Book Review of Composing a Life (1989) by Mary Catherine Bateson

by Jennifer R. Keup

As many of you know, this blog was born out of a women’s leadership book club. Over the past two years, we have read a number of titles and Composing a Life (1989) by Mary Catherine Bateson was our latest selection and the first we have read since launching this blog. As such, I wanted to review this book as a blog post, recommend it for individual or book club reading lists, and invite discussion about its content and themes.

Before I review this book, it is worth describing how I selected it for our group or, rather, how it was selected for me. At a recent conference, I had the pleasure of crossing paths with a female colleague and mentor who is more advanced than me in years and professional experience.

As I relayed my latest professional interests, challenges, accomplishments, and even fears, I confessed to her that I feel as if I am facing a mid-career crossroads and was hoping for an epiphany as I considered what I want the next chapters of my professional story to say. She disclosed that what I was feeling had been a cyclical theme in her own life and that she was tackling it, once again, as she faced her last few years before her retirement. She also shared that Mary Catherine Bateson’s two volumes—Composing a Life and Composing a Further Life—were valuable resources in her current and previous introspection. Upon my return to the office from the conference, I found an Amazon.com box on my desk from this dear colleague and friend containing Bateson’s books.

After sharing this story with my book club peers and getting their buy-in for Bateson’s first volume, I dove into the text. The very first thing that hit me about Composing a Life was how beautifully it was written. Bateson’s talent for making academic prose read like poetry represents something far greater than her disciplinary training and genetic connection to anthropology (Bateson is the daughter of famed Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson) and beautifully represents her academic practice in English and Linguistics. My book club colleagues used words like “cherish” and “savor” when describing their experiences with the text and if I could shake the words out of this book and roll around in them, I probably would.

Beyond style and onto substance, it is probably not surprising that the text spoke to the five women in the book club so significantly as it is a study of five women who Bateson describes as “artists engaged in the act of creation that engages us all—the composition of our lives” (p. 1). Bateson references artistic expression in the most ecumenical of ways as only one of the five subjects of the book, Joan Erikson, identifies as an artist in the most tradition sense (as a dancer and jewelry designer). However, the four other women—Johnetta Cole (anthropologist and president of Spelman College), Alice d’Entremont (electrical engineer and corporate leader), Ellen Bassuk (psychiatrist and researcher and advocate on homelessness), and Bateson herself (professor and college administrator)—like Joan, are the artists and architects of the masterpiece that are their lives. Bateson uses the individual and collective stories of herself and her friends to address some of the most significant and intimate themes that women face over the course of their personal and professional life journeys, including personal history, visions for the future, and establishing both symbolic and true identities for ourselves and in relation to others; navigating personal, familial, and societal expectations of women; the demands and interdependence of women’s romantic, platonic, professional, and maternal relationships; caretaking of others and oneself; the multiplicity and, at times, dividedness of the myriad roles that comprise women’s lives; the balance between “trust, and skepticism, commitment and independence” (p. 189); and making peace with the circuitous route that women’s paths often take due to roles, responsibilities, and relationships.

As Bateson tackles these many themes, she is direct and honest, sometimes painfully so. She leads the reader on an exploration of the many topics covered in this book but does not offer a neat and tidy interpretation or conclusion for any of them. Unlike more current (and some might argue pop-culture) books on women, leadership, and feminism, Bateson’s work does not distill neatly into sound-bites or Twitter-length advice. Her approach opens up the discourse, illustrates the issues with stories from the lives of the five women featured in the book, and leaves it to the reader to identify the implications for her own life. To be truthful, this was at times a frustration to me but, ultimately, provided me with the perfect catalyst to consider some of the ideas that have been troubling me at this phase of my life and career and that I had often set aside, most notably in two chapters of the book:

  • “Vicissitudes of Commitment” in which Bateson reflects upon her investment of energy, resources, and passion in individuals and institutions that often represented dynamics and environments that were fraught with inequity, insecurity, and unrealistic expectations due to her gender. I found reading her raw discussion of mistakes, fear, anger, and ultimately integration around these experiences was powerful and, while very different, her story offered an interesting point of reflection upon my own pathway to the present and vision for the future.
  • “Fits and Starts” that addresses the iterative, circuitous, interdependent, and artistic process of identity evolution among women. In particular, I was struck by Bateson’s challenge to herself, her four friends featured in the book, and to the reader to identify one’s “natural self” as a touchstone throughout this process that, for these women, included professional success and failures; friendships, marriages, lovers, and divorces; parental and familial roles; and always the pressure to navigate society’s expectations of them as women. The quest to find a word to identify my natural self (Analyst? Educator? Collaborator?) is still with me weeks after I finished this book and is likely to remain with me for months to come. As a result of this book, I strive to reconnect with this core part of myself that, at times, feels a bit hidden by the roles, relationships, and expectations that I have willingly accepted but that may or may not be congruent with my natural self.

In sum, I highly recommend this book and think that it is especially valuable as a selection for a book club, class, or other group reading situation. Trust me when I say that you WILL want to talk about this book with your friends, mentors, and colleagues. I guarantee that its content and themes will open up avenues of exploration, discussion, and even debate. After reading the book, I encourage you to return to this blog to comment on the points that you found most interesting or to write a follow-up post about the book. Until then, enjoy the journey of composing your life.

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