A Dangerous Method

On Tuesday evening, the 3rd of April, I went with my friend Judy Harders to see A Dangerous Method, directed by David Cronenberg. It is a movie about the psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and more specifically the relationship between Jung and his patient Fraulein Sabina Spielrein.

The Talking Cure

Spielrein was a young Russian woman living in Switzerland, who was severely disturbed, and became Jung’s patient in a Zurich clinic run by Eugene Bleuler. Jung experimented with Freud’s newly developed “talking cure”. Patients with physical symptoms that were of emotional rather than organic origin could talk to Freud and express associations of ideas, and it was found that they experienced relief of their symptoms. Freud was inundated with patients seeking the talking cure. Spielrein also obtained some relief from her immediate symptoms. She was able to talk to Jung about abusive punishment by her father, when she was a child.

Ongoing emotional problems

The limitation of the talking cure, though, was that the long-term effects of emotional trauma were not resolved. Even today, this may take years of psychotherapy. People who have experienced childhood abuse, even today, are considered to be “difficult patients”, who often have an intense and turbulent relationship with their psychotherapist. This was the case with Jung and Spielrein.

An affair between doctor and patient

Breaking all the rules and committing what is now called a “boundary violation”, Jung had an affair with her. There is another rule which is of major importance in psychotherapy – that is that, as far as the patient in concerned, anything goes, provided that you talk about it but do put it into action. You are allowed (even encouraged) to say whatever is on your mind, regardless of whether it is anti-social or taboo. The therapist should accept this, and then work with you on the issues raised. For example, if you say “I am so angry I have been thinking about murdering you” your therapist should not become defensive and say “I have been so good to you, what have I done to deserve this?” He or she should accept the comment and explore why you are so angry. Maybe the therapist has made a mistake and hurt your feelings. Maybe also this is an unintended repetition of some greater hurt in your childhood, which you then can explore and overcome. In Jung and Spielrein’s case, instead of talking about her abuse by her father, they acted it out, with Jung becoming a father figure in a sado-masochistic sexual relationship. It is interesting that when Jung first told Spielrein that they should end their relationship, he said it was because he was a married man, not because his behaviour was unethical. Nowadays, the Royal Australian College of Psychiatrists has a zero tolerance policy about doctors who have sex with patients, whether past or present. Jung and Spielrein used the pretext that since he had “cured” her and she was no longer paying him a fee, she was not his patient. This is no longer considered to be an excuse, because a patient remains under the emotional influence of the therapist even after the end of treatment.

Jung and Spielrein

Maybe it was done for the sake of introducing some scenic beauty into the film, but you notice that some of Jung’s sessions with Spielrein were held sitting on a bench in the park. This change of location from Jung’s clinic to the park would nowadays be regarded as a boundary violation in its own right, the beginning of a slippery slope.

The falling out between Freud and Jung

Jung had a falling out with Freud over differences in their theories. Freud believed  that a thin veneer of civilisation covered a seething mess of biological drives. He believed that anchoring the psyche in biology was scientific. Jung thought there was something else in the human mind – a search for the spiritual, or something which goes beyond biological drives. Freud accused him of mysticism, and said that it would undermine the credibility of his precious psychoanalytic movement.

Freud certainly failed as the leader of the psychoanalytic movement when he tolerated Jung’s behaviour, and the film suggests that he used his knowledge of Jung’s misbehaviour to put pressure on Jung to support Freud’s ideas at psychoanalytic society meetings.

It is ironic that Jung seems very “Jungian”. At first appearance he is a good, kind, compassionate doctor, with a caring relationship with his wife. However there is another side to his character, which Jung would have called his “shadow”, which makes him irresistably drawn to an intense and tempestuous relationship with the intelligent, creative but turbulent and damaged Spielrein.

Freud, who was Jewish, escaped from Vienna just before the Second World War , after getting visas arranged by members of the British psychoanalytic movement, and went to England with his family. Spielrein went on to be a therapist herself, but I can’t help thinking that she still carried the fallout from her unresolved emotional issues, after her relationship with Jung. She, also Jewish, was killed by the Nazis. Jung lived on to be a leading psychotherapist with unique theories especially about the role of symbolism in the human imagination.

What I thought of the movie

I thought the film was very well done. The cinematography was beautiful. Keira Knightley put in a magnificent performance as Spielrein. Michael Fassbender was a convincing Jung, and Viggo Mortensen as Freud was OK, but a bit stereotyped and one-dimensional. The relatively minor role of Jung’s long-suffering and lovely young wife, Emma, played by Sarah Gadon, was a bonus. My one complaint was that the trainers of the superb horses in the film did not appear in the credits.

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1 Comment

  1. Davinder

     /  May 18, 2012

    This is a bit part of the story of 2 giant thinkers , some thoughts and notions are well crystallised in your summary, I get very energised to look at all these notions critically and sometimes unable to end them neatly. Such is the nature of human mind, the more you expolre the more complicated it seems.Davinder Kochar


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