Q & A with Dr. Thomas Kirsch About A Dangerous Method

Posted on January 12th, 2012 by Dr. Blumenfield

In our previous blog we reviewed the recent movie titled A Dangerous Method which is about Carl Gustav Jung. We asked Dr.Thomas Kirsch, a well known Jungian analyst to answer some questions about this movie.

                       Dr. Thomas Kirsch **

Dr. B: Can you comment on the relationship between Freud and Jung as depicted in this movie?

Dr. Kirsch : I thought that David Cronenberg’s portrayal of the relationship between Freud and Jung was fair, showing the strengths and weaknesses of both characters. Jung’s initial enthusiasm for Freud and his theories, as well as his reservations about ubiquity of the sexual origin of neurosis, are well portrayed.  Freud is seen as sympathetic to Jung’s countertransference to Sabina Spielrein — a highly probable response, given what we know of their early relationship.  The movie shows the historical beginning of the study of the countertransference dimension of psychoanalysis as seen through the relationships between Freud, Jung and Sabina Spielrein.The scene on the boat going from Bremen to New York was an especially good rendition of the spirit of Jung’s account of the incident, if not the details. In the movie Jung tells his dreams to Freud, but Freud does not reciprocate.  Actually, according to Jung in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Freud did tell a dream, but refused to offer his associations . Jung asked why. ‘He said, “But I cannot risk my authority!” At that moment he lost it altogether.’

Dr. B: Jung is shown to believe in premonitions, telepathy and perhaps other non scientific unprovable ideas. In what way is this a fair or unfair representation of his theories?

Dr. Kirsch: I find this question biased towards a  misinterpretation of Jung’s openness to investigating phenomena as his belief in them, rather than seeing it as a representation of his forward-thinking attitude toward of the scientific method; the latter is the way it was accurately set forth in the movie. Famous physicists like Nobel prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli and other equally prestigious scientists have shown a great interest in these parapsychological phenomena. The areas of parapsychology, synchronicity, chaos theory, and subjects related to these fields have received an increasing amount of attention by scientists from a number of fields, including psychoanalysis in recent years. A recent issue of Psychiatric Annals (Vol 41, #12, December, 2011) is entirely devoted to the subject of meaningful coincidences and Jung’s concept of synchronicity, a central part of his study of the archetypal layer of the psyche. In a late scene in the movie, the meeting in Freud’s study when the loud crack resounded, was an apt portrayal of Jung’s interest in what he saw as the exteriorization of psychic tension. Freud refused to find any psychological meaning in the phenomenon. My understanding is that, historically,  Freud was not interested in such phenomena. Furthermore, Jung’s interest in parapsychology has been used by psychoanalysis to cast suspicion upon Jung’s credibility, thus demonstrating that Jung was “unscientific” and truly a “mystic”.  I think the movie portrayed the differences between Freud and Jung on that subject accurately and sympathetically.

Dr.B: Do you believe that Jung had a sexual affair with his patient Sabina Spielrein and if so, should this influence the judgment of Jung’s contributions to psychoanalysis?

Dr. Kirsch: 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. Let me give a personal vignette from my experiences around this subject. In 1983 I attended a public lecture by Bruno Bettelheim at the Stanford University Medical School. His subject was the Mistranslation Of Freud, but instead he spoke, to an audience who had no access to documented facts, about the still unpublished correspondence between Sabina Spielrein, Freud and Jung, A Secret Symmetry by Aldo Carotenuto (published the following year.) Bettelheim was emphatic that Jung and Sabina Spielrein had had a sexual affair . In the discussion. I asked him how he could be so sure, and he became characteristically offensive toward my challenge of his view of the truth.  In fact, I was familiar with the researches of Carotenuto and knew about the correspondence he had been offered from the basement of the Psychological Institute where Sabina Spielrein had been working prior to returning to Russia..  It is interesting that Spielrein had left all of her papers behind when she returned to Russia in 1919.

Whatever the truth, it is unfair that we should judge Jung’s contributions on the basis of his relationship to Sabina Spielrein.  Jung was only 29 year old in 1904, just at the start of a long career in a still unformed field of study, depth psychology.  To the movie’s credit, it treats Jung sympathetically in this respect. If the full truth is admitted, in the early days of psychoanalysis there were many such sexual liaisons.  Ernst Falzaeder, a psychoanalytic historian, has mapped out the various sexual liaisons between early psychoanalysts and their patients.  It is a remarkably long list. Many of those patients themselves became psychoanalysts. If Jung did have a sexual relationship with Spielrein, his was one among many.

Furthermore, Jung knew about the close relationship between Freud and his sister-in –law, Minna Bernays.  I myself have seen the signature of Freud where he signed himself and Minna into the guestbook of the Hotel Schweizerhof in Majola, Switzerland as husband and wife.  This is highly suggestive, yet Freud loyalists have long protested that this proves nothing about the nature of their relationship.  Jung in an interview with Kurt Eissler for the Library of Congress to be released in 2013, does not expressly say that they had an affair, but he does report that both he and his wife Emma had observed, when they visited Freud for the first time in Vienna in 1907, that Minna  was au courant with Freud’s ideas (in contrast to her sister Martha) and that she looked at Freud adoringly.

