November 13, 2017 Sells Blog: Sabina Spielrein: The Woman and the Myth

By Angela Sells

i am accused of tending to the past

as if I made it,

as if I sculpted it

with my own hands, I did not.

this past was waiting for me

when I came,

a monstrous unnamed baby,

and I with my mother’s itch

took it to breast

and named it


she is more human now,

learning languages everyday,

remembering faces, names and dates.

when she is strong enough to travel

on her own, beware, she will.

—Lucille Clifton, “i am accused of tending to the past”

Who was Sabina Spielrein? Her diaries and letters were unearthed in Geneva in the 1980s, but what we know comes largely from a book published in 1994 that brought her relationship with Carl Jung to the mainstream, since she was his first patient, diagnosed with hysteria when she was 19 years old.

She is often presented from the vantage of sexual intrigue, the did-she-or-didn’t-she have an affair with Jung, rather than as a woman who spent 30 years as an analyst in her own right. She was a pioneer of child psychology, an early advocate of female sexual health, and she originated the concept of the so-called “death wish” a full decade before Sigmund Freud expanded on her idea. Her theory of mythic archetypes was published in an article one year before Jung’s work on the same subject in 1912. She taught, practiced, and published in three different countries and in three different languages. She was the first woman to research the link between childhood trauma and adult behavior; she was the first woman to become director of a psychoanalytic institute in Moscow.

She was also the first woman to be unanimously voted into Freud’s analytic society in Berlin, where she very pointedly stated to a room full of men that penis envy was not an accurate depiction of female sexuality. Later in her career, Freud actually invited her to replace Jung on the masthead of his quarterly journal, after they had become friends and colleagues and kept up a correspondence for almost 15 years. (In my book, I translated previously unpublished diaries, letters, articles, and the minutes of the meetings where all of this was discussed.) When Freud attempted to dissuade her from becoming a mother—writing, “it would be a waste of your talents”—she vehemently defended her ability to be both mother and scholar.

Though she was labeled with “hysteria,” I found no mention in scholarship of the death of her six-year-old sister when Spielrein was only 15, no mention of what grief may have manifested in her teenage mind. She was, in fact, deemed “cured” after eight months and began a graduate program in psychiatry immediately following her treatment. Still, hysterical is a stigma that stuck. In the past 30 years, she has been called hysterical, schizophrenic, schizo, schizoid, little girl lost, paranoid, borderline, obsessive, a seductress, a mistress, an agent provocateur, and an Aryan worshipper (she was Jewish, Jung was Christian).

Speaking of which, while many have defined her ambiguous relationship with Jung, her once therapist, as a “love cure” or as a “romance,” I do not. It can actually be called a love cure only if Spielrein’s words are ignored entirely, considering how much pain she admits the relationship caused her at the time: “my soul is rent with unspeakable pain,” she wrote. When news of the affair was made public, she attempted to tell her side of the story, and wrote to Freud (Jung’s mentor and confidante) comparing her time with Jung to the Rape of the Sabine Women.

Freud’s reply: “Dr. Jung is my friend… I think I know him… and have reason to believe that he is incapable of frivolous or ignoble behavior… I would urge you to ask yourself whether [your] feelings… are not best suppressed and eradicated.” Granted, after Jung’s later confession to Freud, he wrote again to Spielrein to apologize, to ask her forgiveness. Her reply: “You should have given me an audience: let the other side be heard as well. But one would like to be spared an uncomfortable moment, right? Even the great ‘Freud’ cannot always overlook his weaknesses.”[i] The frequent romanticizing of this breach of ethics, by calling it a love cure, succeeds only in perpetuating patterns of abuse. It also completely erases Spielrein’s own autonomy, since Jung did not cure her; she was never really sick.

Shockingly, a well-respected scholar in the field, in his commentary on her diaries, suggested that “perhaps she simply needed a man to exert his will over her to become a woman.” Others have stated that the relationship cannot be categorized as a violation because Spielrein survived it and went on to become successful, failing to acknowledge that she may have become successful in spite of the violation rather than because of it.

And what of her success? Dates are important here: in working with patients, she began to describe mythic symbols as patterns of the psyche (or archetypes), in her dissertation research in 1909. Jung served on her dissertation committee. She confronted him in a letter, concerned that he was stealing her work to write his own, and wrote in her diary, “I am greatly afraid that Jung, who wanted to reference my idea in his article in July, with a mention that I have rights of priority… now wants to refer to [it] in January. Is he stealing my ideas? Is he a friend or a cunning rival?”

