A Psychologist at the Movies

Imaginary people have problems, too.

Freud & Jung in “A Dangerous Method”

History + Psychology + Sex = Awesome!

Fewer movies appeal to people who love psychology more than “A Dangerous Method.” This wonderful film chronicles the relationship between perhaps the two most famous psychologists in the history of the world, our buddies Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. So, how much of the film is actually based on what we know of reality? Let’s talk about three major topics: the portrayal of early psychoanalysis, the relationship between our two protagonists, and the “relationship” (i.e., sexy time) between Jung and his female patient, Sabina Spielrein.

Early Psychoanalysis

There are several specific techniques displayed in the film that do really do show ideas originally developed by Freud and his direct followers. First, in the film Jung refers to “the talking cure,” a term referring to the general techniques that Freud developed. At the time (the early 1900s), what we think of as this traditional form of therapy wasn’t traditional at all, and it was Freud who really expanded the role of simply talking about one’s problems as a way of working through them. You can see the two BFFs sitting next to each other in the photo here.

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As part of the “talking cure,” we see Jung ask Spielrein to sit in a chair while he sits behind her, so that she can’t see his face or his reactions. This orientation was suggested by Freud, so the psychologist wouldn’t have to worry about the patient monitoring his/her reactions as potential judgments. Jung also takes Spielrein through the classic “word association” task (e.g., if I say “boxer,” what word comes to mind? Dog? Fighter? Underwear?). This was also developed by Freud. The final aspect of psychoanalysis I’ll point out is the fairly awesome display of Spielrein’s physical ticks, seizures, and so on. Her mental issues (sexual abuse and resultant fetishes) have manifested themselves as psychologically repressed/denied, but physically displayed in these interesting ways. Freud explored the idea of psychological trauma converting into physical symptoms, and he used the term “conversion disorder” for these manifestations. Psychologists still use this term today.

Freud & Jung: Best Friends Forever?

One of the main themes in “A Dangerous Method” is the fascinating relationship between the father-figure Freud and the protégé Jung. This aspect of the film is both historically accurate and excellently portrayed. Freud was a bit of a megalomaniac, and he surrounded himself with students and followers who were basically supposed to accept his theories without question. He was particularly interested in finding a student who was both (1) male and (2) not Jewish, as he was very concerned (justifiably) about anti-Semitism negatively affecting perceptions of psychoanalysis.

In the film, they meet for the first time and have a conversation that lasts 13 hours. This is actually 100% accurate, according to Jung’s account of the meeting. While they experience a bit of a man-crush on each other for several years (both in the film and in real life), inevitably, they had to break up due to the same reason most of Freud’s students moved on: Jung had some basic disagreements about central tenets in Freud’s version of psychoanalysis. Their professional break-up was fairly nasty in reality (as was portrayed in the film). The main disagreement they had was in the conception of the unconscious. While Freud believed the unconscious mind within each of us was the home for repression, trauma, sex, and aggression, Jung expanded the unconscious to include much more. Labeling Freud’s version “the personal unconscious,” Jung’s “collective unconscious” included instincts and ideas inherited from our ancestors. The most important addition by Jung was his brilliant theory on archetypes, or thematic characters and ideas shared by every culture throughout history.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Of course, the most provocative aspect of “A Dangerous Method” is the illicit and unethical sexual affair between the married Jung and his beautiful and insightful patient, Sabina Spielrein. Spielrein was a real person, a Russian Jewish woman who was one of the first female psychoanalysts. She did have Jung as a therapist, and later in life she had a professional relationship (mostly via mail correspondence) with Freud.

Spielrein developed psychoanalysis by expanding theory regarding sexual instincts, sexual repression, sexual libido… you get the idea. The big question is whether she really had a sexual relationship with her buddy Jung. Unfortunately, history is a bit debatable on this point. She did keep diaries, and according to those, they did the deed. However, there’s not much other evidence. One possible addition is that Jung put a note in the records of the hospital where they met, where he said that she was “voluptuous” and “sensual.” Of course, if I really thought that about one of my students at the college where I work and it led to a sexual affair, I don’t think I would note it in my official records at work. But, there are a few other clues that it was true, and it’s certainly more titillating (haha) to believe it’s true. So maybe it’s ok to just go with it and enjoy the movie.

No matter what, it's a beautiful and well-acted movie, and everyone interested in psychology should check it out. 

Wind Goodfriend, Ph.D. is a social psychologist at Buena Vista University, with research expertise on stereotypes and on romantic relationships. more...

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