Spielrein, Sabina (1885-C. 1941)

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SPIELREIN, SABINA (1885-C. 1941)

Sabina Spielrein, a Russian psychoanalyst, was born in 1885 in Rostov, and died in the city of her birth, in the Soviet Union, in 1941 or 1942, during World War II.

Born into a wealthy Jewish middle-class family, Sabina at age nineteen was taken to Zurich to be treated for severe hysteria. She was hospitalized at Burghölzli, the famous psychiatric university hospital run by Eugen Bleuler. There Carl G. Jung became her physician and succeeded in alleviating most of her symptoms. Within a year, by 1905, she was able to begin medical studies. She continued an analysis with Jung that he described as "Freudian" and that offered him an opportunity to initiate a relationship with Freud, from 1907.

The therapeutic relationship between Jung and Spielrein evolved into a personal relationship, probably a brief affair, after which Jung appears to have distanced himself from her and then called for Freud's help. The two men, who by then had been friends for two years, discussed the relationship in their correspondence, and at Jung's request Freud wrote to Spielrein's mother. In spite of what the two men thought, however, Freud's intervention did not end Sabina's passion for Jung, a passion documented in her diaries. Nonetheless, in 1911 she finished her studies in psychiatry under Jung's direction with the thesis "The Psychological Content of a Case of Schizophrenia." As Freud and Jung moved toward the rupture of their friendship and collaboration, Spiel-rein went to Vienna, where, in 1911, she presented her paper "Destruction as the Cause of Becoming" (1995), which received a mixed reception in the context of much anti-Jung sentiment.

After the break between Freud and Jung, in which she could not clearly decide which side to take, Spiel-rein's life and career becomes more difficult to follow. In 1912 she married a Russian physician, Paul Scheftel, with whom she had a daughter in 1913; he returned to Russia in 1915. Spielrein could not settle down, moving successively to Zurich, Munich, Lausanne, and Geneva. She worked as an analyst but appears to have been uncertain whether her real calling was to psychoanalysis, art history, or music. A second daughter was born in 1926.

By 1923, with Freud's encouragement, Spielrein had returned to Soviet Russia. She was admitted to the new Moscow Psychoanalytic Institute and taught psychoanalysis until it was prohibited in 1927. After returning to her birthplace, Rostov, during World War II, Spielrein was murdered by the Nazis, together with all the Jewish inhabitants of the city, in 1941 or 1942.

Spielrein published about thirty articles, the best known being her 1995 paper, which develops original ideas on female sexuality and is sometimes said to adumbrate Freud's concept of the death instinct. It is unfortunate that a love affair and the troubled relationship between Freud and Jung played a role in her early disappearance from the intellectual ferment of psychoanalysis.

In spite of more shadow than light, her story retains an indisputable fascination. A series of fortuitous discoveries rescued Spielrein from oblivion. In 1977 a carton was discovered containing her diary and some of the letters she exchanged with Freud and Jung. A second cache, then a third, were recovered. These documents revealed the details of the long-suppressed secretan analysand seduced and abandoned by her analystwhich would have embarrassed Jung first and foremost, but also Freud, who had helped minimize the affair.

An intriguing and original figure in the early years of psychoanalysis, Spielrein subsequently became the object of considerable attention and the subject of several books.

Nicolle Kress-Rosen

See also: Abstinence/rule of abstinence; Ethics; Jung, Carl Gustav; Death instinct (Thanatos); Russia/USSR; Société psychanalytique de Genève; Switzerland (German-speaking); Tranference love.


Carotenuto, Aldo, and Trombetta, Carlo. (1982). A secret symmetry: Sabina Spielrein between Jung and Freud (Arno Pomerans, John Shepley, and Krishna Winston, Trans.). New York: Pantheon Books. (Original work published 1977)

Kerr, John. (1993). A most dangerous method: The story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Kress-Rosen, Nicolle. (1993). Trois figures de la passion. Paris: Arcanes.

Spielrein, Sabina. (1995). Destruction as a cause of coming into being (S. K. Witt, Trans.). Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 18, 85-118. (Original work published 1911)