Mary Catherine Bateson

Full Circles, Overlapping Lives

VTR Date: June 1, 2000

Guest: Bateson, Mary Catherine


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Mary Catherine Bateson, Ph.D.
Title: “Full Circles, Overlapping Lives”
VTR: 6/1/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is Mary Catherine Bateson, a distinguished cultural anthropologist who is Professor of Anthropology and English at George Mason University in Virginia.

Now, Professor Bateson has been here with me here before, once to discuss the compelling memoir she wrote of her parents, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, entitled, With A Daughter’s Eye, and then a decade ago when in Composing Our Lives she wrote an enormously touching study of contemporary women … “of five artists”, as she described her book, “engaged in that act of creation that engages us all … the composition of our lives”.

Well, now Mary Catherine Bateson’s wise and evocative new Random House volume, Full Circles, Overlapping Lives draws upon an impressively frank cross-generational seminar she conducted at Spelman College, historically a college for African-American women in Atlanta, Georgia, taking us — as Deborah Tannen has written — “on a stirring journey through the wonder and challenge of life and self in our fast-changing world”.

So, of course, I want first today to ask my guest if “change” is her theme (and it seemed, I admit, uncomfortably so to me as I devoured this totally captivating book), then how should we understand her title, Full Circles, Overlapping Lives, which seems to assure us instead that it’s really all the same, that nothing really changes, that what “goes around” really does “come around”. Dr. Bateson?

BATESON: It’s a fair question. I think the people that I know who seem most fulfilled in their lives are living lives they could not have imagined. That’s what change means. And that, that’s what we have to work out … how to live full, fulfilled lives without expecting to control those lives. And then, the other half of the title … you know … you were referring to Composing Our Lives before … the book I wrote ten years ago … it deals with the notion of improvisation. The fact that we have no scripts … we’re on stage without a script because the world is changing so fast. And more and more I’ve wondered ‘what is it like” to have two, three, four, five people in the same house, all making it up as they go along. The overlapping of our lives involves an even more complicated improvisation. When you look at it in terms of relationships, than when you look at it in terms of individuals.

HEFFNER: Well, you say, “we’re all strangers” in a family, in a home. And that struck me so. What did you mean by that?

BATESON: Well, in the past a lot of what made other people’s behavior predictable was the fact that they knew what was expected of someone that age, that gender, that relationship. And we interacted partly in terms of social roles. A man might say “I know my wife, she has dinner on the table at 6:30 every night. She’s predictable.” If she comes home and says, “I’ve decided to go to law school, make your own dinner,” he’s going to say, “I never knew you, you’re somebody different.” But the reality is that she’s growing, and he’s growing and the alternative to stagnation is encountering each other again and again as strangers. And the other thing that I say is “you know you may meet a stranger across the breakfast table, but you may also meet a stranger before you get to the breakfast table”. That first look in the mirror … because you’re changing and growing.

HEFFNER: Are you saying that to comfort the discomforted, those who … like myself … find this constant changing world difficult to deal with. I’m an old man … very difficult to deal with. Are you saying this was never the case before or this hardly had been the case before, but anthropologically speaking we live in such a different time?

BATESON: Yes, indeed, and it’s not going to go back. We’re going to have to live our lives moving into a strange land again and again, with the change going on around us. But it’s not so much that I’m trying to comfort those who find it difficult. Though I would like to encourage them to find it exciting as well as difficult. There are people who feel guilty when they’re surprised by the behavior of people they love. And people who feel angry when they see a new side of someone else. I think it’s helpful to realize that you can love someone without fully knowing them. And that, in fact, that is the “norm;” that’s what we do with our children. We love them, we’re committed to them, and yet, they’re a constant surprise. And I do believe that in this world of rapid change that is a comforting thought.

HEFFNER: How did we deal with this in the past? Change didn’t really take place?

BATESON: It took place slower, there was more time to adjust to it.

HEFFNER: And how do we adjust to it now? How do we know … not how do we adjust … how do we learn to adjust because obviously what you’re talking about, learning to adjust.

BATESON: There are people who already know how …

HEFFNER: Who are they, and how did they learn.

BATESON: I heard today that you’ve been doing this show for 40 years …

HEFFNER: 44 years.

BATESON: 44 years. Excuse me.

HEFFNER: That’s what I mean about being an old man.

BATESON: But there are different people all the time, you’re reading new books, you’re thinking new thoughts, you’re addressing new issues. You are in a constant process of encountering new ideas. That’s one way you learn. That’s one kind of example. I was brought up as a child to be … to expect cultural differences, to go into another house and be told in this house we say grace before we eat; in this house we sit on the floor and I make a picnic of it. And that my job was to figure out the pattern in the new place … so it doesn’t frighten me. Okay. We need to give these skills to our children who will live in a world that’s even stranger than anything we’ve ever met.

