I spent most of my time as a psychology major trying to sneak Freud back onto the syllabus, like a 10-year-old hiding Spiderman comics beneath the cover of a math textbook. But I never noticed Freud’s footnote in Beyond the Pleasure Principle to “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being” by Sabina Spielrein—and knew nothing about her before the curtains opened on Sabina, Willy Holtzman’s historical drama about Freud, Carl Jung, and the woman who brought them together.
At 19, Spielrein, the granddaughter of a Russian rabbi, was admitted to the Burgholzli Hospital in Zurich, where (in the stage version, anyway) Jung offered a cure combining free association, dream analysis, and Wagner recordings. Not only did Jung fall for his schizophrenic patient, but his case history got the attention of Freud, who’d been looking for what Sabina calls “a Shabbos goy” to spread his theories beyond bourgeois Vienna.
Though Jung had the affair, the real sparks fly when Sabina—who went on to become an analyst—shares the stage with Freud. Two Jews among Gentiles, they speak “a common language,” she says. Too bad the playwright couldn’t hear it: Holtzman has Freud spouting aphorisms like “Practice never made a perfect Jew,” and calling Jung a meshugenah.
Early on, in Interpretation of Dreams, Freud casually recalled stories of anti-Semitism, and later wrestled with his heritage more fully in Moses and Monotheism. Sabina knows enough to reference the latter, but doesn’t know what to do with it, reducing Freud to caricature. Sure, he had a penchant for Jewish jokes, but he wouldn’t have been so Borscht Belt.