Mary Catherine Bateson

With A Daughter’s Eye

VTR Date: December 15, 1984

Guest: Bateson, Mary Catherine


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Mary Catherine Bateson
Title: “With A Daughter’s Eye”
VTR: 12/15/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Perhaps the most giving person I’ve met here since I started THE OPEN MIND in May 1956, was Margaret Mead. She graced this table many times, alone and with others, too, was enormously generous to me and to my family. When my wife wrote Mothering: The Emotional Experiences of Motherhood After Freud and Feminism, Margaret Mead took time, in her very last days, to write the most perceptive and most helpful comments about it. She never said “no” to a request, professional or personal. She delighted my sons, made me aware of graciousness and wisdom that were endless, and in their way, seamless. Yet I certainly wasn’t a personal friend, nor part really of her own vastly extended family, and I don’t claim Margaret Mead, as so many obviously do, who, as her daughter has written, never met her but only read her writings or heard her recorded voice or viewed her image on a screen.

Intellectually, however, Mary Catherine Bateson now makes it possible for all of us to share something of both her famous parents, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in her truly most extraordinary new book With a Daughter’s Eye, published by William Morrow & Company, and she joins me today for a further view of her mother, in particular.

Dr. Bateson is Professor of Anthropology at Amherst College. I do appreciate your joining me today, Dr. Bateson. And I think, as I said before, of all the times that your mother sat at this table. But you know, last night you weren’t aware of it, but when you were lecturing at the American Museum of Natural History, I was sitting there in the audience, and I thought it would be interesting to begin our program today by making reference to a question that was asked of you after your formal remarks, when a lady got up and made the claim that your mother was one of two people who she thought most important in the sexual revolution of the 20th Century, and you sort of indicated, I thought, and correct me if I’m wrong, that Margaret Mead, in a sense, had bigger and more important and more cosmic fish to fry. Is that a fair interpretation?

BATESON: You know, the relationship between an individual and the society sometimes comes to focus in issues of sexuality. It’s one of the places where in virtually every human community people are asked to bow in some way or other to public expectations. That was her issue in the broadest sense – how a child comes into this society, and grows up as a member of that society, molded by the culture. And sexuality is just a part of that. And I don’t think she would ever have wanted to be seen as primarily concerned with issues of sexuality, though it did happen occasionally, especially after Coming of Age In Samoa appeared … because, as you say, she had other concerns. And her concerns might lead her to discussing, say, Soviet attitudes towards authority at the moment of a crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union, trying to say something that would influence statesmen in this country to understand how their actions would be understood by the Russians. Disarmament issues, ecological issues, many, many issues having to do with education … and sexuality was only a very small part of that. But a kind of pivotal part.

HEFFNER: But if you have to make a bet, and you do, in a sense you do in your book … if you have to make a bet, do you think Margaret Mead will be remembered essentially for those other … let’s say other cosmic issues, or essentially for that focus on sexuality?

BATESON: No, I think the focus on sexuality, which if you look at the great mass of her work, was a relatively small issue. I think it will dwindle. I think it strikes people strongly now because we are in a time of change, but if you, if you … say 10 years from now, what will people think she contributed to our understanding of human behavior, broadly conceived … I don’t think they’ll focus on that.

HEFFNER: What about the enthusiasts? There did seem to be some in the audience … I think everyone was an enthusiast in the audience last night. And I’m sure there are so many of them, but do you think, and I press the point a little further, whether the enthusiast perhaps, the organized enthusiasts, will focus more than you would think particularly appropriate on sexual matters?

BATESON: Well, look … there are different layers here. I mean, there were the variety of things that she said after her field work in Samoa about adolescent sexuality, and the kinds of comments that she made about, for instance, sex education for children, and how to discuss these matters with children. That’s one body of material. And there’s another body of material that has to do not with sexuality, but with gender. Differences between males and females, and how these are culturally defined, and for some people these are the same issue. But I don’t think intellectually they are the same issue.

HEFFNER: Where do you put her in the Feminist Movement?

