Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2008
The Story of Barack Obama's Mother
Each of us lives a life of contradictory truths. We are not one thing or
another. Barack Obama's mother was at least a dozen things. S. Ann Soetoro was a
teen mother who later got a Ph.D. in anthropology; a white woman from the
Midwest who was more comfortable in Indonesia; a natural-born mother obsessed
with her work; a romantic pragmatist, if such a thing is possible.
"When I think about my mother," Obama told me recently, "I think that there
was a certain combination of being very grounded in who she was, what she
believed in. But also a certain recklessness. I think she was always searching
for something. She wasn't comfortable seeing her life confined to a certain
Obama's mother was a dreamer. She made risky bets that paid off only some of
the time, choices that her children had to live with. She fell in
love—twice—with fellow students from distant countries she knew nothing about.
Both marriages failed, and she leaned on her parents and friends to help raise
her two children.
"She cried a lot," says her daughter Maya Soetoro-Ng, "if she saw animals
being treated cruelly or children in the news or a sad movie—or if she felt like
she wasn't being understood in a conversation." And yet she was fearless, says
Soetoro-Ng. "She was very capable. She went out on the back of a motorcycle and
did rigorous fieldwork. Her research was responsible and penetrating. She saw
the heart of a problem, and she knew whom to hold accountable."
Today Obama is partly a product of what his mother was not. Whereas she swept
her children off to unfamiliar lands and even lived apart from her son when he
was a teenager, Obama has tried to ground his children in the Midwest. "We've
created stability for our kids in a way that my mom didn't do for us," he says.
"My choosing to put down roots in Chicago and marry a woman who is very rooted
in one place probably indicates a desire for stability that maybe I was
Ironically, the person who mattered most in Obama's life is the one we know
the least about—maybe because being partly African in America is still seen as
being simply black and color is still a preoccupation above almost all else.
There is not enough room in the conversation for the rest of a man's story.
But Obama is his mother's son. In his wide-open rhetoric about what can be
instead of what was, you see a hint of his mother's credulity. When Obama gets
donations from people who have never believed in politics before, they're
responding to his ability—passed down from his mother—to make a powerful
argument (that happens to be very liberal) without using a trace of ideology. On
a good day, when he figures out how to move a crowd of thousands of people very
different from himself, it has something to do with having had a parent who
gazed at different cultures the way other people study gems.
It turns out that Obama's nascent career peddling hope is a family business.
He inherited it. And while it is true that he has not been profoundly tested, he
was raised by someone who was.
In most elections, the deceased mother of a candidate in the primaries is not
the subject of a magazine profile. But Ann Soetoro was not like most mothers.
Stanley Ann Dunham
Born in 1942, just five years before Hillary Clinton, Obama's mother came into
an America constrained by war, segregation and a distrust of difference. Her
parents named her Stanley because her father had wanted a boy. She endured the
expected teasing over this indignity, but dutifully lugged the name through high
school, apologizing for it each time she introduced herself in a new town.
During her life, she was known by four different names, each representing a
distinct chapter. In the course of the Stanley period, her family moved more
than five times—from Kansas to California to Texas to Washington—before her 18th
birthday. Her father, a furniture salesman, had a restlessness that she
She spent her high school years on a small island in Washington, taking
advanced classes in philosophy and visiting coffee shops in Seattle. "She was a
very intelligent, quiet girl, interested in her friendships and current events,"
remembers Maxine Box, a close high school friend. Both girls assumed they would
go to college and pursue careers. "She wasn't particularly interested in
children or in getting married," Box says. Although Stanley was accepted early
by the University of Chicago, her father wouldn't let her go. She was too young
to be off on her own, he said, unaware, as fathers tend to be, of what could
happen when she lived in his house.
After she finished high school, her father whisked the family away again—this
time to Honolulu, after he heard about a big new furniture store there. Hawaii
had just become a state, and it was the new frontier. Stanley grudgingly went
along yet again, enrolling in the University of Hawaii as a freshman.
