Psychoanalysts and the Inappropriate relationships between Doctors and Patients: Sex, spanking and the bitter feud that Jung and Freud took to the grave, according to controversial new film
23rd September 2011
On a wooded hillside in a suburb of Zurich, Switzerland, a carriage drew up outside the imposing grey stone building that housed the Burgholzli psychiatric hospital.
Inside the carriage was an 18-year-old Russian girl named Sabina Spielrein, accompanied by her uncle and a police officer. She had been referred by another psychiatric hospital unable to cope with her behaviour.
When she entered Burgholzli it was not hard to see why.
Her admission notes, dated August 17, 1904, described how the patient ‘laughs and cries in a strangely mixed, compulsive manner. Masses of tics, rotating head, sticks out her tongue, legs twitching’.
The young psychiatrist who took the notes was Carl Gustav Jung. He would, in time, be recognised as one of the founding fathers of psycho-analysis, alongside his friend and mentor, Sigmund Freud.
For six years the two men corresponded and collaborated, before their friendship faltered and then turned to hostility as Jung became disillusioned with Freud’s theory that sex — and sexual repression — lay at the heart of all hysteria and neuroses.
But, in 1977, a box was discovered in a basement in Geneva that revealed another possible cause for the rupture between the two psychiatrists.
It contained a diary written by Spielrein, as well as letters from Freud and Jung and drafts of letters she had sent both men.
The papers appeared to confirm what some had long suspected: that Jung had had an illicit relationship with Spielrein.
Their affair played a part in the breakdown of Freud and Jung’s friendship, as Spielrein became caught between the two men.
The fascinating relationship between Freud, Jung and Spielrein is the subject of a new film, A Dangerous Method, based on a book of the same title, by clinical psychologist John Kerr.
Keira Knightley’s performance as the troubled Sabina has been tipped for an Oscar.
But is the film’s portrayal of a violent sexual affair, with scenes of Knightley being spanked by Michael Fassbender, who plays Jung, really an accurate depiction of their relationship?
Could Jung, the pioneer of psycho-analysis, have abused the patient-doctor relationship so flagrantly that he indulged in sado-masochistic sex with his vulnerable young patient?
What is indisputable is that Jung and Spielrein quickly moved from the doctor-patient relationship to one of some intimacy.
Jung diagnosed Spielrein as having psychotic hysteria and noted that her condition was so bad that she ‘did nothing else than alternate between deep depressions and fits of laughing, crying and screaming. She could no longer look anyone in the face, kept her head bowed’.
He described her as looking ‘oriental and voluptuous’, with a ‘sensuous, dreamy expression’, although she was convinced that she was ugly. She sat on a chair, he sat behind her and they talked.
At the root of her problems was her relationship with her parents. Although Jung could find no evidence of a sexual assault that might explain her condition, it was clear she was fixated by her father and in particular her memory of him spanking her naked buttocks.
A depressive, highly manipulative man, he delighted in inflicting punishment on his daughter, both physical and mental.
As late as the age of 11, he would take her into a separate room to beat her — possibly to relieve his frustration at being cuckolded by his wife. If Sabina failed to show him the affection he required, he would threaten suicide.
Sabina’s mother was equally manipulative, keeping her daughter in ignorance about sex, beating and humiliating her. Little wonder that Sabina felt confused and consumed by guilt, self-loathing and repressed sexual feelings, constantly fantasising about transgression and punishment.
Every other day she would sit with Jung for an hour or even two, pouring out her feelings. As she was able to confess her long repressed feelings, she no longer needed to give vent to them through her ‘devilish’ behaviour, and began to act more calmly.
It was clear to Jung that his patient was beginning to fixate on him, transferring to him the unhealthy, painful love she felt for her father.
When Jung was absent from the hospital for a day, Spielrein became unsettled.
The next day she told him that she fantasised about him hurting her and begged him: ‘I want this pain, I want you to do something really bad to me, to force me to do something that I am opposed to with all my being.’
In the film, Jung obliges by spanking her, just as her father had done. It seems incredible that he would have done such a thing in reality, but what is clear is that patient and doctor were becoming extremely close.
At times, Jung clearly tried to push her away, at others, he seemed to encourage her. She began to assist Jung in the psychological laboratory. Spielrein was extremely intelligent and educated to a much higher level than most Swiss girls were, including Jung’s wife, Emma.
Spielrein recalled how Jung confided that his wife did not understand him: ‘I was an exception, but his wife was an ordinary woman.’
Within a year, Spielrein’s condition was so improved that she left the hospital and enrolled in medical school, hoping to become a psychoanalyst.
The success of her treatment appeared to confirm the efficacy of ‘talking therapy’ – psychoanalysis – as pioneered by Sigmund Freud.
Jung wrote excitedly to Freud, citing Spielrein’s case. He did not, at this stage, mention anything untoward in the doctor-patient relationship, referring to Spielrein only as a ‘Russian girl’.
The correspondence developed: Freud appreciating Jung’s backing for his theories, Jung basking in the older man’s approval, until their relationship became not just mentor and protégé but almost father and son. When they finally met in 1907 the two talked for 13 hours straight.
