12.03.2011

IN MEMORIAM: ELISABETH YOUNG-BRUEHL

On Thursday night I went to a performance of Philip Glass' opera Satyagraha, about the early life of Gandhi. I left in a trance, spellbound by the music and the puppetry. In front of Lincoln Center a large crowd had gathered; it took me a moment to recognize the barricades, the police vans lining Broadway, the gorgeous blue-green sheen of a large puppet of the Statue of Liberty, covering her eyes in shame, or was it misery? It was a peaceful demonstration; the protestors were chanting; it seemed as if sidewalk had become proscenium. The audience surged forward for another performance. Several people were standing at the entrance to the opera house, giving away copies of a broadsheet: The Occupied Wall Street Journal. I took one, and went home.

I was restless that night, even though it was late; I couldn't sleep. Glass's music is lyrical and lulling and I kept humming fragments that bubbled up. So I sat and read The Occupied Journal. I began thinking, intensely, of my friend Elisabeth, who has written so much about revolution and democracy. Elisabeth was due to arrive on Sunday for a week of lectures and research work in the Winnicott archives, an enormous project into which she had just thrown herself with her usual whole-hearted, single-minded absorption. I kept thinking, as I read the Occupied, how much she would enjoy the essays in the paper--the entire movement--and how much I would enjoy talking to her about its profound significance. I set the old-fashioned broadsheet on top of a pile of books and magazines I had put aside to share with her when she arrived.

Early the next morning came the terrible, choked phone call from Elisabeth's beloved spouse, Christine Dunbar, that Elisabeth had suddenly collapsed and died as they were walking home from a concert.


I feel unmoored at this loss. Elisabeth was an anchor of my life.

I met Elisabeth when I was 19 years old; I had gone to her office to beg to be allowed into a seminar on the ancient Greeks she was giving at Wesleyan. I will never forget her piercing blue gaze as she listened to my answers to questions: what have you read of philosophy? what do you understand of Plato? what are you reading now? It was terrifying, and exhilarating. I had that rare feeling of meeting someone and recognizing instantly that the person would be very important in my life.

Elisabeth was my teacher for three years at university; together we read our way from Plato to Heidegger. Our teacher. So many of us were smitten by the life of the mind, under her tutelage. I remember someone asking, What is the point of a degree in philosophy? What happens with jobs? Elisabeth fixed that gaze on us, and said: "No matter what you are doing--even if you are washing dishes--at least you will know how to think, and have something interesting to think about." Her friend Jerry Kohn said what is true for so many of us: "Some of the best conversations I ever had in my life were with Elisabeth."

In those student days, I became Elisabeth's cat-sitter (she was enthusiastic about taking in strays), her apartment-sitter, her book-sitter, when she traveled. (Elisabeth had a surprisingly strong nesting instinct.) And then, finally, I became her friend. In those days she had long hair and wore high boots with heels, and she was a terrific dancer, too; faculty often joined students at parties.

Mainly, though, we talked, about everything, from the tyranny of governments to the tyranny of bad love affairs.

We remained close over the years. Elisabeth wrote a biography of Hannah Arendt, and then another of Anna Freud. She left academia, enrolled at Yale and became a psychoanalyst. She wrote a profound book called The Anatomy of Prejudices, to which she was just recently adding the last prejudice, the one, she would say, that she had not understood needed to be there, so that she had long felt Anatomy was incomplete. That book, Childism, about prejudice against children, is about to be published by Yale University Press. It grew out of her work as a doctor, listening to stories of child abuse and realizing that the voices of the abused, the voices of children, had not yet been heard, not been understood.

Elisabeth was as proud of Childism as anything she had ever written. We planned to throw a party for her at my apartment in January to celebrate her life, and the life of her beloved partner--"just to celebrate everything!" was what she said. Because of Christine, she felt her life was perfect. She had waited a long time to find such love--which, actually, found her, to her great surprise; she would say that she had worked hard to get to a place to be ready for such consequential, anchoring, defining love. One of my favorite of her books is Cherishment: A Psychology of the Heart--because in it she wanders into an entirely new territory in her appreciation of Eastern thinking. I think I will reread that book this weekend, though at the back of my mind lurk some unhappy memories surrounding its publication...

Our lives were so oddly interwoven. We discovered with delight one evening that our families were connected early in this country's history; her ancestor, Brigham Young, crossed the country with one of mine, John Browning. We noted that we might have known one another through many lifetimes. When I was confronting a "management crisis" on my staff at House and Garden, with two editors who had to work together, but could not stop fighting, I sent them to Elisabeth to learn to work out their problems.


