Full Circles, Overlapping Lives: Culture and Generation in Transition


We live with strangers, not only in the streets and in the workplace, but in our very own homes. There are great differences between us—even when we belong to the same family, race, class, or sex. Full Circles, Overlapping Lives, Mary Catherine Bateson challenges us to rethink our lives at every stage of the life cycle, to question expected roles and relationships and to discover new possibilities.

Bateson eloquently weaves together the words of a diverse group of remarkable ...

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We live with strangers, not only in the streets and in the workplace, but in our very own homes. There are great differences between us—even when we belong to the same family, race, class, or sex. Full Circles, Overlapping Lives, Mary Catherine Bateson challenges us to rethink our lives at every stage of the life cycle, to question expected roles and relationships and to discover new possibilities.

Bateson eloquently weaves together the words of a diverse group of remarkable women whom she taught at Spelman College. Their stories tell of individual discovery and creative improvisation, and sow how even the home can be a training ground for dealing with differences and learning to communicate across generations. She juxtaposes their lives with life histories from around the worldûfrom !Kung tribeswomen to sharecroppers and recent immigrants—to show the commonality between experiences which may, at first, seem very different, and to demonstrate how evolving definitions of identity, commitment, and fulfillment can allow for new and greater understanding.

About the Author:
Mary Catherine Bateson is the Clarence J. Robinson Professor in Anthropology and English at George Mason University. She is the author of numerous books, including the bestseller Composing a Life and the memoir about her parents, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, With a Daughter's Eye.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
A thoroughly absorbing an enlightening book. One that deserves to be enjoyed by people of both sexes and all ages.
Library Journal
Bateson, a prominent anthropologist and author (Composing a Life), continues to observe and ponder changes in the life cycle. In this book, which evolved from a life-history course she taught at George Mason University and at Spelman College, she draws primarily from a Spelman seminar in which women shared their life stories and read biographies on a diverse group of women. Bateson also shares memories of her mother, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and her father, anthropologist and linguist Gregory Bateson. The result is a richly layered work touching on many issues, including the impact of longer life spans on women's lives and the resulting increase in choices as well as the circles and cycles of ordinary lives. Bateson approaches her work as a "participant observer," and her writing is filled with poetic insight. Particularly engaging are the contributions from African American women at Spelman, whose unity and diversity are explored. A beautifully conceived and written work; recommended for anthropology and women's studies collections.--Joan W. Gartland, Detroit P.L. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
After a middling start, Full Circles, Overlapping Lives grows into a thoroughly absorbing and enlightening book, one that deserves to be enjoyed by people of both sexes and all ages...this book grows steadily more engrossing through the final page. It will leave readers feeling as though they're finishing a conversation with a wise and learned friend: satisfied, thoughtful and hoping to hear more from this perceptive observer of our continuing cultural transformation.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345423573
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/27/2001
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.47 (w) x 8.17 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Catherine Bateson is the Clarence J. Robinson Professor in Anthropology and English at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and divides her time between Virginia and the Monadnock region of New Hampshire. She has written and co-authored eight books, including Composing a Life and With a Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson (named one of the best books of 1984 by The New York Times), and is president of the Institute for Intercultural Studies in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

W e live with strangers. Those we love most, with whom we share a shelter, a table, a bed, remain mysterious. Wherever lives overlap and flow together, there are depths of unknowing. Parents and children,
partners, siblings, and friends repeatedly surprise us, revealing the need to learn where we are most at home. We even surprise ourselves in our own becoming, moving through the cycles of our lives. There is strangeness hidden in the familiar.

At the same time there is familiarity hidden in the strange. We can look with curiosity and respect at the faces of men and women we have never met. Learning to recognize these strangers with whom we share an increasingly crowded and interdependent world, we can imagine ourselves joined in a single family, perhaps by a marriage between adventurous grandchildren.

"I loved him, but I couldn't really know him. So I learned to stop and think before I let myself get all upset." This was my sister Nora,
who had lived in Thailand with a Thai partner. "Then, when I married an American, I found I had to keep on the same way." Living with someone from another culture had taught her not to expect to under-stand her husband. Strangeness and love are not contradictory; to live at peace we need new ways of understanding these two realms, each one embedded in the other.

Strangers marry strangers, whether they have been playmates for years or never meet before the wedding day. They continue to surprise each other through the evolutions of love and the growth of affection.
Lovers, gay and straight, begin in strangeness and often, for the zest of it, find ways to increase their differences.

Children arrive like aliens from outer space, their needs and feelings inaccessible, sharing no common language, yet for all their strangeness we greet them with love. Traditionally, the strangeness of infants has been understood as temporary, the strangeness of incomplete beings who are expected to become predictable and comprehensible.
This expectation has eased the transition from generation to generation, the passing on of knowledge and responsibility, on which every human society depends. Yet the gap between parent and child,
like the gap between partners, is not left behind with the passage of time. Today, in a world of rapid change, it is increasing, shifting into new rhythms still to be explored.

I have learned to work on the assumption that my daughter and I were born in different countries--not according to our passports but because our country has changed, making me an immigrant from the past. But she, in her twenties, has the same comment about today's teenagers: they have grown up in a different country from hers. She cannot look inward, drawing on memory to understand them, but must learn from them, warned only by her own wry memories of the incomprehensibility of adults.

