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Two Pieces on the Movie A Dangerous Method

Tom Kirsch

Two small pieces that I wrote about the movie. The first one was for a psychoanalytic blog, and the second for a donor event at the Jung Institute in San Francisco. – Tom Kirsch

A Dangerous Method

Presentation for the Jung Institute of San Francisco, March 11, 2012 

The movie, "A Dangerous Method" was released in the end of November 2011 and has gradually been showing around the country and worldwide. For those of us in the profession, there has been a great deal of anxiety of how the story of Freud, Jung, and Sabina Spielrein would be told .The trailer for the movie has been on the Internet for several months, so we knew that the sadomasochistic sex scenes were definitely going to be part of the movie. It made a lot of us shudder at how Jung and Freud would be depicted in the movie, given that the sex was given such prominence. Perhaps because I had seen the trailer many times, I could put that aside as Hollywood dramatics, and look at the rest of the film. I found the overall portrayal of Freud and Jung very well done. Freud with a cigar in his mouth all the time was sometimes a little hard to understand. I thought the authority issues between Freud and Jung were well dramatized, and much of the conversation seemed directly taken from Memories Dreams and Reflections. Jung's interest in all kinds of general psychological phenomenon versus Freud's more narrow focus on sexuality was well displayed. The scene on the boat where they were both telling each other their dreams and Freud would not give his associations because he could not risk losing his authority was also very well portrayed. The Inclusion of Otto Gross was well done and significant. How Otto Gross fit into both the lives of Freud and Jung is not often given enough attention, but in the movie is well portrayed. Gross and Jung were in mutual analysis in 1908, and Jung described Gross as his twin brother. Gross influenced Jung to become less inhibited about his sexuality. Gross was a hippie before his time. The movie has the year of his death off by one year.

Although David Kronenberg and Christopher Hampton rely on much historical data, there are a number of areas where as directors they have taken liberty with the facts.  It is called poetic license or "art". I am going to list them now in my order of importance.

          1) Toni Wolff is said to be half Jewish.  Unfortunately, that statement is being carried over to other scholarly documents as "fact". Toni Wolff comes from one of the most upper class Swiss Protestant families and can trace her background back to the 12th and 13th century; the time of the foundation of the Swiss Confederation.  She was so conservative in her Swiss values.  Much more than Jung himself.  What is the advantage in making Toni half Jewish?  It implies that Jung had some secret fascination with Jewish women all his life, and going along with his other statements about Jews where he is accused of anti-Semitism and being a Nazi, that would make Jung a real duplicitous character without integrity.  Both my parents saw her in analysis and found her to be an excellent analyst, but saw her to be profoundly Swiss. She suffered from Rheumatoid Arthritis all her life.  My father offered her cortisone when it first came out, but that was too new for her and she refused it.  She was born, raised her whole life, and died in the same house.  How Swiss can that be!


          2)  Sabina Spielrein was the love of Jung's life. False.  She was an important part of his early professional life, but no one in Zurich knew of her after World War I.  Joe Henderson did not know who she was when I first mentioned her to him.

          3)  After the break with Freud, Jung had a nervous breakdown.  False.  Jung went through a most disorienting experience after the break with Freud, and he feared that he would have a nervous breakdown, but he maintained his family life, professional practice, and fulfilled his army obligations to the Swiss at Chateux d"oex.

