Monday, May 25, 2015

Mary Catherine Bateson: With A Daughter's Eye

With A Daughter's Eye: a memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson
by Mary Catherine Bateson

Some months ago my partner Margaret was listening to an audiobook novel based loosely (and perhaps in part) on the marriage and lives of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.  She naturally wondered what was factual within the fiction.  Many years ago I bought Mary Catherine Bateson's memoir of her parents, With A Daughter's Eye.  I fetched it from the shelf where it nestled with books by and about Mead and Bateson.

Weeks after that, the book was returned to me.  In the interim I realized that I probably had never read all of it, and that now I wanted to.  One of the wisest things Norman Mailer ever said was that a book and a reader have to be ready for each other.

I began reading it, impressed with the author's care and eloquence.  I trusted her and her voice. I had the confidence you must have as a reader, so you can give yourself over to the book.  But  I was also thinking about her subjects.

Margaret Mead was part of the world I perceived as a child in the 1950s, when I saw her name and picture on magazines, including the women's magazines my mother read (Mead wrote a column for Redbook.)  She was frequently on television in the 60s, so my enduring image of her is in the grays of pre-color TV.  She was one of the elders supporting the antiwar movement and defending the youth of the late 60s, giving credence to our sense of ourselves (although I was interested to read here that she later believed that the Generation Gap she helped define applied mostly to exactly my age cohort, and it subsided later--which seems from my observation to be true.)

Gregory Bateson came most directly into my life later, especially during one or another of my periods of exile back in western Pennsylvania, intellectually bereft. One of my few oases was a shopping mall bookstore that had quality paperbacks shelved in psychology and social sciences, as well as paperbacks of at least classic novels.  (I read a lot of Austen and Melville.)  Another was the University of Pittsburgh bookstore, where I made infrequent forays that could last entire afternoons and evenings.

 I'm not sure when I first tried to read Steps To An Ecology of Mind.  I'd encountered some of his ideas elsewhere, and I was enormously proud of myself for getting through and basically understanding his explanation of the thermostat and homeostasis, the hardest reading I'd done since philosophy in college.  But I got no further.  I do however remember that it was in one of these exile periods that I found a copy of Angels Fear, formed as a set of dialogues between Gregory and Mary Catherine.  I read it with hunger and awe, and was nourished, and lived.  I understood some, absorbed intuitively more.  But as long as I remained within the rhythms of its words, I was waking into sanity.

All of this pertains to the insights Mead and Bateson had in common: the importance of pattern and of connection.  Mary Catherine describes their differences as well, but they both lived lives of connection.  Gregory was perhaps more solitary but maybe not--he developed his ideas in conversation and conferences, and in his later life was a frequent speaker.  As Mary Catherine describes her, Margaret's entire method of gaining insights began with observing and participating, and through conversation.  They were both great synthesists, Margaret more on the fly perhaps and Gregory more deliberately.

As I continue to learn of their ideas--Gregory's especially--they suggest connections from my past reading and experiences.  One can find summaries of these important ideas in this book and elsewhere.  But what I've written here so far is a real life example of how some of those ideas work, and work differently for all of us, because all our relationships (to people, ideas, places, emotions etc.) and all their feedback loops have an integrity that helps define what each of us are.

At the same time, their lives are foreign, exotic, right from the start. When as a young girl Mary Catherine asked her mother what she thought she would be when she grew up, Margaret replied, "Oh, you might be something like an embryologist or crystallographer."  This is not the kind of answer I would have received, since neither my parents nor I would have known what those professions are, nor would anyone we knew.  And even if we did know, they would have been unthinkable ambitions.  Margaret Mead's parents were academics.  Gregory Bateson's father William not only was a geneticist, he invented the term "genetics." Their confidence in essentially inventing their occupations must stem in part from this background.

One of the differences between her parents that she writes about with memorable insight is how they faced their deaths.  They were both diagnosed with cancer within months and died within a few years.  Margaret insisted her diagnosis was wrong and she wasn't dying, trusting in the promises of a natural healer. She insisted MC go back to Iran where she was living, and as a consequence, MC was not there when she died and couldn't even get back in time for her funeral.

 After a period of remission, Gregory recognized his impending death and accepted it.  He died in a Zen Center, with family members including MC and a group of meditating monks around him.  They were all involved in ceremony after his death, which included taking his body to the crematorium and standing outside watching the smoke rise.  Writing more generally about the pressure to spend the last days of life in the pain of medical procedures everyone knows won't change the outcome by much, Mary Catherine wrote: "We have the courage of activity, but rarely the courage of passivity."

When this book was first published in 1984 I suppose a lot of interest focused on the then recent revelations that Margaret Mead was bisexual, and indeed had a secret life in which (as MC writes) she was at all times involved in both a male and a female sexual relationship. (Mead and Bateson weren't married for long, and MC experienced them more as individuals.)  Mary Catherine deals with this in terms of her own learning about it, the anger at not being told, the understanding of the need for secrecy in those times.

But this aspect is one element that integrates narrative about the lives of her parents, shaped by the relation to her life, and the ideas that were important elements in those lives. All of this in contexts of the times that saw anthropology move from a field science developed  by a small group of people who all knew each other to an academic discipline involving thousands.  The result is an excellent book that I read with pleasure and reward.

More recently, Gregory Bateson's daughter by a different mother, Nora Bateson, made a film about her father's ideas called An Ecology of Mind, which is available now on YouTube.  It's very good, if you can deal with the commercials dropped in randomly, often in the middle of sentences.  Mary Catherine is featured in it, and she now looks and sounds (to me) a lot like her mother, maybe a gentler version, and this time in color.

The YouTube videos available on Margaret Mead herself however are almost all of the same kind, and scandalous in their bias. Mary Catherine mentions the beginning of the attack on Mead's work in Samoa by a right winger.  In the intervening years, others apparently have also found fault with the accuracy of Mead's findings on this first anthropological research.  But the material available on YouTube seems overwhelmingly intended to completely discredit Mead, especially from an extreme right wing perspective.  Her book on Samoa could be total nonsense and Margaret Mead would still be a major figure of the 20th century with positive accomplishments that have lasted and will last, as well as through the lives she influenced.

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