The Personal Spock : The Controversial Doctor Recalls His Childhood, Which Was Influenced by a Domineering Mother


It is hard, somehow, to picture this white-bearded giant as a tiny boy named “Benny.” Difficult, too, to imagine that the same man who empowered millions of mothers by advising them to, Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do, once cowered in the shadow of a ferociously moralistic, domineering mother himself.

Yet here is Dr. Benjamin Spock, recalling a childhood that might have leaped from the pages of an Edwardian novel: eldest of six children; a stint at a “fresh air” school where children sat in felt bags that came up to their armpits; a mother who adored babies but had far less use for children; a father who brought in a good income and deferred to his wife in all matters regarding the children.

Spock remembers the telegram his mother sent while he was at Phillips Academy. Benny, it seems, had been delinquent in corresponding with his family. “Write or don’t come home,” his mother wired. He wrote.

There was his momentary teen-age euphoria when a family friend admired his looks. “Benny, you are not attractive-looking,” his mother corrected him. “You just have a pleasant smile.”


And when, at age 14, young Spock expressed dismay about wearing hand-me-down suits from his father, there was this thunderous reply from Mother Spock: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, worrying what people will think of you. All you have to know is that you are right!”

Recounting this incident, the 86-year-old author, physician, sailor and, briefly, U.S. presidential candidate, can still summon his mother’s pursed lips and righteous indignation.

Just back from a quick trip by dinghy around Camden harbor, Spock sits in the living room of a rented townhouse overlooking this New England sailing center. Emphasizing his words, he sometimes throws his big hands in the air, then brings them to rest atop the shoe of his wife, Mary Morgan, seated beside him.

At 46, Morgan is not only half Spock’s age, more or less, she is also, more or less, half his size. Spock, a member of the Yale crew that won the Gold Medal for the United States at the Paris Olympics of 1924, is a lean and muscular 6-foot-4. Morgan barely reaches his collar bone.

Her personality, however, is enormous. A conversation with the Spocks shows Morgan to be a person of firm opinions, incisive questioning, tough principles and a giant belly laugh. Once again, Spock has found himself in the company of a strong, smart woman. Strong women, Spock agreed, have “linked the stages of my life together.”

It was Morgan who determined that his life should go on record. It wasn’t enough, she decided, that he should be remembered as the author of “Baby and Child Care.”


First published as a 25-cent paperback by Pocket Books in 1946, the landmark parents’ guide now has 34 million copies in print, in 39 languages.

“I open up an encyclopedia and look up Spock, and it says Baby and Child Care, and then, maybe, it talks about the controversy about permissiveness, and then the last sentence is, ‘He ran for President,’ ” Morgan said. “That’s not Ben.”

What was Ben, in Morgan’s view, were his job with the Canadian Pacific Railroad, his trip to the Olympic games on the S. S. Homeric, his waltz with Gloria Swanson, his put-down, in later years, from Gloria Steinem.

Morgan wanted the world to know how Spock dared to train jointly in pediatrics and psychoanalysis, a fledgling field in the early 1930s. She wanted him to explain how “Baby and Child Care” came into being--both theoretically, as an amalgam of his own experience as father, son and analytically trained physician; and practically, as when his editor told him, “Don’t worry, it won’t have to be very good, because we’ll only charge a quarter.”

So every time Spock would start to tell a story on himself, “Mary would yell, ‘Just a minute!’ and run get her tape recorder,” Spock said.

When his current publisher, Pantheon, urged him to write a book on his political views, Morgan elbowed in to suggest a more personal volume. The result, just out from Pantheon, is “Spock on Spock: A Memoir of Growing Up With the Century.”


The book carries both their names, but with proper Yankee modesty, Spock calls it “Mary’s book” and insists it was all Morgan’s doing. All he had to do, he demurs, was allow himself to be interviewed by Morgan.

For her part, she was so enthusiastic that “I could hardly wait to get up and shove a microphone under Ben’s nose. Until I’d done my two or three hours of interviewing, he wasn’t even allowed to go to the bathroom.”

Their joint narrative reveals a complicated figure who readily confesses that he chose pediatrics “as a way to be closer to my mother and to win her approval.” In the latter pursuit, he seems finally to have succeeded; when “Baby and Child Care” was published, Mildred Spock called it “a very sensible book, Benny.”

C-Average Student

Spock entered Yale Medical School with an undergraduate major in English literature and a “gentleman’s C average.” His own experience makes him think that doctors today are too narrow, in part because they spend all their time in college on chemistry and biology. He shares Morgan’s view that entry requirements for medical school may be too rigid for their own good.

“Can you imagine the number of Ben Spocks with C-averages who have been kept out of medical school?” Morgan railed.

Spock finished his medical training at Columbia after marrying his first wife, the strong-willed Jane Cheney. At Columbia, he took the unorthodox course of doing residencies in pediatrics and psychoanalysis.


“Well, you see, when I was beginning my pediatric residency, I became preoccupied with the idea that a pediatrician needed to know something psychologically as well.”

All along, he said, “I had been interested in human relations.” Assigned in his internship to work with a depressed adult, Spock became so fascinated that he refused to approach the case in textbook fashion.

“I resisted writing it down in terms of family history, personal history, present illness, that kind of thing,” Spock said. “I felt rebellious. So I just wrote it in a novel form.”

