Spielrein Biography

Sex versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein

The cover of the US edition

Who was Sabina Spielrein? Her dramatic life story is most famous for her notorious affair with Carl Jung, dramatised in the film A Dangerous Method starring Keira Knightley. Yet she was a woman who overcame family and psychiatric abuse to become an original thinker in the field of sexual psychology and psychotherapy.

Drawing on close readings of Spielrein’s diaries, professional papers and correspondence, Sex Versus Survival is the first biography to put her life and ideas at the centre of the story. John Launer examines Spielrein’s tumultuous affair with Jung and its influence on both of their lives and intellectual journeys, and her key role in the rift between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, and in the development of psychoanalysis.

A Russian Jew, who lost her life in the Holocaust in 1942, Spielrein’s innovative theories have chiefly been suppressed because of her gender. Sex Versus Survival is a significant stage in the rediscovery of the life and ideas of an extraordinary woman and an acknowledgment of her prominent role in the history of psychology.

Order ‘Sex versus Survival’ in the UK and Europe here

Order ‘Sex versus Survival’ in the US here 

Note for researchers: a complete Spielrein bibliography, formerly on this page, now appears on the website of the International Association for Spielrein Studies


‘Sabina Spielrein has been presented to the world as an erotic go-between linking Freud and Jung in the steamy days of the beginnings of psychoanalysis. In this remarkable, ground-breaking work, John Launer shows just how distorted and limited a view this is of a woman who was a pioneer of psychoanalysis and of scientific thinking in psychology. With grace and scholarly passion, Launer offers a radical new biography that places Spielrein where she belongs – as a figure of majorimportance in twentieth century thought.’ Professor Stephen Frosh, Birkbeck College, London and author of For and Against Psychoanalysis

“Dr. Launer argues cogently. and at times passionately. that Spielrein was not only an influence on Freud and Jung but an originating, and honestly female, analyst in her own right . . .The account of her anonymous end, in the Holocaust, is painfully moving.” D. M. Thomas, author of The White Hotel

‘This wonderful book is the first full-length biography in English of Sabina Spielrein. Mainly remembered, if at all, as someone who had an affair with Carl Jung, when she was a patient of his, she was also, as John Launer reveals, a highly original thinker whose work is only now becoming appreciated.’ Professor Michael J. Reiss, Institute of Education, University of London

‘An eminently readable, detective story-like history of the early years of psychoanalysis and the fascinating woman at its heart. Spielrein’s intuition of a trade-off between survival and reproduction is now a cornerstone of evolutionary theory. But for sexism, anti-Semitism, World War I, Stalinism, and the Holocaust, psychoanalysis might long ago have been grounded in our only scientific theory of life.’ Professor James Chisholm, University of Western Australia and author of Death, Hope and Sex: Steps to an Evolutionary Ecology of Mind and Morality 

‘This is an absorbing account which makes imaginative use of documents’ Times Literary Supplement   Full review

In this gripping, archive-based, detective-like tale, Launer debunks depictions by Cronenberg and others of Spielrein, her affair with Jung, and Jung’s troubles on this account with Sigmund Freud’ Times Higher Education Supplement   Full review

‘Launer is not just Spielrein’s biographer, he is her champion. He gives the neglected female at last the place she deserves in the development of the talking therapies’ Jewish Chronicle  Full review

‘An impressively researched, documented, and readable biography. This is long overdue but worth the wait.’ Jewish Book World  Full review

‘I’m impressed by the humane dignity with which he recounts her lurid life’ Spectator  Full review

‘An excellent book and a labor of love, a gripping account of Spielrein’s life and work, illuminated by a narrative of contemporaneous historical events.’ Journal of American Psychoanalytical Association  Full review (Athens password needed).

This memorable book finally gives [Spielrein] the recognition she deserves.’ The Lady Full review

‘An authoritative and riveting biography’ World Association for International Studies  Full review 

An impressively researched, documented, and readable biography, this is long overdue but worth the wait.’—Library Journal (Starred Review) Full review

 ‘Launer’s portrayal of Spielrein is a loving tribute to a visionary woman whose ideas were ahead of their time…an engrossing biography that shines a light on the trails blazed by this fascinating woman.’ Psychoanalytic Review  Full review  (Athens password needed)

‘[Launer’s] position allows him vividly and with great sensitivity to portray the family background of Spielrein, the circumstances of her mental suffering and deterioration, her time as a patient at the Burghölzli (the mental hospital in Zurich), her medical, psychoanalytical and educational career, and her collaboration with many of the iconic personalities of the early twentieth century’ Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Journal Full review (Athens password needed)

‘John Launer’s excellent Sex versus Survival’ … offers a timely reconsideration of a woman whose life story has often been simplified.’ Jewish Quarterly

Incredibly well-researched and beautifully written….A highly positive recommendation for everyone who is interested in the history of psychology and its most influential scientists. Pick up this book and spend a few days immersing yourself in the mind and story of 20th century scientist Sabina Spielrein.’ In-Mind Full review

‘A sensitive study’ Erotic Review‘ Full review

‘A forgotten psychoanalyst’s fevered life. Tavistock Clinic senior staff member Launer asserts that Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942) deserves more attention for her groundbreaking work: the first study of the internal logic of schizophrenic speech, her insights into children’s imaginations, and her use of Darwinian theory in her hypothesis of ‘the inseparable connection between death and sex.’ Kirkus Reviews

‘John Launer’s just-published biography positions itself as the definitive biography of Sabina Spielrein. Presenting new scholarship and new documentation, the readable and informative volume supersedes the partial, often sensational studies of the past.’ National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis News and Reviews 

‘Sex Versus Survival would make a valuable addition to many curriculums. And Launer writes well for the layperson, too, explaining psychological principles throughout the book …This is an approachable biography for anyone interested in the beginnings of psychoanalysis — and in strong women in the sciences, who did and still do face adversity.’ PsychCentral  Full review

‘This biography is an invaluable resource for understanding Spielrein’s significance, her progressive thinking, and her groundbreaking contributions to the history of psychoanalysis.’ Publishers Weekly Full review

‘In Sex versus Suvival, John Launer attempts to fill in the missing pieces of Spielrein’s life, while simultaneously elevating her many achievements in the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis … Using hospital records, her own diaries and other secondary sources, this work presents a story that is remarkably antithetical to the particularly ridiculous and deservedly eschewable David Cronenberg version of Spielrein’s life (A Dangerous Method)). Launer attempts to illuminate the components of a life that have suffered erasure and weak interpretation. He does so with a clear and measured depiction of his subject.’ Gender Focus Full review

‘This book [is]a remarkable and an ambitious piece of research. Thanks to it, not only do we now have a first landmark biography in English of one of the most moving heroines of early psychoanalysis, but we are also given evidence of the significance and the variety of her thoughts.’ Psychoanalysis and History Full review (Athens password needed)

Listen to John Launer’s presentations and interviews about ‘Sex versus Survival’: 

Presentation at the Freud Museum, London

Interview on Monocle 24 radio (scroll down and click ‘Play’, interview starts at 24.21)

‘Cherchez La Femme‘: a panel discussion based on ‘Sex Versus Survival’ on Saturday 21st February as part of Jewish Book Week, with Lisa Appignanesi, Stephen Frosh, Eva Hoffman, Rachel Lasserson and John Launer

Read John’s invited contributions to magazines and blogs:

‘Psychologist’ Magazine 

‘Psychology Today’

‘Jewish Renaissance’

‘Russia Behind the Headlines’

Duckworth/Overlook blog(12 November 2015)