Spock biography: radical patrician

May 17, 1998|By Brenda L. Becker | Brenda L. Becker,Special to the sun

"Dr. Spock: An American Life," by Thomas Maier. Harcourt Brace. Illustrated. 488 pages. $30.

When Dr. Benjamin Spock died in March at age 94, his obituaries were as overstuffed and unlikely as a John Irving novel. The two main acts of Spock's epochal career - as author of the Baby Boom child care bible and then, in the Sixties, as goofy aging antiwar protester - were familiar enough.

But who remembered that Spock, as a gangling Yalie, rowed on the U.S. gold-medal crew team in the "Chariots of Fire" Olympics? Or that Spock, the patrician pediatrician turned radical, ran for president on a third-party ticket in 1972? (The best-selling author in American publishing history got 78,000 votes.) Or that Spock the family-values icon divorced his wife of nearly 50 years and married an earthy feminist 40 years his junior?

Thomas Maier renders these episodes in moderately juicy detail, along with the biographer's requisite nasty newsbreak: Dr. Spock, America's god of parenting, was a pretty lousy father.

Spock's life didn't so much span the American century as embody it. Young Ben received a stern Victorian upbringing from his overbearing mother and emotionally distant father. In med school, he was attracted to the humanistic side of pediatrics, which in the 1930s was close to nonexistent.

Child-care guides still admonished mothers not to kiss their babies, and nurseries tied up infants' hands to prevent thumb-sucking. Influenced by his vivacious but troubled wife Jane, who spent virtually her entire adult life in psychotherapy, Spock sought to weave psychoanalytic insights into the mundane mysteries of weaning, toilet training and the like.

The genius of his book "Baby and Child Care," first published in 1946, was that it cloaked Freudian concepts in folksy, reassuring terms for post-war parents seeking a better way to raise their kids. The book's famous opening lines - "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do" - made him the man that mothers would die for, and the book became a cultural touchstone

On his own home front, however, Spock seemed to know less than he thought he did. His powerhouse career left his family life strained and hollow. His two sons recall him as, yes, stern and emotionally distant; his wife Jane, wracked by mental illness and alcoholism, felt eclipsed and shut out. Near retirement age, Spock decided that "pediatrics is politics" and launched into Vietnam War protesting.

America winced as its avuncular family doctor flailed around with hippies and stood trial on federal conspiracy charges. Book sales slid as suspicion grew that the Flower Children were a generation (as Agnew quipped) "Spock-marked" by permissiveness. (Spock was a whipping boy for boomer shortcomings right through the "Me Decade," when he got blamed for helping create a cohort of corporate lackeys.)

Spock spent his final years as a benevolent far-left fossil, tirelessly lecturing, revising the book for political correctness and eating macrobiotic food on a sailboat with his second wife. Maier weaves an engrossing tale but, clearly charmed by Spock, he lets him off the hook a bit easily, especially when it comes to Spock's unrepentant political naivete and egotism. The question how the man who mass-marketed compassion and insight to Arnerica's parents could be both cold and clueless remains intriguingly unanswered.

Brenda L. Becker is a medical writer and editor for consumer and clinical magazines, including Woman's Day and Patient Care; co-author of "Week by Week to a Strong Heart" (Rodale, 1992); a two-time winner of national awards for writing on cardiovascular disease; and a contributor to journals of opinion including the American Spectator and National Review.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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