Differences of age and sex crosscut all human lives with the experience of Otherness, that which is different, alien, mysterious. These differences, occurring within the household, offer a chance to learn about strangeness in a familiar setting, so we can say with Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker: "Oh, strangers aren't so strange to me. I've known them all my life." In a world where waves of strangeness rise or enter constantly, these are important lessons to learn. When we en-counter new immigrants from other faiths and continents, we can re-assure ourselves by remembering the utter strangeness that coexists with love within every household. We can even learn to look at the sun or the moon, a tree or a snail or a forest pool with affinity and greeting, then look again and acknowledge their strangeness.

When you pass strangers on the street, the unfamiliar faces blur.
When you let your lives touch and make the effort of asking questions and listening to the stories they tell, you discover the intricate patterns of their differences and, at the same time, the underlying themes that all members of our species have in common.

I have tried in this book to suggest a way of thinking about differences by setting the heightened differences between generations, produced by social change, alongside other kinds of differences, all in stories and fragments of stories, lives in motion. The strangeness of others is most off-putting when it is experienced as static, most approachable when it is set within a narrative of continuing development.
The people in this book, named and unnamed, will strike the reader as both strange and familiar, individuals growing through their own eras of knowing and unknowing, as they work out courses through an unknown landscape, the changing shapes of lives.

For nearly a decade I have taught a course at George Mason University on the way lives differ from culture to culture, using autobiography and ethnographic life history. There I get a cosmopolitan medley of students, from eighteen-year-olds to those returning to school at midlife for a second career and sixty- and seventy-year-olds pursuing learning in retirement. Reading the papers my students write, stories drawn from their own lives and from the interviews they conduct, I have had the privilege of moving through multiple lives. In the spring semester of 1996, I was invited to Atlanta to teach a version of my life history course at Spelman, a historically black women's college.
During the planning for my visit, however, I balked at the probable makeup of my class, the lack of a kind of diversity I needed, that would allow members of the class to learn from one another. What I balked at was not that all the students would be female or "of color"
but that they all would be at the same stage in their lives. Instead of worrying about whether I was the only white person in the room, I was worried that everyone else there would be less than half my age.
Since I would be teaching about life histories, I wanted students who had experienced aging and childbearing, but I had another concern as well. I wanted to use differences of age within the group to set the stage for learning from one another and opening up further differences within the group, even as we read life histories from other times and cultures.

I went to George Mason University, and later to Spelman College,
to have the experience of teaching in unfamiliar regions and kinds of institutions. Mason is a newcomer to Virginia's state university sys-tem.
Located in Northern Virginia, just outside the District of Co-lumbia,
where more and more immigrant groups have come to live, it attracts a wide variety of students--Dominicans and Somalis, Cambodians and Iranians--echoing the upheavals of recent history. Washing-
ton was a small town until World War II, when it became a community of migrants within America, and it is still full of transients passing through or recently returned from service overseas. The Mason cam-pus is ringed with parking lots, and the student center is reminiscent of a mall, drawing in a population on the move.

Spelman, by contrast, represents over a century of tradition. It is one of a cluster of historically black institutions in Atlanta that affirm the commonalities of the African American community while at the same time providing a sheltered place to explore the variety within that community. Spelman's whole existence is a reminder of the val-ues and dilemmas of difference that must be addressed in an interdependent world.

I first visited Spelman a decade ago, when a close friend, Johnnetta Cole, became its first black female president. I wrote about her in Composing a Life, using a series of conversations with four friends to explore the creativity of how women and men increasingly live, with-out scripts or blueprints, composing and learning along the way.

Spelman fits a model familiar to anyone who has explored Ameri-can education, the elite liberal arts college, designed to select promis-ing young people after high school, give them both depth and polish,
and prepare them to go out and live their adult lives, often with a stopoff in graduate school. Spelman has struggled to give its students confidence as women and as African Americans, to help them claim and value their own variety and draw on the models and achievements of people of color in other countries and especially throughout the African diaspora.

Often white Americans lack a sense of the diversity within the black community, and becoming aware of that diversity with curiosity and respect is a first step into familiarity. Those who repeat the old alibi "They all look the same, you can't tell them apart" often leap to conclusions about an entire community from a single anecdote or the remarks of one person, assuming other kinds of homogeneity, economic,
social, or political. No wonder the encounter feels uncomfort-able--
natural human groups are not monolithic, and the illusion of uniformity is daunting to outsiders. At the same time one of the great burdens on members of any minority in an integrated setting is the expectation that they will be interchangeable, with an implied obligation to represent the group.

There is a more subtle dynamic than similarity when groups with-draw from the majority and hang out together, and this is the pleasure of differing among themselves. It is true that social scientists can predict much of what each of us is likely to think or do from a set of descriptors--age, gender, class, ethnicity, and background--but there is a core that is distinctive and individual for every person. That core of individuality shines out when I am with others who are similar but not the same. Ironically, we seek out similarity to discover and cele-brate uniqueness. In any group that has been subject to prejudice and stereotyping, members need to look newly and clearly not only at themselves but also at one another, finding not only strength but also variety.

There is a bewildering array of genetic and cultural diversity on the Spelman campus. Although most Africans brought to the Americas as slaves came from West Africa, Africa is the seedbed of all human di-versity,
including to this day a wide range of ecological adaptations and traditions as well as different physical types, from the smallest stature to the tallest, from the very thin and long-boned to the most ample of curves, across a range of coloration. The ancient diversity of the con-tinent has been amplified in the diaspora by the reunion with other human strains long dispersed to Europe and Asia and the Americas.

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