A Most Dangerous Story
How a Portlander rewrote the history of psychoanalysis
By Carl Currie
When he’s not editing psychoanalytic manuscripts in his Brackett Street apartment, you can often find John Kerr at Ruski’s, the West End watering hole where I work. That’s how I met this unassuming man of about 60. A transplant from Brooklyn who moved to the neighborhood in the late ’90s, Kerr is quick-witted and gracious company. He has welcoming Irish features and a seemingly endless supply of stories, most dating back to his days in New York. Kerr has so many stories that you could know him for quite some time before hearing the one about how he spent eight years reconstructing the scandelous circumstances that led to an infamous feud between Carl Jung and his mentor, Sigmund Freud.
Kerr turned that research into a book, A Most Dangerous Method, published by Knopf in 1993. Last year, the film A Dangerous Method, directed by David Cronenberg and based on Kerr’s book, was released nationwide. (It came out on DVD March 27.)
The book tells, in great detail, the densely woven tale of Sabina Spielrein, one of the first female psychoanalysts. In 1904, she was admitted to a mental hospital near Zürich suffering from hysteria. Jung applied Freud’s new theories to her case, and she was considered one of the earliest examples of successful psychoanalytic treatment. Nearly a century later, it came to light that she was also one of the earliest patients to develop a sexual relationship with her psychoanalyst.
The modern chapter of Spielrein’s story picks up in 1977, when her personal papers were found in the basement of the Palais Wilson in Geneva. The papers included detailed diaries and correspondence to and from Freud and Jung. The documents got into the hands of an Italian psychoanalyst and author named Aldo Carotenuto, who wrote a book about them in 1980 titled A Secret Symmetry, but Carotenuto revealed little about Jung’s letters to Spielrein.
Screenwriter Paul Schrader, who’d just gotten famous for writing Taxi Driver, caught wind of the book and optioned the rights to produce a script. He needed a research assistant. Enter Kerr, a New York University student who was working as a psychologist at the time and fishing for a dissertation topic so he could earn a Ph.D.
Kerr laughed as he recalled the huge collection of psychoanaytical literature Schrader had amassed for the project. “And he read them all. It was very impressive,” he said. “This guy did his homework.” Plus, Schrader had an agreement with Carotenuto that gave him access to the unpublished Jung letters.
A professor at NYU had told Kerr about a self-described “guerrilla historian” of the psychoanalytic movement named Peter Swales. “I thought, ‘If Peter Swales really exists, he ought to have my job,’” Kerr said. A few months into working with Schrader, Kerr met Swales and was blown away. “He was this marvel,” Kerr said. “You cannot believe the revelation he was. He just knew Freud’s life in day-to-day detail.” Freud’s role in the affair was a matter of considerable controversy, so it was crucial to get his side of the story straight. “With things where I would have intuition, he would have facts,” Kerr said of Swales. “This was no longer clinical hunches, this was better.”
Schrader decided to abandon the project in 1981, leaving Kerr with a nearly complete narrative but no script to convey it. At a Christmas party that year, he crossed paths again with the NYU professor, Robert Holt. Kerr told him the story of Jung’s affair with his patient, and that Swales had deduced an affair between Freud and his wife’s younger sister, Minna Bernays. Furthermore, he and Swales believed Jung had known about Freud’s affair, and vice versa, causing “a situation of stalemate and mutual blackmail” that ended their historic friendship.
Holt said this would be an excellent subject for Kerr’s dissertation. Given the shock waves such a paper would cause among the revered analysts’ disciples, Kerr wondered if anyone would be willing to sponsor it. Holt offered to do so without hesitation. “If Bob Holt would sign off on this, then I’ve really got something,” Kerr recalled thinking, “because he’s a tremendously careful guy, and if he’s willing to go down the line with this, it won’t be considered crackpot. It won’t be sensational. So I started the dissertation.”
It took Kerr eight years to untangle all the details of the complex relationships between the three psychoanalysts. By the time he had finished, the dissertation had grown into a book. Kerr sent the work, in various stages of completion, to numerous publishers, but it didn’t generate much enthusiasm. Then a friend who worked at Random House offered to pass a draft along to an editor she had met, Peter Dimock.
Dimock called Kerr and told him he loved the story but hated the extensive discussions of psychoanalytic theory throughout the book. Spielrein’s interactions with Jung and Freud humanized the two titans of psychology. That was the book’s biggest draw.
In early 1993, after a substantial rewrite, A Most Dangerous Method went to press. Soon afterward, the influential psychoanalytic critic and author Frederick Crews cited Kerr’s book in an essay for The New York Review of Books titled “The Unknown Freud.” Crews emphatically denounced and rejected Freud and his theories in the essay, prompting a flood of letters and inciting what became known as the “Freud Wars,” an intense academic debate over Freud’s legacy. To Kerr’s disappointment, however, fellow psychiatrists did not take much interest in his book.
Not long after Crews’ essay appeared, Dimock got a call from Julia Roberts’ production company requesting a meeting with Kerr to discuss acquiring the film rights to the book. Kerr spent two days in Manhattan with the director of Roberts’ company and screenwriter Chris Hampton. Like Schrader before him, Hampton had long been interested in Carotenuto’s book, but had struggled to develop a narrative. In A Most Dangerous Method, Hampton found his story.
A deal was drawn up, but when it came time to sign, the agent for Random House balked. “I’m telling them to sign it, and the agent is saying, ‘No, this is not a good deal. I don’t think Roberts can do it,’” Kerr said. “But I wanted Hampton tied to the project. See, Roberts was still seen as the comedienne of Pretty Woman, and this was a more challenging part. Spielrein was a very ill women doing very unattractive things.”
The deal was inked, but the project sputtered several years later, though Hampton was able to salvage the rights to his screenplay. “If you wanted to know what I had to do with it from there?” Kerr reflected, “Nothing. Hampton took the ball and ran with it.” Hampton adapted the script into a play that opened in London in 2003, with Ralph Fiennes portraying Jung. Kerr received a small commission, but little acknowledgement that his book was primary source material. A few years later, Cronenberg entered the picture and Hampton reworked his earlier script.
Nearly a decade passed before Kerr heard, via a rumor, that his book was finally being adapted for the screen. He contacted Random House, and the publisher confirmed that they had been in contact with Cronenberg’s production company.
“You see,” Kerr lamented, “people congratulate me about my movie, but then I really didn’t have anything to do with it at this point … I got paid handsomely for this, but that’s after most of my adult life being broke from doing this thing, supporting this story.”
The movie went into production in early 2010, and was released late last year by Sony Pictures Classics. Michael Fassbender plays Jung, Viggo Mortensen is Freud, and Keira Knightley plays Spielrein. The movie didn’t score big at the box office, but critics appreciated its suspensefulness and kinky sexuality. Kerr has nothing but positive things to say about the actors’ performances.
Asked what parts of the film he liked best, Kerr surprisingly mentions two scenes at the end that are entirely invented. “They may come from Hampton’s imagination, but they truly capture the emotional states of the three principles and the various deals they had made with themselves.”
I asked Kerr what he hopes will come of the movie. “I’m hoping that a lot of patients see the movie and start talking about it in their therapy,” he said with a smile. “That will force the analysts to go back and read the book.” His smile turned to a grin. “And won’t they be surprised?”