Sabina Spielrein: Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis (Book Review)

Author:  Covington, Coline and Barbara Wharton
Publisher: Brunner-Routledge
Reviewed By: Harold B. Davis, PhD, ABPP, Winter 2006, pp. 53-56

Essentially unknown until Aldo Carenuto published A Secret Symmetry in 1982, Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942) has since become a focal point around which many issues of psychoanalysis are discussed, especially the countertransference. A recently revived off-Broadway production, two movies and many publications since 1982, restore her place in psychoanalytic history and to the lay public. Her rediscovery coincides with the emergence of the feminist movement in society and psychoanalysis.

Covington and Wharton’s book, designed as a tribute to her, provides the reader with a comprehensive study of Sabina Spielrein, her life, her treatment with Jung, and her own contributions to psychoanalysis and language development. The editors succeed in their aim to continue a dialogue between analytic psychologists and psychoanalysts to which Sabina Spielrein was committed. This edited book contains well-documented and thoughtful articles by various contributors some of whom have not been previously published. These articles follow Spielrein’s life and also describe the psychoanalytic times in which she lived, especially the Zurich school. It also contains a few selected writings by Spielrein, which left this reader with the desire to read more of her writings. Freud commented that “...there is meaning in everything she says...” (p. 3). Jung’s letters to Spielrein as well as her hospital records are also included.

The editors note that they made no attempt to synthesize the themes, so gaps remain. Nevertheless, several themes emerge from the various perspectives provided by the contributors: her relationship to Jung first as a patient and then as a “friend,” her relationship to Freud, the triangular relationship that developed, the issue of boundaries, her place and omission from psychoanalytic history, her contributions to psychoanalytic theory which are evaluated, and her life and work in Switzerland and Russia which led to writings on language development. The editors wisely collected contributions that give a broad view to Spielrein’s life and her work. As a result the reader receives a sense of the early days of psychoanalysis and the personal involvement that generated psychoanalytic concepts such as countertransference, anima, and the death instinct, to name a few. Also, the reader receives some sense of a woman who collaborated and associated with such eminent leaders as Piaget, Vygotsky, and Luria in addition to Jung and Freud.

Nicolle Kress-Rosen in her contribution titled, “Kindred Spirits,” notes that gaps in the discovered records require “...hypotheses and constructions.” She writes, “Those who discovered Sabina also invented her, and ever since we have continued to do just that, discovering her and inventing her at the same time”(p. 251). In our creation of her we tend to see what is relevant to our current biases. By presenting various perspectives the editors allow the reader to form his own view. This review may be my invention of her. I was familiar with Spielrein having read Carenuto’s book when it was first published and having seen the play many years ago.

Sabina Spielrein was a Russian Jewess from Rostov-on-Don. She was the oldest child and only daughter of a wealthy merchant, the granddaughter of a Hasidic rabbi with a mystical tradition and herself religious until her adolescence. In 1904, at the age of 19, she was brought to the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital because she was not amenable to treatment at another institution. She apparently was rebellious and a management problem at a previous institution. She was diagnosed as hysteric. Minder’s and Graf-Nold’s chapters describe the meaning of hysteria at that time and her experience at Burghölzli. The hospital was a residential treatment setting, the doctors had hundred of patients, and the doctor was a management as well as a therapeutic force. Sabina Spielrein became Jung’s patient. He treated her according to Freud’s principles, which he gathered from his readings. So this treatment was in no way an analysis as we know it today but an experiment in a new treatment approach in the context of a milieu therapy with a philosophy espoused by Bleuler who emphasized “...patience, calm, and inner goodwill towards the patients, these qualities that must be completely inexhaustible.” Binswanger, stated “...the spirit of unconditional acceptance of the person, of the healthy as well as the sick...” was attributed to Bleuler’s model (pp148-149). Spielrein was seeking such an unconditional acceptance. Spielrein responded to Jung’s treatment. After her discharge in 1905, he maintained contact with her as a “friend.” What evolved was a passionate relationship, which Jung, concerned with his reputation, broke off in 1909, but which Spielrein never repudiated.

