When people hear the name Sabina Spielrein, they immediately think of psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s alleged patient-turned-lover (that is, if one even recognizes her name at all). It’s a shame that the only modern associations we have with Spielrein are of her romantic liaisons rather than her brilliant contributions to early 20th century psychoanalysis: the study of the relation between subconscious and conscious thoughts in psychological processes. She even was the first woman to write a psychological dissertation. In fact, there wasn’t a single reliable English-translated account on Spielrein’s psychological work until 1993. The image of Sabina Spielrein has been sexually objectified and academically overlooked. The widely renowned psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as well as the prominent developmental psychologists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky have borrowed ideas from Spielrein to formulate some of their most influential concepts without giving her the credit that she deserves.
Spielrein’s work in psychoanalysis began in 1904 at Burgholzli hospital, when she received psychoanalytic therapy for hysteria as Carl Jung’s first patient . She was allowed to help Jung with some of his research and made some profound interpretations of the data Jung collected. After being deemed psychologically cured from her hysteria in 1905, Spielrein went on to medical school in Zurich to pursue psychiatry. Years later, Jung oversaw her dissertation in psychoanalysis. He went on to repeat several of Spielrein’s ideas in his own work, failing to cite her influence and contribution in print. She had a profound influence on Jung’s “Anima” archetype: the human sense of self that is central in Jung’s widely renowned theory of the collective unconscious .
The movie A Dangerous Method explores the dynamics and tension between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and how Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) allegedly helped fuel this tension and contributed to their eventual break . Before watching this movie, I expected to be informed about the scientific and philosophical tension between Jung and Freud, while simultaneously learning more about Spielrein’s own theories. However, I was disappointed to find that the main plot of “A Dangerous Method” was centered on the affair that Jung ostensibly had with Spielrein. Director David Cronenberg framed Spielrein as a well educated, mentally unstable virgin who seduced Jung with her talent in psychoanalysis and pulchritudinous figure—only to become severely emotionally and physically attached to him to a psychotic degree. Though at some moments Keira Knightley presented a riveting portrayal of Spielrein’s subtle brilliance, multiple scenes displaying Spielrein’s character in sexually submissive situations, in revealing costumes, and in frequent psychotic states overrode her intellectual accomplishments.
Arguably the most influential psychologist of modern Western civilization, Sigmund Freud is documented to have been in personal contact with Sabina Spielrein. In fact, as was clearly expressed in “A Dangerous Method,” Jung’s psychoanalytic treatment of Spielrein was the motivating factor of his initial correspondence with Freud. After the end of her work with Jung, along with Jung’s revocation of the emotional attachment between them, Spielrein sought comfort and psychoanalytical guidance from Freud. Jung denied any romantic liaisons with Spielrein, but Spielrein’s accounts and letters insisted otherwise. Freud began to distrust Jung as he suspected Jung was lying to him about his involvement with Spielrein. (It was a big deal because Spielrein was a former patient of Jung’s, and a psychiatrist having any sort of an affair with a patient was and is very much against the fundamental rules of the practice.) This only caused further tension in his already diverging academic relationship with Jung.
Independent of their mutual ties to Carl Jung, Spielrein and Freud shared overlapping opinions on many topics that involved the internal psychological conflict of the conscious and subconscious. Spielrein specifically set a precedent in her 1912 dissertation to Freud’s conception of the “death drive”: a theory that speculates that humans subconsciously have a natural drive to strive to both live (the eros instinct) and to wish to cease to exist (the thanatos instinct) . These two forces are supposed to create an internal conflict that philosophically addresses differing cognitive states and mental abnormalities. When Freud published the essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” that brought up the death drive theory, he failed to give any credit to Spielrein for her influence in the subject .
Spielrein psychoanalyzed the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget in Geneva in the 1920s. Before her encounters with Piaget, she had already established a theoretical interest in child psychology. Spielrein and Piaget formulated the theory of symbolic thought together—though they eventually intellectually diverged and did not complete the theory because of Piaget’s migration away from psychoanalysis and toward epistemology. The theory of symbolic thought involved the connections and bridges between subconscious and conscious
Piaget is often fully credited with ideas that Spielrein independently posited, such as the theory that concepts such as time, space, and causality are acquired through individual development rather than predestination, even when he cited their ideas together. Additionally, they shared ideas about language development in children . Even though Piaget credited her in most of his work, the public and psychiatric community largely overlooked her contributions, most likely because of her gender.
Spielrein also profoundly influenced Lev Vygotsky, the developmental psychologist whose opinions are often compared to those of Piaget (though many of their theories are in contention). After Spielrein joined the Russian Psychoanalytical Society in 1923, Lev Vygotsky became aware of her ideas and was influenced by Spielrein’s work in language development just as Piaget was. In recent speculation, historians argue Spielrein might be the “missing link” between Vygotsky and Piaget, which explains the similarities between their separate, conflicting theories about childhood and developmental psychology .
It’s symbolically ironic that the major psychologists Spielrein influenced can be considered academic rivals. In many of her theories, she emphasized clashing forces that cause inner conflict and personality characteristics—a prominent element of the psychoanalytic field of psychology. The theories of Freud and Jung, and of Piaget and Vygotsky clashed with one another, creating a conflict in the psychiatric field as Spielrein respectively catalyzed and neutralized these academic conflicts. But the clashing of opinions remains the same.
Of course, Spielrein is not the only woman in history whose ideas were discredited. Her story is often compared to that of Catherine “Kitty” Greene: the woman who invented the cotton gin but was never given credit. In 1792, Greene rented a room in her house in Georgia to a young Yale graduate named Eli Whitney. According to several sources, Greene complained to Whitney about how impractical it was to raise cotton because of how long it took to seed the cotton. She suggested that raising cotton would be more time efficient and profitable if there was some sort of machine to seed the cotton en masse. Some speculate that she even drew a preliminary plan for such a machine . Whitney, though he had no personal knowledge of the hardships of cotton picking given his Northeastern roots and education, was intrigued by this suggestion, and went on to create mechanical drawings that allowed the cotton gin to become a mass-produced reality. He patented it with no mention of Greene’s contribution.
The cotton gin went on to exponentially increase American productivity and helped launch the country into the Industrial Revolution, making Whitney rich and famous, but leaving Kitty Greene with no credit whatsoever. It was as if Whitney took advantage of Greene’s idea and claimed it as his own because he knew he could get away with it. Women had inferior status at the turn of the 19th century when Greene posited the idea for the cotton gin, just as they had inferior status at the turn of the 20th century when Spielrein came up with her psychoanalytic theories. Therefore, little could have been done at the time to go against the patriarchal society and claim the credit that these women deserved.
It is important to recognize Spielrein’s contributions to the field of psychoanalysis, as her work is on par with the most influential figures of her time in the field of modern psychiatry. Though her gender may have limited her significance during her life (which was tragically cut short in 1942 when she and 27,000 other Jewish Russians were murdered by a German S.S. death squad), our society is now more gender-inclusive. This leaves us no excuse but to learn about her significance in the formulation of some of the most instrumental ideas in psychotherapy today.