Sex versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein

The following review incorporates answers from Dr. John Launer, from an interview I conducted with him over email. I have included them within my review where appropriate, as I felt they added a new dimension to my own subjective thoughts. 


To summarize, "Sex versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of SABINA SPIELREIN" is the biography of Sabina Spielrein, a scientist at the turn of the 20th century whose life and ideas played a big role in shaping the progress of psychoanalysis and developmental psychology, but whose contributions were largely ignored and forgotten until recent rediscoveries of her diaries, letters and works allowed for a deeper exploration of her legacy.

I will admit that I might not have picked up John Launer’s book, if, two years ago, I had not seen the film "A Dangerous Method", starring Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein. A Dangerous Method has certainly garnered an impressive audience amongst my fellow psychologist colleagues, particularly the ones with an affinity for Freudian psychoanalysis. It was a strange viewing for me. The film seemed mostly interested in portraying “sexual deviance” for its shock value while perpetuating a Twilight-esque version of star-crossed lovers (in this case, Sabina Spielrein and Carl Jung). It made me curious about the main character, Sabina Spielrein, who seemed to have an aspiration to, but somehow never quite managed to become the centerpiece of the story, so as one does, I searched Wikipedia to find out more. Sadly, there wasn’t much information on either her life or, more importantly, her scientific achievements.

I didn’t research any further until a few months back, when I saw her name in a title in a list of books offered for review for In-Mind. My curiosity was re-awakened and I requested it, in the hope of finding something special. In particular the main title, "Sex versus Survival", hinted at something much more interesting than what I hoped it would not be: Another story about a famous woman scientist caught up in a “shocking” romance (one needs look no further than Marie Sklodowska-Curie for prime examples of large audiences focusing on the wrong accomplishments). 

To my great joy, the book turned out to be an incredibly well-researched and beautifully written autobiography about a woman whose life was immensely shaped by the social demands of her time, and who managed to turn her own experiences into her life’s passion, her science, which was occupied and momentously inspired by them.

Sex vs Survival’s writer John Launer took on the challenge of mosaicking together one person’s life with data from a long time ago, way before we could find everything about everyone on the internet (luckily before the invention of the telephone!) and in his book, presents his findings and clues to his readerships in new, exciting, and most importantly, evidence-based ways.

In the introduction to the book, he lays out his sources and the difficulties in obtaining many of the materials, and when I asked him whether the structure of the book came easily to him and was pre-planned, he explained,

“No, the way it came out was a complete surprise to me. I had written a short, self-published book about Spielrein a couple of years previously, to coincide with the launch of the Cronenberg movie. The self-published version was really quite conventional, in the sense that I didn’t realise at that stage how wrong so many of the prevailing myths were about her and I didn’t challenge these. Because the new publishers wanted a really scholarly book, I had to start over again from scratch. It was only then that I collated all the available letters, diaries etc, turned them into a chronological scrapbook (literally), read and re-read them many times, and started to realise how much of the received version had just been handed down from one book or article to another without anyone questioning it. (It really does make you wonder how many of the historical stories we all assume are totally correct have been perpetuated in the same way.)

 It was only after about a year, for example, that it struck me that Jung might not have psychoanalysed Spielrein in the hospital: although he twice wrote to Freud that he had, the evidence in the hospital notes was incredibly thin, and if you looked at them anew it seemed most unlikely. Time and again when working through the material, I had further epiphanies, and this happened right up to the last minute, when a friend translated Spielrein’s lecture from 1929 for me and I realised what a courageous, astute and up-to-date professional she still was at that date, when everyone assumed she was miserable and burned out by then. There was also a cumulative process to these epiphanies, for example when I realised previous writers had a stereotype that returning to Russia, working as a paediatrician instead of a psychoanalyst etc all represented a ‘’failure’ by comparison with the glamorous business of having an affair with Jung etc.”

Indeed, even in the book, Launer explains that it is a shame that a lot of the information on Spielrein and her life is locked up and inaccessible to the general public. When I asked him to expand on this and hypothesize what is the majority of what is missing from the correspondences, he wrote,

“From people who have had access to it, I believe there are around 2000 letters to and from her family, all in Russian, mainly from the period 1912-1923. Much of it seems to have been one-way traffic i.e. her mother wrote to her almost daily and sometimes didn’t get a reply for up to a year.  I think much of the correspondence may simply be accounts of day-to-day life in Russia during that period, but that would be fascinating even independently of Spielrein herself.”

