Sex vs. Sur­vival: The Life and Ideas of Sabi­na Spielrein

John Launer
  • Review
By – February 2, 2015

Why are we famil­iar with the writ­ings of Freud, Jung, and Piaget, but not those of Sabi­na Spiel­rein (18851942), who worked close­ly with each of them in the for­ma­tive years of their careers? Spielrein’s Russ­ian fam­i­ly was Jew­ish in the Enlight­en­ment mode — no reli­gion but a large mea­sure of cul­ture. Biog­ra­ph­er John Launer also finds con­vinc­ing evi­dence of famil­ial sex­u­al abuse. In 1904, Sabi­na was brought for treat­ment to a clin­ic in Switzer­land, where she became the patient, col­league, and prob­a­bly the lover of Carl Jung. These were the ear­ly years of the psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic move­ment, when Jung and Freud were friends, devel­op­ing their sig­na­ture con­cepts and fol­low­ers. Lost in her pas­sion for Jung, young Spiel­rein turned to Freud for help, but he mere­ly cov­ered for Jung. Spiel­rein pulled her­self togeth­er and worked on her own the­o­ries, focus­ing on the rela­tion­ship be­tween death and the dri­ve to repro­duce. Soon she began her own research in psycholinguis­tics and child devel­op­ment, work which was influ­en­tial on the young Piaget. Unlike Freud and Jung, Spiel­rein had no well-fund­ed back­ers or insti­tu­tions to sup­port her work. Unable to sup­port her­self and her daugh­ter (she had briefly mar­ried) on fees from pri­vate clients in Switzer­land or Ger­many, she returned in 1923 to what had become the Sovi­et Union. Her work in pedol­o­gy, a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary approach to child devel­op­ment, flour­ished until as late as 1929, when the back­lash began. By the late 1930s, Stal­in­ist purges had mur­dered most of the Spiel­rein men, among thou­sands of oth­ers. Any sur­vivors soon had to deal with the Nazis. On August 11, 1942, Sabi­na Spiel­rein and some 13,000 oth­ers were exe­cut­ed by the invad­ing Nazis in the woods near her home­town of Ros­tov. Giv­en Spielrein’s life sto­ry, it’s no won­der that piec­ing togeth­er its twists and turns has been such a daunt­ing task for her remark­ably sen­si­tive biog­ra­ph­er, Dr. John Launer. His back­ground in psy­cho­log­i­cal train­ing enables him to make the com­plex­i­ties of Freudi­an, Jun­gian, Piaget­ian, and Spielreini­an think­ing more acces­si­ble to the lay read­er. As a male researcher, Launer can detail the abuse and neglect Spiel­rein suf­fered sim­ply for being an inde­pen­dent woman who dared to bring her own expe­ri­ences and per­spec­tives to the table, with­out sound­ing like he is beat­ing the drum for anyone’s cause. By the end of Launer’s account, there’s no mis­tak­ing what the found­ing fathers of analy­sis did to this par­tic­u­lar found­ing moth­er — and prob­a­bly to many oth­er women. At least this biog­ra­phy offers Spiel­rein some ret­ro­spec­tive jus­tice. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, fam­i­ly tree, index, notes, plates.

Relat­ed content:

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions