Psychologist stayed true to herself

WAY BACK WHEN

Tribute: As therapist, author, feminist and, briefly, actress, Penelope Pearl Russianoff never wavered.

September 16, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The death last week in New York of Penelope Pearl Russianoff is reason to recall the life of the noted psychologist, therapist and writer, who was born in Baltimore and spent her early years growing up in Roland Park.

Russianoff, who is also remembered for her cameo role in the feature film "An Unmarried Woman," died at her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She was 82.

Considered an expert on teaching women how to assert themselves, Russianoff had been on the faculty of the New School for Social Research from 1960 until the late 1990s, in addition to maintaining a private practice.

Russianoff, who grew up on Hawthorne Road, was the daughter of Raymond Pearl, the renowned Johns Hopkins University biologist and American Mercury science editor, who died in 1940.

"That house in Roland Park was a wonderful place to grow up. It was always full of famous, creative and stimulating people," she told The Evening Sun in a 1978 interview.

One of those whom Russianoff came to know was H.L. Mencken, who shared her father's love of music and was, like him, a member of the Saturday Night Club, a musical club founded by Mencken.

As a student at Roland Park Country School, Russianoff reached the height of 6-foot-2 by the time she was 14.

After graduating from Roland Park, she earned a bachelor's degree in 1939 from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where she had studied psychology and philosophy. She received a master's degree in clinical psychology in 1941, and a doctorate in the subject in 1951, from Northwestern University.

A tall, slender woman with blue eyes and swept-back gray hair, Russianoff was throughout her life a commanding presence.

"I've always, without thinking of it, been a feminist therapist. Both my mother and father were achievement-oriented and intellectually-oriented people. So I was never programmed to be a sex object," she said in the Evening Sun interview.

"At 6-2 and less than 100 pounds, you can imagine that I didn't look like a sex object. I think my parents really didn't expect me to marry," she said.

The author of two books, "Why Do I Think I'm Nothing Without a Man?" - a national bestseller in 1982 - and "When Am I Going to Be Happy?" in 1989, Russianoff advanced the theory that people are unhappy because of an accumulation of learned emotional bad habits, beginning in childhood.

She claimed that women "must unlearn the helplessness they learned at an early age," reported the New York Times.

"Helplessness, she held, can lead to serious problems like overeating, battering, alcoholism, drugs and sexual dysfunction. Marriage and male companionship are fine, she asserted, but a woman must be able to do without them. It is good for a woman to have a man's attention, she said, but self-esteem must not depend on it. She tried to show her clients how to communicate with themselves and others."

As Russianoff told The Sun in 1988, "We're constantly telling children, `Don't do this; don't do that ...' We tell girls not to be too bright. We tell boys to be strong, to know how to change tires, to be ever ready sexually. We make them so nervous about what they're `supposed to be,' they don't think about what they want to be."

She also observed that "negative bad habits" are so powerful that they "drive out the positive emotions. How many times have you seen someone fall in love with a `wonderful' person? But then they immediately turn on their flaw-detector and start nit-picking that person."

Russianoff suggested that such bad habits could be broken by not "buying into the culture that tells you things like, `If you don't make a lot of money, you're a failure.'

"Learn to talk tenderly to yourself. Pat your face if you make a mistake, and realize that you're human ... Learn to accept praise. Stop trying to avoid rejection, but instead learn to cope with it. Take risks and know that your self-image doesn't hang on everybody loving you all the time," she said. To avoid the paralyzing effects of depression, Russianoff advised that victims should put a "statute of limitations on it. ... Give yourself 15 minutes to really wallow in it, then clean the kitchen cabinets vigorously."

In 1978, director Claudia Weill, a patient, suggested to Paul Mazursky that he let Russianoff play the therapist in his film, "An Unmarried Woman," featuring Jill Clayburgh as Erica, whose husband leaves her for a younger woman.

In her only film role, Russianoff plays the soft-spoken Tanya, who helps get Erica back on track.

"The script called for me to say, `If I were you, I'd go out and get laid,' but I said to Paul, `I can't say that. I'd never say that,'" she told The Evening Sun.

Russianoff and the director reached a compromise for the scene, which was filmed in her penthouse apartment.

With much of her dialogue improvised and unrehearsed, Russianoff looks at the sobbing Erica and says in a very reassuring therapist-type voice, "I'm me and you're you. But if I were you, I'd go out with my friends a lot the way you're doing."

When asked what the film's major statement was, Russianoff explained, that "A woman doesn't have to be married in order to live a life."

Enjoying what she termed "instant celebrityhood," which brought her both new patients and condemnation from colleagues, she explained that making the movie was "great fun, especially because I could change the lines," according to the Times obituary.

In her personal life, Russianoff's first marriage ended in divorce. She later married Leon Russianoff, a noted clarinetist and educator, who died in 1990.

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