I will circle back to talk about Sabina Spielrein’s period in Russia later, but first want to give an overview over the content of the book and its chapters to give a better understanding of the whole story of Spielrein’s life.

One of the most gratifying aspects of reading the book was that it is structured more like a scientific paper than a novel: instead of spinning a tale of suspense and discovery, Dr. Launer gives an overview over all his findings in the Introduction chapter. He presents and integrates knowledge from his sources and as readers, we can immediately grasp the whole picture before moving on to the actual chapters and going into a deeper analysis of the details. He also uses the Introduction to clarify his own position; one, in relation to other existing materials on Sabina Spielrein (such as previous books and documentaries) and two, on individuals such as Freud and Jung and their treatment of Spielrein throughout her life as we know from their own writings and letters. Not much positive can be said of either, unfortunately.

After the introduction gives a general overview over Spierein’s life, the first chapter of the book goes back to the beginnings: it is an account of Spielrein’s childhood (1885-1904), and looks into her subjective, sometimes traumatic childhood experiences and her deteriorating physical well-being in her youth. Launer analyzes familial and environmental factors that might have contributed to her worsening mental state and final transfer into the asylum at nineteen (1904-1905). Learning about Spielrein’s background provided me with some important puzzle pieces in order to understand Spielrein’s later life choices and how much it also shaped her own interpretations of her life events.

The next few chapters introduce Spielrein’s stay at the Burghölzli Hospital in Switzerland, her treatment, recovery and finally her progress from patient to medical student and psychoanalyst. These chapters also outline the beginning of her relationship with Carl Jung, which for the years 1905 until 1910 can be called a yoyo game of intimacy and rejection. Here, Launer provides fascinating accounts from her diaries, letters and hospital records to support many of his claims, which oftentimes diverge wildly from previous accounts of Spielrein’s life. Personally, I experienced Launer’s account as sufficiently logical in itself, and his contradictions of previous accounts to be reasonable and well-argued. One good example of this is the common belief, probably based on Jung’s own account, of having used Freudian methods of psychoanalysis on Spielrein throughout her stay at the hospital. In reality, there are no medical records of him using these techniques, or even treating Spielrein extensively. Launer writes about Jung, “[…] apart from taking her history, he recorded a few sporadic conversations with Sabina over the course of five months. These took place when she was already much improved and waiting to go to medical school.”

Various discrepancies between evidence and “well-known stories” that Launer points to throughout the book strongly indicate that much of what we know about Spielrein from previous accounts (and from her contemporaries) needs to be read with a great deal of scepticism and supported by second and third sources before it can be considered valid.

Her relationship with Carl Jung over the years, in any case, does constitute a major part of her life during this time, and much of Spielrein’s thought processes seem dedicated to him. Launer covers both the beginning of the friendship and its later progression into “poetry”, a sexual relationship of sorts that is never clearly defined in its parameters from Spielrein’s or Jung’s side. He takes a good deal of time laying out the evidence to his claim that the friendship was mostly one-sided and quite subjectively interpreted to be more romantic by Spielrein herself than was probably the case in reality, and that she was also misled somewhat by Jung’s own accounts and misrepresentations of his feelings towards her.

The majority of the third part of the book is devoted to the progression of Spielrein’s scientific discoveries and publications while in Western Europe, the idea of Sex vs Survival as the title so aptly states (although quite a few of her ideas are already outined in previous chapters). Launer takes multiple chapters to in depth explain her theories, their emergence and expansion as well as her interaction with her peers and her theories’ reception among them, in particular Freud’s letters and reactions. There is a particular focus on her integration of biological and psychological sciences, and her idea of triangulating evolutionary theory, developmental psychology and psychoanalysis. Launer also impresses on the fact that she was one of the first feminist psychologists, attempting to explain female subjective experiences from a woman’s perspective.

Gratifyingly, whenever references to outside work are called for, he adds helpful facts about contemporary research that Spielrein anticipated or predated. In my follow-up interview, I inquired with Launer what contemporary scientists he thinks Spielrein might have enjoyed working with, and he replied with an interesting recommendation,

“I am a huge fan of the evolutionary scholar James Chisholm who I cite in the book and who is the one who described it as a detective story. Serendipitously, I came across his book ‘Death, Hope and Sex’ when I was Googling titles to check no-one had already used the one I was planning to use! I think what he writes there is totally amazing – connecting psychoanalysis, attachment theory, evolution and much else. I’ve been corresponding with him for a while now, although we’ve not yet met. I think he and Spielrein would really have hit it off.”

