A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein 
by John Kerr.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 608 pp., £25, February 1994, 1 85619 249 0
Show More
Show More

Psychoanalysis, says John Kerr, is ‘in a period of institutional decline’: ‘Candidacies are down, patients are harder to come by’ and other therapeutic disciplines are clamouring for attention. The seeds of this sorry situation were sown during the six-year partnership between Freud and Jung, when ‘historical accuracy first came to be less important than ideological correctness.’ (Later it is the termination of the partnership that is held responsible.) Kerr’s book is written ‘in the hope that it will significantly improve the prospects for psychoanalysis, now murkily hopeful at best’. A pious hope, but a misguided one. What chance does this archaic blend of science and art have at a time when anything goes, when every detail of sexual behaviour is laid bare? Psychoanalysis did a lot to make sex fashionable, turning Lawrence’s ‘dirty little secret’ into grand opera; and now sex is growing tedious. A strong dose, if not of repression then of reticence, seems to be in order.

The story Kerr is to unfold, we hear, is ‘not a nice one’, nor is it a love story. In a single phrase, he adds flesh-creepingly, he would describe it as ‘an unusually gruesome ghost story, where the ghost who finally devours all the people in the end is not a being but a theory’. The book has a cast of thousands: William James, Théodore Flournoy, Morton Prince (who failed to detect sexual wishes in his patients’ dreams and was given his marching orders), Eugen Bleuler, (Miss) Frank Miller (altruistically given to analysing her own poems), Otto Weininger (a suicide), Johann Jakob Honegger Jr (a suicide), Krafft-Ebing, Goethe, Nietzsche, Leopold Löwenfeld, Wilhelm Stekel, James Jackson Putnam, Karl Abraham, Otto Rank, Otto Gross (‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’), Wilfred Trotter (an English surgeon who comforted himself during the First International Congress for Psychoanalysis with the thought that he was the only person present who knew how to cut off a leg), the Rat Man, Dora, Little Hans, Leonardo, Oedipus ... Plus jealousies, quarrels and conspiracies, truisms, insights and ingenuities, sacred cows and unholy goats, world-shakers and fakers ... Also several pages on Freud’s alleged affair with his wife’s sister, Minna Bernays, a ‘great secret’ aired by Jung in his old age (Kerr grants there is no incontrovertible proof, but leaves us in little doubt as to his own view), and much discussion of dubiously related cases and matters: but what in this field, this universe, is unrelated?

However, we do slowly creep up on the new element, the tertium quid: Sabina Spielrein (the name, Kerr points out, means ‘play-pure’, and ‘easily takes on sexual connotations’, of course), ‘caches’ of whose personal papers were discovered in Geneva in 1977 and 1982. Jung first mentioned her to Freud in a letter of October 1906, as a hysterical 20-year-old Russian Jewish student, relating how between the ages of three and four she had seen her father spanking her older brother on the bare bottom, and how later, by pressing her heel against her anus, she would try to defecate and at the same time prevent defecation, an activity which ‘was superseded by vigorous masturbation’. It was well known, Kerr remarks, that hysteria could take ‘rather uncivilised forms’ in Russia. Spielrein ‘likely did not grasp the nerve she had hit’: in childhood Jung had day-dreamt blissfully of God dropping an enormous turd on Basel Cathedral and smashing it. It was not the only nerve she would hit.

In January 1907, in the course of a word association test carried out by Ludwig Binswanger in Zurich, one of Jung’s responses was ‘ruefulness-faithfulness’, which Kerr rather boldly claims has a ‘self-evident’ meaning: vis-à-vis Spielrein, Jung was regretting his fidelity to his wife. When Jung and Freud first met, on 3 March 1907, there appears to have been no mention of the Russian girl. Each was impressed by the other, with minor reservations. On the following day they exchanged their dreams of the previous night; and Freud told Jung that the latter’s dream involved a wish to dethrone him and take his place; not that Freud resented this, since he saw in the younger man his son and heir. Writing to Freud in July of that year, Jung reported that the greatest wish of a hysterical patient of his, presumably Spielrein, was to have a child by him. (This was accompanied by what the layman might perceive as a mildly smutty joke about ‘letting the bird out’.) Freud seems to have decided that Jung had become overexcited and needed a period of rest. But the papers discovered in 1982 contain a journal or possibly a letter sent to (and returned by) Jung in which Spielrein declares that her conscious desires for him are ‘much too compelling and demand fulfilment’.

