Sabina Spielrein

Sabina Spielrein
Born Nov. 7, 1885
Died Aug. 12/14 1942
Nationality German

Sabina Spielrein was a Russian psychologist who was among the first women to work as a psychoanalyst. She was also connected with both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. She was particularly close to Jung, who had first met her when she was his patient.

Early Years

Spielrein was born on November 7, 1885, in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Her family was comfortably off, thanks to her father’s success in business and her mother’s dental practice. The family was strictly Jewish, something encouraged by her rabbi grandfather and great-grandfather.

Sabina did not have a particularly happy childhood, with some of it bordering on the abusive, but the importance given to education by her parents did give her a solid academic grounding. By the time she had reached her late teens, she was fluent in English, French, and German as well as Russian.

Early Adult Years

When she was 19, Spielrein was diagnosed with hysteria and was sent to Switzerland to be treated. She was admitted to the mental hospital at Burgh√∂lzli, where she was under the supervision of Jung. His notes reveal that he felt the young woman had a “dreamy expression” but was somewhat “voluptuous.”

She stayed a patient at the hospital for about a year. Her case particularly interested Jung, who wrote to the then far more famous Freud asking for his advice on how to handle this challenging Russian young woman. Upon receiving Jung’s letter, Freud himself became interested in the case, and the exchange was pivotal in bringing the two psychoanalysts together.

Involvement with Jung

Jung continued to write to Freud for some years after Spielrein had been discharged from the hospital. As late as 1909, he told Freud that the young woman had been “systematically planning” to seduce him, and that now she was free she was hoping to gain revenge. He claimed that she was involved in the spreading of rumors that Jung was romantically interested in one of his female students.

Jung went so far as to write whole case studies about Spielrein’s case, and these were instrumental in the progression of his and Freud’s development of modern psychoanalysis. Meanwhile, Spielrein herself had accepted a post as an assistant in Jung’s laboratory.

Jung suggested that Spielrein should indulge in the formal study of psychiatry, and as a result, she enrolled in medical school. Some historians are of the opinion that the two became interested in each other romantically as well as professionally, although there is no firm proof for this contention. However, letters that were sent between the two of them are suggestive of a deep emotional bond.

According to the historian of psychoanalysis, Peter Loewenberg, Jung’s reputed affair with Spielrein was professionally improper. Because of this breach of ethics, he stated, Jung was eventually forced to leave his post at Zurich University.

A Career of Her Own

Spielrein obtained her medical degree in 1911, setting up a psychoanalytical practice of her own. At this point, she was still closely linked to Jung – but later that year, Jung accepted that his own career was being harmed by his involvement with Spielrein and called off the affair.

Spielrein then moved to Vienna, where she became a member of the city’s Psychoanalytic Association. The following year, she married Pavel Scheftel, a Russian doctor. The couple had two daughters, but Pavel left her for another woman – although the two were later reunited, along with the child that had resulted from Pavel’s own affair.

Spielrein psychoanalyzed a number of well-known people, including Jean Piaget, a noted developmental psychologist himself. To support herself, she also worked as a teacher, both in her native Russia and in Switzerland. Her 1912 essay, Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being, is probably her best known publication. Spielrein, who was Jewish, was murdered by an SS death squad during World War Two.

Later Years and Death

Spielrein spent some time working in Germany before moving on to Switzerland to continue her psychoanalytical practice there. However, she eventually decided to go back to Russia. Once there, she was instrumental in the introduction of psychoanalysis to the country, as well as setting up a kindergarten.

This was shut down in 1926 after malicious allegations that she had been sexually interfering with the children she taught there. With the advent of Stalin’s tyrannical rule in the 1930s, her three brothers were all killed. In 1942, after the Nazis took Rostov-on-Don, Spielrein and her daughters, as Jews, were themselves murdered by German death squads.

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