Psychoanalyst, biographer and child wellfare advocate Elisabeth Young-Bruehl dies, aged 65

Yale author Elisabeth Young-Bruehl died on Thursday near her home in Toronto, aged 65 . As a biographer Young-Bruehl is known for her acclaimed biographies of Hannah Arendt and Anna Freud, and as a psychoanalyst she is renowned for her pioneering work investigating the psychological roots of ideology and contemporary society’s prejudicial attitudes towards children. Today we look at the life of this extraordinarily influential person, a great figure in psychoanalysis and philosophy. 

It is with great sadness that we learn of the death of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, who died aged 65 near her home in Toronto. Young-Bruehl published many books, and her work as a biographer and psychoanalyst has been enormously influential, touching the lives of many and shaping the disciplines she worked in.

Young-Bruehl grew up in Maryland and Delaware, where her mother was a homemaker and her father taught golf. After leaving college (where she studied poetry) Young-Bruehl moved to New York to finish her undergraduate studies at The New School, where she enrolled as a Ph.D candidate in Philosophy. It was here that she met the German-born Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who became her mentor. After earning her Ph.D. in 1974, Young-Bruehl took a faculty appointment teaching Philosophy at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

After Hannah Arendt’s death at 69 the following year, several of Arendt’s émigré friends approached Young-Bruehl to write her biography. The resulting book Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World was published in 1982, and is still the seminal work on the political theorist’s life. The book explores, among other things, the evolution of Arendt’s left-wing political beliefs and her years as a refugee in Paris and New York. Its fusion of intellectual and psychological writing would later become a hallmark of Young-Bruehl’s work.

Writing Arendt’s biography gave Elisabeth Young-Bruehl an increasingly strong interest in psychoanalysis. In 1983, she enrolled for clinical psychoanalytic training in New Haven, Connecticut, where she met several of Anna Freud‘s American colleagues, and was invited to become her biographer. This led to another seminal book Anna Freud: A Biography, published in 1988. In the biography Young-Bruehl argued that Anna, who became a distinguished child psychoanalyst, was born into an intense sibling rivalry with psychoanalysis itself, which she could only overcome by submerging herself completely in her father’s field.

Following her work on Freud, child psychoanalysis became an integral part of Young-Bruehl’s development. In the early 90s she left Wesleyan and moved to Philadelphia, where she continued her psychoanalytic training at the Philadelphia Association for Psychoanalysis, graduating in 1999. She then started a private practice as a therapist, first in Philadelphia and later in New York.  Throughout this time, she continued to publish books, focusing particularly on the psychological roots of ideology – personal, cultural, national and above all prejudicial. On the subject of prejudice she published collections of essays as well as the award-winning The Anatomy of Prejudices.

In contrast to the popular belief that multiple forms of prejudice are merely variations on a single theme, Young-Bruehl argues in The Anatomy of Prejudices that each strain of prejudice (she examined racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia) was rooted in one or more of the three characterological types (obsessional, hysterical and narcissistic) as described by Sigmund Freud in his essay Libidinal Types.

In recent years Young-Bruehl developed her work on prejudice, looking in particular at child psychology and becoming a firm advocate of child wellfare. Her forthcoming book Childism: Understanding and Preventing Prejudice Against Children is due to be published posthumously from Yale in the coming weeks. She argues that “childism”, a hitherto  unrecognised prejudice, legitimates and rationalizes a broad continuum of acts against children, from neglect to sexual and physical abuse, poverty, inadequate education and lack of health care.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s work has been shaped and influenced by important figures her her life, and in turn she has shaped and influenced the development of multiple disciplines, as well as those around her, with her insightful and pioneering writing. Yale University Press is proud to have worked with her. As her publisher and friend, we owe her our thanks.

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