          4)  The portrayal of Emma Jung was so different from the woman she actually was. Emma was a very powerful woman in her own right and with lots of authority. She wrote to Freud when her husband and Freud were getting into difficulties. She was not the dainty, faint of heart, wife as experienced in the movie.  The title of the movie comes from John Kerr's 600-page history of the Freud, Jung, Spielrein story published in 1993. The actual title of the book and the movie is taken from a letter that William James wrote to his good friend Theodore Flournoy after meeting with Freud and Jung at Clark University in1909.  James wrote "I hope that  Freud and his pupils will push their ideas to their utmost limits, so that we may learn what they are.  They can't fail to throw light on human nature, but I confess that he made on me personally the impression of a man obsessed with fixed ideas.  I can make nothing in my own case with his dream theories, and obviously "symbolism" is a most dangerous method." I accidentally happen to know a lot about the Sabina Spielrein/Jung story. For me it began in Rome in 1977 at the seventh international Congress of analytical psychology. Prof. Aldo Carotenuto was the main organizer of the Congress which was quite successful. As a major speaker at the conference myself, I had a lot of interaction with him. He proudly announced at the end of the Congress that this was the first Jungian Congress to make money. As I was on the international executive committee, when all the bills came in, it actually was the conference which had lost the most money. Prof. Carotenuto was a showman and liked to be in the limelight.  He had not yet announced that he had received the letters from the Institute of psychology in Geneva, which happened quite by accident.

My next encounter with the Spielrein story was at a lecture by Bruno Bettelheim in the spring of 1982. Bettelheim was to give a lecture on the "Mistranslations of Freud". To an overflow audience he spoke nothing of the mistranslations of Freud, but only on the page proofs of this new book by Carotenuto on the Spielrein/Freud/Jung correspondence. Of course no one in the audience could have read this book because it was not yet published.  That was a typical Bettelheim. In the course of his lecture he adamantly stated that Jung and Spielrein had had a sexual affair. In the discussion period I asked him how he could be sure? He said with great authority that he knew, and most of the audience cheered him wildly. I felt really put down, until several people came up to me after the lecture and said that they had been treated in a similar way by him around their children. The book, entitled The Secret Symmetry, included the letters between Freud and Spielrein, Spielrein and Jung and Freud, but not the letters from Jung to Spielrein. The Jung family did not release them.  There is some question how much Sabina influenced Jung's idea of the "anima". Freud makes one reference to her in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" saying that she influenced him on the concept of the death instinct.  She truly was a pioneer in child psychoanalysis and  in developing  theoretical aspects of psychoanalysis.  She wrote over 30 papers.

In 1983 there was another international Jungian Congress, and this time it was in Jerusalem. Carotenuto's book had been published and was well received.   Jo Wheelwright, cofounder of our Jung Institute here in San Francisco was furious with him. Joe felt that Carotenuto was trying to make a reputation for himself, which he did with this book, and he said that the material would be used as either a Broadway play, musical, or movie.  Jo at 6 ft. 6 inches towered over Carotenuto who was 5ft. 7 inches if that.  It was quite a screaming match.  Carotenuto was attempting to defend himself.  He was also quite defensive with me saying that he had to publish the material. The play, "The Talking Cure" by Christopher Hampton and now themovie are the result!

Now I would like to discuss the history of Sabina Spielrein.  She came from a rich and cultured Jewish family in Rostov on the Dom.  She was a fine musician, fluent in many languages.  Growing up her father spanked which gave her an erotic charge.  In 1904, at the age of 19 she developed the hysterical symptoms one sees at the beginning of the movie.  By the spring of 1905 she is well enough to begin medical school in Zurich and to help Jung with his research.  She becomes Jung's first psychoanalytic patient. They develop a strong erotic bond, and it is not clear to what extent it was acted out or not. I don't know how we will ever know? The Freud/Jung correspondence, which begins in 1906 and published in 1974 has forty references to Spielrein.  Spielrein is discussed at length because some of the earliest issues concerned with transference and countertransference irrupt in their relationship.  At first Freud is most supportive of his younger colleague, but  this changed when Spielrein moved to Vienna in 1911and became a part of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Circle. She presented her seminal paper with the conclusion that "a species self-preservation instinct requires that the past be destroyed to the same extent something new is created, and. Is essentially ambivalent. The instinct of self-preservation protects man while the dualistic instinct of self-reproduction changes him and resurrects him in a new aspect." Initially Freud did not accept the destructive instinct, but in a later publication Beyond the Pleasure Principle he included her as a footnote. She became a true follower of Freud.  However, in her correspondence with Freud she continued to express her love for Jung.  This irritated Freud very much, and he would always say some disparaging remark about "her Germanic hero" in his reply. On the other hand, to Jung she encouraged him to reconcile with Freud because they had so much in common. Between 1909 and 1923 Spielrein was in constant contact with both Jung and Freud. In 1912 Sabina married a doctor from Rostov, Pavel Schefter and they had a baby daughter. Given Sabina's earlier wish to have a "Siegfried" with Jung it must've been a relief to have a daughter. They separated and Shefter went back to Rostov and remarried and had a second daughter. Meanwhile Spielrein was attempting to have a practice in Berlin, but she could not find patients. She asked Freud for help but he could not help her there either. She continued to write papers on child analysis, especially related to the meaning of early speech. She ended up writing over 30 papers and was a true pioneer in child analysis.