Mrs. Barack H. Obama
Shortly before she moved to Hawaii, Stanley saw her first foreign film. Black
Orpheus was an award-winning musical retelling of the myth of Orpheus, a
tale of doomed love. The movie was considered exotic because it was filmed in
Brazil, but it was written and directed by white Frenchmen. The result was
sentimental and, to some modern eyes, patronizing. Years later Obama saw the
film with his mother and thought about walking out. But looking at her in the
theater, he glimpsed her 16-year-old self. "I suddenly realized," he wrote in
his memoir, Dreams from My Father, "that the depiction of childlike
blacks I was now seeing on the screen ... was what my mother had carried with
her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that
had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of
another life, warm, sensual, exotic, different."
By college, Stanley had started introducing herself as Ann. She met Barack
Obama Sr. in a Russian-language class. He was one of the first Africans to
attend the University of Hawaii and a focus of great curiosity. He spoke at
church groups and was interviewed for several local-newspaper stories. "He had
this magnetic personality," remembers Neil Abercrombie, a member of Congress
from Hawaii who was friends with Obama Sr. in college. "Everything was oratory
from him, even the most commonplace observation."
Obama's father quickly drew a crowd of friends at the university. "We would
drink beer, eat pizza and play records," Abercrombie says. They talked about
Vietnam and politics. "Everyone had an opinion about everything, and everyone
was of the opinion that everyone wanted to hear their opinion—no one more so
The exception was Ann, the quiet young woman in the corner who began to hang
out with Obama and his friends that fall. "She was scarcely out of high school.
She was mostly kind of an observer," says Abercrombie. Obama Sr.'s friends knew
he was dating a white woman, but they made a point of treating it as a nonissue.
This was Hawaii, after all, a place enamored of its reputation as a melting pot.
But when people called Hawaii a "melting pot" in the early 1960s, they meant
a place where white people blended with Asians. At the time, 19% of white women
in Hawaii married Chinese men, and that was considered radical by the rest of
the nation. Black people made up less than 1% of the state's population. And
while interracial marriage was legal there, it was banned in half the other
When Ann told her parents about the African student at school, they invited
him over for dinner. Her father didn't notice when his daughter reached out to
hold the man's hand, according to Obama's book. Her mother thought it best not
to cause a scene. As Obama would write, "My mother was that girl with the movie
of beautiful black people playing in her head."
On Feb. 2, 1961, several months after they met, Obama's parents got married
in Maui, according to divorce records. It was a Thursday. At that point, Ann was
three months pregnant with Barack Obama II. Friends did not learn of the wedding
until afterward. "Nobody was invited," says Abercrombie. The motivations behind
the marriage remain a mystery, even to Obama. "I never probed my mother about
the details. Did they decide to get married because she was already pregnant? Or
did he propose to her in the traditional, formal way?" Obama wonders. "I
suppose, had she not passed away, I would have asked more."
Even by the standards of 1961, she was young to be married. At 18, she
dropped out of college after one semester, according to University of Hawaii
records. When her friends back in Washington heard the news, "we were very
shocked," says Box, her high school friend.
Then, when Obama was almost 1, his father left for Harvard to get a Ph.D. in
economics. He had also been accepted to the New School in New York City, with a
more generous scholarship that would have allowed his family to join him. But he
decided to go to Harvard. "How can I refuse the best education?" he told Ann,
according to Obama's book.
Obama's father had an agenda: to return to his home country and help reinvent
Kenya. He wanted to take his new family with him. But he also had a wife from a
previous marriage there—a marriage that may or may not have been legal. In the
end, Ann decided not to follow him. "She was under no illusions," says
Abercrombie. "He was a man of his time, from a very patriarchal society." Ann
filed for divorce in Honolulu in January 1964, citing "grievous mental
suffering"—the reason given in most divorces at the time. Obama Sr. signed for
the papers in Cambridge, Mass., and did not contest the divorce.
