While many new parents document a child’s birth on smartphones these days, in 1939 recording the event was not standard practice. Unless the child was Mary Catherine Bateson — daughter of American anthropology power couple Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. The first hour of her life began on film and it continued to be chronicled in what she later described as “probably the best-documented childhood in the United States”.
Catherine Bateson, as she was known to her friends, inherited her parents’ curiosity and grew up to have a hugely successful career as a cultural anthropologist in her own right. When she died on January 2 in New Hampshire, aged 81, she was working on a timely book called Love Across Difference, studying how diversity of race, culture and gender can encourage greater collaboration and creativity.
Born on December 8 1939, Bateson grew up in New York City, in the ground floor apartments of two Greenwich Village town houses. While her parents often travelled for work, she spent a lot of time with Mead’s large network of friends who lived on the upper floors of the buildings.
Bateson reflected on this unusual childhood in her 1984 work, With a Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Her mother consulted paediatrician Benjamin Spock as she reared her, sharing insights that informed his books on childcare — Mary Catherine was said to be Dr Spock’s “first baby”. Life at home could be frenetic, and her parents’ characters were complex. “One of the premises of the household in which I grew up,” she wrote in the memoir, “was that there was no clear line between objectivity and subjectivity, that observation does not preclude involvement.”
Her remarkable gift for languages first manifested when she lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a year aged 16 and learnt Hebrew. The next year, she enrolled in a Semitic languages and history degree at Radcliffe, which she completed in just two and a half years. While studying, she met J Barkev Kassarjian, and they married in 1960 before both going on to earn PhDs from Harvard — hers in linguistics and Middle Eastern languages and his in business administration. In 1969, their daughter Sevanne Kassarjian was born.
Over time, Bateson became a true polyglot, learning classical Arabic, Armenian, Turkish, Tagalog, Farsi and Georgian. Her love of different cultures extended to their cuisine: she introduced her friends to za’atar and Middle Eastern cooking years before they became widely known. When Prof Kassarjian’s work took the family to Iran, she lectured there in Farsi for seven years. They were forced to leave the country in the late 1970s as the revolution began — leaving friends and possessions behind.
On returning to the US, Bateson taught at several colleges and universities, from Harvard to Spelman College in Atlanta. But it wasn’t until 1989, at the age of 50, that she gained wider renown as a cultural anthropologist with the release of Composing a Life. In it, she explored the stop-and-start nature of women’s lives, their multiple roles and adaptive responses, in what she referred to as a creative process, an “improvisatory art”.
“Women’s lives had changed a great deal and we were trying to do new things, which required creativity,” she said of the book in 2006. “We were trying to combine aspects of life that had previously been regarded as impossible to combine: careers and marriage, careers and family . . . we were trying to do this without role models.”
The book became a feminist touchstone, resonating with influential women from Jane Fonda to Hillary Clinton, who invited Bateson to advise her while she was first lady.
Bateson also examined the relationship between biology and social constructs with her friend and colleague at Amherst college Richard Goldsby. The pair co-authored two books: Thinking Aids in 1988 and Thinking Race in 2019. “Catherine thought about a lot of things very differently from how the rest of us do,” says Prof Goldsby. “She could walk into new academic areas and pick things up within a couple of weeks. Something of a polymath, her mind was very sharp and very broad.” Bateson documented her thoughts about human development in several more books. Most recently, she explored how humans can find new meaning as they live longer, in Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom. Inquisitive to the end, she lived by her dictum: “We are not what we know but what we are willing to learn”.