HEFFNER: You rejoice in that?

BATESON: Yes, I do.

HEFFNER: You rejoice in that I’m sure, in part, because, as you just said, you were acculturated that way.


HEFFNER: Margaret Mead, your mother. Jeffrey Bateson, your father.

BATESON: Gregory.

HEFFNER: Gregory, rather, I’m sorry. You were an anthropologist to begin with and you could accept cultural change and difference. The rest of us, you talk about the longevity of this program … 44 years … Daphne Doelger probably told you I won’t change that music that begins this program …

BATESON: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … no matter what. Now, seriously, as I, as I read your book, I was so taken by the women you were dealing with and by the devotion that you demonstrated to their abilities to become different people. Some of them had lived through many, many different experiences. Other, the younger ones, were learning from their elders and indeed, they seem to have been able themselves to adapt to change. And I wondered whether that had to do with the selection that you made of the women in your seminar.

BATESON: Oh, let me say first, that the reason I wrote this book about the Spelman experience, whereas I’ve been teaching women’s life histories for ten years, was that I had there two groups, 20 … 25 years apart in their ages. And I’ve always had a kind of mix of ages in my classes, so it’s never been so vivid for me thinking about the impact of change. And, of course, there has been even more change in the lives of African Americans than there has been for you and for me. Some of it for the good and some of it for the worse. But they are, after all, affected by all of the changes that affect, what they call in Atlanta, the majority culture. And by the very rapid changes immediately following the Civil Rights Movement. So I had a group of women in their fifties and sixties who all grew up under legal segregation. And who experienced in their own persons the changes, the triumphs, the griefs of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations, all of that. And, another group of women, barely 20 who have read about that, but they never experienced it. So that … and I didn’t choose the women individually … they were … the more enterprising ones who thought this might be fun. But, it turned out to be an extraordinarily stimulating context for looking at change because they didn’t come into it realizing that the two groups had grown up in two different worlds. And they had to discover that in their conversations with each other.

HEFFNER: Why have you chosen only women? Spelman is a college for women. Mason is not.

BATESON: Well, most recently … actually, when I started teaching life history, I was teaching a course in which we read autobiographies by males and by females. And of course, I wrote about my parents …


BATESON: … and then I got asked please to provide an elective for the Women’s Studies major and that focused me in on women’s lives. But, let me say this, I think … just as I think that the members of a minority may feel certain kinds of change more directly, I think women are more aware of the way our world is changing, than men are. For a number of reasons. But the most important of which, of course, is the control of fertility. So that women are vividly aware that they cannot live the same kind of lives that their mothers and grandmothers did. Many men, they’re living longer, but unless they’re shaken out by a corporate take-over or something like, they may look at their lives and see a shape that seems the same as their lives in the past. So women, were the first group to start going back to school in their forties and fifties. And recycling themselves through education to a second career. Now men are doing it, too.

HEFFNER: What do you think would have happened if you were … or would happen now if you were to deal with a parallel seminar of men? What would the difference be?

BATESON: Parallel? But just men?

HEFFNER: Just men.

BATESON: Gee, I don’t know where I’d catch them. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

BATESON: In the sense that …

HEFFNER: ,,, their willingness to examine change?

BATESON: Their willingness to examine change with me, in particular. I think it would be very interesting.

HEFFNER: We’re the ones who need it more. You seem to be saying that. You seem to be saying that in the first place, the Black women you …

BATESON: You’re under less … you’re under less pressure to deal with life cycle change than women are.

HEFFNER: Less pressure to deal with life cycle change. Why do you say that?

BATESON: Because a lot of men are living lives of a very similar shape to the past and very often, when they’re interrupted … I mean, what do a lot of men do when a marriage breaks up? They marry a younger woman and try to repeat the previous pattern. What do women do when a marriage breaks up? The chances of repeating the whole previous pattern are low, and so they have to discover a new pattern. But you know I …

HEFFNER: A handicap in your estimation?

BATESON: For women or for men?

HEFFNER: That’s what I’m asking really. I think you would say the men are handicapped in that way. Handicap themselves.

BATESON: I would say it makes the women the pioneers. I think it’s going to change. I do teach a lot of workshops about dealing with change that are mixed … male and female.

HEFFNER: You find us able to deal with it?

BATESON: Yeah, I think males can learn, too …

HEFFNER: I’m glad to …

BATESON: I really do.

HEFFNER: I’m glad to know about that judgment.