Ann had already done things most women of her generation had not: she had
married an African, had their baby and gotten divorced. At this juncture, her
life could have become narrower—a young, marginalized woman focused on paying
the rent and raising a child on her own. She could have filled her son's head
with well-founded resentment for his absent father. But that is not what
S. Ann Dunham Soetoro
When her son was almost 2, Ann returned to college. Money was tight. She
collected food stamps and relied on her parents to help take care of young
Barack. She would get her bachelor's degree four years later. In the meantime,
she met another foreign student, Lolo Soetoro, at the University of Hawaii.
("It's where I send all my single girlfriends," jokes her daughter Soetoro-Ng,
who also married a man she met there.) He was easygoing, happily devoting hours
to playing chess with Ann's father and wrestling with her young son. Lolo
proposed in 1967.
Mother and son spent months preparing to follow him to Indonesia—getting
shots, passports and plane tickets. Until then, neither had left the country.
After a long journey, they landed in an unrecognizable place. "Walking off the
plane, the tarmac rippling with heat, the sun bright as a furnace," Obama later
wrote, "I clutched her hand, determined to protect her."
Lolo's house, on the outskirts of Jakarta, was a long way from the high-rises
of Honolulu. There was no electricity, and the streets were not paved. The
country was transitioning to the rule of General Suharto. Inflation was running
at more than 600%, and everything was scarce. Ann and her son were the first
foreigners to live in the neighborhood, according to locals who remember them.
Two baby crocodiles, along with chickens and birds of paradise, occupied the
backyard. To get to know the kids next door, Obama sat on the wall between their
houses and flapped his arms like a great, big bird, making cawing noises,
remembers Kay Ikranagara, a friend. "That got the kids laughing, and then they
all played together," she says.
Obama attended a Catholic school called Franciscus Assisi Primary School. He
attracted attention since he was not only a foreigner but also chubbier than the
locals. But he seemed to shrug off the teasing, eating tofu and tempeh like all
the other kids, playing soccer and picking guavas from the trees. He didn't seem
to mind that the other children called him "Negro," remembers Bambang Sukoco, a
At first, Obama's mother gave money to every beggar who stopped at their
door. But the caravan of misery—children without limbs, men with leprosy—churned
on forever, and she was forced to be more selective. Her husband mocked her
calculations of relative suffering. "Your mother has a soft heart," he told
As Ann became more intrigued by Indonesia, her husband became more Western.
He rose through the ranks of an American oil company and moved the family to a
nicer neighborhood. She was bored by the dinner parties he took her to, where
men boasted about golf scores and wives complained about their Indonesian
servants. The couple fought rarely but had less and less in common. "She wasn't
prepared for the loneliness," Obama wrote in Dreams. "It was constant, like a
shortness of breath."
Ann took a job teaching English at the U.S. embassy. She woke up well before
dawn throughout her life. Now she went into her son's room every day at 4 a.m.
to give him English lessons from a U.S. correspondence course. She couldn't
afford the élite international school and worried he wasn't challenged enough.
After two years at the Catholic school, Obama moved to a state-run elementary
school closer to the new house. He was the only foreigner, says Ati Kisjanto, a
classmate, but he spoke some Indonesian and made new friends.
Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, but Obama's household
was not religious. "My mother, whose parents were nonpracticing Baptists and
Methodists, was one of the most spiritual souls I ever knew," Obama said in a
2007 speech. "But she had a healthy skepticism of religion as an institution.
And as a consequence, so did I."
