Oprah, Carl Jung, and a Remarkable Essay about Sex and Death

In 2012, Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse. On July 17 of this year Oprah Winfrey broadcast an interview with Matthew Sandusky, Jerry’s abused son.

Oprah’s manner was impeccable, and Matthew’s was heartbreaking. For me the broadcast resonated with a bit of history I’ve been researching about Carl Jung. Yes, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung was a perpetrator—not in a child sexual abuse story but in the sexual abuse of a patient.

It began in 1904. Jung was second in command at Europe’s most prestigious mental institution, the Burghölzli in Zurich. That August, 19-year-old Sabina Spielrein was brought to his emergency room by medical police. She would eventually become his victim, though at the outset he did her a world of good.

Sabina had been raised by wealthy Jewish parents in Rostov-on-Don, a Russian resort city. She spoke four languages fluently by the time she was six. She was intensely musical and generally brilliant. But she was also exquisitely naïve. Wanting to keep her unspoiled, her parents had protected her from any information about sexuality. They’d even bribed her science teachers to alter the curriculum. At 19 she still didn’t know that peg A goes into slot B, or why it might want to.

Perhaps this is why, when she arrived in Zurich with her parents to enroll in medical school, Sabina was overwhelmed by urges she didn’t understand. In a tantrum she destroyed her hotel room—and that’s how she ended up in Jung’s ER, no longer able to speak, and quietly, steadily masturbating.

Using Sigmund Freud’s new psychoanalytic techniques, Jung returned Sabina to health. As soon as she was discharged from the hospital she enrolled in medical school and continued psychoanalysis as Jung’s outpatient. One day she told him that she’d dreamed she and he were twins separated at birth and that, by mating, they would produce a messiah. Quite competently she also explained that the dream was a symbol of her desire to become a psychiatrist and, with him, make the world a better place.

Oh, no, he told her. Sometimes dreams are real.

And so it was that Carl Jung seduced Sabina Spielrein—except that he couldn’t consummate the relationship. It probably wasn’t that he had scruples. He had a wife he didn’t want to lose, one of the wealthiest women in Switzerland, and he had no fortune of his own. Jung knew that he would need to use condoms with Sabina, and that doing that would destroy her illusion that what he was doing with her was savior-making.

Eventually, though, they did consummate. Enraptured, Sabina wrote her mother—who quickly wrote Jung a note something along the lines of “I will have your neck.”

And so Carl Jung slipped into Sabina Speilrein’s medical school mailbox a message that said that he couldn’t be her doctor anymore. It was the early 20thcentury equivalent of breaking up by text.

Days passed with Jung refusing all of Sabina’s attempts at contact, and with Sabina feeling crazier by the second. Finally, she hid a knife in the folds of her skirt and came into his office unannounced. She stabbed him. Police and an ambulance were called. And Jung lost his job, nearly lost his wife, and went fairly quickly mad. Over the next few years as he recovered he wrote The Red Book.

As opposed to Jung, Sabina became eminently strong and sane after the stabbing. She became a doctor … and a psychiatrist … and a psychoanalyst, though she aligned herself with Sigmund Freud, not with Jung. Perhaps her most famous patient was the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Perhaps her most famous work was an essay about the joint urges towards sex and death. It seems to me at least partly autobiographical, considering how close to her own annihilation her first experiences with sex had drawn Sabina. At any rate “sex meets death” was Sabina’s idea, and one that both Jung and Freud drew from liberally in later years, usually without attribution.

Sabina eventually returned to Rostov-on-Don. There, in August of 1942, German soldiers gunned her and her daughters down on the synogogue steps along with the rest of the town’s Jews. Jung, by then, had become the psychoanalyst of a few key figures high in the Reich command. At the time of his death in 1961 he believed he was the Sun God. And England was investigating that particular Sun God as a Nazi collaborator.

We’ve forgotten Jung’s crimes because so many years have passed, and because his victim died well before he did. We won’t easily forget Jerry Sandusky’s as long as his son and other victims are alive and speaking, and as long as people like Oprah offer them a profoundly effective platform.



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