On Jan. 1, 1985, Stanley Ann Dunham, better known as Barack Obama’s mother, was living in Honolulu, where she had recently returned after years in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. That New Year’s Day, she recorded the following list of hopeful resolutions:
(1) Finish Ph.D. (2) 60K (3) in shape (4) remarry (5) another culture (6) house + land (7) pay off debts (taxes) (8) memoirs of Indon. (9) spir. develop (ilmu batin) (10) raise Maya well (11) continuing constructive dialogue with Barry (12) relations w/friends + family (corresp.)
When she died a decade later, after receiving a diagnosis of Stage 4 uterine cancer, Dunham left many of these goals unaccomplished. And yet, the life she left behind at age 52 was much richer and more complex than this catalog could reveal. Driven, earnest, big-hearted, large-boned, messy, tolerant of everyone but prigs and fools, Ann, as she was known, cut a striking figure in her world. She was partial to batiks and cascading Javanese jewelry, and once told a friend that she dreamed of being reincarnated as a blacksmith like the ones she studied.
In an ambitious new biography, “A Singular Woman,” Janny Scott travels from Kansas to Hawaii to Indonesia in an effort to account for the disparate forces that forged Dunham and, by extension, her son. Scott, a reporter for The New York Times from 1994 to 2008, sets out to complicate the familiar image of Obama’s mother as simply “a white woman from Kansas.” Through interviews with Dunham’s relatives, friends and colleagues; at least one possible lover; and her two children, Maya Soetoro-Ng and Barack Obama, Scott pursues a more perplexing and elusive figure than the one Obama pieced together in his own books.
Right from the start, Scott challenges some of the details of the president’s account. The first discrepancy, believe it or not, concerns his mother’s birthplace, which seems to have been Wichita Hospital, and not, as Obama wrote, Fort Leavenworth (where his grandfather, Stanley Dunham, was stationed). And instead of the “awkward, shy American girl” Obama describes in “Dreams From My Father,” seduced at age 17 by an African genius, Scott introduces us to a woman who bucked against social convention from an early age.
In many ways, Dunham’s life tracked the increasingly progressive times in which she came of age. At the church her family attended near Seattle when she was a teenager in the late 1950s, the annual Christmas pageant featured children re-enacting “the birth of Jesus Christ, Confucius and the Buddha.” At home, sex roles were changing, too. While Stanley Dunham drifted between sales jobs, Ann’s mother, Madelyn, ultimately rose to prominence as one of the first women to be vice president at the Bank of Hawaii. It was Madelyn who supported the family and paid for her grandchildren’s private schooling as her daughter struggled to support herself abroad.
Yet Ann Dunham was no naïve dilettante swanning around foreign craft markets. For most of her life, she worked long days, first as an anthropologist and later as a grant officer for the Ford Foundation and other nongovernmental groups. She was bright, hard-headed and fierce, with little time for slow-witted people. In her field notes, she wrote of one villager, “Wife a bit of a twit.”
Dunham was married twice: first to Barack Obama Sr., a 24-year-old Kenyan she met at the University of Hawaii; then to Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian graduate student she met a few years after the elder Obama had left for Harvard (and, eventually, Kenya), leaving her with a baby son. But her life consisted of much more than the men she chose as partners. In Indonesia, where she moved with Soetoro in 1967, Dunham was instrumental in expanding microfinance, working with the Indonesian government to provide small loans to local craftspeople, not just farmers.
Barack Obama was 6 years old when his mother took him from the comfort of his grandparents’ home in Hawaii to live on the edge of poverty in Indonesia. Jakarta shaped Barry, as his mother called him. Skin color was even more of an issue there than in America, Scott notes. He was teased relentlessly, but Dunham taught him to pay no heed. In Javanese culture, true power means never losing one’s cool.
Dunham treated her eldest child and only son with a kind of deference. She saw herself as responsible for cultivating a great mind. Because the schools were so poor in Indonesia, she felt duty-bound to send Barry back to school in Hawaii alone at age 10, regardless of the emotional toll on either of them.
“I think that was harder on a 10-year-old boy than he’d care to admit at the time,” Obama told Scott during a 2010 interview in the Oval Office. His seeming rootedness, Scott suggests, was forged in deliberate response to his mother’s restlessness. But some of his own choices were also difficult for his mother. Several of the book’s most revealing passages quote letters she sent to friends as Obama progressed through law school and eyed a political life. When Obama was elected president of the Harvard Law Review and articles about him began to appear, Dunham was dismayed — even “crushed” — to have her role in his life reduced to a single sentence: “His mother is an anthropologist.”
Another letter by Dunham, who, Scott notes, “prided herself on raising her children to have a global perspective,” described Michelle Robinson, Obama’s future wife, as “a little provincial and not as international as Barry,” but she added, “She is nice, though.”
The book’s oddest moment is one that Scott, to her credit, does little to parse. When an Indonesian friend mentions that her son, graduating from Harvard Law School and headed to do pro bono law in Chicago, must want to become America’s president, Dunham weeps.
This and other passages are tinged with the palpable hurt Dunham seemed to feel as her son chose a public identity in which she held a small place. While we are accustomed to more public accounts of Obama’s attempts to help his mother sort through labyrinthine health insurance claims, this private narrative is new. Dunham’s pride in her son and her personal sense of loss seem inextricably bound.
This leads to the mistake Obama has said he regrets most in his life. On Nov. 7, 1995, Dunham died in a Hawaiian hospital. Her daughter, Maya, was by her bedside. Her son, not realizing the speed of his mother’s decline, didn’t make it in time from Chicago. In his interview with Scott, Obama reflected on his mother’s dreams, the greatest of which, perhaps, was about the man her son might become. “You know,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh, “sort of a cross between Einstein, Gandhi and Belafonte. . . . Somebody who was strong and honest and doing worthwhile things for the world.”