In her own way, Ann tried to compensate for the absence of black people in
her son's life. At night, she came home from work with books on the civil rights
movement and recordings of Mahalia Jackson. Her aspirations for racial harmony
were simplistic. "She was very much of the early Dr. [Martin Luther] King era,"
Obama says. "She believed that people were all basically the same under their
skin, that bigotry of any sort was wrong and that the goal was then to treat
everybody as unique individuals." Ann gave her daughter, who was born in 1970,
dolls of every hue: "A pretty black girl with braids, an Inuit, Sacagawea, a
little Dutch boy with clogs," says Soetoro-Ng, laughing. "It was like the United
In 1971, when Obama was 10, Ann sent him back to Hawaii to live with her
parents and attend Punahou, an élite prep school that he'd gotten into on a
scholarship with his grandparents' help. This wrenching decision seemed to
reflect how much she valued education. Ann's friends say it was hard on her, and
Obama, in his book, describes an adolescence shadowed by a sense of alienation.
"I didn't feel [her absence] as a deprivation," Obama told me. "But when I think
about the fact that I was separated from her, I suspect it had more of an impact
than I know."
A year later, Ann followed Obama back to Hawaii, as promised, taking her
daughter but leaving her husband behind. She enrolled in a master's program at
the University of Hawaii to study the anthropology of Indonesia.
Indonesia is an anthropologist's fantasyland. It is made up of 17,500
islands, on which 230 million people speak more than 300 languages. The
archipelago's culture is colored by Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Dutch
traditions. Indonesia "sucks a lot of us in," says fellow anthropologist and
friend Alice Dewey. "It's delightful."
Around this time, Ann began to find her voice. People who knew her before
describe her as quiet and smart; those who met her afterward use words like
forthright and passionate. The timing of her graduate work was
perfect. "The whole face of the earth was changing," Dewey says. "Colonial
powers were collapsing, countries needed help, and development work was
beginning to interest anthropologists."
Ann's husband visited Hawaii frequently, but they never lived together again.
Ann filed for divorce in 1980. As with Obama's father, she kept in regular
contact with Lolo and did not pursue alimony or child support, according to
"She was no Pollyanna. There have certainly been moments when she complained
to us," says her daughter Soetoro-Ng. "But she was not someone who would take
the detritus of those divorces and make judgments about men in general or love
or allow herself to grow pessimistic." With each failed marriage, Ann gained a
child and, in one case, a country as well.
Ann Dunham Sutoro
After three years of living with her children in a small apartment in Honolulu,
subsisting on student grants, Ann decided to go back to Indonesia to do
fieldwork for her Ph.D. Obama, then about 14, told her he would stay behind. He
was tired of being new, and he appreciated the autonomy his grandparents gave
him. Ann did not argue with him. "She kept a certain part of herself aloof or
removed," says Mary Zurbuchen, a friend from Jakarta. "I think maybe in some way
this was how she managed to cross so many boundaries."
In Indonesia, Ann joked to friends that her son seemed interested only in
basketball. "She despaired of him ever having a social conscience," remembers
Richard Patten, a colleague. After her divorce, Ann started using the more
modern spelling of her name, Sutoro. She took a big job as the program officer
for women and employment at the Ford Foundation, and she spoke up forcefully at
staff meetings. Unlike many other expats, she had spent a lot of time with
villagers, learning their priorities and problems, with a special focus on
women's work. "She was influenced by hanging out in the Javanese marketplace,"
Zurbuchen says, "where she would see women with heavy baskets on their backs who
got up at 3 in the morning to walk to the market and sell their produce." Ann
thought the Ford Foundation should get closer to the people and further from the
government, just as she had.
Her home became a gathering spot for the powerful and the marginalized:
politicians, filmmakers, musicians and labor organizers. "She had, compared with
other foundation colleagues, a much more eclectic circle," Zurbuchen says. "She
brought unlikely conversation partners together."
