A Singular Woman
The president’s mother has served as any of a number of useful oversimplifications. In the capsule version of Obama’s life story, she is the white mother from Kansas coupled alliteratively with the black father from Kenya. She is corn-fed, white-bread, whatever Kenya is not. In Dreams from My Father, the memoir that helped power Obama’s political ascent, she is the shy, small-town girl who falls head over heels for the brilliant, charismatic African who steals the show. In the next chapter, she is the naive idealist, the innocent abroad. In Obama’s presidential campaign, she was the struggling single mother, the food stamp recipient, the victim of a health-care system gone awry, pleading with her insurance company for cover- age as her life slipped away. And in the fevered imaginings of supermarket tabloids and the Internet, she is the atheist, the Marx- ist, the flower child, the mother who “abandoned” her son or duped the state of Hawaii into issuing a birth certificate for her Kenyan- born baby, on the off chance that he might want to be president someday.
The earthy figure in the photograph did not fit any of those.
A few months after receiving the photo, I wrote an article for The New York Times about Dunham. It was one in a series of biographical articles on then Senator Obama that the Times published during the presidential campaign. It was long for a newspaper but short for a life, yet people who read it were seized by her story and, some said, moved to tears. As a result of the article, I was offered a chance to write a book on Dunham, and I spent two and a half years following her trail. I drove across the Flint Hills of Kansas to the former oil boomtowns where her parents grew up during the Depression. I spent many weeks in Hawaii, where she became pregnant at seventeen, married at eighteen, divorced and remarried at twenty-two. I traveled twice to Indonesia, where she brought her son, at six, and from whence she sent him back, alone, at age ten, to her parents in Hawaii. I visited dusty villages in Java where, as a young anthropologist, she did fieldwork for her Ph.D. dissertation on peasant blacksmithing. I met with bankers in glass towers in Jakarta where, nearly two decades before Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their work with microcredit, Dunham worked on the largest self-sustaining commercial microfinance program in the world. I combed through tattered field notebooks, boxes of personal and professional papers, letters to friends, photo albums, the archives of the Ford Foundation in Midtown Manhattan, and the thousand-page thesis that took Dunham fifteen years to complete. I interviewed nearly two hundred colleagues, friends, professors, employers, acquaintances, and relatives, including her two children. Without their generosity, I could not have written this book.
To describe Dunham as a white woman from Kansas is about as illuminating as describing her son as a politician who likes golf. Intentionally or not, the label obscures an extraordinary story—of a girl with a boy’s name who grew up in the years before the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Vietnam War, and the Pill; who married an African at a time when nearly two dozen states still had laws against interracial marriage; who, at age twenty- four, moved to Jakarta with her son in the waning days of an anti-communist bloodbath in which hundreds of thousands of Indonesians are believed to have been slaughtered; who lived more than half of her adult life in a place barely known to most Americans, in an ancient and complex culture, in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world; who spent years working in villages where an unmarried, Western woman was a rarity; who immersed herself in the study of a sacred craft long practiced exclusively by men; who, as a working and mostly single mother, brought up two biracial children; who adored her children and believed her son in particular had the potential to be great; who raised him to be, as he has put it jokingly, a combination of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and Harry Belafonte, then died at fifty-two, never knowing who or what he would become.
Had she lived, Dunham would have been sixty-six years old on January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in as the forty- fourth president of the United States.
Dunham was a private person with depths not easily fathomed. In a conversation in the Oval Office in July 2010, President Obama described her to me as both naively idealistic and sophisticated and smart. She was deadly serious about her work, he said, yet had a sweetness and generosity of spirit that resulted occasionally in her being taken to the cleaners. She had an unusual openness, it seems, that was both intellectual and emotional. “At the foundation of her strength was her ability to be moved,” her daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, once told me. Yet she was tough and funny. Moved to tears by the suffering of strangers, she could be steely in motivating her children. She wept in movie theaters but could detonate a wisecrack so finely targeted that no one in earshot ever forgot. She devoted years of her life to helping poor people, many of them women, get access to credit, but she mismanaged her own money, borrowed repeatedly from her banker mother, and fell deeply in debt. In big and small ways, she lived bravely. Yet she feared doctors, possibly to her detriment. She was afraid of riding the New York City subway system, and she never learned to drive. At the height of her career, colleagues remember Dunham as an almost regal presence—decked out in batik and silver, descending upon Javanese villages with an entourage of younger Indonesian bankers; formidably knowledgeable about Indonesian textiles, archaeology, the mystical symbolism of the wavy-bladed Javanese kris; bearing a black bag stuffed with field notebooks and a Thermos of black coffee; a connoisseur of delicacies such as tempeh and sayur lodeh, an eggplant stew; regaling her colleagues with humorous stories, joking about one day being reincarnated as an Indonesian blacksmith, and protesting slyly all the while that she was “just a girl from Kansas.”