BATESON: I put her as a pre-feminist … as someone who first of all grew up with a mother and a grandmother who were both professional women, who had the privilege, as I had, of assuming that women can have careers, that women are not inferior, the confidence that came from that. And yet, also at the same time, thinking of herself as exceptional. I think feminists today perhaps put more emphasis than she did on wanting a society in which not just exceptional women find opportunity, but in which all women have equal opportunities. That’s a changing understanding.

HEFFNER: When you talk about “thinks of herself as exceptional,” how did she think of you, and what did she do to make you think of yourself in one way or another?

BATESON: Well, she cared a great deal about opening doors of imagination, and at the same time about not defining the paths that I would go herself, so that she gave me a … she made a point of exposing me to a tremendous range of things, starting from the things that are there in the Museum of Natural History, books, and stories and traveling and theatre and fantasy together.

HEFFNER: And you became an anthropologist.

BATESON: But, you know, when I was a child, if I said to her “what do you think I’m going to be when I grow up?” she would refuse to comment. In fact … there’s a story I tell in the book … once she fell into it, and she said, “You might be a crystallographer or an embryologist.” And I was floored because I didn’t know what crystallographers and embryologists do at that moment. (Laughter) But mostly she said, “You’ll be whatever you want and whoever you want,” and tried to hold back from defining it. And then I became an anthropologist, having intended to do quite different things, because I found that what I was doing, I got a degree in linguistics, but I found that the kind of linguistics I was doing was essentially anthropological. I wasn’t really interested, primarily in languages in abstract systems, I was interested in languages as people used them to communicate, and I kept drifting back to the modes of thinking and seeing and so on that I’d grown up with with my parents.

HEFFNER: You know, I was thinking as I read this book and I’m not just saying that With A Daughter’s Eye is such an incredible volume … it is, I couldn’t help but think as you … as I read through this memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, wondering whether it was particularly difficult to find the “you” in you when obviously you could see so much of Margaret Mead and Bateson in you. It must be a burden for a child.

BATESON: You know, I think one of the reasons why one hopes for a world in which women have opportunities equal to men is because it is tremendously exciting to grow up with two parents, with both of whom one can identify. Both of whom one can admire, and emulate and hopefully parents different enough so that you’re not trapped in trying to be exactly like one or the other. I think my mother might have been a very difficult parent if I hadn’t had my father there, being so different, admirable in his own ways, very attractive intellectually and very different.

HEFFNER: But the question that I would ask is about the difficulty. Again, it’s the only way I do know how to put it … you must find so much of Margaret Mead in you and you must find so much of Gregory Bateson in you … what difficulties are there, then, in growing up … in finding the “you” in you? It’s the only … it’s a poverty-stricken way of putting it, but it’s the only way I know how to put it.

BATESON: Richard, I’m still working at it.


BATESON: I’m not finished. That’s a process that goes on.

HEFFNER: Does it become more difficult when one is the child of such eminent and strong personalities?

BATESON: I suppose so. I would assume that it’s more difficult. It certainly is complicated by the fact that there are so many people out there who know something of my parents and look at me through those expectations. I mean, look at my hands. You’ve had my mother across this table from you, haven’t you?

HEFFNER: There they are.

BATESON: And there they are. It’s an identical way of holding them that I picked … I must have picked it up when I was a very small … and it’s typical of her although physically they’re very different hands and like my father’s. One knows that about oneself and one knows that people will encounter points of recognition, but I have a sense of myself, of saying some new things of my own, being not just a mixture of the two of them, I hope not a compromise between the two of them. So I feel pretty good about that.

HEFFNER: What about the role of the extended family there. Obviously, your mother believed so much in extending and extending and extending that family that you, yourself, were brought up in a huge mélange. True?

BATESON: Melange. I’m not sure mélange. A very precise and elegant constellation.

HEFFNER: Well chosen?

BATESON: Not a stew, you know.

HEFFNER: Not a stew.

BATESON: Not a stew. I think well-chosen … yes. A constellation, a complex network in which one could discover a whole range of human possibilities that included artists and writers and lawyers and doctors and housewives and carpenters. It was very freeing to be close to that many people. Most Americans grow up in the nuclear family. If they’re lucky they have rich and rewarding relationships with their two parents. They’re always at risk because the nuclear family is so fragile in this society, and these intense relationships with one mother and one father have a great potential for neurotic development. And one of the ways to alleviate that is to make sure that every child has other adults, important adults, in his or her life. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors.

