Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Who Probed Roots of Ideology and Bias, Dies at 65
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, a philosopher, psychoanalyst and biographer known for her lives of two influential women, Hannah Arendt and Anna Freud, died on Thursday near her home in Toronto. She was 65.
The cause was a pulmonary embolism, her spouse, Christine Dunbar, said.
A former doctoral student of Arendt’s, Ms. Young-Bruehl was concerned throughout her work with the psychological roots of ideology — personal, cultural, national and above all prejudicial.
Besides “Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World” and“Anna Freud: A Biography,” her best-known books include “Mind and the Body Politic,” a collection of essays on history, feminism and psychoanalysis; “Why Arendt Matters,” a brief for its subject’s continued relevance in the 21st century; and “The Anatomy of Prejudices,” a psychoanalytic study of the wellsprings of bigotry.
Ms. Young-Bruehl’s first biographical subject was Arendt, the German-born Jewish political philosopher known for books including “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” in which she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe what she saw as the utter psychological ordinariness of perpetrators of the Holocaust and other historical atrocities.
Published by Yale University Press in 1982, “Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World” explores the evolution of Arendt’s left-wing political passions; her brief, youthful affair in the 1920s with her professor Martin Heidegger, later a Nazi Party member; and her years as a refugee, first in Paris and later in New York. In a sense, the book is a study of the life of the mind in both its aspects, intellectual and psychological, something that would become a hallmark of Ms. Young-Bruehl’s work.
“Anna Freud,” published in 1988, centers on the youngest of Freud’s six children and the only one to take up his profession. Ms. Young-Bruehl argued that Anna, who became a distinguished child psychoanalyst, was born into an intense sibling rivalry with her father’s best-known offspring — psychoanalysis itself — which she could overcome only by submerging herself completely in his field.
In “The Anatomy of Prejudices” (1996), the word “prejudices,” plural, is significant: Sociological models of prejudice had often characterized its diverse manifestations as simply variations on a single theme. Ms. Young-Bruehl, by contrast, examined four strains of bigotry — racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia — arguing that each had a distinct cause.
Each strain, she maintained, was rooted in one or more of the three characterological types (obsessional, hysterical and narcissistic) described by Sigmund Freud in a 1931 essay, “Libidinal Types.” Anti-Semitism, she wrote, springs from the obsessional character, with its adherents fearing Jews as dirty and aggressive, whereas racism stems from the hysterical type and is rooted in sexual fear.
Ms. Young-Bruehl’s books were largely well received, though some critics took her to task for rejecting sociological explanations of phenomena like prejudice in favor of the unverifiable speculation that can attend a psychoanalytic approach. Others praised her as a skilled synthesist who brought a wide breadth of learning to bear on all her work.
Her book “Childism,” which argues that America’s systemic failure to spare its children abuse, neglect and educational privation is born of a deeply ingrained cultural prejudice against them, is to be published by Yale next month.
Elisabeth Bulkley Young was born on March 3, 1946, in Elkton, Md.; her mother was a homemaker, her father a golf pro. After attending Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied with the poet Muriel Rukeyser, she completed her bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York.
She went on to take master’s and doctoral degrees in the field there, doing her Ph.D. under Arendt, who was then on the New School faculty.
Ms. Young-Bruehl, who later trained as a psychoanalyst, taught for many years in the College of Letters of Wesleyan University and afterward at Haverford College.
Ms. Young-Bruehl’s marriage to Robert Bruehl ended in divorce. Besides Ms. Dunbar, a psychoanalyst whom she married in Toronto in 2008, she is survived by two siblings, Herbert Gibbons Young Jr. and Lois Young-Southard; a stepdaughter, Zoë Lucas; and two step-grandchildren.
With Ms. Dunbar, Ms. Young-Bruehl founded Caversham Productions, a company that makes psychoanalytic training materials.
As a biographer of a psychoanalyst who was also a psychoanalyst herself, Ms. Young-Bruehl had a singular perspective on the process of empathic ingestion that is essential to the biographer’s art.
“The usual, indeed, the clichéd way of describing empathy as ‘putting yourself in another’s place’ seems to me quite wrong,” she wrote in her essay “The Biographer’s Empathy With Her Subject.” “Empathizing involves, rather, putting another person in yourself, becoming another person’s habitat.”
She continued, crucially: “But this depends upon your ability to tell the difference between the subject and yourself.”