His reply: “Yours is an extraordinary study whose priority I am happy to acknowledge as yours. I express myself so differently from you in my work that no one could imagine that you had borrowed in any way from me.” He was true to his word. In quite a few footnotes to his own publication on the topic, he credits Spielrein explicitly and plainly. Unfortunately, in every edition subsequent to 1953, the footnotes have been deleted and her influence erased.

Additionally, what about the death wish, so commonly used and attributed to Freud? He, too, clearly cites her in his work: “A considerable part of this speculation has been anticipated in a work which is full of valuable matter [by] Sabina Spielrein.” Perhaps not unsurprisingly, this footnote has been dismissed almost entirely as a “misunderstanding.”

This is not merely an issue of being dismissed in her historical context; she wasn’t. Why, then, in the past few decades has she been degraded or demeaned? Is it incidental that a campaign to smear her name—some literally equating her with the Biblical figure of Judith, who seduces General Holofernes in order to behead him—began when her papers were being newly discovered, papers that seemed to challenge the field’s history and its idols?

When she became a wife and mother in 1913, she focused her academic interest primarily on child psychology and dreams, and went on to teach, publish, and practice in Geneva, Berlin, and Zurich before finally moving back and settling in her homeland of Russia.

Sadly, as a Jewish and intellectual woman in the 1930s, her life was under constant totalitarian threat. Joseph Stalin proclaimed, “We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts—yes his thoughts!—threatens the unity of the state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin.” As an analyst, a proponent of individual deed and thought, Spielrein became a suspected terrorist. During the Great Purge, Spielrein’s three brothers—also professors—were taken to a gulag and executed. Nevertheless, she persisted, and continued to see clients in rooms with blacked out windows and doors. Strangely, instead of viewing this courageous act as heroic or as a demonstration of her passion, scholars have labeled it suicidal, painting her once again into the corner of psychosis.

In addition to the threat at home, Nazi troops from Germany were advancing on her town and occupied it for the second time in 1942. That summer, infamous SS officer Heinrich Himmler had a vision of extermination: “I herewith order that the resettlement of the entire Jewish population… be carried out and completed by December… a total cleansing is necessary.”[ii] A few weeks later, Spielrein, alongside her two daughters and 27,000 other Jewish citizens, were murdered in Rostov, Russia, their bodies covered in clay in a nearby ravine.

Yet even this has not escaped critique: the clothes she wore at the time of her death have been questioned, as has her posture, but maybe most egregiously, one of the foremost scholars in the field suggested, based on her early interest in writing about death, that she may have “invited [it] upon herself,” completely ignoring the larger context—the Nazis! Scholars seem only to acknowledge that she wrote about the death wish in order to use it against her; much more frequently, though, it is wholly denied, most assuredly to keep Freud’s originality intact.

However, her death wish, it should be noted, was a transformation instinct seen from the feminine perspective. Since she worked with women in hospitals, she noted that sometimes women literally sacrificed themselves to bring another human into the world, sacrifices that on occasion, she saw, ended in the physical death of the mothers. This transformation energy was also couched in the idea of dissolving into one’s beloved—and specifically in physical union with one’s lover, or reaching a realm of the sublime (transcendence) through relationship. She brings in the narratives of countless women in mythology to demonstrate her point, from Juliet to Brünnhilde (she saw herself, radically, as the hero Siegfried) to Isolde, and noted that we must understand each figure’s death as a metaphor for their own transformation. In my book, alongside newly translated letters, diaries, and articles, I follow her example and look at multiple myths where female figures have been misinterpreted or severed in scholarship from their autonomy.

These are the facts that we know: for a few short years in her adolescence, Spielrein suffered from emotional trauma resulting from a host of personal and social factors. She was then treated with the innovation of talk therapy and deemed cured. For over 30 years she was a doctor, teacher, mother, writer, and gifted pianist. She was also a woman who lived life with intense passion, intellect, and courage in the midst of continuous political conflict. In effect, it is important to remember her achievements and grant her a full and complex humanity in the face of historical silencing. As she reminds us in her Last Will: “I too was once a human being. My name was Sabina Spielrein.”

[i] Tagebuch, 97.

[ii] See Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War (Holt, 1985), 387.

*Diary and letter entries have been translated by the author and are available, along with citations for each scholar mentioned by name in the book and extensive research, in Sabina Spielrein: The Woman and the Myth, published by SUNY Press. Discounted (70 percent off) copies are available directly from the author at The Open Book bookstore,

 Angela Sells, Ph.D. lives in Northern California and teaches women’s studies and literature at Sierra College, Meridian University, and Southern New Hampshire University. She is co-founder of the Open Book Press, and her book Sabina Spielrein: The Woman and the Myth was published recently by SUNY Press. It is available at a 70 percent discount directly from The Open Book bookstore. For more information, please visit her blog at