Dr. Spockby Thomas Maier
Dr. Benjamin Spock is known for how he revolutionized mainstream American family life with his book Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, for the controversy caused by his psychological advice, and for his early and courageous opposition to the war in Vietnam. But, as award-winning biographer Thomas Maier uncovered through extensive interviews with Spock and his family
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Dr. Benjamin Spock is known for how he revolutionized mainstream American family life with his book Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, for the controversy caused by his psychological advice, and for his early and courageous opposition to the war in Vietnam. But, as award-winning biographer Thomas Maier uncovered through extensive interviews with Spock and his family, his personal life was filled with tragic ironies and contradictions. His family suffered through alcoholism, substance abuse, divorce, mental illness, suicide, sexual tensions, and emotional indifference. His childhood, which so infused his book and made its success possible, nevertheless seemed to prevent him from taking his own advice. Maier, for the first time, tells the complete story of Spock's life, revealing the complicated journey of the man who said, "Trust yourself. You know more than you think."
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292. Fresh air ... Cool or cold air improves appetite, puts color in the cheeks, and gives more pep to humans of all ages.... I can't help but believe in the tradition.
--Dr Spock's Baby and Child Care
Out in the nighttime air, nestled under the covers of his bed, Benny's mind wandered dreamily. In summer, he might listen for the footsteps of strangers passing or the cicadas humming in the trees. On harsh winter evenings, though, only Mother's bedtime instruction lingered in his ears: You must have lots of fresh air. Minutes before Father arrived home for dinner at seven, Mildred Spock ushered Benny and his younger siblings to the sleeping porch of their house in New Haven, Connecticut, and tucked them in for the night. Mother was a strong-minded woman, with piercing blue eyes and prematurely white hair, who believed firmly in the benefits of fresh air--no matter how cold.
Benny, a quiet, unassuming boy of seven years, wore his Dr. Denton's, which fully covered his legs and feet. To stay warm, he'd also keep a ceramic pig, toasted on the stove by his mother, beneath his heavy blankets. Occasionally, if the air was freezing, he put on a toboggan hat with earflaps. If nature called, young Spock relieved himself in a chamber pot outside. In the morning, he'd stare at his frozen urine.
"For my mother, fresh air was of enormous importance," Benjamin Spock recalls of those winter nights in 1910. Fresh air was pure and chaste and wholesome, just as Mildred Spock determined her children would be. "You didn't rebel against fresh air," recalls her oldest son, "because fresh air was just as sacred as morality."
The sleeping porch rested on the second floor of the Spocks' Victorian home, above the front-door veranda with its white picket railing. A large, striped canvas hanging over the sleeping porch from a metal awning kept away the rain and snow. Sometimes, gusts of wind off the Long Island Sound howled memorably. When rain came, the water trickled down the canvas flaps. In the darkness, the sleeping porch became its own world. "The streetlamps would light up these little drops and we thought they were fairies running along," remembers Ben's sister, Marjorie, who everyone called Hiddy. "There was a certain magic out there."
Benny never questioned being out there, night after night, even in winter. "There was nothing you could do about it, so we put up with it, I guess," Spock explains. "We knew it was somewhat peculiar, but it didn't seem to us like cruelty." Besides, Mother wasn't inclined to debate, and Father, like most men of his generation, left all domestic matters to his wife. Hiddy, a year younger than Ben and his constant companion in childhood, once complained. "Mother, how can you stand this cold?" she inquired, with a hint of contrariness in her voice.
"Oh, you piddling creatures," she replied. Her big eyes rolled in disapproval. And that was that.
Mother's faith in fresh air was only one of her strong beliefs about child rearing. For advice, she consulted Dr. Luther Emmett Holt, the leading expert of the day, and his popular book, The Care and Feeding of Children, first published in the 1890s. Its subtitle, A Catechism for the Use of Mothers and Children's Nurses, underlined the solemnity that Dr. Holt naturally imputed to parenthood for women. Mostly, though, Mother relied on her own instincts, passing on what she knew to be good, wise, and true.