Spielrein was by now in her third year of medical school but she continued seeing Jung regularly — so she would not relapse, as he put it. The letters between them from this period are highly compromising.
He calls her ‘My Dear’, refers to her ‘saucy letters’, and fixes a time for them to meet alone in her apartment.
Jung had become obsessed with Spielrein as she was with him. When Spielrein went to Russia on holiday and did not immediately contact Jung on her return, he became ‘somewhat hysterical’, he confessed.
She was no longer the girl he had first met, when she wore peasant dresses and plaits in her hair: now she dressed elegantly: the troubled young girl had become a woman.
He feared he was losing her and wrote plaintively: ‘Return to me in this moment of my need, some of the love and guilt and altruism which I was able to give you at the time of your illness. Now it is I who am ill.’
But whispers of the affair were beginning to be heard around Zurich. Spielrein’s mother received an anonymous letter — possibly from Jung’s long-suffering wife Emma — warning her to save her daughter.
In response, Frau Spielrein wrote to Jung that ‘having saved her daughter once, he should not ruin her now’.
'I want you to do something bad to me'
Paranoid and aware that the affair could spell the ruin of his career, just when he was beginning to be acclaimed, Jung wrote a letter that seems both candid and extra-ordinarily callous, threatening to charge her for the times he saw her daughter after she had left the hospital.
‘I did not feel professionally obligated, for I never charged a fee... you do understand of course that a man and a girl cannot possibly continue indefinitely to have friendly dealings with one another without the likelihood that something more may enter the relationship….’
He then announced: ‘My fee is 10 francs per consultation,’ before announcing that he would never see Sabina again.
In a second letter, he claimed: ‘During the treatment, the patient had the misfortune to fall in love with me… I have always told your daughter that a sexual relationship was out of the question.’
Hurt and confused by Jung’s apparent desertion, Sabina wrote in desperation to Freud, hoping perhaps that he might intervene on her behalf.
‘Four and a half years ago, Dr Jung was my doctor, then he became my friend and finally my “poet” ie my beloved… He preached polygamy; his wife was supposed to have no objection.’
Jung, in a panic, wrote to Freud pre-emptively that ‘a woman patient’ had been ‘systematically planning my seduction’.
He must have been highly relieved when Freud ignored Sabina’s letter.
But months after the affair was over, Jung reignited it again when he agreed to meet Sabina to look at her dissertation.
Jung lost his mentor and greatest love
Spielrein recorded in her diary that the secret meetings, ‘ecstatic kisses’ and ‘tenderest poetry’ quickly resumed, but fell apart again when Jung appeared to dismiss Spielrein’s thesis.
Angry and hurt, Spielrein left Zurich for Vienna, where she joined Freud’s circle of psychoanalysts. She was still deeply troubled by her affair with Jung, describing him as ‘the man who had smashed my whole life.’ Freud agreed to become her analyst.
It was around this time that Freud and Jung’s collaboration turned into conflict. Jung was developing his own theories about the libido, which he believed was an energy force that could be expressed in different ways, while Freud remained insistent on its sexual nature.
Freud grew resentful of this ‘betrayal’ by his disciple, while Jung chafed at his one-time mentor’s insistence that sex influenced everything.
In a letter to Jung in April 1912 Freud mentioned that ‘Spielrein had discussed certain intimate matters with me’. He implied that he would use her revelations to discredit Jung’s theories. Jung responded by making an oblique reference to Freud’s affair with his own sister-in-law.
Thus we have two of the great thinkers of the age, resorting to blackmail as a way of undermining each other’s career and using Spielrein as the pawn in their quarrel.
The irony was that, while Spielrein herself was now a talented psychoanalyst, neither of them gave her due credit for her own theories, which were both revolutionary and brilliant.
Instead, they stole these ideas, borrowing liberally from them in their own publications. In their different ways, both had used her.
Frustrated and hurt, Spielrein married a handsome Jewish physician named Paul Scheftel in the summer of 1912.
The girl was 'oriental and voluptuous'
Wherever she practised as a psychoanalyst she won acclaim for her methods and ideas. But she was unable to settle and in 1924 she moved back to Russia, where she was killed by the Nazis in 1942.
Jung and Freud’s relationship deteriorated still further. When they met in 1913 at a congress of psychoanalysts, they did not speak to each other.
The rupture was complete and for both it felt akin to bereavement. Jung came close to a breakdown. He had lost both his mentor and his greatest love.
In one of his last surviving letters to Spielrein, Jung tried to justify his behaviour to her.
Writing of himself in the third person he explained: that he had to break off their relationship ‘because otherwise it would have led… to delusion and madness… Occasionally, one must be unworthy, simply in order to be able to continue living’.
But he also credited their love with leading him to ‘things of the greatest importance.’
Despite this tribute, he never gave her public recognition: her contribution to psychoanalysis went unrecognised. He wanted Spielrein forgotten. Was this evidence of guilt over their affair?
Jung certainly had other, sexual, affairs, most famously with Toni Wolff, a beautiful, rich young girl whom he treated for depression and who later became his assistant and long-term mistress.
But he remained haunted by Spielrein, his great love and inspiration, whose tragic destiny was to be caught between two great egos.