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Freudian Psychology

A Dangerous Film?

Puts bad light on Jungian analysis and therapy in general.

Clearly, my title is a thinly veiled reference to David Cronenberg's recently-released movie, "A Dangerous Method."

A few days ago, I sat in on a webinar offered by the Ashville Jung Center. During the course of that presentation, the viewing audience was polled on the question of whether the movie might damage the public perception of Jungian therapy. I voted "Yes," along with 56% of the other hundred or so viewers from around the world, a number of whom are Jungian analysts themselves. Interestingly, when polled as to whether we liked the movie overall, 79% of us voted that we did. In other words, many of us found ourselves in the paradoxical position of appreciating the film yet feeling it might damage the public perception of not only Jungian analysis but perhaps psychotherapy more generally.

Warning. If you haven't seen the film, this might be a "spoiler." The movie is about Freud, Jung, and a young woman by the name of Sabina Spielrein. The movie purports to deal with these real people and real events in their lives and relationships and yet, in true Hollywood fashion, quite a bit is pure invention designed to hold the audience's attention. Of course, the average viewer won't know fact from fiction unless they go out and research the historical details, which most won't.

In the Ashville presentation, we learned that the film's title, "A Dangerous Method," derives from a letter by William James written in 1910 to a colleague. In reference to Freud, James wrote, "... he made on me personally the impression of a man obsessed with fixed ideas. I can make nothing in my own case with his dream theories, and obviously "symbolism" is a most dangerous method." Indeed, it is the darker side of the early years of psychoanalysis that Cronenberg focuses on.

In 1904, Sabina Spielrein was an extremely bright Russian Jew who at the age of 19 was brought to the Burgholzli mental hospital with extreme symptoms of what at the time was known as hysteria. The traditional treatment for hysteria was hypnosis, but C.G. Jung, who was a young psychiatrist at the Burgholzli elected to try a new approach, psychoanalysis, or what was sometimes referred to as "the talking cure." The treatment lasted for a period of 10 months, during which her symptoms abated to the point that she assisted Jung in his word-association research, and was finally considered cured. Jung supported her desire to go to medical school, where she eventually became a psychiatrist and then went on to become a pioneering analyst herself, elected to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1911. She continued working with Jung on and off during her years of medical and psychoanalytic training until 1912. She later saw Freud in Vienna.

Many years after her return to Russia in 1923 and her death there at the hands of a German SS squad in 1942, her diaries and correspondence with Jung and Freud were discovered in Zurich.

These documents were thoroughly researched by John Kerr in a doctoral dissertation which later became the book, A Dangerous Method.

The film has a number of artistic antecedents. First there is the docudrama My Name Was Sabina Spielrein, made in 2002 by the Hungarian-born Swedish director Elisabeth Marton, released in the United States in late 2005, and now available on Netflix. I highly recommend this as a fascinating supplement to the Cronenberg treatment. There is another 2002 film, The Soul Keeper, by Italian director Roberto Faenza which is available for a modest price on Amazon and reported to be beautifully executed from an aesthetic point of view. Playwright Christopher Hampton drew upon the story to first write a movie script for Julie Roberts which was to be called Sabina. When Fox turned down that project, he used that script to craft the play, The Talking Cure, for the London stage with Ralph Fiennes playing the role of Jung.

So, back to my central question: Does A Dangerous Method endanger the public's perception of Jungian Analytic Psychology, specifically, and therapy more generally? Certainly, there's no reason why director David Cronenberg should have any vested interest in protecting the image of our profession. After all, his primary calling is to strive for a kind of artistic truth, rather than a literal one, and to fill theater seats.

Certainly, Cronenberg was striving for accuracy. In an interview, Cronenberg says: "What's in the movie is perfectly accurate because it was from a letter-writing period. At that time in Vienna, there were between five and eight mail deliveries per day. If you wrote a letter in the morning, you expected to get an answer by the afternoon. It was their internet. So there were many, many letters. These people were very obsessive about detail and the minutiae of their lives (what their dreams were and what they ate) and what that signifies. We had lots of info. I can back up almost every line of dialogue with quotes from letters."

However, much of the film turns around the dramatic invention that Jung and Sabina had a sexual affair, characterized by bondage and sadomasochistic practices. These lurid scenes are likely to be the ones that most people who see the film will take away with them. There is no concrete evidence of their having had an affair, let alone the sadomasochistic elements so vividly portrayed in the movie.

