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Mary Catherine Bateson dies at 81; anthropologist on the lives of women

Mary Catherine Bateson in her yard in Hancock, N.H., on Aug. 12, 2010. Bateson, a cultural anthropologist who was the author of quietly groundbreaking books on women’s lives — and who as the only child of Margaret Mead had once been one of the most famous babies in America — died on Jan. 2 at 81.
Mary Catherine Bateson in her yard in Hancock, N.H., on Aug. 12, 2010. Bateson, a cultural anthropologist who was the author of quietly groundbreaking books on women’s lives — and who as the only child of Margaret Mead had once been one of the most famous babies in America — died on Jan. 2 at 81.Trent Bell/NYT

Mary Catherine Bateson, a cultural anthropologist who was the author of quietly groundbreaking books on women’s lives — and who as the only child of Margaret Mead had once been one of the most famous babies in America — died Jan. 2 in Dartmouth, New Hampshire. She was 81.

Her husband, J. Barkev Kassarjian, confirmed the death, at a hospice facility. He did not specify the cause but said she had suffered a fall earlier that week and experienced brain damage.

Ms. Bateson’s parents, Mead and Gregory Bateson, an Englishman, were celebrated anthropologists who fell in love in New Guinea while both were studying the cultures there. (Mead was married to someone else at the time.) They treated their daughter’s arrival almost as more field work, documenting her birth on film — not a typical practice in 1939 — and continuing to record her early childhood with the intention of using the footage not just as home movies but also as educational material. (Ms. Bateson’s first memory of her father was with a Leica camera hanging from his neck.)

Benjamin Spock was her pediatrician — she was Dr. Spock’s first baby, it was often said — and his celebrated books on child care drew from lessons learned by Mead.

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Still, it wasn’t her babyhood, her lineage or her scholarship — an expert on classical Arabic poetry, she was as polymathic as her mother — that brought Ms. Bateson renown; it was her 1989 book “Composing a Life,” an examination of the stop-and-start nature of women’s lives and their adaptive responses — “life as an improvisatory art,” as she wrote.

In the book, Ms. Bateson used her own history and those of four friends as examples of ambitious women at midlife. (She was 50 at the time of its publication.) All five had lived long enough to have experienced loss, the strains of motherhood, sexism, racism, career setbacks and betrayals. In Ms. Bateson’s case, she had been ousted as dean of faculty at Amherst College in an apparent backroom deal orchestrated by male colleagues. It left her hurt at first; her anger would take years to blossom.

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Written with wry compassion and a behavioral scientist’s sharp eye, the book became in its way an unassuming blockbuster and a touchstone for feminists. Jane Fonda hailed it as an inspiration, as did Hillary Clinton, who as first lady invited Ms. Bateson to advise her.

“Reading ‘Composing a Life’ made me gnash my teeth and weep,” author and Ms. magazine co-founder Jane O’Reilly wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1989. “I scribbled all over the margins, turned down every other page corner and underlined passages with such ferocity that my desk was flecked with broken-off pencil points.”

The insights in the book, Ms. Bateson wrote, “started from a disgruntled reflection on my own life as a sort of desperate improvisation in which I was constantly trying to make something coherent from conflicting elements to fit rapidly changing settings,” as if she were rummaging frantically in the fridge to make a meal for unexpected guests.

Mary Catherine Bateson was born Dec. 8, 1939, in New York City. Her father was in England at the time; an avowed atheist, he sent his wife a congratulatory telegram instructing, “Do Not Christen.”

Ms. Bateson was reared according to the rituals and practices her parents had observed in their fieldwork, including being breastfed on demand; her mother would consult with Spock. So committed was Mead to record-keeping that when Ms. Bateson was in college and wanted to throw out her childhood artwork, her mother declared that she had no right to do so.

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Ms. Bateson grew up in Manhattan, mostly in the ground-floor apartments of two town houses in Greenwich Village that Mead shared in succession with friends who lived on the upper floors. As Mead was often away from home for work — or, when at home, working full-time — it was a convenient living arrangement: Ms. Bateson could be looked after when necessary by a full bench of unofficial siblings and their parents as well as an English nanny and her adolescent daughter.

Mead’s housekeeping techniques were also novel: When home, she cooked and ate dinner with her daughter but eschewed dishwashing so as not to waste time that could be better spent with Ms. Bateson or on her work. Day after day, dishes piled up in dizzying verticals “like a Chinese puzzle,” awaiting a maid who would arrive Mondays, as Ms. Bateson recalled in an earlier book, “With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson” (1984).

The memoir is an affectionate yet sober portrait of two very complicated people. “One of the premises of the household in which I grew up,” Ms. Bateson wrote diplomatically, “was that there was no clear line between objectivity and subjectivity, that observation does not preclude involvement.”

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In his review of the book in the Times, Anatole Broyard noted that Ms. Bateson had brought “almost as much sophistication to bear on the picture of her childhood and her parents as they did on her.”

“We are used to novelists and poets giving us their highly colored or hyperbolic versions of their fathers and mothers,” he went on, “but Miss Bateson, who was born in 1939, is a behavioral scientist as well as a writer with considerable literary skill.”

Her parents were married for 14 years before divorcing. Mead died in 1978 at 76. Gregory Bateson died in 1980 at 76.

Mary Catherine Bateson attended the private Brearley School in Manhattan. At 16, after accompanying her mother on a trip to Israel for one of Mead’s lectures, she stayed behind and spent part of that year on a kibbutz, where she learned Hebrew. Over the years she would also learn classical Arabic, Armenian, Turkish, Tagalog, Farsi and Georgian, the latter because she thought it would be fun.

She entered Radcliffe at 17, studied Semitic languages and history, and graduated in 2 1/2 years. She had already met Kassarjian, a Harvard graduate student at the time, but promised her mother that she would not marry until she finished college. She earned her doctorate in linguistics and Middle Eastern languages at Harvard in 1963; her husband earned his there in business administration.

Early in their marriage, she and Kassarjian lived in the Philippines and then Iran, following his career running Harvard-related graduate institutes in those countries. Ms. Bateson found work as an academic and an anthropologist, learning Tagalog in the Philippines and Farsi in Iran to do so. They lived in Iran for seven years until they were forced out in the late 1970s by the revolution there, having to leave most of their possessions behind.

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Ms. Bateson taught at Harvard, MIT, Brandeis University, and Spelman College in Atlanta, among other institutions. At her death, she was professor emerita of anthropology and English at George Mason University in Virginia and a visiting scholar at the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.

Her husband is a professor emeritus of management at Babson College in Wellesley, and professor emeritus of strategy and organization at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Ms. Bateson published a number of books on human development, creativity and spirituality, including “Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom” (2010).

In addition to her husband, she leaves their daughter, Sevanne Kassarjian; her half-sister, Nora Bateson; and two grandsons.

At her death, Ms. Bateson was working on a book titled “Love Across Difference,” about how diversity of all stripes — gender, culture and nationality — can be a source of insight, collaboration and creativity.