BOOK REVIEWS : Benjamin Spock: His Memoir Reveals the Good Doctor
Spock on Spock: A Memoir of Growing Up With the Century by Benjamin Spock M.D. and Mary Morgan (Pantheon: $19.95, 269 pps.)
Benjamin Spock had been practicing medicine for only 10 years or so when a book publisher approached him in 1943 to write a paperback book on child-rearing. “The book we want doesn’t have to be very good,” Spock was told by his enterprising publisher, “because we are only going to charge a quarter, and can sell ten thousand copies a year easily!”
“Baby and Child Care,” as it turned out, sold three-quarters of a million copies in the first year alone, and Spock’s classic has remained an enduring best seller among anxious new parents--I was raised on Spock, and so were my own children. Now, at the age of 86, the good doctor looks back on his life and work in “Spock on Spock,” a candid and endearing autobiography written by Spock and his wife, Mary Morgan.
Spock was born in New Haven, Conn., the oldest of six children in the genteel family of a prosperous railroad lawyer. His mother was stern, rigid, often disapproving: She decided that bananas were dangerous for children, on the advice of a physician-author who was the Spock of his era, and decreed that the forbidden fruit must not be eaten before the age of 12; and she once forced young Spock to sit for a second formal photograph when she decided that the expression on his face in the first one was “cocky.” And yet the sight of Sunday school children in an Easter processional moved her to tears:
“She was moved by the trusting faces of little children, and if we looked at her we would start weeping too,” Spock writes. “But we couldn’t help looking.”
Spock, who underwent an early psychoanalysis and studied to become an analyst, brings a distinctly Freudian frame of reference to his reminiscences of mother and father. Throughout childhood, Spock reports, he thought of himself as “a somewhat timid ‘mother’s boy.’ ” He reveals that he has been “scared to death” of spiders since childhood, and “I still am at the age of 86.” And he attributes the political activism of his later years to the influence of his mother.
“We all grew up with consciences that were more severe than was necessary or wise,” Spock observes. “From my mother’s fierce independence of thought, her scorn of following the crowd, I surely got my independence in making up my own mind that enabled me to pioneer in the psychological aspects of pediatric practice, to see the desperate need for disarmament, to condemn Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam.”
“Spock on Spock” is, among other things, a carefully observed depiction of a turn-of-the-century childhood in New England, almost novelistic in its detail and color. The first two-thirds of the book are devoted to the years before Spock became a celebrity, and these are the most engaging passages. Spock recalls his schools days at Phillips Academy and Yale, a berth on the gold-medal Yale crew at the 1924 Paris Olympics, a summer job on a Canadian railroad gang, a pediatric residency and then a fledgling medical practice in New York in the worst years of the Depression, and a wartime stint as a Navy doctor assigned to a disciplinary psychiatric ward.
Spock describes his adventurous and innovative work as a physician who paid attention to the psychological dimensions of medicine: “Ben, why do you care about thumb-sucking?” one of his exasperated colleagues once asked.
Everything changed for Spock after the publication of “Baby and Child Care,” and the tone of the autobiographical narrative changes, too. First he acquired fame, then a political conscience, and finally he became a guru to the baby boom generation that was reared on his good advice. In 1967, Spock was arrested for blocking an army induction center in New York City. (Spock reveals that he was assisted in his desperate effort to “commit civil disobedience” by a sympathetic police inspector; the doctor also reveals that he lost his homburg in the fray.) Spock was later indicted and tried on charges of conspiracy to “aid and abet” draft resisters. By 1972, he was chosen to stand for the presidency as the candidate of the so-called People’s Party on an anti-war platform.
“I was the favorite,” he deadpans, “partly because I was well-known and partly because I could pay my traveling expenses.”
Spock closes his autobiography with a kind of state-of-the-Spock report. He and his second wife are in therapy together and meditate twice a day. He continues to row, and he watches his diet, but he will occasionally go on a cholesterol “bust” with eggs Benedict. And he has anointed a pediatrician named Michael Rothenberg as the inheritor of “Baby and Child Care.”
“Though I still hope to live to at least one hundred,” he writes, “I can die in peace at any time as far as the future of ‘Baby and Child Care’ is concerned.”
“Spock on Spock” reveals Dr. Spock to be as decent, honest, generous, and wise as his child-care book has always suggested. And I was grateful--and not a little relieved--to find confirmation of these qualities in a man in whom so many millions have reposed their trust. May God grant you 120 years, Dr. Spock.