A Huffington Post interviewer confronts Cronenberg directly on this point, to which he replies: "An invention with justification. I was taken to task by a young woman who had seen the trailer. She was trying to convince me that Sabina and Jung never had sex. In her letters Sabina wrote about Jung in poetic terms, this woman claimed. You could have sexual poetry, I wanted to point out to her. But in her diary and letters to Freud, Sabina wrote, ‘I gave Jung my maidenhood, my innocence.' In the Victorian era that could only mean one thing. They had a sexual affair. We coupled that with how she talked about her father and being beaten, how that turned her on sexually..."

I think it may be a stretch when he says, Sabina's written statement that she gave Jung her "maidenhood," her "innocence," could only mean one thing. After all, so much of their discourse had to do with symbols and it's possible that she was speaking metaphorically. At the same time, I think it's quite well-established that Jung later had a long-term mistress, Toni Wolff. So, I'm not trying to whitewash his character. In fact, the Wikipedia entry on Sabina Spielrein reports, "The historian and psychoanalyst Peter Loewenberg argues that this was a sexual relationship, in breach of professional ethics, and that it ‘jeopardized his [Jung's] position at the Burghölzli and led to his rupture with Bleuler and his departure from the University of Zurich.'" In an interview about the film, Jungian analyst, Dr. Thomas Kirsch says, "I have no idea whether Jung had a sexual affair with Sabina Spielrein. This is a subject which has been written about extensively. Zvi Lothane, a psychoanalyst and historian, wrote of his conviction that they had a sexual affair in his earlier papers. In a later paper he reversed his opinion..."

It's been reported that Freud was aware of and disapproving of Jung's relationship with Spielrein and that this contributed to their eventual rift. Elsewhere it's alleged that Freud had an affair with his sister-in-law which Jung was secretly privy to as a result of correspondence with her and that this knowledge of Freud's hypocrisy contributed to the rift from Jung's side. Oh, the tangled webs we weave!

I have to give Cronenberg credit for having studied the Freud, Jung, and Sabina correspondence so deeply. It's clear that he intended to get at the heart of their relationships. And, it's equally clear that there are places where he improvised or extrapolated on what is known.

As a result, I have mixed feelings about the film.

On the negative side:

• I do think the focus on the lurid aspects of Jung's possible affair with a former patient puts a bad light on Jungian analysis and therapy in general. Cronenberg's film, indeed, comes off as "A Dangerous Method," especially for any young woman contemplating therapy with a male.
• It potentially reinforces the stereotype that therapists are as or more screwed up than their patients.
• It doesn't begin to communicate the charisma of either Jung or Freud, even though Viggo Mortensen, as Freud, and Michael Fassbender, as Jung, were chosen for those qualities.
• Sabina Spielrein became one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis. She made many important theoretical contributions, developed child psychiatry and collaborated with Jean Piaget. Yet, for viewers of this film, she is likely to be remembered only as "the patient who slept with Carl Jung."
• It fails to adequately bring to the fore the talents and eventual accomplishments of Jung's wife, Emma, who became an analyst of note, herself. Nor do we gain insight into her forbearance of Sabina and, later, Toni Wolff.

On the positive side:
• The film succeeds in being entertaining and engrossing.
• The film brings to life many of the complex theoretical ideas of Jung and Freud in a way that the general public can grasp.
• It cuts the godlike figures of Freud and Jung down to fallible, human size.
• Cronenberg brings Sabina Spielrein and something of her impact on the theories of both Jung and Freud into the public and professional arena. For example, I had never heard of her prior to this film.
• It depicts hysteria, a common ailment of the time that we no longer see, in a reasonably accurate fashion. Keira Knightley, as Sabina, does an able job of embodying the extreme symptoms of sexual repression that most of us have only read about in textbooks. According to Cronenberg, her jaw-jutting performance was actually a toned-down version of hysterical patients in historical film archives.
• The film highlights the gulf created by the ethnic and financial differences between Freud and Jung.
• For those with the training to see them, the film brings forth archetypal themes including The Wounded Healer, The Hero, The Handless Maiden, and the myths of female individuation (Peresphone/Kore/Demeter). In other words, a banquet for Jungians and Freudians, alike, to feast upon!
• And, not the least, the film brings to life the dynamics of transference and countertransference, as well as the pitfalls of acting out the intense emotions arising out of the therapeutic caldron.

Next week, I'll be attending a panel discussion at the San Francisco Jung Institute for more discussion of A Dangerous Method. I hope to gain additional perspective there. And, I plan to interview Jungian analysts, Dr. Monika Wikman and Dr. John Beebe in upcoming episodes of my podcast, Shrink Rap Radio. Both have been wonderful guests in the past.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts?

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