Obama's mother cared deeply about helping poor women, and she had two
biracial children. But neither of them remembers her talking about sexism or
racism. "She spoke mostly in positive terms: what we are trying to do and what
we can do," says Soetoro-Ng, who is now a history teacher at a girls' high
school in Honolulu. "She wasn't ideological," notes Obama. "I inherited that, I
think, from her. She was suspicious of cant." He remembers her joking that she
wanted to get paid as much as a man, but it didn't mean she would stop shaving
her legs. In his recent Philadelphia speech on race, in which he acknowledged
the grievances of blacks and whites, Obama was consciously channeling his
mother. "When I was writing that speech," he told nbc News, "her memory loomed
over me. Is this something that she would trust?" When it came to race, Obama
told me, "I don't think she was entirely comfortable with the more aggressive or
militant approaches to African-American politics."
In the expat community of Asia in the 1980s, single mothers were rare, and
Ann stood out. She was by then a rather large woman with frizzy black hair. But
Indonesia was an uncommonly tolerant place. "For someone like Ann, who had a big
personality and was a big presence," says Zurbuchen, "Indonesia was very
accepting. It gave her a sense of fitting in." At home, Ann wore the traditional
housecoat, the batik daster. She loved simple, traditional restaurants. Friends
remember sharing bakso bola tenis, or noodles with tennis-ball-size
meatballs, from a roadside stand.
Today Ann would not be so unusual in the U.S. A single mother of biracial
children pursuing a career, she foreshadowed, in some ways, what more of America
would look like. But she did so without comment, her friends say. "She wasn't
stereotypical at all," says Nancy Peluso, a friend and an environmental
sociologist. "But she didn't make a big deal out of it."
Ann's most lasting professional legacy was to help build the microfinance
program in Indonesia, which she did from 1988 to '92—before the practice of
granting tiny loans to credit-poor entrepreneurs was an established success
story. Her anthropological research into how real people worked helped inform
the policies set by the Bank Rakyat Indonesia, says Patten, an economist who
worked there. "I would say her work had a lot to do with the success of the
program," he says. Today Indonesia's microfinance program is No. 1 in the world
in terms of savers, with 31 million members, according to Microfinance
Information eXchange Inc., a microfinance-tracking outfit.
While his mother was helping poor people in Indonesia, Obama was trying to do
something similar 7,000 miles (about 11,300 km) away in Chicago, as a community
organizer. Ann's friends say she was delighted by his career move and started
every conversation with an update of her children's lives. "All of us knew where
Barack was going to school. All of us knew how brilliant he was," remembers
Ann's friend Georgia McCauley.
Every so often, Ann would leave Indonesia to live in Hawaii—or New York or
even, in the mid-1980s, Pakistan, for a microfinance job. She and her daughter
sometimes lived in garage apartments and spare rooms of friends. She collected
treasures from her travels—exquisite things with stories she understood. Antique
daggers with an odd number of curves, as required by Javanese tradition; unusual
batiks; rice-paddy hats. Before returning to Hawaii in 1984, Ann wrote her
friend Dewey that she and her daughter would "probably need a camel caravan and
an elephant or two to load all our bags on the plane, and I'm sure you don't
want to see all those airline agents weeping and rending their garments." At his
house in Chicago, Obama says, he has his mother's arrowhead collection from
Kansas—along with "trunks full of batiks that we don't really know what to do
In 1992, Obama's mother finally finished her Ph.D. dissertation, which she
had worked on, between jobs, for almost two decades. The thesis is 1,000 pages,
a meticulous analysis of peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia. The glossary, which
she describes as "far from complete," is 24 pages. She dedicated the tome to her
mother; to Dewey, her adviser; "and to Barack and Maya, who seldom complained
when their mother was in the field."
In the fall of 1994, Ann was having dinner at her friend Patten's house in
Jakarta when she felt a pain in her stomach. A local doctor diagnosed
indigestion. When Ann returned to Hawaii several months later, she learned it
was ovarian and uterine cancer. She died on Nov. 7, 1995, at 52.
Before her death, Ann read a draft of her son's memoir, which is almost
entirely about his father. Some of her friends were surprised at the focus, but
she didn't seem obviously bothered. "She never complained about it," says
Peluso. "She just said it was something he had to work out." Neither Ann nor her
son knew how little time they had left.
