Carl Jung’s Starlet

Carl Jung’s Starlet

April 2023

Sabina Spielrein might be considered the patient zero of psychoanalysis. She was predated by several of Freud’s most famous subjects, including Dora, but Sabina’s story of saving and survival is complicated by her relationship with Carl Jung, who, as her doctor, treated her according to Freud’s methods and inspired her to become one of the first female psychoanalysts. She is also representative of a time when treatment for debilitating symptoms of mental illness was measured in months rather than years, although in a more general sense, recovery never truly ends.

Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Rostov-on-Don, a Russian port city near the Sea of Azov, Sabina was raised speaking Russian, German, French, and English. As a child Sabina granted herself a magical power she called partunskraft, which allowed her to know and obtain everything if only she desired it, but it would be a long time before she knew herself.

After several breakdowns, she was hospitalized in the progressive Burghölzli hospital in Zurich, Switzerland. There she was treated for hysteria by director Eugen Bleuler and Jung. (Bleuler is a wash—on the one hand, he coined the term schizophrenia and believed in livable conditions for mental patients; on the other, he advocated their sterilization based on eugenics.) In that it often affected materially privileged Caucasian women, hysteria was the anorexia of its day. Hysteria was not a new concept, but it was the height of fashion when Sabina was diagnosed with it. Its patients made distress visible through gestures, postures, and embodiment, like the silent screen actresses of their time. They were stars of somatization.

Aside from the medical culture, the gender expectations of her time were also radically different from those today. Back then, opportunities for women were so limited that “hysteric” might have seemed a role preferable to “daughter” or “wife.” Sabina may have taken this one on unconsciously, but she performed it to perfection.

Roles, performances—the first decade of the last century made pulses race because of the advent of psychoanalysis and film alike. And Sabina was a true scene-stealer.


Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock

Tagline: She knows how to make an entrance, but what’s her exit plan?

Jung never forgot his first glimpse of her, a heap of chic rags on the floor, undulating like a starfish. But usually when he thought of this moment, he superimposed over this image his preferred pose: Sabina draped across a sofa like an odalisque, oriental and voluptuous.

“Mental patient” was one of her earliest but hardly her only leading role. She went on to become a doctor in her own right, a wife, a mother, an author of psychoanalytic concepts elegant as mathematical theorems, the friend of her husband’s lover, a Holocaust victim. But once a mental patient, always a mental patient, to some degree. At any moment your past as a neurotic can reclaim you. Just like Grace Kelly could never really relax as a princess, because forever on celluloid and in the hearts of millions lived the image of her entering Jimmy Stewart’s tenement in a cloud of couture foam, as if the numinous shopped at Dior.

Bad analogy, of course. Far better to be a screen siren than a loony. Still, the point is that the phrase, “a woman with a past,” is redundant, because every woman in the world is at every moment threatened with hers.

Sabina’s stay at the Burghölzli was like a high-pressure screen test, under the watchful eye of Jung. When it came to voyeurism, the stars of Rear Window had nothing on him. The doctor and his staff clocked her every tantrum, bath, nap, and meal. They had to know—could she step out of this one role, or had she internalized it to the point of no return? At this stage, no one guessed her versatility.


Spellbound by Alfred Hitchcock

Tagline: At one point, these mysteries seemed new.

Within the film of Spellbound, there is a dream, brought to life by Salvador Dalí and full of bulging eyes, faceless men, and playing cards. Maybe back then the imagery seemed fresh, but now, after decades of dorm-room copies of paintings by Dalí, it all feels a little tired.

That’s the problem. It’s hard to imagine how any cultural phenomenon appeared in its early days, how it was received way back when. By the end of the twentieth century, Dalí is a byword for the surreal, known for painting the caverns of our dreams. In his work, he elucidated what we can’t remember upon waking but instantly recognize as true. But because he did it so well, his imagery now feels, sad to say, clichéd.

So too Freud’s sexualization of childhood and infancy. By now, you can’t mention your mother’s beauty without thinking of the Oedipus complex. Children’s fantasies are drained through a mesh of Viennese theories, yielding the pulpy dark dregs of desire.