The experience prompted him to write to three professors of pediatrics to inquire how a physician might get psychiatric training. “They all said there was no such thing,” Spock said.

Even his one-year residency in psychiatry at the Payne Whitney Clinic left him unsatisfied. “I was dealing with manic depressives and schizophrenics,” he said. “I was looking for answers to parents’ questions about thumb sucking, toilet training, things like that. Of course I got none of those answers from taking care of psychotic patients.”

As he set up practice in New York City, Spock found that “to have psychiatric training and to continue to be a pediatrician confused everyone.” It was as if he were suffering, professionally that is, from what his friend Erik Erikson would later call an identity crisis.


It was also a tough time for anyone in pediatrics. “It was the bottom of the Depression,” Spock said. “No doctor was making much money. People stopped having so many babies, and when they did have babies, they didn’t routinely bring them to the doctor.”

Five years after he had set up practice, Spock was approached by Doubleday to write a book on child care. He declined, saying he didn’t know enough. But when an editor from Pocket Books came to him five years later, he agreed to try.

He had no doubt he could complete a book, he said, because “Spocks of my generation never doubted that they could write. Any time we were away from home for a week or more . . . we had to write to my mother twice a week and tell her in detail what we had been doing morning, afternoon and evening.”

Spock’s editor predicted the book would sell maybe 10,000 copies in all. Instead, it sold three-quarters of a million copies the first year.

For the parents of the baby boom generation--with 78 million children born between 1945 and 1965, it represented the largest population surge in U.S. history--”Baby and Child Care” became a kind of owner’s manual.

When the baby boomers had children of their own, they, too, turned to the book that outsells any other parents’ handbook.


Spock is adamant that he set out to impose no theories about child raising. He had no such “grand design” on parents, he said.

A Peale Sermon

Until Norman Vincent Peale preached a sermon in 1968 charging Spock with “corrupting” an entire generation, the worst criticism he had heard of his book was that he told parents to see their doctors too often.

“The book was out 22 years before I ever heard the word permissive, “ Spock said.

But by then, millions of young Americans, like Spock himself, were protesting U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.

Peale, a close friend of Richard Nixon, was “upset,” Spock said, that “young people were being uncooperative about the war in Vietnam. What he said in this sermon was that all the irresponsibility and lack of patriotism in young people was because, when those young people were babies, Spock told their mothers through ‘Baby and Child Care’ to give them instant gratification.

“I don’t think there is any evidence that (Peale) ever read the book,” Spock said. “What he knew was that I was a radical who was opposing the war in Vietnam, therefore, I fitted in.”

Spock’s involvement in anti-war activities led to his 1968 conviction on a series of charges, including counseling draft resisters. The charges were overturned, but Spock refused to give up his activism. Most years, he still spends at least one day in jail for civil disobedience.


His foray into electoral politics as the 1972 presidential candidate of the Peoples’ Party was a statement, not a serious campaign for the White House, Spock said.

“There was no question of being President. I didn’t want it. It would never have happened,” he said. “I didn’t even want to be the candidate of the Peoples’ Party. But what it really came down was that the only two people in the party who were well-known were Gore Vidal and me.”

Even now that he is officially retired and dividing his time between sailing in Maine and sailing in the Virgin Islands, Spock said he is often recognized at airports or on city streets. “Three-quarters of the time, people will say, ‘Thank you for helping me raise two fine children,’ ” he said. “And then they say, ‘I don’t think the book was permissive.’ ”

Those who take the trouble to write to Spock are less flattering: “They say, ‘Thank God I never used your horrible book, which is why my children take baths.’ ”

Long before she ever dreamed of meeting Ben Spock, much less marrying him, Mary Morgan said she took the book with her to the hospital when her daughter, Ginger, now 24, was born.

By the time she finally met him in 1975, a year after he had separated from his first wife, she remembers thinking: “Who else could I get who could make a better father for my child?” Because Spock and Ginger went on to have some rocky years as stepfather and stepdaughter, Morgan rolls her eyes at her naivete. “Ha!” she said.


The pair later reached such a contented rapprochement that it was Spock who walked Ginger down the aisle at her wedding last May. As for Morgan and Spock, they contend that their marriage of 13 years has been solidified by an intense regimen with a psychoanalyst in the Virgin Islands.

“Nine hours a week,” said Morgan. “Individual analysis, couples’ counseling and group therapy. It’s a real commitment.”

But while Spock’s two sons--both older than Morgan--nearly fainted when he presented their new stepmother, evidence of their love and commitment abounds when Spock and Morgan are together. At lunch, she orders crab cakes, so he does, too. They share a dessert, the local delicacy of Indian pudding; it might as well be a strawberry soda.

Because he sometimes seems to make a distinction between himself and “old people,” Morgan chides Spock that he is ‘a damned ageist.”

But surgery to implant a pacemaker two years ago and a “small” stroke last February remind him that the years do take their toll. He fears senility and treasures his independence of mind and body, the legacy, he believes, of the first of the strong women in his life, his mother.

While despairing of the apathy and materialism he sees in many young people around him, he hails the hearty individualism he sees in others. When he looks at the future, Spock said: “I draw optimistic as well as pessimistic conclusions.”


In his own life, Spock continues to take his own advice. He trusts himself. As long as he continues to believe in a cause, Spock said, he will fight for it. “Especially if there is a barbed-wire fence to be climbed. I’m going to keep climbing until I keel over.”