animosity had not made it impossible. And so, at least until her return to Russia, Spielrein tried to convince both Jung and Freud that they had much more in common than they had differences.

For example, as late as 1918, more than seven years after she had joined Freud and more than five years after he had become disillusioned with Jung, she wrote to Jung: “You can understand Freud perfectly well if you wish to, i.e., if your personal affect does not get in the way.” Earlier she wrote to Freud:

In spite of all his wavering, I like J. and would like to lead him back into our fold. You, Professor Freud, and he have not the faintest idea that you belong together far more than anyone might suspect. This pious hope is certainly no treachery to our Society! Everyone knows that I declare myself an adherent to the Freudian Society, and J. cannot forgive me for this.

He probably also could not forgive Freud that Spielrein now psychoanalytically belonged to him, although emotionally she was still strongly tied to Jung.

The most significant event in Spielrein’s young life was that, whatever happened during her treatment by Jung at the Burghölzli, it cured her. True, separated from her parents, she might have cured herself, given her youth, high intelligence, and unusual character; but in view of the severity of her disturbance, and its early onset, this does not seem very likely. It is much more reasonable to assume, as it was assumed by her, by Jung, and by Freud, that it was what she experienced with Jung that cured her. If so, then Jung’s behavior and attitude, as conveyed to her in their relation—call it treatment, seduction, transference, love, mutual daydreams, delusions, or whatever—was instrumental in achieving this cure.

It is certainly also possible to think that her behavior toward him and his toward her, as she tried to rework and master childhood traumas in late adolescence, may have had the symbolic meaning of encouraging her to act in ways that the world considered “dirty,” despite the injunction against them that her name implied. In her infancy she had responded to this injunction with an ambivalence that had kept her in thrall; now she resolved it by realizing that the only important matter was that she act in line with her convictions, however the world might describe her actions.

Whatever may be one’s judgment of Jung’s behavior toward Spielrein, probably his first psychoanalytic patient, one must not disregard its most important consequence: he cured her from the disturbance for which she had been entrusted to his care. In retrospect we ought to ask ourselves: what convincing evidence do we have that the same result would have been achieved if Jung had behaved toward her in the way we must expect a conscientious therapist to behave toward his patient? However questionable Jung’s behavior was from a moral point of view—however unorthodox, even disreputable, it may have been—somehow it met the prime obligation of the therapist toward his patient: to cure her. True, Spielrein paid a very high price in unhappiness, confusion, and disillusion for the particular way in which she got cured, but then this is often true for mental patients who are as sick as she was.

It may be good that Spielrein’s story reminds us that, contrary to our easy optimism that we know exactly how to treat psychologically very sick people, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophies.

So much for therapy, but what about Sabina Spielrein?

From the evidence of her letters and her diary, Sabina Spielrein emerges as one of the great pioneers of psychoanalysis. She was certainly a most unusual person who courageously dared to live her life in accordance with her convictions, whatever the world might think of her for having a love affair with a married man who had children. She remained true to her first love by not breaking with him despite his betrayal, and despite Freud’s efforts to make her separate herself intellectually and emotionally from him. Marrying and having a child later with her husband did not change this.

Spielrein was not only brilliant and extremely sensitive, but had extraordinary psychological intuition. Her seminal paper, in which she proposed the importance of the destructive impulse for our understanding of man, ends by saying that the drive for procreation and with it the preservation of man “consists also psychologically of two antagonistic components, and hence is as much a creative as a destructive drive.”

While Freud and Jung permitted their destructive impulses to drive them apart, Spielrein remained to the end true to the creative impulse which, she hoped, would bring Freud and Jung together to a common enterprise for the benefit of mankind. She was sure that on what is most important—the recognition of the significance of the unconscious, and the necessity of its being tamed for constructive purposes—they were basically in accord. To this unification of psychoanalysis she continued to devote herself.

One may hope that the idea to which Spielrein dedicated herself will finally come to fruition, and that the various psychoanalytic movements, which all derive from Freud’s great discoveries, may come to realize they have more in common than differences. As with Freud and Jung, differences originate more often in the vagaries of complicated personal relations and ambivalence than in genuine theoretical disagreements, although it is these that are stressed, in order to hide the all too human personal biases that are behind them.

This Issue

June 30, 1983