A Misremembered Woman

Carl Jung, Sabrina Spielrein, and Sigmund Freud
c. 1909-1921

A Misremembered Woman 

I found a book to read for the flight from Philadelphia to Ontario, California, this past week. It was about a woman named Sabina Spielrein. I’d never heard of her, but she’s an important figure in the recent history of our culture — a woman whose significance, influence and voice have been stifled by her colleagues, her detractors and even by her defenders.

Her innovations were offered to the then-young field of psychoanalysis. To Freud, she contributed the concept of the death-instinct and to Jung the concept of “mythic motifs” in the human unconscious, particularly feminine ones. She also brought attention to female sexuality as a force in its own right, not to be defined by what it … uh … lacks (!) and to the psychological understanding of children. She was one of the first women to be admitted to Freud’s Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. She practiced psychoanalysis in Geneva, Switzerland, for almost ten years, before returning to Russia, the country of her birth, in the 1920’s. She became a leading figure in the Moscow Institute of Psychoanalysis till Soviet persecution caused its closure and the execution of most of the leadership. She continued to do the work to which she felt called, as long as she could, in conditions more and more hidden, less and less favorable. Then came the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Her husband, whom she had tenderly cared for in his last illness, had been fortunate enough to die of natural causes. Along with her two daughters, Sabina Spielrein perished in the Holocaust in 1942.

There is nothing in all this to be ashamed of and much to be admired. Why then is this pathbreaking and heroic woman misremembered?

As a girl of nineteen, she suffered some kind of a breakdown, which was labeled “schizophrenia.” In those days, a lot of disturbances got called “schizophrenia.” These horror-show categories were flung about with robust and boyish zest. In the Freud/Jung correspondence, as the two pioneers in the science of the soul began to quarrel, Freud diagnosed Jung as suffering from “paranoia” and Jung returned the serve, seeing his professional adversary as having succumbed to “dementia praecox.” Go to it, fellas!

Actually, whatever the proximate causes that led to her confinement in the Burgholzli Clinic in Zurich, Switzerland, I myself tend to see them as an occupational hazard of the times for women who had intellectual goals and aptitude. When I was a graduate student in philosophy at Penn State, some of my professors were creative thinkers – which was why I was there – but their views about women were identical to those Sabina was to meet in the first decades of the twentieth century in Vienna and Zurich.

In my graduate days, as in hers, the mind and the life of the mind were deemed male preserves. A woman who presumed to enter that stronghold would be told that she was man-like, hence unnatural. Of the women who were grad students with me at Penn State, one converted to Catholicism and (when last I saw her) was preparing to became a nun, another, who was Eastern Orthodox, entered a convent where they practiced flagellation (whipping, to purify the soul), another dropped out to marry an Ethiopian and move to that far country, and the last, who had the temerity to be a wife and mother, was forced out. What happened to me is the story told in Confessions of A Young Philosopher.

Anyway, back to Sabina. As a patient, she was placed under the care of the youthful Dr. Carl Jung. He abused the enormous power he had over this young woman by becoming her lover. I gather that this sort of perversion of influence was countenanced in some quarters as “The Love Cure”! Talk about brazen hypocrisy! It was neither love nor a cure, but she was intelligent and strong-minded enough to recover anyway. She went on to get her degrees and contribute to her profession in many ways, some of which I’ve described.

That is, she did so until her struggles to live and to work were cut short by the wave of demonic spite that is called Shoah. Holocaust. She and her daughters were taken to one of those fresh-dug trenches designed for the disposal of Jewish lives. They were stripped, gunned to death and the raw earth was shoveled over them.

This is the story of a quiet woman hero of our time. But here is how the psychoanalytic chroniclers have generally chosen to remember her: as a “schizophrenic”; as the designing “mistress” of the great Dr. Jung; as a person somehow compliant with her own murderers because of the theoretical work on the death instinct that she had done as a young woman, decades earlier!

The story of these mislabelings and of her reclassification by later feminists is the subject of Angela Sells’ book, Sabina Spielrein: The Woman and the Myth. That’s the book I was reading on the flight to California.

Good that the book was written. Good that feminists are at last trying to set the record straight. But I’m almost as distressed by the feminist rehabilitations as I am by the retrospective belittling she still gets from her psychoanalytic colleagues. The feminists quoted in the Sells book seem to argue that creative contributions should be viewed as neither male nor female, perhaps because — were they seen as female or as feminine — the boys-from-psychoanalysis could still stomp them into the dust. So the feminists appear to apologize for Sabina’s sometimes “straying” into the view that mythic feminine figures found in the human unconscious may have something in common with the way women are, actually, in real life. As if repeating a magic mantra that, said often enough, will deliver the liberation of women, they stress that gender is socially constructed. For these feminists, the presence of femininity is no more likely to take up residence in the soul of a woman than it is in the psyche of a man.

How did this happen to feminism? Writers like Simone de Beauvoir noticed that “femininity” had been stylized beyond its biological basis. There is nothing exceptional about this. All cultures stylize the biological facts so that they will conform to the culture’s aims and beliefs. A culture may even be defined as a stylization of desire. De Beauvoir further saw that some of these stylizations offered pretexts for male abuse of male power. The remedy she proposed was extreme, as initial remedies often are. It was to treat womanhood itself — not merely the abusive hyper-stylizations of it – as artificial and conventional.

Applied to Sabina Spielrein, the resulting portrait is still unfair. Her concepts had a feminine tenderness that is being missed by her defenders. Thus, her “death instinct” lacked the morbid features of Freud’s. Hers had to do with the death-and-resurrection that belong to erotic union, and to the process of shedding outworn concepts under the special summons of creativity. Her mythic motif was inspired by Goethe’s vision of The Mothers in his Faust.

These are recognizably feminine ideals, drawn from the romance of women’s lives.   Others may borrow them or use them with creative empathy, the way a woman novelist may persuasively portray a man, getting into his skin and his way of being.

But to most women I know, concepts like Sabina’s are not playthings or optional fancies.

They run deep.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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