10 questions with ‘A Singular Woman’ author Janny Scott

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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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.”

3. What did Dunham think of America? She spent so much of her life outside of the country, did she do so because she felt disaffected from America? Did she think America was a force of good in the world or more of a force of misery?

My impression is that Ann Dunham spent much of her adult life abroad because she was interested in Indonesia and the world, not because of any disaffection with the United States. She first went to Indonesia in her mid-twenties because she had married an Indonesian; she then fell in love with the country and the people, and became deeply immersed in the work she did there. She never changed her citizenship; she remained an American for her entire life, and returned frequently to Hawaii, a place she also loved. She was an anthropologist, in a line of work that requires a commitment to spending a lot of time in faraway places. She found that her training also enabled her to find work in international development, which became the way she made money to support her family. In the end, she spent slightly more than half of her adult life in Indonesia. She was not uncritical of aspects of Indonesia, including the corruption she encountered. As for the United States, I never encountered anything to suggest Dunham had any misgivings about being an American.

4. What is something you uncovered about Dunham that wasn’t known before and would perhaps surprise readers? Do you know if there is anything in the book that surprised the president?

Many things would surprise readers. Dunham was 17 when she became pregnant with her first child, Barack Obama, and is thought by her friends to have never had a boyfriend before she met Obama’s father. Despite the remarkable courage with which she lived her life — marrying an African at a time when nearly two dozen states had laws against interracial marriage; moving with her six-year-old son to Indonesia in the aftermath of one of the biggest bloodbaths of the twentieth century — Ann Dunham was scared of the New York City subway and never learned to drive. I have not heard the president’s reaction to the book but I’m certain it must contain things he didn’t know. Even adult children only know slivers of their parents’ lives; there are vast areas about which most of us never ask or are too busy to find out.

5. Even though he barely knew his father, President Obama did write a book called “Dreams from My Father.” So my question is who was a greater influence on President Obama – his mother, his father or his grandparents?

President Obama is in a better position to answer that than I am. It seems clear that his mother, who lived with him for 12 of the first 13 years of his life, was the greatest early influence. (His parents parted company within months of his birth, and he saw his father only one other time, for a few weeks when the younger Obama was ten.) President Obama lived with his grandparents during high school, while his mother was working in Indonesia. My guess is that any child’s personality and character are shaped most forcefully in early life. For that reason, I would imagine that, while his grandparents were powerful influences in his life, his mother left the deepest mark. When I interviewed the president about her, he traced his decision to go into public service to her influence and example.

6. What does the title of your book – “A Singular Women” – mean?

I was looking for a word that conveyed just how unusual she was — but a word that carried neither negative nor positive connotations. I wanted a neutral term, one that was not loaded, so that readers could read her story and reach their own conclusions about how she lived and the kind of mother she was.

7. What did President Obama inherit from his mother in terms of personality traits, political outlook, etc?

President Obama told me jokingly that his mother raised him to be a combination of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Harry Belafonte. She impressed upon him, from a young age, the values of honesty, hard work, humility and one’s duty to other people. She told a friend of hers that she wanted him to start out in life with values she had taken years to acquire. She also encouraged in him a commitment to learning that had a long history in her family. President Obama says many of his life choices were formed by her example, including what he described as “a sense that the greatest thing you can do in the world is help somebody else, be kind, think about issues like poverty and how can you give people a greater opportunity.” At the same time, he chose not to embrace other aspects of her example — in particular, the expatriate life. He made a conscious choice, he said, to root himself in Chicago and provide a certain stability for his children. Dunham’s friends see Ann in her son in many ways — from his smile and the angle at which he often holds his head, to his sense of humor, an intellectual quality and a distinctly global point of view.

8. If Stanley Ann Dunham were alive today, what would she say about how President Obama has conducted himself while in office? Would it be a different reaction if she were not his mother?

My guess is she would keep her opinions on that subject to herself. She was a private person, capable of considerable discretion. She also wanted her children to have the independence and fearlessness to go off and lead interesting lives. She believed deeply in her son from an early age, and clearly believed he was destined for something great. She said as much. So, I imagine she’d be generally supportive, and that whatever criticisms she had, she would be scrupulous about not letting slip, at least in public.

9. What do you think Ann Dunham would have done had her life not been cut short by cancer? What were her goals? Where would she be today?

It’s hard to imagine her retiring quietly to Hawaii. I imagine she would have continued to work on and off in Indonesia for as long as possible, living in Hawaii in the periods in between. There’s no doubt that she would have loved having grandchildren.

10. Any plans to write another book? If so, what about?

I’m thinking. Ask me in six months.

Jamie Weinstein