Each Spock child--Benny and Hiddy, followed by Betty, Anne, Bobby, and Sally--became vessels for Mildred Spock's aspirations and dreams. Each child was born at home and, from the very start, remained under Mother's watchful eye. "She wanted to be the perfect mother and to have the perfect children," Hiddy says, with a bemused grin. "She envisioned what a really wonderful human being would be like. She wanted all six children to be these glorious advertisements for the human race."
To grow up healthy, robust, and moral, the children had to heed Mildred Spock's rules. They knew them by heart, and they dared not cross her. Mother's views were demanding and, as Ben and his siblings later realized, unique in their neighborhood, but she held them with such utter conviction that they remained unchallenged for years. For instance, Mother felt firmly that meats and fats were to be avoided. Her children's diet, at least for their first twelve years of existence, was mostly vegetarian. "We had very simple food, which we hated," Hiddy remembers. "Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. Fruit, fruit, fruit until it came out our ears. Eggs, eggs, eggs. Only on Sunday did we ever have any meat, and that was always chicken." Bananas were an exception. Mother, and Dr. Holt, believed this tropical fruit disagreed with a youngster's delicate constitution. She insisted that Benny avoid eating bananas at all costs.
One morning, while Benny played with a group of boys from the neighborhood, Chunky Robbins emerged from his house with a fistful of bananas. As his nickname implied, Chunky tended toward the weighty side. He liked to throw it around.
"Everybody's got to eat a banana," Chunky declared, as though it were some test of manhood.
Benny's heart filled with dread. "My mother says I can't have half a banana until I'm twelve," he said faintly.
With the other kids staring in disbelief, young Spock shrank from the challenge, aware of the far greater danger if he did eat the banana. Years later, Spock admitted to being "much more scared of my mother than I was of Chunky Robbins."
On those rare moments when Benny tested his mother, she seemed endowed with supernatural powers to discern the truth. When quizzing Benny about the day's events, she stared at him intently, as though peering right into his soul. "We thought she had X-ray eyes," he recalls, "and the minute we did anything the least bit naughty she detected it immediately." Mother usually kept her hair tied up in a bun so her eyes appeared even wider. "All she had to say was, 'Benny, what have you been doing?' and I'd confess immediately. I never told a lie in my life. There was no point in lying in my family."
Cold Spring Street in New Haven, where the Spock family lived, was all but formally dedicated to the practice of child raising. With so many households full of youngsters, the university president of nearby Yale once referred to it as "Offspring Street." For Benny, this block was a wondrous idyll, a place to grow up, as Mother intended, in a most wholesome way.
Appearances were all-important, Mildred Spock instructed her children, lest the neighbors get a wrong impression. She even demanded a formality in how they referred to her. Nothing less than "Mother" would ever do. "People won't like you," she warned about any potential grounds for moral disapproval. Hiddy and her older brother learned to bow when neighbors passed by on the street. Benny doffed his cap grandly. "It wasn't proper just to wave to them and that would be enough," Hiddy recalls. "You had to bow." After resisting for a while, the children adopted this genteel practice, bending their proud necks in public.
To their amazement, whenever Mother chatted with her own friends, she showed none of the high-handedness displayed at home. After listening to Mother's warm, amusing banter, neighbors and family friends concluded that the Spock children were indeed very fortunate. "She was sparkling at times, very funny, very bright," Sally remembers. "She naturally didn't share much of that side at home. But when we went out to places together, she'd be extremely entertaining and everyone would say, 'Oh, you're so lucky to have her as a mother.'"