Elisabeth left New York and moved to Toronto to be with Christine. They bought a small schoolhouse in the country and made it into their country escape. It was lined with books, of course, and it was there that I dove into Christine's trove of Iris Murdoch novels. On the wall, on a blackboard, if I recall this detail correctly, Elisabeth and Christine had chalked up a line from the Auden poem, The More Loving One: "If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me." It was there, Elisabeth explained as we laced up our boots for a hike along the Bruce Trail, to remind each of them of a path out of any argument. Naturally, I puzzled over this for months. I was entranced, though, at the thought of the conversations that led to finding this line, engraving it on their hearts. This was the kind of thing Elisabeth meant, when she talked about doing "the work" of love. She published a collection of essays called "Where Do We Fall When We Fall In Love?" and the title alone remains one of my favorite. 





How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.




Elisabeth followed my trip to India through this blog, and told me that the picture she found most moving was of Gandhi's glasses. I understood why; I had taken the picture for her. We are both terribly near-sighted, and developed a habit of inward gaze as children. But Elisabeth was as engaged with the world as anyone I have ever known. She insisted on a clear-eyed assessment of the days' events, she was brutally truthful and frank and brave. She had become furious about the Oil Wars into which America had been led, and deeply worried about what was happening to our democracy. She had a dazzlingly synthesizing mind. And she was also a genuinely good, unpretentious, warm, person, kind to everyone she met in the course of everyday life.

Elisabeth was unrelentingly analytical, and she was funny, too. We began to talk about climate change, and I told her how I wanted to do something to fight polluters; she gave me advice about Moms Clean Air Force, sent me ideas about writers I should know, donors to call. One evening, she fixed me with that look, and said, "Well, you've always been drawn to messes. This is one you can spend the rest of your life cleaning up."

Satyagraha is a term developed by Gandhi, it loosely translates as "truth force"; I think of it as an insistence upon the force of truth. It is a tenet of nonviolent resistance. Elisabeth's entire life was Satyagraha. It is nearly impossible for me to believe she is no longer with us--and now I think her soul brushed past my cheek in farewell, on her unexpected way out of this world we shared.

Elisabeth exerted such a strong gravitational pull in my life that I was able to set my moral compass by her. I think she did this for many people.

I cannot count all the times I did things because I wanted her to be proud of me, or the times I read things that I wanted to share with her, or the times I saw things I wanted to puzzle out with her. She remained my teacher, always, and she always will be that. But she was a beloved and caring friend, an older sister with a deeply maternal bent. Elisabeth was the person who insisted I find a psychiatrist in New York when, one evening, an angry episode I had bottled up broke out of me. She sent me to Peter Buckley, who simply saved my sanity, as I worked out a tangled knot of anger, guilt and despair I felt over a previously botched round of therapy with a doctor who had lost hold of his boundaries.

How clever I felt when, at dinner one night, I urged her to start her own blog, as it would be a simple and gratifying way to share her thoughts with readers--don't worry, it's easy, you can do it--and she found marvelous designers to help her and launched "Who's Afraid of Social Democracy?" Elisabeth always had several ambitious, fascinating projects going at once. She was inspiring that way because nothing intimidated her. The only defeat that ever frightened her was the defeat of lost love--and from that she was redeemed, in the love she and Christine nurtured.


I cannot even believe that Elisabeth's steady, penetrating gaze is shuttered forever. Oddly enough, I had written her, on Thanksgiving, to tell her I knew it must be hard to be having her first Thanksgiving without her dear mother, who had recently passed--I just wanted to tell Elisabeth how much I loved her, and how important she had always been to me--not something I was in the habit of doing. How glad I am I did. Now I am scrambling madly to internalize everything I ever got from her, to remember everything, to capture it, because I will never hear from her again. Or is that right? Where do we go when we fall away from life? I would ask Elisabeth. And I can almost see her, through my tears, insisting on the force of truth that she modeled. And now I can hear her:

Cherish the time you have. Cherish this world. Be gentle, but be strong. Live in love.



Please, feel free to leave your own tribute to Elisabeth in the comment section; it is comforting for all of us to celebrate her.




1 comment:

Susanna Klassen said...

i have never read any of Elisabeth's books but came across the titles while doing some research. I am looking for the book, Where do We Fall When we Fall in Love? i have been unsuccessful as it is out of print and used book stores don't seem to have it. Is there any way I could get a copy?