There is little evidence in the papers she left behind and in the accounts of friends and colleagues that Dunham set out to change the world. She was admirably, movingly, sometimes exasperatingly, human. Her life was not simple, which may help explain why it has been misunderstood or misrepresented or was relegated to the shadows. It involved tensions and choices that will be recognizable to readers, especially women. It was an improvisation, marked by stumbles and leaps. “I am not such a harsh critic after all, having screwed up royally a few times myself,” she wrote cajolingly to a friend at age thirty, already divorced from her first husband, separated from her second, and on her way to becoming a single parent of two. She was resilient. As one friend of hers put it, Dunham kept “dislocating the center.” She lived by strong values, which she passed on to her children. She was idealistic and pragmatic. She was not a visionary or a saint; she believed that people’s lives could be made better, and that it was important to try. Directly or indirectly, she accomplished more toward that end than most of us will.
Then suddenly, in midstream, she was gone. “She had no regrets about any of her choices,” Maya told me. “She just wanted more time. More time to make mistakes, more time to do good things . . .” Anyone writing about Dunham’s life must address the question of what to call her. She was Stanley Ann Dunham at birth and Stanley as a child, but she dropped the Stanley upon graduating from high school. She was Ann Dunham, then Ann Obama, then Ann Soetoro until her second divorce. Then she kept her second husband’s name but modernized the spelling to Sutoro. In the early 1980s, she was Ann Sutoro, Ann Dunham Sutoro, S. Ann Dunham Sutoro. In conversation, Indonesians who worked with her in the late 1980s and early 1990s referred to her as Ann Dunham, putting the emphasis on the second syllable of the surname. Toward the end of her life, she signed her dissertation S. Ann Dunham and official correspondence (Stanley) Ann Dunham. Beginning in the first chapter of this book, I’ve chosen to take her lead and use whatever name she was using at any given time.
During the presidential campaign, people who had known Dunham well were perplexed by what they felt were the caricatures of her that emerged. In a supermarket checkout line, one friend of Dunham’s, Kadi Warner, wept at what seemed to her the injustice of a tabloid newspaper headline: “Obama Abandoned by His Own Mother!” Her friends were certain they could see her in Obama’s intellect, his temperament, and his humor—not to mention his long chin, the toothiness of his smile, the angle of his ears. Yet he, who had already written a book centered on the ghost of his absent father, seemed to say more about his grandparents than he did about his mother. Some thought they could guess at some of the reasons. “He’s running for election in America, not Indonesia,” a former colleague of Dunham’s, Bruce Harker, told me two weeks before the election. “Americans spend what percent of our gross national product on foreign assistance? Do you really think he can get elected by saying, ‘My mother was more Indonesian than American’? He plays the hand he has to play: ‘I was raised by a single mother on food stamps; I was raised by my grandmother— like a lot of black folks.’
“To talk about his mother as a do-gooder foreign-assistance peacenik anthropologist in Indonesia?” he added, stopping to make sure that I understood he was being sarcastic. “Where’s Indonesia? Is that near India? No way.”
This is not a book about President Obama, it is a book about his mother. But she shaped him, to a degree he seems increasingly to acknowledge. In the preface to the 2004 edition of Dreams from My Father, issued nine years after the first edition and nine years after Dunham’s death, Obama folded in a revealing admission: Had he known his mother would not survive her illness, he might have written a different book—“less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life.” Two years later, in The Audacity of Hope, he returned to the subject. Only in retrospect, he wrote, did he understand how deeply her spirit “invisibly guided the path I would ultimately take.” If his ambitions were fueled by his feelings about his father, including resentment and a desire to earn his father’s love, those same ambitions were channeled by his mother’s faith in the goodness of people and in the value of every life. He took up the study of political philosophy in search of confirmation of her values, and became a community organizer to try to put those values to work. He dedicated that book, his second, “to the women who raised me” his maternal grandmother, Tutu, “who’s been a rock of stability throughout my life,” and his mother, “whose loving spirit sustains me still.”