Mother approved of Benny's best pal, Mansfield Horner, who lived two blocks away, mostly because she liked Mrs. Horner. The two women strolled to the park together, with their children and maids in tow. Mansfield, a curly-haired youth, was not above teasing Benny every so often. He once convinced him that a dinosaur lurked in the shadowy cellar beneath the Horner house, a fiction that took Benny several weeks and considerable embarrassment to realize was not so. Mansfield's chief appeal was the Lionel electric train set he owned, with cars as big as shoe boxes. Benny's parents wouldn't dream of buying such expensive toys, nor would he dare ask for such an indulgence. However, he loved to go over to the Horner house, where the train whistle and slight smell of motor oil from the electric tracks filled the air and lasted in Benny's memory. Afterward Mrs. Horner read the boys a book called The Cozy Lion, a story of children who befriend a lion in the woods and prove more brave and resourceful than the adults.
The Spock backyard was stuffed with all sorts of things to play on--swings, three tall cherry trees to climb, and a Joggly-Board on which the children could stand and bounce. Mildred Spock, of course, urged the children to "go out in the nice fresh air and play outside," virtually pushing them out the back door. Benny and Hiddy spent untold hours in their sandbox, turning the clean white sand into castles or miniature mountains with trickles of water running through as rivers. Yet, the greatest adventures always unfolded in a patch of land next to the Spocks' house, which overflowed with weeds, bushes, and trees. Benny concluded this must certainly be a jungle. And a jungle must have lions, so Benny remained on the lookout.
One day, Mother asked Benny to see who was at the door. Benny went to the front porch, opened the door, and came back looking very solemn.
"Who was it?" Mother wondered.
Benny, whose slow speech often reflected the uncertainty of his young mind, answered, "I think it was a ... lion."
When Mother walked to the door, she found an old Italian man who lived on the other side of town and did odd jobs in their neighborhood. Covered with grime, the old man smiled at her through a beard that covered his head like an overgrown bush.
With a hearty chuckle, for Mother liked a good laugh as much as anyone, she assured Benny that this man was not a lion.
Mansfield Horner may have been Benny's best pal, but Hiddy, only a year and a half younger, was his constant playmate. They'd go roller-skating along a sidewalk or fly a kite in a local park. Hiddy was a bouncy, tomboyish little girl with a cherubic face. Benny admired her gumption. "Even as a small child, she was a very independent, spunky girl," Spock recalls. "At that time, I had become a rather wistful, somewhat timid child who would never think of standing up to my mother." Hiddy, who kept her straight brown hair flopped over to one side and usually tied back with a white bow or clip, cheerfully helped her big brother in his quest to become a man. To learn how to smoke cigars, for instance, she and Benny gathered leaves fallen from a large rhododendron and rolled them with corn silk. After a few puffs, they coughed until they turned all shades of purple. Another of Ben's self-improvements centered on his effort to become better-looking. This could be achieved, Benny informed his sister, by jutting out one's jaw. A slackened chin undoubtedly represented a lack of character and appeal. "Ben called my attention to the fact that his chin was a little too sloping and so was mine," Hiddy says. "So we practiced getting them out. We'd practice all the time so we'd look better."
Benny's assertiveness had its limits, however. Their path to Worthington Hooker School, the first public school attended by the Spock children, took them past the neighborhood bully's house. Each morning, as this slightly older boy caught sight of Benny, he'd come out and shout all sorts of threats. "Ben was scared to death of him," remembers Hiddy. "I used to challenge this boy. Don't you dare do anything to my brother. And I became his protector. If anybody was going to do anything to Ben, I would just ball my fists up and go at them like this." Almost a century later, Hiddy could still put up her dukes, jabbing and poking, just as she did during those headlong encounters in New Haven.
"Ben was a dreamy little boy," recalls Hiddy, who always thought her brother's penchant for reveries might lead him to become an artist or a great philosopher. "He would always tell me about his dreams in the morning. I pretended that I had had exactly the same dream. He was already then tending to live in these sort of dream pictures. They meant a lot to him."
Sometimes, his dreaminess came at their mutual peril. Once, while taking a bath, Hiddy slid beneath the soapy water and nearly drowned while Benny sat idly watching his sister bubbling in the steep tub. When Mother returned, she yanked Hiddy out and demanded of Benny, "Why didn't you call when Hiddy fell over?"