In his contribution, Cremerius makes the point that whether or not the passion was consummated is unimportant. Apparently kissing. at least, took place. He states. “Are not disappointment, betrayal, humiliation, and the abuse of trust, and the destruction of dignity and self-worth of more consequence for a young girl to whom all of this has happened?” (p.73) Spielrein seems to have handled this affront “ of hatred and destructiveness, with dignity and great psychic strength” (p. 69). Lothane differs from Cremerius and has changed his mind as the result of new information he discovered. He no longer believes a consummated sexual act took place. He clarifies the meaning of love for in German there are different words and nuances that can mean a love like caritas. He is also critical of Cremerius’s moral stance and judgment, which he sees as a denial of countertransferential feelings. He states that whatever may have taken place, it was done after the treatment had ended. Furthermore he notes that Spielrein was not an innocent, that is, she was an active participant and never denied her responsibility for her part nor blamed Jung.

In current terminology there was an enactment in which Spielrein sought the love of a parent and Jung acted in loco parentis and also expressed his feelings to her. As quoted by Lothane, Spielrein writes:

To me, life without science is completely senseless. What else is there for me if there is no science? Get married? But that thought fills me with dread: at times my heart aches for tenderness, love; but that is but a deceptive, passing, external display that hides the most pitiful prose. The price is subjugation of the personality.... No! I do not want such love: I want a good friend to whom I can bare my soul; I want the love of an older man so that he would love me the way parents love and understand their child (spiritual affinity). But my parents--they are not it—If only I was as wise a human being as my Junga [an affectionate Russian-sounding form of Jung].... And how stupid that I am not a man; men have it easier in everything. It is a shame that everything goes their way. I do not want to be a slave! (p. 194)

One chapter containing Jung’s letters to Spielrein indicates both his feelings and his inner state. On June 30, 1908 he writes her, “You can’t believe how much it means to me to hope I can love someone whom I do not have to condemn, and who does not condemn herself either, to suffocate in the banality of habit” (p. 33). On August 8, 1908, he writes, “I want you to be beautiful both inwardly and outwardly, for that alone is natural. No one who is not inwardly defective in feeling can love what is ugly and tasteless, and you are certainly not that! Your letter had a good effect on me; I realise how much more attached I am to you than I ever thought” (p. 35). On December 8, 1908, he writes:

My mind is torn to its very depths. I, who had to be a tower of strength for many weak people, am the weakest of all. Will you forgive me for being as I am? For offending you by being like this, and forgetting my duties as a doctor to you.... I am looking for someone who understands how to love, without punishing the other person, imprisoning him or sucking him dry; I am seeking this as yet unrealised person who will make it possible that love can be independent of social advantage and disadvantage, so that love may always be an end in itself, and not just a means to an end. It is my misfortune that I cannot live without the joy of love, of tempestuous everchanging love in my life. This daemon stands as an unholy contradiction to my compassion and my sensitivity. (pp 38-39)

This passionate relationship led to some actions that would be considered a boundary violation. Boundary issues are as much an issue today as in the earliest days of psychoanalysis (Dahlberg 1970, Sandler 2004). Boundary violations may be more aptly stated as a failure in coping with transference and countertransference feelings, especially the latter. Their involvement with each other was clearly an intense psychic attraction for Jung was intensely interested in this his first “analytic” case and she “demanded” being understood. They both grew, intellectually and professionally as well as emotionally, albeit painfully, from the relationship. In one letter to her, Jung mentions the anguish she caused him and he caused her. They were a muse to each yet Spielrein had concerns that her ideas would be stolen by Jung. Jung’s response is described as a way of deflecting her concern. Perhaps he did steal her ideas, but when two people are muse to each other who can really claim an idea.

