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.


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