Jung having become her hero and model, Spielrein envisaged a career for herself in psychiatry – in fact, she would be the second woman member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society – and, now 21, began to dream about Siegfried, the love-child. ‘Wagner’s is a rich, psychologically complex tapestry,’ Kerr explains, ‘with the themes of incest and betrayal made palatable by their juxtaposition with innocence and the heroic. Throughout the opera the antinomies of duty versus true passion and of love versus power are invoked in ever more complex embodiments.’ Quoting the saying that great psychotherapists require great patients, he notes that in her way Spielrein was such a patient. (A little too great for comfort, one might reckon.) Apropos of some letters written by Jung to Spielrein in mid-1908, ‘terribly important for capturing the flavour of their liaison’, he observes that ‘there are certain things, of course, that no sensible, even minimally discreet person dares to put in a letter’ – which is undeniably true – but he adds that, despite manifest attempts at discretion, Jung’s letters are ‘plainly compromising’. I am aware that once one starts to have doubts about the conduct of an argument, further doubts can proliferate unfairly; but I still think that ‘plainly’ is going it a bit. Jung’s letters suggest that he is pressed for time, and the reasoning continues thus: ‘A man having an affair is always busy. He can’t be reached, he doesn’t return calls, he falls behind in correspondence, and there is always someplace else he has to be.’ For one thing about busyness is that it is useful ‘in keeping the demands of the lover at bay’. Even so, one might suppose that a man having an affair would not be (or represent himself as being) too busy to have an affair.

One avatar of ‘Siegfried’ was born in November 1908, as Jung’s first and eagerly desired son by his wife, Emma. Kerr surmises that Jung and Spielrein met two days after the child’s birth and had ‘a dramatic confrontation’: while we cannot be sure what happened, the ‘most likely scenario’ is that Jung tried, unsuccessfully, to get rid of her. He could not afford a public scandal. In the following January, Spielrein’s mother received an anonymous letter advising her to look to her daughter. She wrote to Jung, whose answer implied – plainly, whether truthfully or otherwise – that he had not had sexual relations with Sabina. He concluded on a professional note: his normal fee was ten francs per consultation. A little later, so the young woman recorded, he gave her ‘a long sermon’ about how good he had been to her and assuring her that he was ‘just my doctor again’. In response, Kerr says, she ‘did what any sane person might do under similar circumstances. She attacked him, drew blood, then ran out,’ leaving him ‘petrified with fear of what would happen next’.

Jung wrote to Freud about a woman patient kicking up a vile scandal because he denied himself the pleasure of giving her a child; his intentions had always been honourable. ‘But you know how it is – the devil can use even the best of things for the fabrication of filth.’ Still, one useful thing had come of it, since hitherto ‘I had a totally inadequate idea of my polygamous components despite all self-analysis. Now I know where and how the devil can be laid by the heels.’ Kerr’s gloss is: ‘He was still too scared to tell the truth.’ Freud may have felt disquieted by this talk of ‘filth’ and ‘the devil’, and the lapse it might intimate into (Kerr’s expression) ‘the old religion bug’, but replied promptly with the bland generalisation that ‘to be slandered and scorched by the love with which we operate – such are the perils of our trade.’ As for ‘Siegfried’, for Spielrein he would be her paper of 1911, ‘Destruction as a Cause of Coming into Being’, printed in Jung’s Jahrbuch, and sent to him as ‘the product of our love, the project which is your little son Siegfried’. And in December 1913 Jung dreamt that he killed the Wagnerian hero, heralded by the sound of a horn and arriving in a chariot made of the bones of the dead, and was then filled with disgust and remorse ‘for having destroyed something so great and beautiful’, even though he knew that the rainstorm which followed would wipe out all traces of the deed and ‘life would go on’.

