A new biography about the infamous Sabina Spielrein has been published by The Overlook Press. In Sex Versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein, John Launer attempts to fill in the missing pieces of Spielrein’s life, while simultaneously elevating her many achievements in the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis.
Sadly, most cursory research of this dynamic woman reveals her through the lens of men; she is known most prolifically as the lover of Carl Jung, as a point in the dramatized love triangle between Jung, Freud and herself.
Launer offers even the most passive reader of this documentary-style biography a detailed record of Spielrein; breaking up her life into temporal chunks.
Starting in Tsarist Russia he traces an archivist’s finger through her life until the murder of her and her two grown daughters in 1942 by an SS firing squad. In Launer’s precise style, devoid of passion and unnecessary elaboration, this woman becomes so much more than a lover of her mentor.
Using hospital records, her own diaries and other secondary sources, this work presents a story that is remarkably antithetical to the particularly ridiculous and deservedly eschewable David Cronenberg version of Spielrein’s life (A Dangerous Method).
Launer attempts to illuminate the components of a life that have suffered erasure and weak interpretation. He does so with a clear and measured depiction of his subject. A reader may find it difficult to read Launer’s criticism of the treatments of Spielrein that have come before him when this text is but another translation of a woman’s life through the optics of a man. But Launer’s treatment of the evidence is notably lacking of his own analysis; he presents what he has found with very little sidebar, making it significantly more palatable.
There is value in the details Launer shares concerning the abuse and silencing suffered by Spielrein. Her story represents more than just her unique struggle; hers was a fate endured by most women in STEM fields during the turn of the last century. Perhaps even more important to a reader, my contemporary, Tim Hunt, could be swapped into Spielrein’s biography for any of the patriarchal mollycoddlers working to reduce her credibility in the fields of psychoanalysis and psychology.
Don’t limit yourself to Launer’s biography. Explore any of Spielrein’s writings that are available in a variety of languages and depict her as a thoughtful genius who gave extensively to our current thoughts around infant and child development.