HEFFNER: Is that because we’re doing so poorly at the nuclear family?

BATESON: No, I don’t think it is. I think it would be desirable under any circumstances.

HEFFNER: The larger, extended family?

BATESON: Indeed. And I think one of the reasons that nuclear families are so fragile is because so often they don’t have social support from outside. The parents are also isolated, and 10, 20 years ago the situation of the woman who was at home all day alone and didn’t have a job, was terribly lonely. You know, women in traditional societies were often much better off than American women, because they worked along side other women.

HEFFNER: So you reject then the criticism that is often leveled these days at the disappearance of the nuclear family. There are so many who say, “the trouble with American life is that the nuclear family has broken down,” and you’re saying “the trouble with American life certainly is not that,” that it is a blessing if one can find the benefits of an extended family. If I understand you correctly.

BATESON: Yes, but let me be quite clear. It isn’t that I want to do away with the nuclear family. I want to see it embedded in a broader network. When it is not embedded in some kind of broader network of extended family, it is brittle, it is likely to break down and it is likely to be too intense, too much of an emotional lock. But you don’t do away with it and replace it with an extended family … you grow out into an extended family.

HEFFNER: Why is it too much, why is there such an emotional burden in this nuclear family?

BATESON: Because people are asking a great deal of each other. I think probably never in history have men and women asked as much from their mates as Americans do in terms of intimacy, and communication and the number of years that the relationship is hoped to continue. We ask a great deal from our relationships … we often ask it from our children. I think one of the problems that children face is the emotional demand that parents make because in some ways the marriage is not filling all of the parents’ needs and then a mother wants someone to confide in about what’s going wrong with the husband and doesn’t have someone there, so that the children … we come into marriage with great hopes, quite beautiful hopes, and demands and as we see from the statistics, human relationships are often rocky and not idyllic and then we also turn some of those demands on our children.

HEFFNER: You know, as you say that, I was thinking of a number of passages in With A Daughter’s Eye, and I was thinking of the feeling that I had … it must be something extraordinary to grow up in an extended family, and to a certain extent, in that nuclear family, where reason, reasonableness, analysis, thoughtfulness, examination, rationality, play such a huge role. As I read of your life and as I read of the nature of your upbringing, I think to myself, “how could Mary Catherine Bateson know about the nature of American family life, when what she lived was so far removed from what most of the rest of us experienced?” Unfair thought?

BATESON: No, it’s a fair thought. I mean … but you know, I mean each of us know our own family and read and compare and see friends, that’s the best we can do. I’m not a professional expert on the American family, but clearly what was happening in my childhood was in a kind of dialogue with what was happening broadly in the culture. So that I tend to be very much conscious of the ways in which it differed.

HEFFNER: Did your mother really carry on that dialogue as extensively as I suspect, and as you indicate in the book? I mean a constant examination of what the nature was of the life you were leading?

BATESON: I think so. You know when you were asking before about this emphasis on rationality, one of the things that I would say about my own childhood is that it probably would have been better for me if she’d been more open to being aware of the stress or conflict or unhappiness. Her desire to put a good face on things was one of the things that, in retrospect, was problematic.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “a good face?”

BATESON: To see the best in any situation, to be optimistic.

HEFFNER: Last night you said at the end of your comments, you said that your father, toward the end of his life, thought there was something basically wrong with mankind, had come to the conclusion, if I understood you correctly that we were destruction bent. And I gather this was the great difference between these two people. That the one was perennially the optimist, and the other certainly at the end of his life, not. And now you say that perhaps you would have been better off if there weren’t that matter of putting such a good face on things.

BATESON: Well, certainly that was the basic difference between them. I don’t think that being optimistic needs to be synonymous with turning your eyes away from problems, which I think sometimes she did in an attempt to shore up the optimism. But, you know, at the end of her life she was increasingly worried about whether we, as a species, would manage some degree of disarmament, or whether we were on a course that would inevitably lead to destruction. Even her own perennial optimism in some ways bogged down.

