Who Was Sabina Spielrein?: A Look at One of the World’s First Female Psychoanalysts

Though many have been introduced to Sabina Spielrein as a character played by Keira Knightley in the 2011 film A Dangerous Method, Spielrein was a leading figure during the beginning of psychological science and behaviour therapy. Ironically, before Sabina Spielrein became a doctor, she was a patient being treated in an institution for the mentally ill. It was under the guidance of the renowned Dr. Carl Jung that she was treated.

Sabina Spielrein, Used from Psychology Today

Sabina Spielrein was born into a Jewish family on 7 November 1885 in Russia. According to The Jewish Women’s Archive, Speilrein was raised in a strict household by a domineering father and a mother who used severe corporal punishment on her children. It is also stated by this publication that after becoming engaged to a man of Christian faith, her mother Eva was arranged to marry Speilrein’s Jewish father, Naphtul.

This was organized by Eva’s father as Naphtul’s faith was more in line with their family’s Judaism. As a result, the couple never fell in love and endured an unsatisfactory marriage over the years.

Institutionalization and Time Spent With Jung

Speilrein began to suffer from nervous symptoms and in 1904 at the age of 19, she was taken for treatment at an institution in Switzerland. Dr. Carl Jung, a founding father of early psychology, was working there and Spielrein was soon added to his roster as his first patient. Her treatment continued with outpatient visits to Jung after her discharge from the institution.

Like many women at the time struggling with mental distress or illness, Spielrein was diagnosed with hysteria. It has also been noted that many of her symptoms reported by Jung are recognized as responses to trauma from trauma specialists who have reviewed her case. One such trauma for Sabina was the death of her 6-year-old sister, Emilia from typhoid.

Sabina (left) with her mother and younger sister, Emilia. Photo used from jungfrauzeitung.

Not always historically accurate, the 2011 film about her relationship with Jung implies that this trauma stems from the corporal punishment she experienced at the hands of her father.

It has never been confirmed that a sexual relationship took place at any time with Jung, or at least, it hasn’t been said outrightly. The topic still remains a topic of disagreement among scholars and many are still studying the correspondence between Spielrein, Jung, and Sigmund Freud, a mutual friend at the time.

It has also been suspected that Spielrein was Jung’s “muse” for some of his most famous ideas. For instance, the anima theory where each man has a feminine side. The International Association for Spielrein Studies states that:

As Jung’s research assistant employed at the Burghölzli Psychiatric Clinic and his close friend, she decisively contributed to the formation of his basic concepts of anima, persona, individuation and shadow, and deepened his understanding of transference and countertransference, the nature of Eros and the unconscious, as well as mythology.”

Carl Jung, Photo Used from Vision.org

From Miss to Dr. Spielrein

It was after her discharge from the hospital that she began to attend medical school in Zurich, Switzerland with her dissertation specializing on schizophrenia. She later graduated, becoming a physician and one of the first women psychoanalysts. One of her most famous works is “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being” detailing the idea that “every act of creation implies a process of destruction. The instinct of self-reproduction contains two components: the life instinct and the death instinct”.

According to the International Association for Spielrein Studies, Spielrein “gave courses and lectures at European and Russian universities, worked as an analyst, a medical consultant, and joined the staff of the psychoanalytically oriented nursery founded by Vera Schmidt.”

In 1912, she married another Russian Jew named Pavel Sheftel and had two daughters with him, Renata and Eva. Where many women were expected to stay home after marriage, Spielrein continued to pursue her career and research after being married.

Nazi Occupation and Death

According to FeministVoices, Sabina’s life changed drastically in 1936 when her husband died and Stalin prohibited psychoanalysis leaving Spielrein unemployed.

Sabina Spielrein, Used from Famous Psychologists

Being Jewish in 1940s Europe, Spielrein was murdered with her two daughters, Renata and Eva by Nazi officers tragically in August 1942.

Influence on Modern Day Psychology

After her death, her work “fell into almost absolute oblivion for a period of over thirty-five years. She was not mentioned, or just briefly referred to, in the classic works on Freud or the history of psychoanalysis”.

She was “a pioneer active in the early stages of the development of the psychoanalytic movement, and has become a scholar of a worldwide repute with at least thirty publications in German, French and Russian”. Spielrein is a good example of many women intellectuals and revolutionaries that have been erased from history.

While Sabina Spielrein’s legacy had been erased for the better part of a century, she has risen from the ashes and continues to break barriers like she did when she was alive.

Freelance writer for hire. History, music & classic literature lover. To see more of my professional work, check out my website: https://bryabromfield.com/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store