Photo of Sabina Nikolayevna Spielrein

Sabina Nikolayevna Spielrein





Training Location(s):

MD, University of Zurich (1911)

Primary Affiliation(s):

Rousseau Institute (1920-1923)

First Moscow University and Moscow Psychoanalytic Institute (1923-1942)

Career Focus:

Psychoanalysis; developmental psychology; educational psychology; psycholinguistics; pedology.


Sabina Spielrein made important, though regularly overlooked, contributions to the field of psychoanalysis. In popular culture, she is largely remembered for her relationships with Jung and Freud, as well as her supposed romantic affair with Jung; the focus on these elements of her past has overshadowed her worthwhile contributions to psychoanalysis. These contributions shaped the fledgling field.

Spielrein was one of five children from a turbulent home and abusive parents. She showed an early interest in science and academics, though suffered a severe breakdown that turned into what was termed ‘psychotic hysteria’ in 1904-5 when her only sister died from typhoid fever. It was then that she was sent to the Burghölzli mental hospital near Zurich run by Eugen Bleuler, and received psychoanalytic treatment from Carl Jung for a period of ten months. Jung uncovered that she had been badly beaten by her father as a child, and that she was troubled by masochistic fantasies regarding these episodes. Jung and Bleuler forbade her father and brothers from having any contact with her while she was a resident at the treatment facility, allowing her to achieve a full recovery. Following the termination of her therapy, she stayed on at the hospital helping Jung with word associations in his lab; it was during this time period that many believe the two fell in love.

After her time at Burghölzli, she went to medical school in Zurich. Bleuler and Jung supervised her dissertation on the language of a schizophrenic patient. Her doctoral work is important to the field of psychology in three important ways: hers was the first dissertation ever to appear in a psychoanalytic journal, it was one of the first case studies on schizophrenia, and it was the first psychoanalytically-oriented dissertation penned by a woman.

In her final year of medical school, she became increasingly intimate with Jung. In Spielrein’s private diaries and correspondence from this period, she often wrote of their relationship, describing the “poetry” they had. Current scholarship has cast doubts over the nature of their association, questioning whether it was actually romantic and/or sexual; in fact, Spielrein’s later letters with Freud lead one to believe that it perhaps was not. Regardless, their relationship was seen as inappropriate, and Jung’s wife wrote of it to Spielrein’s mother. Freud even later admitted that he had frowned upon Jung’s behaviour toward Spielrein, claiming that it was part of the reason for their eventual schism. Indeed, the relationship also led Freud to change his mind about the nature of the therapeutic relationship between analyst and patient. While he had previously believed that the analyst could numb him/herself from emotion, he later came to see that transference and countertransference were possible. Spielrein is also credited with assisting Jung shape his concept of the animaas a result of their time together.

After graduation, Spielrein moved to Munich to study art history, then moved to Vienna shortly thereafter where she was elected a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. It was at a conference there in 1911 that she delivered her most famous work, “Die Destruktionals Ursache des Werdens” (“Destruction as a Cause of Coming into Being”) published the next year in the Jarhbuch. This paper demonstrated some of Spielrein’s most creative and innovative thinking; it also revealed a complex interplay of intellectual ideas, some closely attached to Jung, and some to Freud. In her paper, she argued that the urge to reproduce contains within it two competing forces – one toward life, and one toward destruction. Joy is mixed with anxiety over the new role of motherhood, which includes the realization that the manner of living that one had prior to childbirth cannot be maintained as a parent. Freud has acknowledged that this paper helped to shape his concept of the death drive, and allowed him to later conceptualize his theory about Thanatos. In the wake of the dissolution of the intimacy she shared with Jung, Spielrein became closer with Freud, and the two shared correspondence until 1923 on ideas and other matters of psychoanalysis. In fact, she even attempted to reunite Freud and Jung after they parted ways.

In 1912, she married the Russian-Jewish physician Pavel Nahumovitch Sheftel and the two had a daughter. Spielrein moved to Berlin and published nine papers on children and women’s issues as they pertained to psychoanalysis, as her interests were beginning to chiefly turn toward children, development and pedology. When WWI erupted, her husband rejoined his regiment, and the two remained separated for almost ten years. In 1920, she accepted a staff position at the Rousseau Institute in Geneva, collaborating with many great thinkers of the time, including Jean Piaget, who was also on staff. This was a scholastically fruitful time for her, and she published twenty papers from 1920-1923.

In 1923, she moved to Moscow with Freud’s support in an attempt to spread psychoanalysis. She left her diaries and papers in the basement of the Rousseau Institute when she moved, where they remained for sixty years. While in Moscow, she was the most experienced psychoanalyst and was appointed to a chair in child psychology at First Moscow University.

In 1924 or 1925, she left Moscow for Rostov-on-Don, where she was reunited with her husband. In the time that they had been apart, he had fathered a child with an Ukrainian woman. Pavel returned to Sabina, and the two had a second daughter together shortly thereafter.

Spielrein’s days darkened in the time leading up to the outbreak of WWII, beginning with her husband’s death in 1936, the same year that psychoanalysis was banned by Stalin in Russia, forcing her out of her job. In 1937, her three brothers were arrested, and later executed in 1938 during the Great Purge. The Germans reoccupied Rostov-on-Don, and in July 1942, Spielrein and her two daughters (aged 29 and 16) were shot dead by an SS death squad during the Holocaust, along with over 25, 000 other mostly Jewish victims.

Spielrein seems to have been more or less forgotten in Western Europe until her diaries and correspondence were unearthed at the Rousseau Institute in 1974. In the wake of their publication, she was reduced to a mere love interest, a muse, and source of tension for Freud and Jung. Today, the followers of feminist psychoanalysis are beginning to embrace her for her important contributions, and the Memorial Museum of Sabina Shpilereyn was opened in November 2015 in her former house in Rostov.

By Alexis Fabricius (2016)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works

By Sabina Spielrein

Spielrein, S. (1912). "Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens". Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen (in German). IV: 465–503.

Spielrein, S. (April 1994).Destruction as the cause of coming into being". Journal of Analytical Psychology. 39 (2), 155–186.

Spielrein, S. (1995). Destruction as cause of becoming. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought. 18, 85–118.

Spielrein, S. (2008). Sämtliche Schriften. Giessen: Psychosozial-Verlag, 2008. (All of Spielrein's writings. In German. No English language edition.)

About Sabina Spielrein

Carotenuto, A. (1982) A secret symmetry: Sabina Spielrein between Jung and Freud. New York: Pantheon.

Cooper-White, P. (2015). “The power that beautifies and destroys”: Sabina Spielrein and “Destruction as a cause of coming into being”. Pastoral Psychology, 64(2), 259-278.

Covington, C. and Wharton, B. (eds.) (2003). Sabina Spielrein. Forgotten pioneer of psychoanalysis. Brunner-Routledge, Hove and New York, 227-249.

Kerr, J. (1993). A most dangerous method: The story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Launer, J. (2014). Sex versus survival: The life and ideas of Sabina Spielrein. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Marchese. F. J. (2015). Coming into being: Sabrina Spielrien, Jung, Freud, and psychoanalysis. Toronto, ON: Author.