10 questions with ‘A Singular Woman’ author Janny Scott

Janny Scott is the author of the new book, “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother.”

Before going on leave to work on the book, Scott was a reporter for the New York Times from 1994 to 2008, where she was a member of the reporting team that won a 2000 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. An excerpt of her book recently appeared in The New York Times Magazine.

Scott recently agreed to answer 10 questions from The Daily Caller about her new book:

1. Why did you decide to write the book?

At the beginning of the 2008 presidential campaign, I was asked to write a series of biographical articles on then Senator Obama for The New York Times. As part of that series, I wrote an article on his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, which ran on the front page of the Times in March 2008, several months before he became the Democratic nominee. The public reaction was enormous; readers said they were blown away by the unexpected story of her life and, in some cases, moved to tears. Many felt they understood her son, the candidate, in a new way. As a result of the article, Sarah McGrath, at Riverhead Books, approached me about writing a book on Dunham. I accepted the offer because Dunham’s life was such a fascinating and unknown story. The book is the first biography of the most important influence in the early life of the president, a person at the center of our national and political life but whom many Americans even now feel they don’t fully understand.

2. Were you able to get a sense of Stanley Dunham’s politics? Was she involved in any political movements? Were there any thinkers or books that particularly inspired her? Was she a religious person?

Dunham, who dropped the first name Stanley and went by the first name of Ann during most of her adult life, was not a person who made political pronouncements or embraced labels of any sort. (As one colleague of hers told me, the only label she accepted for herself was that of “anthropologist.”) She believed strongly in the importance of acting upon one’s duty to other people, and devoted much of her working life to trying to increase opportunities for poor people, often through programs involving microcredit and microfinance. She also believed strongly in racial equality; a friend recalled for me Ann Dunham’s enthusiasm after hearing Jesse Jackson speak during his 1988 presidential campaign, and her excitement at the idea of his Rainbow Coalition.

As for her reading, she read extremely widely and had a classical education in many ways. As a high school student, she read many of the great philosophers, from Plato, Aristotle and St. Augustine to Hobbes, Locke, Marx, Kierkegaard and Camus. Her approach to religion and matters of the spirit was eclectic. She meditated in Buddhist monasteries and made small offerings in Hindu communities she visited. She practiced, and encouraged in her children, an open-mindedness about every religion. According to some of her friends, she was skeptical about organized religion and about excesses of ritual. One friend told me that toward the end of her life, she seemed to be gravitating toward a kind of deism or Unitarianism, the religion of the church in Bellevue, Washington that she had attended as a teenager. In “The Audacity of Hope,” Barack Obama describes her, despite her professed secularism, as “in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I’ve ever known.”