Obama has said his biggest mistake was not being at his mother's side when
she died. He went to Hawaii to help the family scatter the ashes over the
Pacific. And he carries on her spirit in his campaign. "When Barack smiles,"
says Peluso, "there's just a certain Ann look. He lights up in a
particular way that she did."
After Ann's death, her daughter dug through her artifacts, searching for
Ann's story. "She always did want to write a memoir," Soetoro-Ng says. Finally,
she discovered the start of a life story, but it was less than two pages. She
never found anything more. Maybe Ann had run out of time, or maybe the
chemotherapy had worn her out. "I don't know. Maybe she felt overwhelmed," says
Soetoro-Ng, "because there was so much to tell."
—With reporting by Zamira Loebis and Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta
The Long Run
A Free-Spirited Wanderer Who Set Obama’s
In the capsule version of the
Barack Obama story, his mother is simply the white woman from
Kansas. The phrase comes coupled alliteratively to its counterpart, the
black father from Kenya. On the campaign trail, he has called her his “single
mom.” But neither description begins to capture the unconventional life of
Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, the parent who most shaped Mr. Obama.
Kansas was merely a way station in her childhood, wheeling westward in the
slipstream of her furniture-salesman father. In
Hawaii, she married an African student at age 18. Then she married an
Indonesian, moved to Jakarta, became an anthropologist, wrote an 800-page
dissertation on peasant blacksmithing in Java, worked for the
Ford Foundation, championed women’s work and helped bring microcredit to
the world’s poor.
She had high expectations for her children. In
Indonesia, she would wake her son at 4 a.m. for correspondence courses in
English before school; she brought home recordings of Mahalia Jackson,
speeches by the Rev. Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. And when Mr. Obama asked to stay in Hawaii for high
school rather than return to Asia, she accepted living apart — a decision her
daughter says was one of the hardest in Ms. Soetoro’s life.
“She felt that somehow, wandering through uncharted territory, we might
stumble upon something that will, in an instant, seem to represent who we are
at the core,” said Maya Soetoro-Ng, Mr. Obama’s half-sister. “That was very
much her philosophy of life — to not be limited by fear or narrow definitions,
to not build walls around ourselves and to do our best to find kinship and
beauty in unexpected places.”
Ms. Soetoro, who died of ovarian cancer in 1995, was the parent who raised
Mr. Obama, the Illinois senator running for the Democratic presidential
nomination. He barely saw his father after the age of 2. Though it is
impossible to pinpoint the imprint of a parent on the life of a grown child,
people who knew Ms. Soetoro well say they see her influence unmistakably in
They were close, her friends and his half-sister say, though they spent
much of their lives with oceans or continents between them. He would not be
where he is today, he has said, had it not been for her. Yet he has also made
some different choices — marrying into a tightly knit African-American family
rooted in the South Side of Chicago, becoming a churchgoing Christian,
publicly recounting his search for his identity as a black man.
Some of what he has said about his mother seems tinged with a mix of love
and regret. He has said his biggest mistake was not being at her bedside when
she died. And when The Associated Press asked the candidates about “prized
keepsakes” — others mentioned signed baseballs, a pocket watch, a “trophy
wife” — Mr. Obama said his was a photograph of the cliffs of the South Shore
of Oahu in Hawaii where his mother’s ashes were scattered.
“I think sometimes that had I known she would not survive her illness, I
might have written a different book — less a meditation on the absent parent,
more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life,” he
wrote in the preface to his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” He added, “I know
that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that
what is best in me I owe to her.”
In a campaign in which Senator
John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee,
has made liberal use of his globe-trotting 96-year-old mother to answer
suspicions that he might be an antique at 71, Mr. Obama, who declined to be
interviewed for this article, invokes his mother’s memory sparingly. In one
television advertisement, she appears fleetingly — porcelain-skinned,
raven-haired and holding her toddler son. “My mother died of cancer at 53,” he
says in the ad, which focuses on health care. “In those last painful months,
she was more worried about paying her medical bills than getting well.”
