One of the most intriguing women you’ve never heard of, Sabina Spielrein overcame extraordinary obstacles to arguably become one of the forerunners of psychoanalysis, evolutionary biology, and child psychology. But a forerunner whom history forgot.
At once intriguing and empowering, the story of Spielrein and her scientific contributions deserves to be told. Author John Launer, a physician and therapist himself, sets out to do just that with Sex Versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein.
I found Launer’s account of Spielrein’s childhood, institutionalization for mental health issues, personal life, and medical career both informative and fascinating. Launer opens a new porthole into the history of psychology, one that deserves further exploration. His book also prompted me to learn more about life in Russia and Western Europe before and during the World Wars, especially for a woman pursuing a science career.
In this story of an abused, young Russian Jewish girl living in precarious times, Launer outlines how Spielrein went from psychiatric patient to medical student to preeminent thinker in a male-dominated field. Careful to leave out his own biases, Launer provides readers with a thorough and critical analysis of Spielrein’s life and professional legacy through her personal journals, letters, and published works, allowing Spielrein’s own words to guide his narrative.
The book also incorporates interviews of her surviving relatives to enhance the narrative and give an accurate account of Spielrein’s life, which ended with her murder during the Holocaust. While I would have liked more historical context throughout Spielrein’s earlier years, Launer enriches the second half of the biography with the vivid description of turmoil in Europe in the times leading up to and during World War II.
As if the backdrop of Spielrein’s life weren’t enough, she also suffered severe emotional and physical abuse as a child which landed her in an institution far from her home in Russia. It is in this setting that Spielrein begins her controversial relationship with Carl Jung — her doctor and then, later, her colleague.
Launer is critical of past works and films on Spielrein and Jung’s affair that have exaggerated sexual details and made false assumptions about the relationship, such as the star-studded 2011 film A Dangerous Method. Instead of using sensationalism, Launer examines the Spielrein-Jung relationship through their personal letters. And, rather than paint Speilrein as just a woman caught up in a relationship with a famous man, he explores all that Spielrein’s own mind had to offer.
Spielrein and Jung’s relationship to Sigmund Freud are also closely analyzed, particularly in connection with one of Spielrein’s most recognized works, “Sex Versus Survival” (from which the title of Launer’s biography is taken). Her paper outlined an approach to psychoanalysis that relied on other areas of study, including biology — and was met with great disdain by prominent thinkers of the time, including Freud and Jung.
But today, as Launer highlights, many of Spielrein’s ideas are an accepted part of evolutionary psychology. Spielrein, he suggests, was a woman and scientist with ideas before her time: a visionary thinker who lent a number of firsts to the field of psychology and psychoanalysis, even if the famous men around her didn’t realize it.
Overall, Launer strives to achieve broad recognition of Spielrein’s contributions and achievements. And this is no small thing. The work of female contributors is largely absent from psychology programs — I know firsthand, as a former student of psychology.
Sex Versus Survival would make a valuable addition to many curriculums. And Launer writes well for the layperson, too, explaining psychological principles throughout the book. Despite the historical context being a bit thin in the first half, this is an approachable biography for anyone interested in the beginnings of psychoanalysis — and in strong women in the sciences, who did and still do face adversity.
Sex Versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein
The Overlook Press, February 2015
Hardcover, 384 pages