May 1998


By Thomas Maier
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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.

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Dr. Spock: An American Life

Dr. Spock: An American Life

By Thomas Maier
Harcourt Brace
ISBN 9780151002030

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