Lillian B. Rubin, who at midlife became a sociologist, psychotherapist and best-selling author of books that examined race, class and the sexual revolution from the viewpoint of those caught in society’s shifts, died June 17 at her San Francisco home. She was 90.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Marci Rubin.
A prolific writer well into her 80s, Rubin wrote a dozen books, including “Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-class Family” (1976), a classic sociological study exploring the strains and struggles in blue-collar life; “Intimate Strangers: Men and Women Together” (1983), about how differences between the sexes affect matters such as sexuality, work and parenting; and “Quiet Rage: Bernie Goetz in a Time of Madness” (1986), about racism’s “new respectability” in the wake of the sensational “subway vigilante” case of the early 1980s.
Raised in poverty by an abusive mother, Rubin had a deep personal connection to some of her subjects, particularly “The Transcendent Child: Tales of Triumph Over the Past” (1996) and “Tangled Lives: Daughters, Mothers and the Crucible of Aging” (2000).
“What strikes you is the variety of her work, but I think her driving interest was social class, and then race,” said longtime friend Arlie Hochschild, a retired UC Berkeley sociologist known for her scholarship on women, gender and work. “She had an eye for those who got stuck, lost and left behind.”
Rubin could have been one of the lost. Born Jan. 13, 1924, in Philadelphia, she was one of two children of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. Her father, a furrier, died when she was 5. Her illiterate mother moved the family to New York where she did piece work in the garment industry.
In “The Transcendent Child,” Rubin described her mother force-feeding her vegetables until she choked, swallowed or vomited. Her mother favored her brother, Leonard, and frequently told her “Girls shouldn’t be born.”
“I was seven years old when, bewildered by her rage and hurt by her rejection, I began consciously to remove myself psychologically from the family scene,” Rubin wrote. “It was then that I first said to myself clearly, I won’t be like her.”
She graduated from high school at 15, married at 19 and had a baby soon after. In 1952 she moved with her family to Los Angeles, where she managed congressional campaigns for progressive candidates. In 1959 her marriage ended in divorce.
Through her political work she met Hank Rubin and married him in 1962. They moved to the Bay Area, where he wrote a wine column for the San Francisco Chronicle and ran restaurants that helped spur the Berkeley food movement.
In 1963, Lillian Rubin launched the next stage of her life: At 39 she entered UC Berkeley as an undergraduate. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1967, followed by a master’s in 1968 and a doctorate in sociology in 1971. She worked for many years as a research sociologist at the university’s Institute for the Study of Social Change.
She and her daughter were students at the university at the same time. In 1967, as anti-Vietnam War protests were heating up, they joined a peaceful demonstration at the Oakland induction center and wound up in jail along with 70 other women, including folk singer Joan Baez and her mother. The Chronicle’s Herb Caen noted the arrests of “Hank Rubin’s wife and daughter” in his column.
Rubin began to think of herself as a writer while in graduate school. Her dissertation on the era’s battles over busing turned into her first book, “Busing and Backlash: White Against White in a California School District” (1972), which focused on Northern California’s Richmond Unified School District. “I’m probably one of the few people in the world who thought that the year spent writing her dissertation was one of life’s greatest moments,” she once wrote, “because, in that private process of thinking and writing, I found a calling.”
She was a formidable person. “She was someone who had very strong opinions and no difficulty in expressing herself,” said Troy Duster, who directed the Institute for the Study of Social Change at UC Berkeley when Rubin was a research associate there. “Some people found that difficult and shied away from her. Some people found it refreshing.”
Her forthright style was on display in one of her last books, “60 on Up: The Truth About Aging in America,” published in 2007 when she was 83. Clearly not a subscriber to the idea that 60 is the new 40, she wrote unsentimentally about the physical and emotional trials of old age. “Getting old sucks! It always has, it always will,” she wrote in the opening lines.
In her last years Rubin wrote about death, including a 2012 piece for Salon in which she disclosed her plan to end her life if illness or frailty made it unbearable. Blind in one eye and in pain from a number of ailments, she did not want to wind up like her husband, who died in 2011 after a decade-long decline into dementia.
“She could not brook people who tried to talk about the glories of aging. Her last year was really bad,” said Marci Rubin, who survives her along with a grandson and a great-grandson.
Her suicide plan was, in the end, unnecessary. On the day before she died, she had taken a bus and a cab to the doctor’s office by herself, then spent the afternoon in long conversation with an old friend, Anita Hill, before having dinner with her daughter. She died in her own bed of natural causes.