There is no question that Jung and Sabina Spielrein had a mutually erotic transference/countertransference relationship. From this distance in time it is going to be very difficult if not impossible to ascertain to what extent it was acted upon.  But is that the most important question to ask?  This was the beginning of psychoanalysis, and we know that Breuer had left the field because of this issue.  The fact is that Sabina Spielrein was helped by Jung’s psychoanalytic treatment of her and that Jung encouraged her aspirations, demonstrating his respect for her.  That she became a physician, a psychiatrist, and an early member of Freud’s psychoanalytic group in Vienna surely demonstrates that his good influence was not misplaced.  The movie also highlights her role in broadening Freud’s libido theory. Her influence on Freud’s theory of the death instinct is documented in a seldom cited footnote in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.


Dr. B: How will a movie such as this one or the play by Christopher Hampton, upon which it is based, influence the legacy of Jung?

Dr. Kirsch:I have heard from some of my colleagues that they are disappointed by the portrayal of Jung in the movie. On the basis of this, as well as its sensational trailers, I was prepared to not like the portrayal of Jung.  Certainly the spanking episode is over the top.  The role of Otto Gross, and the fact that Jung and Gross were engaged in a mutual analysis, was one of the strongest historical, as well as dramatically pivotal, aspects of the film.  Gottfried Heuer, a Jungian analyst in London and the president of the Otto Gross society, believes that Otto Gross influenced Jung deeply in 1908 toward greater sexual freedom.

Unfortunately, there is a glaring error at the end of the movie.  When Sabina asks if Jung is involved with another patient, Jung says yes, and furthermore tells her that Toni Wolff is half-Jewish.  That is a complete fabrication!  Toni Wolff comes from one of the oldest Christian families in Switzerland.  Her family tree can be traced back to the beginnings of the Swiss Confederation in the twelfth and thirteenth century.  Christopher Hampton was told of his error before his play The Talking Cure opened in London, but he chose to leave Toni Wolff as half Jewish, and to perpetuate the error in his film version.  Furthermore, many prominent psychoanalytic historians have taken Hampton’s  drama as a statement of fact!  Diedre Bair has documented Toni Wolff’s genealogy on page 713, note 27, in her biographical work, Jung.


I was especially taken by their rendition of Jung’s plea to Spielrein for a reciprocation of the caring patience he had shown toward her in her own state of terrible inner conflict.  This is a faithful rendering of his state of confusion, as documented in their published correspondence, as well as alluded to by Jung in MDR and demonstrated in his Red Book, although this is generally regarded in part as his emotional reaction to the ending of his relationship with Freud.

Dr. B: Did you enjoy this movie and would you recommend it to others?

Dr. Kirsch: I did enjoy the movie.    I thought that both Jung and Freud were well represented and I especially found myself liking the Jung of Michael Fassbender.  The role of Sabina Spielrien was superbly played in all its dramatic potential by Keira Knightly.  The one person who was not well represented was Emma Jung.  She was a much more earthy and powerful person than the haughty, frail creature see in the movie.  That was a real disappointment, because nothing I have heard about Emma Jung was represented, either by the role or by  the actor Sarah Gadon.

I certainly would recommend others to see this movie with the caveats I have raised.  Overall, I found myself admiring and empathizing with David Cronenberg’s portrayal of Sabina Spielrein and both Freud and Jung.  I hope that mine is a more widespread reaction.  If so, it may mark a shift in public awareness of Jung’s value as a pioneer and major contributor to our knowledge of the psyche.

The misrepresentation of Toni Wolff, though, poses a major problem, especially because of the later accusations against Jung for his alleged anti-Semitism. When portrayed as having begun yet one more intimate relationship with a (half) Jewish woman, when he is already widely seen as anti-Semitic, Jung the man comes across as a character lacking integrity.  As the repetition of Hampton’s error by prominent psychoanalytic historians proves, drama can wield a powerful influence over even the most scholarly of minds.

** Thomas Kirsch M.D. is a graduate of Yale Medical School, the residency program in psychiatry at Stanford and the CG Jung Insitute of San Francisco. He is Past President of  the Jung Institute of San Francisco, past vice-president and president of the International Association for Analytical Psychology. He has written numerous chapters in books on Analytical Psychology and is  Co-editor of the Jungian Section in the  International  Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis, Psychology,and Neurology. He also is author of The Jungians, a social history of the Jungian movement and is co-editor of book: Initiation: The Reality of an Archetype. Dr. Kirsch has written  numerous book reviews and is a well known  lecturer on Jungian subjects. Most recently he has written the preface of a publication of the  correspondence between his father , Dr. James Kirsch who was a psychoanalyst  and Jung titled C.G. Jung/James Kirsch Correspondence, published by Routledge, London 2011. ( There are 150 letters between the two men.) Dr. Thomas Kirsch is in private practice in Palo Alto, California.

I would  would like to thank Dr. Kirsch for answering these questions for PsychiatryTalk-MB


One Response to “Q & A with Dr. Thomas Kirsch About A Dangerous Method”

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