Some months after the bloody encounter with her doctor, Spielrein appealed to someone she didn’t know, Professor Freud, on the subject of Jung, in language none too specific (‘I rather gather that you used to be close friends,’ he wrote back to her). Freud reported to Jung, psychiatrist to psychiatrist, man to man, and Jung eventually made ‘a guilty admission of everything except intercourse’ (Kerr). Thanks to Spielrein’s incoherence (or maidenly modesty) and Freud’s ‘very civilised sexual morality’, the storm blew over. Kerr’s summing-up has it that since we lack an ‘unambiguous statement’ of what occurred between Jung and Spielrein, it is ‘at least plausible’ that the two never slept together; however, as an indication to the contrary, he is obliged ‘to note the reaction of the two when they were caught out’ (caught out in what?). ‘Clearly, in their own minds, they had sinned.’ The tragedy for psychoanalysis, as Kerr puts it, is that two geniuses together, each needing the other, might have served to keep it in good health, but one of them, the requisite genius of the second generation, departed the scene. Kerr maintains that Spielrein ‘brought the house down’, though quite how she made mischief between the two men, or damaged their relationship in any significant degree, remains (to my mind) unclear. They were bound to part company. When Freud proposed that he and Jung should discontinue their personal relations, Jung assented: ‘The rest is silence.’ But of course it hasn’t been.

In her diary (19 October 1910) Sabina Spielrein had mentioned her belief that ‘a great destiny’ awaited her. She was an intelligent and determined woman, and Kerr remarks that one would like to report that she found happiness (she married a Jewish physician in 1912) and went on to have a long and distinguished career as a psychoanalyst. But that was not to be. She had returned to her native Rostovon-Don – thus helping to ‘jump-start Russian psychology into the 20th century’ – and in 1941 she and her two daughters were taken into a synagogue and shot by the Nazis. This little item of information makes the rest of the book look rather worse than shabby. Kerr is not deterred from reminding us, some thirty pages later, that the therapy Spielrein received as a patient ‘almost certainly’ saved her ‘from a lifetime of invalidism or worse’. Perhaps invalidism, keeping her in Geneva, would have saved her from the Nazis. As it was, the poor woman appears to have survived chiefly as Jung’s ‘anima’.

Definitely not a nice story, even though there are a few good, indeed uplifting, anecdotes in evidence. Freud was once consulted by a young poet, Bruno Goetz, who suffered from persistent headaches. After an hour’s discussion, in which it emerged that Goetz spent what money he had on books, Freud gave him a sealed envelope containing a prescription, with the warning that psychoanalysis might not be good for poetry. On opening the envelope, Goetz found both diagnosis and cure: the headaches were caused by hunger, and money was enclosed to spend on food. The American physician Weir Mitchell was in the habit of ordering his patients to spend exactly two weeks resting in bed. When one patient declined to get up at the hour appointed, Mitchell announced that in that case he would join her and proceeded to undress: it did the trick. At a party Jung suggested to a German-American lady that her dislike of black coffee was linked to a desire to get pregnant; this offence against social manners distressed Mrs Jung, who later declared: ‘I am going to write a psychotherapeutic handbook for gentlemen.’ And speaking of the coincidence early in the century of economic prosperity and nervous disorders, Kerr observes aptly that ‘when people have money to spend, one of the things they spend it on is themselves.’ They might treat themselves to analysis and the opportunity it gave them to impress with ‘their grandeur or their guilt’ (Pierre Janet’s words).

Because of its congestedness it may be difficult to do A Most Dangerous Method justice; it may also be hard to do it an injustice. Freud and Jung were very remarkable men, visionary and systematic, the one more of a scientist, the other more of a metaphysician, alike in being masters of myth and makers of myths, and in having outstanding literary gifts. Fair justice is done to both of them here. But if Kerr thinks he has given psychoanalysis a shot in the arm, he is mistaken. He has shot it in the foot.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences