Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

A Rediscovered Life of Sabina Spielrein: Sex vs Survival

Sex vs S

Sometimes, history corrects itself, and we re-discover a forgotten gem or a genius. In the latter case, it is a matter of historical justice to finally acknowledge a contribution of such a genius to the progress of our civilization.

It is a great pleasure for me to introduce you to one of the most original thinkers of the XXth century, an almost  forgotten Russian psychologist Sabina Spielrein, whose recently published first full biography in English called  Sex vs Survival  I review in this blog. The book is written by John Launer, an honorary lifetime consultant at the Tavistock Clinic in London, a UK leading institution for psychological treatment. He’s also an Associate Dean for postgraduate medical education at the University of London.

author picture J Launer

John Launer, source: Duckworth Overlook

The book was is written in a chronological manner and based on a great number of documents, including publications and letters of Spielrein, Jung and Freud. The amount of work done by the author is truly colossal here. I was captivated all the way through. And though I am no psychologist, I’ll try to tell you what I’ve learned from it.

The book begins with young Sabina ending up in Burghölzli Hospital near Zurich diagnosed with hysteria that was arguably triggered by the unhealthy emotional atmosphere in her family and the death of her sister, Emilia. There she’d been treated and ‘psycho-analysed’ by Carl Jung himself. This was a start of their turbulent relationship, a topic that occupies a major part of this book. Launer argues that love and not what Jung called ‘psychoanalysis’ cured Sabina from obsessive torments. After her recovery, Sabina enters a medical school in Zurich, but her troubled affair with Jung will keep her unstable for years to come.

The problem here is that her love to Jung seems to be more platonic than sexual, while in Jung’s case I’m not even sure there’s a love, considering his track record as a womanizer.

I have previously blogged on A Dangerous Method, a Hollywood film loosely based on the similarly titled John Kerr’s book. Armed with documented evidence, Launer criticizes Kerr for some  of his groundless assumptions about  the Spielrein-Jung relationship. Launer also describes a conspiracy between Freud and Jung against Spielrein: Jung claimed Spielrein was his patient when it suited him and created a web of lies, while Freud tried saving the reputation of psychoanalysis by pacifying Spielrein. Only years after, Freud found the truth and since then highly regarded Spielrein as a colleague.

Launer goes on to dissect Spielrein’s scientific work.  Working at Burgölzli as a student clinician, Spielrein pioneers in schizophrenia by analyzing a patient’s seemingly senseless chatter (Spielrein’s dissertation case). Then, we learn about her ‘Transformation’ letters to Jung where she, for the  first time, formulates her ground-breaking theory linking sex and death as one instinct evolved in nature for the purpose of propagation and species preservation. Both Freud and Jung were very much opposed to her linking biology and psychoanalysis, and, only now, a century later, her marriage of two fields of knowledge starts receiving an acknowledgement. Launer also discusses Spielrein’s peacemaking efforts at trying to unify all three psychoanalytic theories: Jung’s myth, Freud’s sex and Adler’s power theory. Eventually, she gives up. She was a scientist, not a politician.

Despite her family and country suffered immense losses in WWI and Civil War and she was herself left with hardly any means to existence, Spielrein continues her work, now in child psychology: she was first to listen and make sense of children’s language and publish the crucial papers on the matter a decade before her famous female colleagues, Melanie Klein and Anna Freud.

A colleague named Cifali wrote about Spielrein,

She’s praised for her moral qualities, her serene stoicism and her intellectual qualities.

Launer further talks about Spierein’s work in Russia, where her ideas influenced other prominent child psychologists, Vygotsky and Luria. He summarizes her phenomenon here,

‘Spielrein approached biology and sexuality from the viewpoint of a young woman who was both tempted by desire and afraid of it’

The final Russian period of Spielrein’s life was one tragedy after another. All of her brothers were killed during the period of Stalin’s repressions along with over a million of other people. The book’s penultimate chapter describes the death of Sabina and her daughters in the Holocaust in 1942. My eyes welled with tears as I was reminded of these atrocious episodes of our past. Watching daily news one can’t help but think that we haven’t learn anything from history.

Spielrein was indeed a remarkable woman and a phenomenal thinker, very much ahead of her time. She deserves a proper recognition, and we need a reminder of what great people the world had lost and how we indebted to them. This year, 25th of October 2015, the world will celebrate 130th anniversary of  Spielrein’s  birth. I hope her life and legacy will receive  an appropriate and long overdue exposure both in Russia and abroad.


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