As she could not develop a psychoanalytic practice in Berlin, after World War I she moved to Lausanne Switzerland and became a member of the Institute for psychology in Geneva. There she had Jean Piaget as her analysand for eight months, and they discussed their differences about development in children. Piaget was just beginning his career, and over those eight months of daily psychoanalytic contact they developed diverging views on child development. Spielrein continued to want to return to Rostov.  She wrote to Freud in 1922 about this desire, and he recommended that she return to become a leading figure in the developing Russian psychoanalytic society. This she did, and until 1936 she was listed as a member of the Russian psychoanalytic society. At that time it was banned by Stalin, but she continued to have a psychoanalytic couch in her apartment in Rostov. Howmuch it was used, we do not know. She reconnected with her husband Pavel, and they had a second daughter. Schefter died of a heart attack in 1937.

Sabina and Schefter's second wife made a contract to raise the three daughters together. In case anything happened one or the other could take care of the three daughters.  When the Nazis arrived in 1941 Schefter's second wife took her daughter Nina behind the Urals, whereas Sabina stayed in Rostov. Most of Sabina's best years had been in German-speaking countries and she trusted the Germans far more than the Soviets. That was unfortunate. She and her two daughters were rounded up along with the other Jews and brought into the central synagogue and shot. For many years there was a memorial to the Jews, who were murdered there, but a few years ago the plaque was changed, and the Jewish designation was taken out. Now it reads "Russian citizens."  No mention of the Jews. Sabina Spielrein's  story is a tragic and dramatic story which touches many of the major catastrophes of the 20th century.  At the end of her life she was a broken woman, hunched over and appearing as if she were an old womanwhen chronologically she was only 58.  To what extent she had lived out Thanatos, the death instinct, we will never know.

PS - “I have to say that as a psychiatrist who worked in mental hospitals as a

young psychiatrist, Jung's behavior during his Confrontation with the

Unconscious does not satisfy me to label it psychotic.  Certainly he had the

fear of psychosis, and he had lived among the patients at the Burgholzli for

many years, and he knew very well what psychosis really looked like.  To my

mind he was not psychotic at any time, and I have not heard anyone who

described him as psychotic.  As for the figure of Philemon I am not one who

idealizes him, but he was a most important figure for Jung, and we all have

important inner figures who are important to us.”

Tom Kirsch

A Dangerous Method

Questions and Answers for Michael Blumenfield

Q- Can you comment on the relationship between Freud and Jung as depicted in this movie?

I thought that David Cronenberg's portrayal of the relationship between Freud and Jung was fair, showing the strengths and weaknesses of both characters. Jung's initial enthusiasm for Freud and his theories, as well as his reservations about ubiquity of the sexual origin of neurosis, are well portrayed.  Freud is seen as sympathetic to Jung's countertransference to Sabina Spielrein -- a highly probable response, given what we know of their early relationship.  The movie shows the historical beginning of the study of the countertransference dimension of psychoanalysis as seen through the relationships between Freud, Jung and Sabina Spielrein. The scene on the boat going from Bremen to New York was an especially good rendition of the spirit of Jung's account of the incident, if not the details. In the movie Jung tells his dreams to Freud, but Freud does not reciprocate.  Actually, according to Jung in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Freud did tell a dream, but refused to offer his associations . Jung asked why. 'He said, "But I cannot risk my authority!"  At that moment he lost it altogether.'

