When depicting their family origins for public consumption, American presidents tend to downplay the importance of Dad while idealizing Mom. Dwight D. Eisenhower described his mother, who was a pacifist and Jehovah’s Witness, as “saintly.” Richard Nixon called Hannah Milhous Nixon a “Quaker saint.” Jimmy Carter wrote one of his many post-presidential books about his ” remarkable mother,” Miss Lillian, who went to India with the Peace Corps at the age of 68. George W. Bush identified with saber-toothed Barbara as a way of differentiating himself from the male parent he physically resembled.
Barack Obama breaks this pattern, as he does others. The memoir he wrote in his early 30s was framed around a search for his African father, a man who did nothing to raise him and whom he hardly knew as a child. That book stands as such an extraordinary act of self-examination by a future president that it’s possible while reading it to overlook what the book overlooks: Stanley Ann Dunham, the parent who actually raised him. Obama sought to rectify this gap when Dreams From My Father was republished during his 2004 Senate campaign, adding in a new preface that if he’d known his mother would not survive the illness that killed her in 1995, he might have chosen to focus his book around the woman who was “the single constant in my life.”
When asked by journalists about his mother, Obama does not seem reluctant to talk about her, but does so with a striking degree of critical distance. “She was a very strong person in her own way,” he tells Janny Scott, who has set out to offer a fuller portrait in her biography of Dunham, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother. “Resilient, able to bounce back from setbacks, persistent—the fact that she ended up finishing her dissertation. But despite all those strengths, she was not a well-organized person. And that disorganization, you know, spilled over.”
Two absences have always seemed to me suggestive of a difficult mother-son relationship. When Barry, as he was then known, was 13, his mother let him decide whether to return with her to Indonesia, where she planned to continue her anthropological field work, or remain in Hawaii with her parents. He chose to stay, and his mother moved back to Indonesia without him, also separating him from his younger half-sister, Maya. Other than his senior year of high school, when she returned to Hawaii, the family never spent a year living together again. Scott doesn’t probe deeply into this episode, perhaps because Dunham herself seems to have regarded it at the time more as a reasonable compromise made possible by the backstop of her own parents than a tragic choice between family and career. There is, however, a sense that she later came to regret the distance this extraordinary leave-taking created between her and her son.
The second decision came when Obama was living in Chicago and his mother was dying of ovarian cancer in a Honolulu hospital. Preoccupied with legal work and his newly published book, and having seen her a few months before when she was meeting with a specialist at Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York, he did not go to her bedside—a decision he later described as his biggest mistake. It is hard not to see a symmetry in these two episodes of abandonment, and perhaps even a kind of reciprocity.
Scott hangs back from any such psychological speculation in favor of journalistic neutrality. You won’t find her offering judgments, or theories, or deeper interpretations. This is, of course, not a biography that would have been written had Ann Dunham not raised a man who went on to become president of the United States. But Scott chooses to ignore that problem and instead takes on Dunham’s story as one worth telling on its own terms, giving limited attention to her role as a mother. Obama appears only intermittently and Scott does not have much to add to stories we have already heard about Dunham’s driven but underprotective style of parenting. Those who lack a specific interest in the evolution of Javanese cottage industries may find parts of the book dull. But the restrained, straight-ahead focus—rather in the spirit, it turns out, of Dunham herself—pays off. By recovering Obama’s mother from obscurity, A Singular Woman adds in a meaningful way to an understanding of a singular president.
Ann Dunham’s own parents bounced among jobs and homes, from Kansas to California, to Oklahoma, to Texas, then back to Kansas, before finally settling for her high school years on Mercer Island in Seattle. Perhaps as a result of so much movement, she seems to have developed an unusual streak of independence early on. She had friends, but none close enough to remain in touch with once she moved with her parents to Hawaii, where she enrolled in the University.
Almost upon arrival in this new multicultural environment, she met her first boyfriend in Russian class, a 23-year-old African exchange student named Barack Hussein Obama. Dunham was pregnant with his child at 17 and married not long after her 18th birthday, apparently without a clue that her husband had left another wife at home in Kenya. She slid out of the relationship almost as easily as she slipped into it when Obama Sr. left Honolulu to pursue his graduate studies at Harvard.
Meeting an Indonesian man at the University of Hawaii’s East-West Center drew Dunham into a second failed marriage but a more successful 25-year engagement with his country, its people and its crafting traditions. The financial and emotional support provided by her mother, who was her family’s emotional pillar as well as its primary breadwinner, made it possible for her to follow her bliss, which revolved around studying and helping others in faraway places. Dunham seems to have been less interested in flouting social convention than she was simply unconcerned with it. Despite her utterly unconventional choices, she was neither a rebellious spirit nor someone with an ideological agenda. She was an implicit early feminist, but did not categorize herself as such.
“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.