Lillian B. Rubin, a sociologist and psychotherapist who wrote a series of popular books about the crippling effects of gender and class norms on human potential, died June 17 at her home in San Francisco. She was 90.
Her daughter, Marci Rubin, confirmed the death.
Dr. Rubin wrote a dozen books and hundreds of magazine and online articles in later years that explored the fault line between the received truths of contemporary life and people’s real lives.
She asked why the American dream was a Sisyphean heartbreak for so many in “Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family”(1976), examined the identity crisis of middle-aged women in“Women of a Certain Age: The Midlife Search for Self” (1979) and considered why marriage so often fails in “Intimate Strangers: Men and Women Together” (1983).
The first expectation gap she plumbed, she said, was her own. She graduated from high school at 15 but was 39 before she enrolled in college. By landing a secretarial job straight out of high school, she said, she had fulfilled her family’s highest expectations.
“For a girl of my generation and class, college was not a perceived option,” she wrote in the introduction to “Worlds of Pain.” To her mother, a seamstress, “a daughter who worked at a typewriter in a ‘clean’ office — yes, this was a high achievement.”
She was married at 19, had a daughter and worked at various jobs for over 20 years before beginning her university studies in 1963. By the early 1970s, she had become a clinical psychotherapist and earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.
Insights she gained from her own reinvention set the course for much of her later research, she wrote.
Her books examined not only how grand social forces limit individuals’ expectations, but also how some teachers, religious leaders and parents enforce those limits, burdening children with debased views of themselves.
In “The Transcendent Child: Tales of Triumph Over the Past” (1996), Dr. Rubin explored why some people are crushed by such impediments in early life and why others manage to overcome them.
“I experienced all the insecurity of poverty and the pain of discovering that my teachers looked upon my widowed, immigrant mother as ignorant and upon me as a savage child,” she wrote in her introduction to “Worlds of Pain.” “I learned young to be ashamed.”
In a phone interview after Dr. Rubin’s death, Marci Rubin said “The Transcendent Child” was her mother’s most personal book. “It went to the heart of her trying to figure out who she was,” she said.
Lillian Breslow was born in Philadelphia on Jan. 13, 1924. Her parents, Sol and Rae Breslow, met and married in the United States after their families had immigrated from Ukraine, where they and other Jews had been attacked during ultranationalist pogroms after World War I. Both worked in the garment industry.
Lillian’s father died when she was 5, and her mother took her and her older brother, Leonard, to live with relatives in the Bronx. Dr. Rubin wrote poignantly about her relationship with her mother, who worked long hours and pushed her children to succeed in life.
The trouble, she wrote, was her mother’s different definitions of success for boys and girls. While urging her son to get a college education, she pushed Lillian to “marry up,” meaning a college-educated man. Four years after graduating from high school, she wrote, “I did just that.” Her first marriage, to Seymour Katz, a certified public accountant, ended in divorce in 1959.
She met her second husband, Hank Rubin while working as a political organizer for progressive Democratic candidates in Los Angeles, where she and Mr. Katz had moved in the mid-’50s. They married in 1962.
Dr. Rubin entered Berkeley as a freshman in 1963 and received her B.A. four years later. She earned her Ph.D. in 1971. After receiving postgraduate training as a psychotherapist, she began a dual career as a sociological researcher and a private therapist. She was appointed a senior research associate at the Institute for the Study of Social Change at Berkeley, where she worked for many years while writing her books.
Besides her daughter, Dr. Rubin is survived by a grandson and a great-grandson. Hank Rubin died in 2011.
All of Dr. Rubin’s books were based on interviews with her subjects — hundreds of them for some books — leavened with sociological commentary written in an accessible style.
Dan Cryer, reviewing “Just Friends: The Role of Friendship in Our Lives” in The Miami Herald in 1985, praised Dr. Rubin as “the kind of writer who gives pop psychology a good name.”
“Just Friends,” “Intimate Strangers” and “Women of a Certain Age” were best sellers. “Worlds of Pain” and a 1994 follow-up, “Families on the Fault Line,” continue to be standard texts on many university campuses.
In later years, Dr. Rubin wrote often for the online journal Salon about politics, culture and the unpleasant — and, she said, rarely discussed — realities of aging. Sixty was not the new 40, she wrote, and 80 was not the new 60.
Old age is “a time of loss, decline and stigma,” Dr. Rubin wrote, and no one gains by denying it. At 88, she admitted, she had mixed feelings about living, and mixed feelings about dying.
“Ambivalence reigns,” she wrote, “in death as well as in life.”