HEFFNER: I have less of a feeling of that about your mother than about your father.

BATESON: Absolutely. No, he was temperamentally pessimistic, and temperamentally pessimistic before the evidence, intellectually, suggested a basis for that. She was the other way, she would hold some of the evidence at arm’s length to support her temperamental optimism for quite a while.
HEFFNER: Was she as thoroughly unrealistic as I gather at the end about her own illness?

BATESON: No she was on and off unrealistic because certainly during the year before her death, she certainly was willing to acknowledge that she was on her way to death, but she thought it could be slowed down for a number of years. And I think people that talked to her at different moments in that process do have different impressions. I would have been happier had she felt able to discuss the approach of her death with me. And I tried to create an opportunity to do that which certainly she did not welcome. But I think she felt an obligation of courage and that the obligation of courage meant carrying on.

HEFFNER: You know you say you wished that she had seized the opportunity, taken, made an opportunity to discuss that further with … I gather though that just about everything else was “discussable,” and I remember having invited her down to a … I guess it was Colonial Williamsburg … where there was a conference of the Federal Communication’s Bar Association, she was talking … I forget what the nature of the seminar was, but she was talking about the impact of this medium, television, this table, the use of this camera, and I remember thinking at that time … this, shockingly, is an incredibly naïve and unrealistic woman, and maybe it was a function of this optimism that you were talking about before. She said, in effect, never again will they be able to pull the wool over our eyes, the forces of evil, because we now have this eye, faced, looking in at us and will see everything that goes on in the world and everything will be open … nothing will be hidden. And I thought, of course, the other day, that that was part of this notion that if you can see everything, if you know what’s going on, you can handle every problem This optimism that you were talking about. And as I came to the end of the book, and realized that at the end it forced her away, in a sense, from facing what she, what she had to face in terms of her own illness. And you know, there’s a … you say …

BATESON: I’ve said I felt rather happy that she didn’t have to live through the 1984 Presidential elections, actually.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) That’s an interesting comment.

BATESON: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I noticed last night you made some political reference. Obviously, that has been a blow to you.

BATESON: Yes. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: She was … I’m trying to think … was she that involved politically?

BATESON: Generally speaking, she was not involved in party politics. I think she was very aware that many of the issues she spoke about were connected to political issues. That clearly was the case. She also believed very deeply in the American system of government, so that she would go way out of her way to be sure that she voted, and be well informed on local candidates as well as national candidates, and things of that sort. She campaigned for Carter in his first campaign, and I think that was the only time that she was involved in an election at that kind of level, on the stump. But, of course, she was constantly testifying for Congressional Committees and trying to influence legislation to support scientific research, to support child nutrition, to support various kinds of social policies, she was very much committed to civil rights, and so on.

HEFFNER: You know, that leads me to ask you why was … did it take so long for her to become that involved on the Presidential level. You say she supported President Carter. Had she not been active in Presidential campaigns before?

BATESON: Not that I know of.

HEFFNER: How do you account for that?

BATESON: I was a volunteer as a child in the first Stevenson campaign. (Laughter) And she was fascinated that I was doing that.

HEFFNER: But she wasn’t.

BATESON: But she wasn’t. I think it was only after she’d done a lot of testifying in Washington that she began to feel that this was a modality she should involve herself in.

HEFFNER: It seems so strange.

BATESON: You see, when I was child, she was not a popularly famous figure. She was someone who people read in terms of specific interests, very widely, widely respected, but she was not, as she was at the time of her death, someone who could comment with some authority on virtually everything under the sun. It was that general capacity to comment that made her feel that she could begin to take public positions in such things as Presidential campaigns.

HEFFNER: So it was only that late …


HEFFNER: … that she did. Seems so strange, it seems to me all my life I’ve seen cartoons about Margaret Mead being involved in everything, being not an expert in everything, but having something important to say about, just about every issue under the sun, and I guess that’s the point at which I want to thank you for having made it so clear to us in With A Daughter’s Eye what she and your father thought about so many issues, and 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’ll join us again next time here on THE OPEN MIND. In the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”