Naked and condemned, he could only say meekly, "I was calling you, ... and calling you, ... and you didn't come." Mother shook her head misgivingly.
Photographs of himself taken in those days show a slight vagueness, as Spock later noticed. In one portrait, seven-year-old Benny is seen dolled up in his best Sunday outfit, without a trace of a smile. Mother had insisted that the cameraman retake the photo after he appeared in the first shot with a cocky smirk. Benny's devotion to Mother is reflected in another image. His head rests tenderly on her shoulders, his eyes ever dreamy, while his sisters are posed separately around her. For a year or two after birth, as his various baby photographs reveal, Benny glowed with self-assurance and well-being. By the ripe age of three, however, that spirit was gone, shaken out of him by Mother's indomitable will. He vied for her attention as the Spock family expanded, with the arrival of a new sibling just about every two years. Hiddy was succeeded by Betty, and then Anne. By the time Robert arrived in 1912, Mildred Spock had inculcated her eldest son in her maternal routine. Benny learned to change little Bobby's diapers, find out why he cried, give him a bottle, and rock him to sleep. The process repeated itself when Sally came along. Sometimes, Benny felt more like a mother than a brother, but he tried mightily to mirror Mildred Spock's own devotion. "Mother gave herself completely to us and allowed herself no frivolities," he recalls. "She was afraid that it might take away from her duties. Like the first child in any big family, I loved playing parent. I grew up taking it for granted that kids were very important."
Mother adored babies. When a new infant came along, the entire Spock clan throbbed with anticipation. "Children and babies in our family were absolutely worshiped," Hiddy recalls. "Every time there was a baby coming, the whole family was prepared for it. We were allowed to see these adorable clothes, all the preparations, the bassinet, and so on. And when the baby came, the baby was king or queen of the house. Everything centered around the baby and everybody loved the baby. Ben got this. It conditioned him from childhood to be fascinated with babies."
As her babies became toddlers, however, Mother's adoration turned to mastery. Mildred Spock believed that, at about the age of three, her children's inchoate wills were to be shaped like vines sprouting up a beanpole. Even though her husband provided a series of Irish maids to help run the household, Mildred Spock insisted on bringing up the children by herself, unlike other Cold Spring mothers. She refused to play bridge, her favorite pastime, until all of her offspring were grown. "My mother wouldn't think of turning over the rearing of her children to nannies," her eldest son recalls. "She was going to do it herself in a way that she assumed was the right one."
Fresh air, grains, and moral certainties ruled the Spock household. Nothing was spared in Mother's pursuit of childhood perfection. Her effort to shape their character was so relentless that her children lived in fear of her wrath. Mother was "devastatingly witty and as free and bold as a lion," Hiddy recalls, with genuine awe. "She didn't care what she said." On the day she got married, according to one story Mother often told her daughters, she and Father went upstairs in grandmother's house to change into their traveling clothes for the honeymoon. But first they knelt down beside the bed.
"I prayed that we would have six glorious children," Mother recollected, with an impish twinkle in her eye. She knew how to drag out a word like glorious for its full effect. "You can imagine how disappointed I've been. I've had the six, but..." It was a joke with a very sharp point.
Mother treated Benny somewhat differently, though. She may have recognized that he was, deep down, so much like her, or that he had become the exemplar of her single-minded mothering. Although the same rules applied, a gentler tone, a less critical manner, assured her oldest son that his mother's demands were born of love as much as discipline. Again, this message from Mother didn't need to be spelled out. Benny seemed both fascinated and overwhelmed by her nurturing. No matter what complaint he might make later to his siblings about Mother's exacting nature, they knew better. "It was perfectly obvious to all of us," Hiddy recalls, "that he was the child that she loved."
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Meet the Author
Thomas Maier is a staff reporter at New York Newsday. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed Dr. Spock: An American Life, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He lives in East Northport, New York.
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