But try going back a hundred years. How new, how recently birthed upon the world, might Sabina’s neuroses have appeared to Jung. To us, anal fixations are old hat, almost too textbook to be believed, and a little silly besides. But to an eager Jung, just embarking on his career a century ago, hearing about a girl obsessed with beatings and defecation might have been so revelatory it broke through the dream-within-a-dream of analysis.

Exercise: Picture a house without a roof. You are looking at it from above, a split-open Richard Scarry construction with older fixtures—a wooden building, a sanatorium circa 1905. In that room are a chair and a girl not yet twenty, barefoot and drowned in a too-big shift. She prances around the chair, and across from her sits a handsome, bespectacled doctor about thirty years old, savaging a notepad and nodding regularly, as if to music you cannot hear.

We cannot break in on their reverie. Even Dalí’s elephants could not storm it with their distended legs. One hundred years later, it is inviolable, it is personal, it is a conversation between a young man and a woman on the verge. She tells him something only he is meant to know, and he cherishes it like a man sighting the first nursing of his firstborn.

And then he tells it to someone else.


Jung took Sabina’s heart, if not her virginity, but certain scholars and David Cronenberg’s film, A Dangerous Method, argue for that exchange as well, although they speculate it happened after she was discharged from the hospital.


The Blue Angel by Josef von Sternberg

Tagline: The analysis is a duel seduction.

            If Carl Jung had a theme song, it must have been “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)”. Though a brilliant man, he was as blind as the rest of us to his own banalities, which tripped him up with the exact same steps again and again, like a ballerina stumbling on the same patch of Act II choreography every night. Picking up adoring, whip-smart young lovelies was his tricky pirouette sequence. As Jung’s wife Emma observed, “Of course all the women around him are in love with him.” He knew and accepted the tributes yet pretended not to notice them—he was too busy with affairs of the mind etc.—but Sabina was neither the first nor the last.

And in this case, who could blame him? Sabina was acutely intelligent, and she was Jewish (Jung’s favorite). She guarded the entrance to the cave of dark fantasies like a seven-foot giant at a seraglio’s gate. She was inimitable: raised in wealth and privilege, yet wild in her violent fits and thin dresses.

When he was away from the hospital for his obligatory two weeks of military service, she flew into a rage, terrorizing her minder. Yet she enjoyed periods of calm as well, during which she tapped into her sibylline powers. Soon she was sharing with Jung her prophetic dreams, and when he expressed skepticism about their authenticity, having been burned once before by a devious female cousin and would-be medium, Sabina stunned him by summarizing what he had written the day before in his diary, which she could not possibly have read.

Behind the closed door of the consultation room, he tried out the talking cure on her. She would be his first in that, at least. Straddling her chair, she stared him down. Do your worst.

When she realized what he wanted her to talk about in their sessions, wondrous: They were all the things she wanted to talk about too. How she couldn’t wait to masturbate after her father beat her. How watching him hit her brothers excited her. How she fantasized over and over again that she had shit on her daddy’s hand.

Herr Professor, fall in love.


Mulholland Drive by David Lynch

Tagline: It is a love story in the city of dreams.

Mulholland Drive is the tale of a lost and perfect love, set amidst the Hollywood dream factory. In the film, the immediacy of desire overwhelms like a celluloid fantasy. At night the ingénue mates with the femme fatale, a stranger who seems so familiar the kinship can’t be denied. In love, as in dreams, everyone is familiar to us somehow.

In the love story that is psychoanalysis, dreams are resplendent blueprints. They chart the city from which we never escape, landscaped with hanging gardens and too-hot springs. Our bodies are exiled from this troubled paradise as early childhood dissolves like a screen fade-out. But our minds still wander its paths at night, deep beneath the knowing.

Each morning, Sabina recounts her dreams to Jung, screening them before him. She is still struggling to break free of destructive patterns. In his notes about her case, Jung writes, “She has great insight into her condition but not the slightest inclination to improve it.” But dreams betray our longing to heal. We are auteurs of our own recovery, and in spite of ourselves.

As she unlocks the inscrutable clues one dream at a time, she locates a desire that is deeper than love or death—the desire to view the next frame. Slowly, painfully, she transforms herself from wide-eyed innocent to hardened killer of her own demons.