BATESON: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: I would doubt it myself. Your, your optimism about the future comes from a) your understanding that change is necessary. And that b) we’re capable of understanding what you have spoken about and what you have written about. Am I correct about that? You are optimistic? Or have I finally found a fellow pessimist?

BATESON: I’m temperamentally optimistic. And I think we’re only going to find the energy to make needed changes if we’re optimistic. I think there are many great dangers ahead. I’m very worried about the impact of our species on this planet and whether it’s going to be habitable in a hundred years. Or in fifty years. I’m worried about the pressures of population, whether we’re going to be able to build a global society that is not necessarily riven by hate and anger and envy. I, I don’t want you to think I’m not worried. I do believe we have the capacity to think about choices to make them and to keep on learning.

HEFFNER: Which of course leads me, I asked you whether I may do this, and you said I could, you gave me your permission. Only once before when Elie Wiesel was my guest did I ask him if he would read what he had written. And there were two paragraphs here, in particular … may I ask you?

BATESON: Sure. “Changes in the shape and inter-dependence of lives are part of a larger pattern of change that has been progressing at different rates in different parts of the world hastening or delaying the transitions and shifting the ways in which generations interlock. And the representation of age groups in the community. The changed timing of puberty, the reduced infant death rate, and lowered birth rate and the extension of adult life expectancies are only the most obvious. We are in trouble, our minds clogged with obsolete metaphors. Unsure when life begins and when it ends, with plenty of controversy still to come. How to recognize and support adulthood. What freedoms to give when. Ancient biological rhythms are conflicting with new cultural landmarks. And the biological rhythms themselves are altered by technology. All the world’s populations at whatever stage of technological development are increasingly linked. We’ve begun to recognize the need to limit population, strike some new balance between the different stages of life. And think again about making all our beginnings and endings carry the blessings of choice and fulfillment. Meanwhile, we must all conserve the freedom to experiment and play, both tentative and committed, learning and teaching from infancy to old age. Shaping friendships of intimacy and strangeness. Composing lives. Making our vows and pledging faith to unknown others.”

HEFFNER: Thank you. You know, Composing Lives, you will always come to that theme, won’t you? That we compose our own lives, and you seem to have … whether I’m correct in this or not, chosen women or dealt with women in your previous book and in this who are capable of composing their own lives, which is something that I think so few of us, even pretend that we can do. This is the anthropologists magic?

BATESON: I disagree, you know. I … we’re, we’re mainly not satisfied with the way we compose our lives, we keep working at it … in varying things, sometimes having regrets about past choices. But I think composing lives, the concept of composing is a description that makes sense in thinking about many, many lives. Now, not all of them make wonderful stories to put in books, not all of them are dramatic and vivid. But people work with what they have. They balance the different things they’re concerned with. They put their lives together … somewhere I think I say, “like a meal,” you know, you combine certain things and you sequence certain things, and the idea is that it should be satisfying in the end.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t that mean then that we will have to learn where and how we learn to be human beings, what it means to be six or 16 or 60 or increasingly, 80 or 90 or 100. Don’t we have to first understand how we learn that and then modify how we learn that? That’s … aren’t those the changes that must take place?

BATESON: See, what you’re saying is essentially “first learn and then do.” And that’s been true of human beings for many, many years. You could think of things you learned in childhood and then you knew those things and you could go on and do them. I think that we necessarily today spend our lives acting, making commitments, doing things that will affect the future and learning along the way. And I think that that understanding that you don’t first do one and then the other is going to change our whole concept of education, our whole concept of leadership, our whole … it’s going to bring out something fundamental to being human, which is that we are born with the lifelong capacity, not just to learn, but to find learning fun.

HEFFNER: And how will we come to learn that learning is fun?

BATESON: Well, I think that one of the things that would help is if we stopped teaching, often in schools that learning is onerous and burdensome. You take a look at a two year old or a three year old enjoying every new discovery and somehow or other we teach a lot of our children in school that learning is not fun. And indeed that curiosity is disruptive. One of things I worry about is how we’re going to live with the strangers in our lives unless curiosity becomes one of our primary values. Unless we nurture curiosity from very early on.

HEFFNER: And when you say “strangers in our lives” you’re talking about that stranger in the mirror and the strangers in our family.

BATESON: That’s right.

HEFFNER: Do you think that’s more difficult to deal with than the strangers outside?

BATESON: I think the stakes are very high. I think that if we learned to value and respect the strangeness, the mysterious otherness in those we love most, we would be less frightened when we meet people from other countries and cultures and religions.

HEFFNER: Mary Catherine Bateson you say that so beautifully. And I hope that Full Circles, Overlapping Lives becomes part of that discovery that you urge upon us. Thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

BATESON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.