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Subject to Biography: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Writing Women’s Lives (Book Review)

Author:  Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth
Publisher: Harvard University Press, 2000
Reviewed By: Gemma M. Ainslie, Fall 2003, pp. 51-52

Young-Bruehl’s Subject to Biography belies the caution that one should not judge a book by its cover. In this instance, the painting “Oh, Mama, will it ever be the same?” by Ronna Harris suggests at first glance a single woman at her full-length mirror and her reflections, while a second glance reveals three different dark-haired, pink-gowned women, dressed and posed similarly, in perspectival retreat from the viewer, variations on a theme of femaleness yet each retaining definingly idiosyncratic characteristics. As introduction to Young-Bruehl’s work, the cover aptly and evocatively suggests readings and re-readings, the empathy of woman biographer for her woman subject, the finding of one’s self —in one or another way—in the other, and the melancholy yet liberating response to the painting’s query, “No, it will always be different.”

Defining her perspective as “psychotheoretical criticism,” in this collection Young-Bruehl invites us into her method and her genre via 15 essays, written and presented or published between the late l980s and the mid-l990s, and divided into two parts—The Practice of Psychobiography, and Feminism and Psychoanalysis. As a whole, the book can, I believe, be read as part of Young-Bruehl’s intellectual-autobiography, illustrative of and subject to her multiple lenses—psychoanalyst, feminist, historian, and biographer—and in pursuit of her own compelling questions. While comment on each of the essays is beyond this review, I will respond to several.

In Part I of the collection, emphasis is on the practice of biography and the subjects whom Young-Bruehl has pursued. This section opens with “The Biographer’s Empathy with Her Subject,” in which she clearly and compactly suggests types of empathy that a biographer might employ. In most of the remainder of the first half of this collection, Young-Bruehl continues to apply her theory of biographical study, especially to Anna Freud and to Hannah Arendt.

Acknowledging that her work on Arendt is seated in felt similarity of style, an intellectual kinship forged at least in part via her participation in Arendt’s seminars, Young Bruehl enters her study of Arendt via what she terms “like-to-like” (concordant) biographer’s empathy; a likeness in “mental life and, more fundamentally, type of character” (p. 20). In two long essays she parses feminism’s engagement with Arendt’s work and considers commentary on her work in three “generations,” offering detail on Arendt’s major writings and foundational arguments, and viewing her work as reflective of her character style. In “Hannah Arendt among Feminists” via positing that Arendt was “trying to point out a vast modern political dilemma—a potentially or insipiently tragic dilemma” (p. 125), Young-Bruehl cues us as to a similar undergirding in her own work: the attempt to obviate the history and inevitability of politicalization of psychoanalysis. Further, she uses the essays on Arendt especially well to introduce one of her own favored theoretical concepts, “psychoanalytic characterology.”

Among this first group of essays, “Reflections on Anna Freud: A Biography” is both particularly self-disclosing and far-reaching. In it Young Bruehl explores “what it was like to write Anna Freud’s biography,” comments on “the dimensions of Anna Freud’s life that most recommend her as an exemplary figure to those interested in women living and working together,” and considers “the relationship between Anna Freud and her father, the father of psychoanalysis and her psychoanalyst” (p. 45). (Far be it from Young Bruehl to shrink away from a task!) The most impressive feature of this piece is that, with uncharacteristically scant documentation, she posits that Freud’s analysis of his daughter Anna Freud may have served as the template for his theory of female development. As worthy of consideration as this thesis is, I believe it warrants support beyond the “evidence” that Freud’s picture of female development is consistent with “Anna Freud’s type” (p. 51).

More salient to a reading of this book as a glimpse of Young-Bruehl’s perspective on psychoanalysis, and in parallel to her entering her interest in character types into “Hannah Arendt Among Feminists,” she uses this essay to launch discussion of bisexuality and her commitment to the existence of “many stories of female development…some of which are pathological and some of which are not” (p. 51). Thus, early on in the book we are exposed to intellectual puzzle that guide and channel Young-Bruehl’s curiosity. She returns to these themes—psychoanalytic characterology and the plurality of stories of female development —again and again through this collection.

As one of a generation trained “in her manner” by those who left Hampstead in the 1970s to teach and practice Anna Freudian-ly in Ann Arbor, I am compelled to respond to “Anna Freud as Historian of Psychoanalysis.” In times of politicization of theory, the repetitive inevitability of which is so well outlined in the last chapter of this book, it is both important and satisfying to be reminded of conceptual contributions that supercede schismatic tension and contain pluralities. In this arena, Young-Bruehl cogently reminds us that Anna Freud’s developmentally centered, equidistant understanding, rather than a politically skewed stance, offers clarity, allows for complexity, and contains apparent contradictions in both research and clinical modes: “…nothing in the last two decades has made (Anna Freud’s) approach any less relevant or cogent or her historical example as a respondent to social conditions ay less important” (p. 85). I concur.