In terms of personal enjoyment I have to say that, far more than her earlier years, these chapters about Spielrein’s scientific career are my favorite part of the book. The descriptions of her work, embedded in the specific history of psychoanalytical politics and the more general history of the early 20th century make for some of the most insightful readings I have yet had into this period of psychological science, and it is even rarer to experience it from a female perspective.

Finally, the last quarter of the book describes Spielrein’s return to Russia, the final years of her professional career as well as her personal life, while mostly focusing on the complex and devastating politics of the mid-20th century; the rise and fall of psychoanalysis in Russia and the eventual tragic murder of Spielrein and her family by the Nazi SS squad in Rostov.

Because I felt like the latter part of the book, in particular its focus on Russian psychoanalysis history, was very disconnected from Spielrein’s life and focused more on general historical events than her personal connection with either people or happenings in her environment, I inquired about this writing decision. I learned from Dr. Launer that this was mainly due to the fact that so little is known about Spielrein’s life from these years and that little evidence survives from this time in general (which he also hinted at already in a previous question about many of Spielrein’s family letters being inaccessible). Launer writes about his decision to write the chapters in the way he did,

“I wasn’t entirely happy with this part myself, but the fact is there is so little surviving material about this part of her life that I thought I could at least explain the context. In retrospect, I might have allowed myself a bit more speculation eg I think it is quite likely that she may have inspired or led the teacher’s protest against the poor administration of the kindergarten, lack of proper supervision etc. It certainly would have been characteristic of her directness and courage, and might also have explained her departure from Moscow and why she was written out of Luria and Vygotsky’s writings.”

This said, despite the disconnect, reading about the psychoanalysis movement and life of Spielrein and her family during this time in Russia was by itself very interesting and gave me a lot of background into the history of psychology, so that was very appreciated.

In this last part of my review, I would like to focus on Sabina Spielrein as the main character of this book. Since the book is about her, the incredibly detailed portrayed gives us many insights into her personality, and leaves us with an idea of Spielrein as a well-rounded, intricate human being, with all the positive and negative traits and characteristics that humans possess. I imagined that through his research, Dr. Launer must have gotten to know Spielrein almost like a friend more even than a historical figure, so I asked him what he thought her biggest talents and flaws were. In terms of flaws, he writes,

“One of her flaws, at least in career terms, was an inability to be political in any way: she lacked either the ambition, or practical shrewdness, or both, to find herself a leadership position in Vienna, Berlin or Geneva. I do have a question about her neglect of [her daughter] Renata, including sending her away to board in Switzerland, and in an earlier draft I made a comparison with Melanie Klein in the way that both had remarkable emotional insights into children, but didn’t necessarily display this in rearing their own children. I took the passage out because I didn’t want to buy into the whole judgemental bit about single mothers pursuing their careers etc – but I think there is a real question about this aspect of her personality. Also, because there is such a tendency in the psychoanalytic literature to offer interpretations of why she did or didn’t do things, I wanted to give readers the facts and let them make up their own minds about motivations. I suspect that in reality she was also quite a difficult person, putting people off rather than winning them over. Freud’s description of her as ‘demanding’ and Bovet’s as ‘tenacious’ strike the same chord.”

Still, there is a lot to be admired about Sabina Spielrein. Dr. Launer writes,

“I think her curiosity, eclecticism and tolerance of different viewpoints was astonishing: it has taken another hundred years for people even to begin to acknowledge that different psychoanalytical perspectives might simply be different lenses on the same phenomena, and also totally compatible with child development studies, biology, neuroscience and evolution.”

I would like to close my review with a highly positive recommendation for everyone who is interested in the history of psychology and its most influential scientists. Pick up this book and spend a few days immersing yourself in the mind and story of 20th century scientist Sabina Spielrein, her tumultuous relationships with the people around her, and the history that shaped and surrounded her incredible academic achievements that predated and inspired many psychologists including two of psychoanalysis’ giants, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, and developmental psychologists such as Melanie Klein, Lev Vygotsky, and Jean Piaget.


On Dr. Launer, from his personal webpage: “John Launer is a doctor, family therapist, educator and award-winning writer. His main areas of interest include narrative medicine, clinical supervision for doctors and evolutionary psychology. He is an honorary lifetime consultant at the Tavistock Clinic, honorary senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, and associate dean at Health Education England.”

book rating

5 of 5
5 of 5
5 of 5