Q- Jung is shown to believe in premonitions, telepathy and perhaps other nonscientific unprovable ideas. In what way is this a fair or unfair representation of his theories?

I find this question biased towards a  misinterpretation of Jung's openness to investigating all psychological phenomena as his belief in them, rather than seeing it as a representation of his forward-thinking attitude toward of the scientific method; the latter is the way it was accurately set forth in the movie. Famous physicists like Nobel prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli and other equally prestigious scientists have shown a great interest in these parapsychological phenomena. The areas of parapsychology, synchronicity, chaos theory, and subjects related to these fields have received an increasing amount of attention by scientists from a number of fields, including psychoanalysis in recent years. A recent issue of Psychiatric Annals (Vol 41, #12, December, 2011) is entirely devoted to the subject of meaningful coincidences and Jung's concept of synchronicity, a central part of his study of the archetypal layer of the psyche. In a late scene in the movie, the meeting in Freud's study when the loud crack resounded, was an apt portrayal of Jung's interest in what he saw as the exteriorization of psychic tension. Freud refused to find any psychological meaning in the phenomenon. My understanding is that, historically,  Freud was not interested in such phenomena. Furthermore, Jung's interest in parapsychology has been used by psychoanalysis to cast suspicion upon Jung's credibility, thus demonstrating that Jung was "unscientific" and truly a "mystic."  I think the movie portrayed the differences between Freud and Jung on that subject accurately and sympathetically.

Q- Do you believe that Jung had a sexual affair with his patient Sabina Spielrein and if so, should this influence the judgment of Jung's contributions to psychoanalysis?

I have no idea whether Jung had a sexual affair with Sabina Spielrein. This is a subject which has been written about extensively.   Zvi Lothane, a psychoanalyst and historian, wrote of his conviction that they had a sexual affair in his earlier papers.  In a later paper he reversed his opinion. Let me give a personal vignette from my experiences around this subject. In 1983 I attended a public lecture by Bruno Bettelheim at the Stanford University Medical School. His subject was the Mistranslation Of Freud, but instead he spoke, to an audience who had no access to documented facts, about the still unpublished correspondence between Sabina Spielrein, Freud and Jung, A Secret Symmetry by Aldo Carotenuto (published the following year.) Bettelheim was emphatic that Jung and Sabina Spielrein had had a sexual affair. In the discussion. I asked him how he could be so sure, and he became characteristically offensive toward my challenge of his view of the truth.  In fact, I was familiar with the researches of Carotenuto and knew about the correspondence he had been offered from the basement of the Psychological Institute where Sabina Spielrein had been working prior to returning to Russia..  It is interesting that Spielrein had left all of her papers behind when she returned to Russia in 1923.

Whatever the truth, it is unfair that we should judge Jung's contributions on the basis of his relationship to Sabina Spielrein.  Jung was only 29 year old in 1904, just at the start of a long career in a still unformed field of study, depth psychology.  To the movie's credit, it treats Jung sympathetically in this respect. If the full truth is admitted, in the early days of psychoanalysis there were many such sexual liaisons.  Ernst Falzaeder, a psychoanalytic historian, has mapped out the various sexual liaisons between early psychoanalysts and their patients.  It is a remarkably long list. Many of those patients themselves became psychoanalysts. If Jung did have a sexual relationship with Spielrein, his was one among many. 