That would have pleased her. Dunham, for whom a letter in Jakarta from her son in the United States could raise her spirits for a full day, surely wondered about her place in his life. On rare occasions, she indicated as much—painfully, wistfully—to close friends. But she would not have been inclined to overstate her case. As she told him, with a dry humor that seems downright Kansan, “If nothing else, I gave you an interesting life.”
With Stanley away in the Army, Madelyn moved in with her parents in Augusta and commuted by car pool to a job as an inspector on the night shift at Boeing in Wichita. During his presidential cam- paign, Mr. Obama described his grandmother in that period as Rosie the Riveter—the icon of wartime womanhood, in overalls, painted by Norman Rockwell for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. The prodigious work ethic that would enable Madelyn decades later to work her way up from a low-level bank employee to vice president of the Bank of Hawaii must have been in evidence at Boeing. She became a supervisor, Charles Payne remembered, and was soon making more money than their father. Madelyn saved her money, but she also occasionally splurged. Like a character in a Bette Davis movie, she bought herself a fur coat.
Davis, who had helped small-town girls like Madelyn while away the Depression, was now one of the country’s biggest box- office stars. Her movie Now, Voyager became a hit across the country in November 1942, playing to audiences made up mostly of women. The film marked a shift in Davis’s image. As the government campaigned to recruit housewives into factory work, Davis shed what Martin Shingler, a film scholar, has described as her previously androgynous look and emerged as “the leading spokesperson for femininity, lipstick and glamour.” The transformation had begun six months earlier, Shingler suggested, with the May 1942 release of In This Our Life, in which Davis played Stanley Timberlake, a southern belle.
That spring, Madelyn Dunham, age nineteen, was pregnant. On November 29, 1942, one month after her twentieth birthday, she gave birth to a brown-eyed, brown-haired daughter with the same delicate coloring so admired in her great-aunt Doris, Miss El Dorado. In Dreams from My Father, Obama writes that his mother was born at Fort Leavenworth, the Army base where Stanley was stationed. But Ralph Dunham said he visited Madelyn and the baby in Wichita Hospital when Stanley Ann was a day or two old. Years later, Ann would say that she had nearly entered the world in a speeding taxi. Rushing to the hospital in a snowstorm, she told Maya, Madelyn almost gave birth in the cab. As Ann told the story to Maya, it had a parallel in Maya’s birth twenty-eight years later. On that occasion, Madelyn was arriving in Jakarta by plane, and Maya’s father, Lolo Soetoro, had gone to the airport to meet her. It was the eve of Independence Day (the Indonesian one), and Ann, waiting in a Catholic hospital in Jakarta to deliver, grew impatient and walked out into the street to look for her husband and her mother. As she told the story, she was on the verge of hopping into a pedicab, called a becak, when Madelyn and Lolo finally pulled up. Though delivered in the hospital, Maya, the inheritor of her mother’s wanderlust, was nearly born in a becak. And Ann, whose adventuring impulse came by way of her Kansan parents, nearly arrived in the Wichita equivalent.
They named her Stanley Ann.
In the years that followed, the explanation most often given was that her father, Stanley, had hoped for a boy. “One of Gramps’s less judicious ideas—he had wanted a son,” Obama wrote. But relatives doubted that that story was true. Ralph Dunham said his brother “probably would have settled for any healthy child.” Maybe he just liked the name. Or maybe that story originated as a joke, delivered teasingly by the great confabulator himself. The fact was, Madelyn was fully in charge of matters such as the naming and handling of the baby, some of her siblings said. Stanley would not have had veto power. “When I asked my grandmother about it, she said, ‘Oh, I don’t know why I did that,’ ” Maya told me. “Because she’s the one who named her Stanley. That’s all she ever said: ‘Oh, I don’t know.’”
On at least one occasion, Madelyn seemed to suggest that she had taken the name from the southern belle in the movie that just six months earlier had signaled the transformation in Bette Davis’s image on-screen. When asked about the name not long after Stanley Ann’s birth, Madelyn said cryptically, “You know, Bette Davis played a character named Stanley.”