Minder, in a second chapter, notes that Jung wrote Freud a letter describing his difficulty with a patient without identifying her by name. She was going around town creating a scandal. Freud sympathized with Jung. It was this sympathy and his contact with both Jung and Spielrein (unbeknownst to Spielrein) that suggest she was subject to the conventional male attitude towards women. Between themselves they refer to her condescendingly as a little girl. Freud’s initial letter to Spielrein declined a consultation she requested and was aimed at protecting Jung. Freud consoles Jung and commented that he was ten years older than Jung when he started psychoanalytic work and therefore more able to withstand the transference. Today the analyst’s contribution to the transference is accepted and the reality of Jung’s feelings is noted by the contributors. Jung’s letter was prompted in part by Spielrein’s mother’s wish, which she later changed, to seek another doctor for her daughter. In his letters to Freud, Jung describes his success with Spielrein which was substantial in a short period of time and which today we might see as a transference cure. Jung describes Spielrein as possessing “...a certain callousness and unreasonableness in her character and she lacks any kind of feeling situation, and for external propriety, but much of this must be put down to Russian peculiarities.”(p. 139)

One month after meeting Freud, Spielrein presented her first theoretical paper in Vienna entitled “Destruction as the cause of coming into being.” She locates this destruction in the reproductive process. Freud (1975) cites this article in postulating his death drive although he disagreed with placing it in the reproductive process. However, as noted in this book, death has a different meaning for Freud and Jung. For Freud it is a symbol of regression to quiescence while for Jung it is a regressive pull necessary for rebirth. For Jung death is step in rebirth rather than a final step. Spielrein’s use seems to be closer to Jung than Freud. In communication to Jung, Freud noted that her destructive drive concept was personally conditioned and she was “abnormally ambivalent” (p. 3). Jung essentially concurs. Both Freud and Jung are criticized for having failed to see her destructiveness. One might also see her idealization as a defense against her rage. Covington sees Spielrein’s concept of sacrifice as a regressive pull to merger with the other resulting from failure in love. According to her there is no resolving of omnipotence or any evidence of the depressive position in Spielrein’s view of sacrifice.

Spielrein’s ambivalence is played out with Jung and Freud in that she maintains a connection to both. She claims allegiance to Freud yet she writes him that she hopes to bring Jung back into the fold. This unrealistic goal may indicate her lack of political sophistication and her desire to integrate the two essential parts of herself. However it may well be that Spielrein was beyond politics and was always looking for the ideal. Her ambivalence may be a reason that she is forgotten in that she does not chose one side or the other. Perhaps the political structure required loyal followers like Anna Freud and Melanie Klein. Spielrein’s independence and her personality, which Jones found abrasive, may also account in part for her being forgotten. Vidal, in his contribution, indicates that Spielrein abruptly terminated her analysis of Piaget because he was resistant to the theory, which may indicate her abrasive trait and lack of tact. Yet Piaget acknowledged that he was not seriously involved in his analysis and saw it as a trial experience. Another factor in her being forgotten is that her writings are not abstract ones contributing to theory but more impressionistic and intuitive.

Her articles, which are extensive, indicate an independent mind, writing on an intuitive and experiential level, yet raising conceptual questions that antedate many current ideas. Some of her thinking shows what today we would call a constructionist viewpoint. In discussing female beauty, she writes that a concept of beauty is not absolute but derived from female forms frequently encountered as pleasing. Her object related viewpoint is expressed by statements that suggest an awareness of what today we call projective identification. Her experiential approach exists in her view of empathy although she doesn’t use the word. She notes that an ex-smoker can understand a smoker but not one who has never smoked. This statement may also be viewed as concrete. Jung used to criticize her for being concrete. She describes two types of people who seek fame and sees herself as the type who suffered and therefore prizes thought. This shows a similarity to Jung’s introvert and extrovert and to Guntrip's schizoid person. In discussing art, it is the instinct of transformation and not of sexuality that is important, which is closer to Jung than Freud. In her article on the origins of the words “mama” and “papa,” she indicates the broad nature of language that is beyond verbal communication. Tone, musicality and the plastic arts are languages. She is viewed as a forerunner of Fairbairn since she sees language development as part of human development in interaction with parental figures. These examples do not mean that she was the sole forerunner of current ideas.

