Obituary Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (1946–2011)

On 1 December 2011, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, philosopher, biographer, psychoanalyst and friend, died as she walked home from a concert in Toronto.
I report this with sadness but also amazement because to me – like most people who had the privilege of knowing her – Elisabeth was as timeless as the unconscious and just as dynamic.

Young-Bruehl had all the credentials for distinction. She attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied with Muriel Rukeyser, a poet and political activist. She completed her bachelor’s, Master’s and doctoral degrees at the New School for Social Research in New York, where she was a student of Hannah Arendt. It was while writing the biography Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, which remains the definitive study of Arendt, that she became interested in the psychological meaning of political beliefs. Her capacity to synergize the philosophical and psychological, and to deliver both lucidly, became the hallmark of her prodigious work.

In 1983, she entered psychoanalytic training, graduating from the Philadelphia Association for Psychoanalysis. It was during these years that she wrote Anna Freud: A Biography. I first met her in 1988, shortly after the biography was published. She related that she had delayed writing the section on Anna Freud’s death, feeling that she couldn’t bear the finality of it – a sentiment that echoes in me now as I find every reason not to finish this tribute.

This trio of influential women, Arendt, Freud and Rukeyser, helped shape Elisabeth’s scholarship on feminism, gender politics, and especially prejudice. In The Anatomy of Prejudices she proposes that the roots of sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia can be found in the three character types (hysterical, obsessional, narcissistic) found in Freud’s ‘Libidinal Types’.  Recently, she extended her work to include prejudice against children, arguing that failure to protect children from abuse and multiple forms of neglect reflect an ingrained belief about children as objects. Her book on this subject Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children was published this February by Yale University Press. In 2010 she was named the General Editor of The Collected Writings of D.W. Winnicott. I regret that now we will not experience the results of that work.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was a gifted teacher, touching the lives of many students during her years at the College of Letters of Wesleyan University and Haverford College. What one student called her ‘muscular intellect’, coupled with passion and a capacity for a rigorous theoretical analysis of any subject that crossed her path, provided an opportunity rarely encountered in our best programmes.

For the last several years, Elisabeth lived in Toronto, devoting more time to research and writing. With her wife, Christine Dunbar, also a psychoanalyst, she co-founded Caversham Productions, developing psychoanalytic training materials including the comprehensive ‘History of Psychoanalysis from 1900 to 2000’.

Elisabeth was truly sui generis – exuberant, complex, outrageous, hilarious, surprising. I rarely left a conversation with her without feeling renewed and inspired. I’m saddened to lose my friend and such a lapidary spirit within psychoanalysis.


Maureen Murphy