A forgotten psychoanalyst’s fevered life.
Tavistock Clinic senior staff member Launer (co-editor: Clinical Uncertainty in Primary Care, 2014, etc.) asserts that Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942) deserves more attention for her groundbreaking work: the first study of the internal logic of schizophrenic speech, her insights into children’s imaginations, and her use of Darwinian theory in her hypothesis of “the inseparable connection between death and sex.” Although Launer refrains from using technical terms, nonspecialist readers may weary of the minute detail with which he renders Spielrein’s life, which featured a severe mental breakdown, incoherent ravings, obsession with her therapist, Carl Jung, and much neurotic behavior. Granted access to newly discovered diaries and letters, the author admits that most of her papers, controlled by her estate, are unavailable to researchers. Nevertheless, he manages to fill out some mysteries of her stressful youth: Her father was alternately depressed or enraged; her mother, erratic, hysterical and overly anxious; both parents pressured her to excel academically. When her father beat her, she became sexually aroused; when her younger sister died, she fell apart. Tics, grimaces, psychosomatic symptoms and violent mood swings worsened. At 18, she was hospitalized in a mental asylum and diagnosed with hysteria; Jung was the admitting physician. Although Launer does not have evidence for the quality of Jung’s treatment, the result of their meeting was her consuming adoration, which he encouraged. “Her love for him,” Launer writes, “replaced her far more troubling obsessions….Her erotic experiences with him may have been her first experience of tender physical contact.” Later, she broke off the affair but wanted to remain friends; he cruelly spurned her. Freud became involved as a confidant of each, dismissing Spielrein when he was still friends with Jung but eager to win her over once he ended that relationship.
Although Launer portrays an intelligent, intellectually creative woman, he fails to make a convincing case that her significance transcends her time.