Furthermore, Jung knew about the close relationship between Freud and hissister-in -law, Minna Bernays.  I myself have seen the signature of Freud where he signed himself and Minna into the guestbook of the Hotel Schweizerhof in Majola, Switzerland as husband and wife.  This is highly suggestive, yet Freud loyalists have long protested that this proves nothing about the nature of their relationship.  Jung in an interview with Kurt Eissler for the Library of Congress to be released in 2013, does not expressly say that they had an affair, but he does report that both he and his wife Emma had observed, when they visited Freud for the first time in Vienna in 1907, that Minna  was au courant  with Freud's ideas (in contrast to her sister Martha) and that she looked at Freud adoringly.  There is no question that Jung and Sabina Spielrein had a mutually erotic transference/countertransference relationship. From this distance in time it is going to be very difficult if not impossible to ascertain to what extent it was acted upon.  But is that the most important question to ask?  This was the beginning of psychoanalysis, and we know that Breuer had left the field because of this issue.  The fact is that Sabina Spielrein was helped by Jung's psychoanalytic treatment of her and that Jung encouraged her aspirations, demonstrating his respect for her.  That she became a physician, a psychiatrist, and an early member of Freud's psychoanalytic group in Vienna surely demonstrates that his good influence was not misplaced.  The movie also highlights her role in broadening Freud's libido theory. Her influence on Freud's theory of the death instinct is documented in a seldom cited footnote in Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 

Q- How will a movie such as this one or the play by Christopher Hampton, upon which it is based, influence the legacy of Jung?

I have heard from some of my colleagues that they are disappointed by the portrayal of Jung in the movie. On the basis of this, as well as its sensational trailers, I was prepared to not like the portrayal of Jung. Certainly the spanking episode is over the top.  The role of Otto Gross, and the fact that Jung and Gross were engaged in a mutual analysis, was one of the strongest historical, as well as dramatically pivotal, aspects of the film.  Gottfried Heuer, a Jungian analyst in London and the president of theOtto Gross society, believes that Otto Gross influenced Jung deeply in 1908 toward greater sexual freedom.  

Unfortunately, there is a glaring error at the end of the movie.  When Sabina asks if Jung is involved with another patient, Jung says yes, and furthermore tells her that Toni Wolff is half-Jewish.  That is a complete fabrication!  Toni Wolff comes from one of the oldest Christian families in Switzerland.  Her family tree can be traced back to the beginnings of the Swiss Confederation in the twelfth and thirteenth century.  Christopher Hampton was told of his error before his play The Talking Cure opened in London, but he chose to leave Toni Wolff as half Jewish, and to perpetuate the error in his film version.  Furthermore, many prominent psychoanalytic historians have taken Hampton's  drama as a statement of fact!  Diedre Bairhas documented Toni Wolff's genealogy on page 713, note 27, in her biographical work, Jung.

I was especially taken by their rendition of Jung's plea to Spielrein for a reciprocation of the caring patience he had shown toward her in her own state of terrible inner conflict.  This is a faithful rendering of his state of confusion, as documented in their published correspondence, as well as alluded to by Jung in MDR and demonstrated in his Red Book, although this isgenerally regarded in part as his emotional reaction to the ending of his relationship with Freud.

Q- Did you enjoy this movie and would you recommend it to others? I did enjoy the movie.    I thought that both Jung and Freud were well represented and  I especially found myself liking the Jung of Michael Fassbender.  The role of Sabina Spielrien was superbly played in all its dramatic potential by Keira Knightly.  The one person who was not well

represented was Emma Jung.  She was a much more earthy and powerful person than the haughty, frail creature see in the movie.  That was a real disappointment, because nothing I have heard about Emma Jung was represented, either by the role or by  the actor Sarah Gadon. I certainly would recommend others to see this movie with the caveats I have raised.  Overall, I found myself admiring and empathizing with David Cronenberg's portrayal of Sabina Spielrein and both Freud and Jung.  I hope that mine is a more widespread reaction.  If so, it may mark a shift in public awareness of Jung's value as a pioneer and major contributor to our knowledge of the psyche.  The misrepresentation of Toni Wolff, though, poses a major problem, especially because of the later accusations against Jung for his alleged anti-Semitism. When portrayed as having begun yet one more intimate relationship with a (half) Jewish woman, when he is already widely seen as anti-Semitic, Jung the man comes across as a character lacking integrity. As the repetition of Hampton's error by prominent psychoanalytic historians proves, drama can wield a powerful influence over even the most scholarly of minds.

Thank you again for any consideration of answering these questions for my blog.

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