Amy Lynch

We all felt as if we knew Dr. Benjamin Spock that approachable face, the twinkle in his eye. He was the quintessential baby doctor, the man whose advice transformed the way America raised its children. Our parents quoted him with devotion, and new parents still turn to his handy book when all else fails at 2 a.m. His is the kindly voice reassuring us that the baby's colic will get better, that her feeding schedule will right itself, that bed-wetting is not a disaster. For half a century hisBook of Baby and Child Care has begun with Spock's comforting words, “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” How odd, then, to discover that indeed we don't know Dr. Spock. That, as it turns out, we know less about the man himself than we thought we did. Thomas Maier's timely and admirable biography, Dr. Spock: An American Life attempts to reconcile the Spock we knew with the one we didn't. The resulting portrait is, as Maier admits, “very complicated.” Complicated, and fascinating, too. Spock's was the voice that turned back the Victorians' harsh, “scientific” approach to raising children (advice such as, tie the baby's thumbs to either side of the crib so he'll stop sucking them, and don't kiss the baby ever). Spock advocated breast feeding long before it was fashionable. He took a courageous stand against the prevailing theory of his day when he incorporated the then-controversial theories of Freud into his work and told Baby Boomer parents that their children were reasonable beings who needed guidance, not debased creatures who needed the rod more than they needed a hug.

Yet for all that, Spock was emotionally unavailable to his own children. He demanded their absolute obedience. Spock was a husband who refused to recognize his wife's mental illness and alcoholism, a grandfather who remained oblivious to his grandson's depression until it was too late.

In fact, this biography contains two stories, not one. Maier gives us both the public man and the private; and if the reader finds that the two don't quite mesh until Spock reaches old age, that perception only reflects the reality of the man's life. He was very much an icon, a celebrity. And he was a private individual, too a father, a husband, a friend. Tragically, for much of his life, Spock was much more successful at celebrity than at intimacy. The people closest to him were often those pushed farthest away.

This conflict is played out against the colorful backdrop of history. “Benny” Spock was born before telephones were invented, yet he lived long enough to have his own Web page. A child of privilege, he graduated from Yale and was an Olympic athlete who loved to flirt, to dance and drink. In midlife, Spock became an ardent socialist and an anti-war demonstrator. He lived long enough to marry both a 1920s flapper and a 1960s feminist.

At every stage of Spock's life, Maier explores the contrast between the public and private spheres, raising the question which reoccurs like a leitmotif in this biography: How much can we change? Are we destined to repeat the patterns we learned as children, or can we transform ourselves at our deepest, most heartfelt levels? It was a question Spock contemplated often, and his answer, in the end, was idealistic. He thought we could. Yet his own life illustrates the struggle.

Reviewed by Amy Lynch.

We all felt as if we knew Dr. Benjamin Spock that approachable face, the twinkle in his eye. He was the quintessential baby doctor, the man whose advice transformed the way America raised its children. Our parents quoted him with devotion, and new parents still turn to his handy book when all else fails at […]

Journalist Patricia Hersch goes no farther than the corner high school, yet reading her book is like visiting a location that's utterly foreign, fascinating, and more than a little bit scary. For three years Hersch followed eight teens attending their classes, interviewing them extensively, shadowing them to events and on outings. The mother of three adolescents, Hersch knew something of the teen world, its rituals, pressures, and demands; but the story she uncovered was even more complex and challenging than she had expected. More dangerous, too. Adolescents create and sustain an underground culture, she tells us, that adults (even the kids' own parents) never imagine.

A Tribe Apart is made up of interwoven stories in which kids do everything from succeed in sports and go to church to skip school, party all night, and attempt suicide. These narratives run the gamut from elation to despair. They are, as the kids would say, "so unboring." Hersch tells us that really getting to know adolescents "will decimate every long-held stereotype an adult has ever had about teens." The kids she reveals to us certainly do. They are complicated in the extreme, seeming bundles of contradiction.

There's Brandon, the spiritual, artistic Boy Scout and drug dealer. And there's Joan, who at one point is prone to violence, and at another becomes an earth-child environmentalist. "Even the regular kids," a teacher is quoted as saying, "are getting more irregular." Time and again, Hersch captures the high drama of adolescence, its hopeful beginnings and tragic endings. Conspicuous by their very absence in these stories are the adults of the community where these children live. Hersch shows us a generation of kids growing up with very little adult guidance or intervention, kids left to figure out life on their own. Hence, her title, A Tribe Apart. This essential and critical abandonment comes sharply into focus in a chapter describing a one-day seminar on ethics. The kids in the seminar struggle to understand what the adults are talking about. They actually have to struggle to think ethically because the adults in their lives are generally too preoccupied with their own stresses to give them meaningful time and teach them values. The result, and Hersch illustrates this vividly, is a striking lack of conscience among teens. In the few instances where adults do get close, there are positive results. When they approach kids nonjudgementally and honestly, the kids respond. We see caring parents who really listen, a journalism teacher who shares his life with the kids and has a tremendous influence, and a priest who creates a safe and caring space. These adults actually make a difference there just aren't enough of them.

Hersch herself sets a powerful example. More than journalist, she is a caring adult who becomes a friend. Through her eyes, we glimpse the timid artist inside the skate-boarding graffiti king, the talented writer within the girl with multiple piercings. We look at kids less disparagingly and with more understanding. At a time when many adults react to adolescent culture with withdrawal and fear, Hersch shows us simply and powerfully how to connect making this a worthy book indeed.

Journalist Patricia Hersch goes no farther than the corner high school, yet reading her book is like visiting a location that's utterly foreign, fascinating, and more than a little bit scary. For three years Hersch followed eight teens attending their classes, interviewing them extensively, shadowing them to events and on outings. The mother of three […]

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