President Barack Obama has written extensively about his father, but little is known about Stanley Ann Dunham, the fiercely independent woman who raised him, the person he credits for, as he says, “what is best in me.” Dunham was an economic anthropologist and rural development consultant who worked in several countries including Indonesia. She died in 1995, mere days before her 53rd birthday, at the beginning of her son’s political career. “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother” (Riverhead Books, $16) by award-winning reporter Janny Scott is an unprecedented look into the life of the woman who most singularly shaped Obama.
“I think the story of Ann Dunham sheds light on the president, who many people — even people who support him — feel they do not yet fully understand or know,” said Scott. “Ann Dunham struggled with many of the same conflicts that many young women struggle with and face today. For example, the conflict between family and work and the conflict between the need to make money and the desire to do work that seems like it makes a difference.”
Scott interviewed dozens of Dunham’s friends, colleagues and relatives (including both her children), and combed through boxes of personal and professional papers, letters to friends, and photo albums, to uncover the full breadth of this woman’s inspiring and nontraditional life, and to show the remarkable extent to which she shaped the man Obama is today.
“I interview, all in all, almost 200 people: friends, colleagues, professors, acquaintances, her two children, including the president, and all the living siblings of both of her parents. Occasionally I interviewed people who had no idea that Ann Dunham, the person they had known as a child, was actually Barack Obama’s mother. I was the first person to tell them that. One of the last people I interviewed was Barack Obama. It was an extraordinary thing to spend two years studying every square inch of a person's life and then go to the White House, the Oval Office, to discuss it with her son.”
Dunham’s story moves from Kansas and Washington state to Hawaii and Indonesia. It begins in a time when interracial marriage was still a felony in much of the United States, and culminates in the present, with her son as president. Finally, it is a heartbreaking story of a woman who died before her son would go on to his greatest accomplishments and reflections of what she taught him. Obama talked about Dunham’s death in a 30-second campaign advertisement —titled “Mother”— arguing for health care reform. The ad featured a photograph of Dunham holding a young Obama in her arms as Obama talks about her last days worrying about expensive medical bills. “I remember my mother,” recalled Obama during a 2007 speech. “She was 52 years old when she died of ovarian cancer, and you know what she was thinking about in the last months of her life? She wasn’t thinking about getting well. She wasn’t thinking about coming to terms with her own mortality. She had been diagnosed just as she was transitioning between jobs. And she wasn’t sure whether insurance was going to cover the medical expenses because they might consider this a pre-existing condition. I remember just being heartbroken, seeing her struggle through the paperwork and the medical bills and the insurance forms. So, I have seen what it’s like when somebody you love is suffering because of a broken health care system. And it’s wrong. It’s not who we are as a people.”
“A Singular Woman” is a poignant look at how character is passed from parent to child, and offers insight into how Obama’s destiny was created early, by his mother’s extraordinary faith in his gifts, and by her unconventional mothering. “People who know very little about Ann Dunham have questioned the choices she made as a parent,” said Scott. “But personally I think that her life story really challenges a lot of our assumptions about what it means to be a good mother.”