Janny Scott's A Singular Woman onStanley Ann Dunham: Who was the president's mother?

Reading between the lines.
May 9 2011 2:29 PM

Obama Mama

Stanley Ann Dunham, who went her own way, passed on her self-sufficiency to her son.

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"There was also a bit of reserve as well, which I never totally figured out," a former colleague from the Ford Foundation program in Indonesia tells Scott. "When someone is distancing, sometimes it's personality or they're protecting themselves. Sometimes it's read as not very open or warm. Ann had that quality." The field of anthropology suited her temperament. Dunham was an intellectually curious, sympathetic outsider, who seems to have been amazingly comfortable living between worlds, with no defined place in either Indonesian or American society. "It kind of doesn't matter what I do, because I'm from Mars," she said to one of her colleagues. Her various professional roles—aid worker, field researcher, foundation officer—all involved sensitive listening and the withholding of judgment.

When it came to her son, Dunham seems to have refrained a bit from refraining from judgment. Her parenting style combined extraordinarily high expectations with a degree of childhood freedom that is, to our era, an alien notion. In Indonesia, she woke Barry up at 5 a.m. for tutoring in English and expected him to develop into a mixture, as he put it, of "Einstein, Gandhi, and Harry Belafonte." But in the afternoons, he wandered about with ragged street children, and was apparently left to navigate the local racism of the new country on his own. In Honolulu, his grandparents did not watch him too closely.

Not surprisingly, young Obama enjoyed the freedom and resented the pressure. In one of the few scenes in his own book where his mother appears, she shows up in Hawaii during his senior year of high school to chastise him for slacking off. Annoyed by the intrusion on his liberty, he asks her what's wrong with being a "good-time Charlie" if he so chooses. In a telling phrase, he refers to himself as his mother's "experiment." It is unclear whether he meant his mother bearing a mixed-race child, demanding moral and intellectual superiority, or rearing him by a method that was less helicopter-parenting than 747-parenting.

Dunham was comfortable with unconventional and ambiguous relationships elsewhere in her life, too. It is not clear when her marriage with her second husband Lolo Soetoro really ended. The "exact nature" of her involvement with Made Suarjana, an Indonesian journalist she met in 1988, when she was 46, remains unclear as well. Suarjana, who was 28 at the time, just a year older than her son, describes it to Scott as "romantic-intellectual." Her more lasting connections seem to have been with younger women in the development community who drew inspiration from her independence and commitment. As her waistline and her collection of batiks grew, Dunham became a fixture in the expatriate community. In a vignette from the early 1980s, an American translator of Indonesia literature describes her as one of the "white women in tablecloths."


Her story has a happier professional ending than a personal one. Under the mentorship of Alice Dewey—a granddaughter of the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey—she finally received her Ph.D. in 1992, 20 years after she began her graduate study. She produced a dissertation of 1,043 pages, longer than her son's health care bill, and managed to finish it at all only by narrowing her focus from peasant industry in general to the narrower subject of Javanese blacksmithing. Published posthumously by Duke University Press in 2009, it is a meticulous, if totally unread, ethnographic study.

But Dunham was miserable in her later years when she moved to New York and worked for an organization called Women's World Banking. Beset by financial problems, she missed her easier life in Indonesia. So she quit and returned to Jakarta, where she almost immediately became ill with cancer that doctors misdiagnosed as appendicitis. By the time she returned to Hawaii, even proper treatment could not help her. Her mother nursed her for a few months before she died in 1995, at the age of 52.

According to Don Johnston, a colleague at an Indonesia Bank where Dunham worked on a microlending project during her last period in Indonesia, she did feel some sense of estrangement when her son decided to identify as black. "It would be too strong to say that she felt rejection," he tells Scott. But she did feel "that he was distancing himself from her." One of author's best finds is the list of long-range goals Dunham set down for herself on New Year's day, 1985, when her son was 23: It began with "1. Finish Ph.D.," followed by "2. 60K" per year, "3. in shape," and "4. remarry." At No. 11 is "continuing constructive dialogue w/ Barry." When the Los Angeles Times devoted a 2,000-word profile to the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, the author described Obama's mother as merely "a white American from Wichita, Kan." That hurt her. "I was mentioned in one sentence," Dunham told a friend. The following year, Obama discouraged her from going through the hassle of attending his law school graduation, and she stayed in Jakarta.

Yet reading Dunham's story, we recognize traits familiar from someone else we have come to know quite well. Like his mother, Obama has an extraordinary ability to listen, to immerse himself in other cultures, to understand without moralizing or judging. Like her, he comprehends many worlds without fully being a part of any one of them. From a remarkably early age, Barack Obama has evinced a powerful sense of self-sufficiency, of liking other people perfectly well but of not needing them as much as most of us do. This autonomy is both a personal strength and, when people read it as aloofness or otherness, a political liability. Scott leaves us with a better idea where this feline quality comes from. Mom was like that, too. Click to launch a slide show of President Obama's "singular" mother.



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