The analyst triangle

Special to The Times

I believe it was in Los Angeles, just over 20 years ago, that I first heard the name of Sabina Spielrein. Film producer Howard Rosenman told me the fascinating story of the Russian doctor, one of the first female psychoanalysts, who, as a teenager, had been one of Carl Jung’s patients, had stayed in Zurich to study psychology at the University of Zurich, and who might have had a love affair with Jung. She subsequently moved to Vienna, briefly became a patient of Sigmund Freud, married a Russian colleague and eventually returned to Russia. In 1942, she and her family were murdered by the Nazis, and she passed into oblivion.

As if in some improbable Victorian novel, she was resituated by the discovery of a cache of papers, including portions of a diary and correspondence with both Jung and Freud, found in a cardboard carton in a basement in Geneva in 1977.

These were published, together with a biographical narrative, gripping but necessarily speculative, by the Italian Jungian Aldo Carotenuto. I had long been interested in psychoanalysis in general and Freud in particular. And this was clearly extraordinary material, but, I thought, too full of gaps and ambiguities to be dramatized.


All the same, the story hung about in the recesses of my consciousness and in the mid-’90s, when I was under contract to write screenplays for 20th Century Fox and the name of Spielrein came up as a possible subject, I jumped at it.

In the intervening years, strange as it may seem, two further cartons of Spielrein’s papers had turned up in Switzerland, and a monumental study by John Kerr (“A Most Dangerous Method”) was published in 1994. This plugged a great many factual gaps, although it rather puzzlingly maintained -- despite the new evidence that had come to light -- that Jung and Spielrein’s relationship might not have been sexual.

Kerr’s book, I felt, contained the outlines of a story that might encapsulate the troubled beginnings of psychoanalysis, the intellectual movement that inaugurated the 20th century and cast a long shadow across a disturbed and irrational Europe, which was already engaged in incubating its own unprecedented horrors.

The screenplay was to be written for Shoelace Productions, Julia Roberts’ production company. At the end of 1996, I was invited to New York for talks with Kerr. Here, informally, he allowed that Jung and Spielrein almost certainly had had some kind of an affair, and he was able to bring to life a good deal of the background to the story and the intellectual climate in which it had unfurled.

Back in England, I embarked on a grueling reading program, dauntingly dominated by the extremely complex, circularly constructed magical mystery tour otherwise known as the works of C.G. Jung. By summer ‘97, I was ready to visit the primary sites. I traveled to Zurich to meet Robert Hinshaw, a Jungian expert and psychoanalyst. But I was beginning to worry: I still hadn’t experienced the breakthrough I needed to have the confidence to embark on any project, let alone one as fiendishly complicated and full of responsibilities as this one seemed to be.

The moment of revelation occurred on one of the last days of my trip to Zurich, I paid a visit to the Burgholzli Hospital, where Jung had served from 1904 to 1909 as assistant director.

In the hospital, there was a small Jung museum, where I spoke to the curator, an ex-orderly at the Burgholzli. Having ascertained that Sabina Spielrein was my particular interest, he asked if I happened to know when she had been admitted to the hospital. Aug. 17, 1904, I told him. In that case, he said, we ought to be able to find some relevant information in the archive.

He led me down to a basement full of boxes of files, and within minutes I had in my hand the case notes of the patient Sabina Spielrein, typed by Dr. Jung with his handwritten notes in the margin. Kerr, who had not seen these files, had been of the opinion that Spielrein’s analysis had lasted at most two months. Yet here were notes covering at least five or six months, full of dramatic revelations, setbacks, painful advances, culminating in a classic abreaction -- or cathartic confession -- in the first session of 1905, which led to a swift recovery. This document gave a shape and a sense to everything.

Spielrein was the first patient with whom Jung had used the Freudian method, as best he understood it. The success of the treatment prompted him to make direct contact with Freud. A warm and enthusiastic friendship ensued. However, within five years this had turned to bitter enmity. It’s possible that among the contributory factors to this quarrel were Freud’s suspicions that he had been lied to about Spielrein and Jung’s embarrassment at having to admit his affair.

So in a sense, Spielrein had brought Jung and Freud together and also helped to push them apart. She began as the victim of a disabling hysteria, brought on by her intense masochism. Yet within 10 years, she had arrived at a position in the emerging world of psychoanalysis from which she was able to make significant contributions to the ideas of Freud and Jung. More important still, she was mature enough to see what the vanity and ambition of both men blinded them to: their divisions were far less important than what they had in common. If they had been capable of listening to Spielrein, the history of psychoanalysis would have been infinitely less contentious.

The focus was off

At last, holding these yellowing papers in my hand, I felt I could begin writing. Not that there still wasn’t a very long way to go. My screenplay was politely received and generally agreed to be a very promising first draft -- but in need of revisions. The only difficulty was that no one was quite sure what to recommend. Eventually, someone suggested that the script (which was then called “Sabina”) was not sufficiently centered on the title role.

They were right about this. It dawned on me that the first film I directed, “Carrington,” had started life as a screenplay called “Lytton Strachey.” As with “Sabina,” I had landed on the wrong central character.

It was Jung who was at the sharp end of both the triangles I was dealing with -- between Freud and Spielrein and between his wife, Emma, and Spielrein. His incipient breakdown as both triangles dissolved, stalled his work and his nightmares about the catastrophes threatening Europe became more insistent, forming the climax to my story. It was Jung who had to be at the center of the narrative. This conviction gave way to another: here was wonderful material for a stage play. Fox and Julia Roberts most generously gave their blessing to the undertaking.

The play was written in one ferocious 10-day burst in summer 2001 in a hotel in Paris, at the end of which I suffered some sort of mysterious physical collapse. But finally, six years after my first meeting with Kerr, the play opened in London at the National Theatre, with Ralph Fiennes as Jung and Jodhi May as Spielrein.

I say finally, but there was further to go.

It was Gordon Davidson who first gave me the idea, when he directed my play “Savages” at the Taper in 1974, that a play was always potentially a work in progress. So the version of “The Talking Cure” to be presented in Los Angeles, unusually (for normally I like to cut plays), has 10 to 15 minutes of additional material to round out the characters, particularly Freud and Emma Jung and to balance the elements swirling around the tormented nucleus of Carl Gustav Jung, who, at the end of his long life, said: “How can a man form any definite opinions about himself?” and again: “How can anyone live without inconsistency?”


London-based playwright Christopher Hampton has won numerous awards for his work, including three Tonys and an Academy Award.