Spielrein has been viewed as masochistic and self-destructive. She writes about young people desiring to perform an heroic act. Sacrifice has a special meaning to Jung. It refers to changes within the self. In a letter to Spielrein dated Sept. 21/22, 1911 chiding her for not having attended a congress Jung writes, “But never forget that under no circumstances must you retreat from an immediate goal which your heart considers good and reasonable. Each time will mean a sacrifice of selfishness, of pride and of stubbornness.... in the course of this mysterious self-sacrifice you will gain yourself in a new and more beautiful form... and a source of happiness for other people” (pp. 41-42, italics his). Spielrein notes in her diary young people’s need to sacrifice for a cause. Hers may well have been psychoanalysis and fulfilling Jung’s goal. As noted earlier, Covington sees her use of sacrifice as pathological. One needs to remember that in addition to being Jewish she is Russian and educated in secular studies in Russia. When asked by Obholzer (1982) whether Freud understood him, the Wolf Man responded that Freud could not understand him since he was Russian. Some of the “saintliness” attributed to her at the end of her life may be her identification with Russian themes and/or her depression due to her brothers being in the Gulag, her husband having died, and psychoanalysis being banned in 1936 as a bourgeois activity, and her family property having been confiscated.

Whether her failure to leave Rostov-on-Don after Hitler broke the Nazi-Soviet Pact in June 1941 was masochism is open to question. As Lothane notes, Freud was able to leave Vienna because of a ransom paid by Marie Bonaparte. I might add that the American ambassador to France at the time was an instrumental agent. Covington and Wharton report that in 1942, when the German army retook Rostov-on-Don, she with her two daughters and other Jews were led to a gully where they were shot under Operation Barbarossa. Covington refers to it as her “ultimate sacrifice.” Perhaps she means it in a poetic sense and not in either Jung’s or Spielrein’s sense. If it is meant in Spielrein’s sense as defined by Covington it would be a pathological act. Her death may be a result of a perverse use of “Destruction as a cause of coming to being” on a social level. Hitler’s new world order required the destruction of the old world order, which for him meant to make the world Judenfrei (free of Jews.). The SS whose responsibility it was to execute this plan wore a death symbol on their caps.

Is she a forgotten pioneer? Yes, but the reasons vary. As noted in the book it was not simply the “old boy network.” Other factors come into play, such as her personality and her return to Russia (then the Soviet Union) in 1923, and being out of the center of psychoanalytic thinking and politics. She had no home in the Jungian circles nor had she a home in the Freudian circles, in part due to her independent thinking and in her loyalty to Jung, for she never really repudiated his premises. Perhaps she was a solitary worker. Her restoration has been due to Jungian analysts starting with Carenuto and now with Covington and Wharton. Perhaps each generation reclaims the past that is important to its current needs leaving behind other forgotten pioneers. So the finding of her documents that permitted Carenuto to write his book allows Spielrein to become part of Jungian and psychoanalytic history and a focal point for current concerns. Her life may also serve as an illustration of feminist concerns to psychoanalysts and to the lay public.

For the reader who is interested in the history of psychoanalysis, its ideas, and the interplay between people who lived and produced its history and ideas, this is an interesting and worthwhile book. The editors and contributors see Spielrein in her complexity with her strengths and weaknesses. They also provide different perspectives, which leads to some repetition of facts, but which affords an opportunity for a multifaceted view. The book is thorough and scholarly with only one minor editorial defect that is irritating. In a number of instances the page listed in the table of contents does not coincide with the actual page on which the chapter begins.

Most of the articles are worth a review in of themselves since the contributors tackle complex issues of clinical and theoretical significance, which her life and treatment with Jung raised. The issues that Sabina Spielrein faced in her life in the first quarter of the twentieth century are still with us although in different manifestations. This book offers a current view of the past that is relevant for the present. It has value to psychoanalysts today especially in the current interest in self revelation and in legitimate pleasures we derive as psychoanalysts. Using the Spielrein-Jung experience this book shows the power of the analytic dyad for cure and anguish.


Dahlberg, C. C. (1970). Sexual contact between patient and therapist, Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 6, 107-124.
Freud, S. (1975). Beyond the pleasure principle. New York: Norton.
Obholzer, K. (1982). The Wolf-Man: Conversations with Freud’s patient sixty years later. New York: Continuum.
Sandler, A. (2004). Institutional responses to boundary violations: The case of Masud Khan. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 85, 27-84.

Reviewer Note

Harold B. Davis is a supervisor at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy and faculty and supervisor at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy.


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