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When discussing Dr. Irene Fast (1928-2019) with those who knew her personally and professionally, the three adjectives that come up most frequently are generous, demanding, and clear. In all of Fast’s endeavors—including research, teaching, and philanthropy—she was unfailingly generous with her time, money, and intellect. She will be most remembered for her exceptional analytical mind and her ability to communicate her thoughts with clarity and precision—and often with an acerbic wit that could sometimes be intimidating. Indeed, in exchange for her generosity, Fast consistently demanded the best from everyone: students, colleagues, and herself. But those who knew her learned quickly that her mordant critiques were at heart truly constructive: born always from a sincere desire to help others grow and achieve excellence. To commemorate Fast’s enduring legacy as a teacher, researcher and mentor, two of her former students and colleagues—Dr. Albert (Al) Cain and Dr. Irving (Irv) Leon—established the Irene Fast Clinical Science Award Fund in 2021.
As an adult, Fast was known for her vast breadth of knowledge and her sophisticated, urbane demeanor, which makes it surprising for many to learn that she was born into a strict Mennonite family in rural Kitchener, Ontario in 1928. After receiving an AB degree from Bethel College in 1951, she joined the U-M Department of Psychology’s graduate program and completed her PhD in Clinical Psychology in 1958. Aside from a few short interruptions, Fast continued her professional affiliation with the Department of Psychology throughout her career and lived in Ann Arbor until her passing in 2019.
Fast’s influence on the Department and on the broader field of clinical psychology was considerable. Her career overlapped with and contributed to a period of great epistemic change in the field, integrating older psychoanalytic paradigms with cognitive and relationship orientations.
Dr. Irving Leon, a practicing clinical psychologist, adjunct professor, and former student of Fast, reflects: “I think one of the best ways to describe her was as a very creative observer. These days, research in psychology is based heavily on empirical evidence—meaning quantitative studies. She instead worked in very painstaking qualitative observations in the tradition of Freud and Piaget. Based on those observations, she would make creative understandings and interpretations, which were often borne out clinically. Admirably she was non-ideological in her work. The department was very psychoanalytic at the time, and while that was her home base as well, she had no qualms about disagreeing with that approach when it was warranted. For example, her view of gender was very different from a Freudian perspective, which understands gender based on male development. Instead she proposed a theory of gender differentiation in which a baby initially identifies with both masculinity and femininity and then goes in one or the other direction as development progresses.”
Indeed, Leon explains that Fast’s most influential work was in the field of early childhood development, about which she published three trailblazing books: Gender Identity: A Differentiation Perspective (1984), Event Theory: A Piaget-Freud Integration (1985), and Selving: A Relational Theory of Self-Organization (1998).
In addition to her books, Fast published dozens of influential papers, including several oft-cited articles on childhood loss and bereavement that she co-authored with Professor Emeritus Cain in the 1960s. Cain, who chaired the Department of Psychology from 1980-1991, was also initially a student of Fast’s before later becoming her colleague and friend.
Of his time working with Fast, Cain quips, “What is really striking to me is that she was a very demanding teacher and colleague. You could say that she was both beloved by many and feared by many! But she was on my dissertation committee, and despite her research focus being different from my own at the time, she was just hugely helpful. And I definitely don’t mean helpful in the sense of, ‘Oh Al, that’s fine!’ She was just very smart and could think her way through someone else’s system and someone else’s research. She was simultaneously immensely helpful and a keen-eyed critic.”
As Leon recalls, “Irene had a most flexible face. She would have been a great mime. If in class discussions you missed her point, she might transform her face into an exaggerated clown-like grimace. If you were way off the mark, she would turn up one side of her face in mock contempt. Were these not staged and repeated reactions, they could be devastating to the young clinical graduate student. But there was no harm done as you knew her dissatisfaction was softened by her exaggerated expressions being playful, not malicious or humiliating. And if you hit a bullseye, a broad smile would appear, her eyes would sparkle and she would beam, softly saying in her inimitable way, ‘lovely.’”
Later in life, Fast’s generosity increasingly manifested in the form of philanthropy, particularly for various causes pertaining to children. Among other ventures, she helped fund a high school in Honduras, donated the funds to buy the well-known animal sculptures in Ann Arbor’s Gallup Park, and contributed significantly to the Ann Arbor food bank Food Gathers. Although Fast never had biological children, Leon explains that she had a deep love and almost preternatural empathy for children, which likely inspired both her choice of charities and her willingness to serve as mentor and de facto surrogate parent for many children and adolescents throughout her life.
To honor Fast’s many enduring contributions—to psychological research, to charitable causes, and to the lives of those who knew her personally—Cain and Leon each donated $5,000 to establish the Irene Fast Clinical Science Award Fund. Money from the fund will be used to support outstanding Clinical Science graduate students and to allow the department to bring in invited faculty speakers to lecture on topics related to Fast’s research interests. The graduate student funding will provide fellowships and funding for research and other related activities.
To donate to the Irene Fast Memorial Fund, please visit the Department’s Giving Page here (link).
More information about Irene Fast and her legacy can be found in her faculty memorial page here (link).