Jung’s treatment methods appealed to Sabina on an intellectual level as well. As her condition improved, Jung involved the patient in his word-association experiments and she developed a vocation for the provocative new science. While Sabina was still a resident at the Burghölzli, she applied for medical school and was accepted.


Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders

Tagline: The angels watch over us and learn to let us go.

Jung is interlocutor and confessor, but neither is the same as a protector. However, Sabina does not lack for one. Bleuler, the director of the Burghölzli, is an angel. His sister’s schizophrenia granted him an empathy with sufferers of mental illness at an early age, and because of it, he is ahead of his time in his treatments. No cages or bars for his patients. “The most important tools for treating the psyche are patience, calm, and inner goodwill towards the patients, three qualities that must be absolutely inexhaustible.” He sees his hospital as a community—if not quite a pastoral idyll then at least a liberal arts college modeled along monastic lines. The patients and doctors eat together, go for walks, attend concerts and theatricals together. The feel is less shock therapy than art therapy.

Still, Bleuler is no pushover. His kindness is supported by a rigid spine, and his defense of patients is inflexible. When he finds out that Sabina has all but relapsed out of fear over her brother Jan’s planned move to Zurich, Bleuler writes to her father explaining how disastrous it would be for the patient’s recovery. “In order for her to remain in her improved condition, she must be absolutely free from any obligations towards her family for a long time.” The family changes plans; another university in another city is found for Jan, as if Bleuler were the real patriarch of the Spielrein diaspora. The ease with which he commands authority only when necessary plays in counterpoint to Jung’s affected disinterest in the attention he attracts.

Sabina is grateful for this intervention and all others. She sees Bleuler seeing her. She is slumped in a window seat at the hospital, the passages of the day clashing in her head like Stravinsky. She daydreams that she is tiptoeing along the edges of a tall building’s observation deck, weighing the options: gravity’s corset or free fall. Off to the side, solidly built yet nonintrusive, Bleuler is the hand that can stay her but more often has to stay itself. For people cannot heal if they are tethered. As with an old painting, restoration always involves great risk.

So he gives her room to stumble and make mistakes. It’s almost a given that she will fall for the young doctor—they all do—but recognizing her intelligence from the start, he had held out hope for her in this regard. To no avail. As she feels her way out of the darkness like a woman navigating the half-kidding furniture of a room at dawn, she embraces vaguely the promise of the rest of her years. He can see she does not trust in it. As if life were only assured for some, when in fact we all own equal shares in the next second, whether what remains for us afterwards is half a century or one day. No matter; with time, she will come to understand.

When she decides to go to medical school, he allows himself the pleasure of hoarding his pride to himself. She will not be the first patient to do so, but when he contrasts the woman applying for school with the one he admitted—a fury with a Russian face—the nourishing pleasure of a good meal suffuses his body.

Despite her love for Jung, Sabina understands the value of Bleuler’s more tempered brand of care. Jung is playing with fire while Bleuler tends the embers, making sure nothing spins out of control nor grows too cold.

Once he bandages her up and sends her out into the world, she flies free and beautiful. The womb-like community of the hospital has let her go, more like the gentle pass-over of a maypole dance than a violent disgorging. Bleuler holds on to his hope for her with tenacity and élan, like a trapeze artist dangling from a rope by teeth alone.


Sabina completed her medical degree and, after working with Freud in Vienna, practiced as a psychoanalyst in Europe and Russia. She wrote about the death drive—a new concept at that time—and attachment and voyeurism in children. While her feelings for Jung lingered for years, eventually she married a doctor named Pavel and had a daughter with him. She observed her daughter for her research, just as she had once observed herself.

The couple was separated for over half a decade due to their work, during which time Pavel had a daughter with a woman named Olga. Sabina returned to Rostov-on-Don and reconciled with her husband. She gave birth to a second daughter. After Pavel died and two of her brothers were imprisoned in Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937, she sought out Olga and made a pact with her: If one of them died, the other would look after the three daughters. The two women and their children spent the next Christmas together, enjoying the warmth of their truce.

Shortly thereafter, history and death came to Rostov-on-Don. In August 1942, someone who knew Sabina saw her marching with her daughters, eyes already dead, with columns of other Jews. At the age of fifty-six, she was shot in the woods in Zmievskaya Balka, “the snake ravine,” along with twenty-seven thousand others.