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John Launer

Nov 11, 2019

Sex Versus Survival

The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein

Henry N. Abrams 2014

purchase at John Launer's Sex Versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein (Overlook Duckworth Press, 2014) manages to supplant (and given the power of the visual image, this is no mean feat) the picture you may have in your mind of Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in flagrante delicto. If this reference does not ring a bell, perhaps you can just consider yourself lucky. What follows are some head spinning facts: Sabina Spielrein was the first female member of Freudʼs inner circle. As a young Russian woman from a prominent, educated and chaotic Jewish family, she fell ill and was treated at the Burghozli Hospital for psychiatric illnesses in Zurich. There she began to recover and to do research into the psyche. On regaining her emotional balance, she attended medical school. She wrote a paper that argued for the existence of a death instinct in 1912, pre-empting Freudʼs work in that area by 8 years. She developed ways of working with children that also preceded the thinking of Anna Freud or Melanie Klein. Her dissertation was on the language of schizophrenia. She comingled evolutionary ideas with psychoanalytic ideas. She was interested in sex and sexuality. She treated Jean Piaget. She worked with Vygotsky. She was involved with the project under Trotsky to link communism with psychoanalysis. She endeavored to mend the rift between Freud and Jung. She was killed by the Nazi regime. Her life resembles a nodal point; she stood at the crossroads of extraordinary changes in world politics and psychoanalysis. She was not necessarily happy. She wrote in ways that could hide her strong points of view. She was on the scene yet left almost no footprint. She was a person with breakdown knowledge who became an analyst. She was with people, working, and yet she comes off as solitary. I have written all of this and not mentioned she had a youthful affair and fascination with Carl Jung. Why do I not lead with this story you may ask? After all that is the story we all know if we know anything about her. But given what has been detailed above, a life with many contours, doesnʼt the young adult dalliance with Jung seem more or less a footnote? Launerʼs book definitively shifts the sequestration of Spielrein as the lover of Carl Jung. Her infatuation with Jung (it was of such short duration, and yes it involved a boundary violation--she was his student at university and his research assistant) became so important to some within psychoanalysis and the culture that it seemed to function symptomatically. Articles have been written wondering if they did or did not have sex (by which is meant penetration), was she his patient, was this a boundary violation, and so forth. Launer himself admits he considered her to be a kind of relic, bearing a significant name that had been emptied of significance. His research reveals the complex and exciting truth about a person who had become the psychoanalytic equivalent of an urban myth. She was hiding in plain sight. Of greatest interest to me is to wonder what unconscious fantasies were served by the fixation upon her as an object of exchange between Freud and Jung, and as an analysand (she was not actually analysed by Jung except in informal conversations which she protested about) whose analysis was undone by her sexual desire for her analyst? Given how much had to be overlooked about her actual life to support this limited tale, maybe she had to function as a kind of dream come true. Watch out for what you wish for.
Tracy D. Morgan is the founding editor and first host of NBIP. A psychoanalyst, practicing in NYC and Rome, she serves on the faculty at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies. Trained also as a historian, she writes about many things. Write to her at

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Tracy Morgan

Tracy D. Morgan: Psychoanalyst, LCSW-R, M.Phil., Editor, New Books in Psychoanalysis.

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