Part II of the book, Feminism and Psychoanalysis, begins with “Re-reading Freud on Female Development,” a scholarly ”theory analysis exercise” (p. 175) emphasizing that Freud did not review or rework his early theories of female development on the basis of his later theoretical positions. As historian, Young-Bruehl traces Freud’s emphasis on masochism, superego development, narcissism and inadequate sublimation in female development, and points out that “internal inconsistencies that would have shown up had Freud made a retrospective review of his earlier formulation…did not appear” (p. 173). In this context she asserts her ties to the Freudian vision: “with regard to female psychology, I hope for a resurgence of plurals…plural stories of …types of masochism, types of superego formation, types of narcissism, types of creativity. I have tried to argue that these plurals were latent in Freud’s view of female psychology and need only interpretation to reveal themselves” (p. 173). Her argument here, as in her position that Freud’s view on female development was forged in his analysis of his daughter, is stated quite matter-of-factly yet, in my eyes, lacks sufficient supportive evidence.

In “Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Anorexia Nervosa” Young-Bruehl offers her critique of feminist psychoanalysis as having deleted libido theory from its tenets and therefore excluded an understanding of eating disorders as related to adolescent wishes and appetites; she goes on to examine abandonment of sexual and aggressive impulses in favor of good-enough mother and relatedness and concludes that in such theorizing there is no true intrapsychic and therefore the probability of internal conflict is overshadowed by references to cultural realities. This position is extended in the last chapter in the book, “What theories Women Want,” to an historical perspective on the bad/rejecting mother as centerpiece to pseudo-analytic understanding in the l950s and the abusive/traumatizing parent as its corollary in recent years.

In that last essay, Young-Bruehl takes as her far-reaching project the multiple implications of the paradigm shift in American psychoanalysis. The theme of the plurality of developmental courses for female development is again central. Young-Bruehl critiques object relational, self-psychological and interpersonal psychoanalytic stances, and concludes that in all of these, treatment is conceived of as the provision of adequate mothering. Extending this position into a definition of psychological health, she posits that in such theories “(t)he ideal personhood…is a mothering personhood” (p. 239).

She also critiques the emphasis on gender differences as resulting in the position that one sex or gender is better than the other, the most dangerous consequence of which is that it “valorizes—rather than analyzes—female pathology, making women’s illnesses into heroic endeavors to reject masculine impositions” (p. 251).

As her curiosity and investigations trace an arc from her disappointment at not finding Martha Freud in “Looking for Anna Freud’s Mother,” to her disappointment at the absence of an oedipal father in many contemporary feminist positions, Young-Bruehl poses and pursues big questions, traces large arcs, circumscribes and navigates large areas in what she names in the last essay of the book her “psychotheoretical criticism.” At the same time, these essays are quite intimate: she describes how she came to “biographical tenderness” regarding Anna Freud, and asserts that she and Hannah Arendt are both “productively narcissistic.” Similarly, by struggling again and again to assert her clearly personal commitment to psychoanalytic characterology as a productive mode of inquiry and to multiple storylines for normal female development as the only viable avenue for learning more about women’s lives, Young-Bruehl “does” autobiography. Even in the introduction, Young-Bruehl pointed to these intellectual commitments and so, I believe they warrant further attention. Both of these favored concepts are seated in an underlying principle of ego psychology, the synthetic function, by which the ego creatively and uniquely, idiosyncratically constitutes a symptom, or a creative endeavor, or a life story. So there is a theme within a theme, and I would like to know more.

Are there disappointments for the reader? Yes. Young-Bruehl’s commitment to her own intellectual agenda is clear; however, I believe the strength of her arguments in a number of the essays included would have been extended if there was a piece on characterology and another on the implications of a plurality of developmental story line for women. She comments in the introduction on her deflation at the reception a presentation she made on characterology got—I would have liked to judge for myself. Regarding the second, it seems a significant question that if the fixed, unidimensionality of female development is something to be deconstructed, what additional benefits will a multiple story-line theory offer? If there are multiple lines, would she posit nodal points? If multiple lines are the answer, how does she respond to the remaining categories—masochism, superego deficits, etc.?

Perpetually critiquing spaces upon which one would assume her to stand—the feminist, the psychoanalyst, the biographer,—while at the same time pushing their limits, Elisabeth Yong-Bruehl offers a self-portrait in this intellectual autobiography, one that puts her in the company of her subjects, one that, in words she uses to describe Hannah Arendt, paints her as a woman of unattenuated “independent-mindedness.”

Reviewer Note

Gemma Ainslie practices and supervises in Austin, Texas. She is on faculty of a number of Institutes and training programs. Recent interests include the interface between psychoanalysis and film, poetry, and memoir.


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Date created: 2003