‘A Very, Very Big Thinker’
He has described her as a teenage mother, a single mother, a mother who
worked, went to school and raised children at the same time. He has credited
her with giving him a great education and confidence in his ability to do the
right thing. But, in interviews, friends and colleagues of Ms. Soetoro shed
light on a side of her that is less well known.
“She was a very, very big thinker,” said Nancy Barry, a former president of
Women’s World Banking, an international network of microfinance providers,
where Ms. Soetoro worked in New York City in the early 1990s. “I think she was
not at all personally ambitious, I think she cared about the core issues, and
I think she was not afraid to speak truth to power.”
Her parents were from Kansas — her mother from Augusta, her father from El
Dorado, a place Mr. Obama first visited in a campaign stop in January. Stanley
Ann (her father wanted a boy so he gave her his name) was born on an Army base
during World War II. The family moved to California, Kansas, Texas and
Washington in restless pursuit of opportunity before landing in Honolulu in
In a Russian class at the
University of Hawaii, she met the college’s first African student, Barack
Obama. They married and had a son in August 1961, in an era when interracial
marriage was rare in the United States. Her parents were upset, Senator Obama
learned years later from his mother, but they adapted. “I am a little dubious
of the things that people from foreign countries tell me,” the senator’s
grandmother told an interviewer several years ago.
The marriage was brief. In 1963, Mr. Obama left for
Harvard, leaving his wife and child. She then married Lolo Soetoro, an
Indonesian student. When he was summoned home in 1966 after the turmoil
surrounding the rise of
Suharto, Ms. Soetoro and Barack followed.
Those choices were not entirely surprising, said several high school
friends of Ms. Soetoro, whom they remembered as unusually intelligent, curious
and open. She never dated “the crew-cut white boys,” said one friend, Susan
Blake: “She had a world view, even as a young girl. It was embracing the
different, rather than that ethnocentric thing of shunning the different. That
was where her mind took her.”
Her second marriage faded, too, in the 1970s. Ms. Soetoro wanted to work,
one friend said, and Mr. Soetoro wanted more children. He became more
American, she once said, as she became more Javanese. “There’s a Javanese
belief that if you’re married to someone and it doesn’t work, it will make you
sick,” said Alice G. Dewey, an anthropologist and friend. “It’s just stupid to
That both unions ended is beside the point, some friends suggested. Ms.
Soetoro remained loyal to both husbands and encouraged her children to feel
connected to their fathers. (In reading drafts of her son’s memoir, Mr. Obama
has said, she did not comment upon his depiction of her but was “quick to
explain or defend the less flattering aspects of my father’s character.”)
“She always felt that marriage as an institution was not particularly
essential or important,” said Nina Nayar, who later became a close friend of
Ms. Soetoro. What mattered to her, Ms. Nayar said, was to have loved deeply.
By 1974, Ms. Soetoro was back in Honolulu, a graduate student and raising
Barack and Maya, nine years younger. Barack was on scholarship at a
prestigious prep school, Punahou. When Ms. Soetoro decided to return to
Indonesia three years later for her field work, Barack chose not to go.
“I doubted what Indonesia now had to offer and wearied of being new all
over again,” he wrote in his memoir. “More than that, I’d arrived at an
unspoken pact with my grandparents: I could live with them and they’d leave me
alone so long as I kept my trouble out of sight.” During those years, he was
“engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a
black man in America.” Ms. Soetoro-Ng recalled her mother’s quandary. “She
wanted him to be with her,” Ms. Soetoro-Ng said. But she added: “Although it
was painful to be separated from him for his last four years of high school,
she recognized that it was perhaps the best thing for him. And she had to go
to Indonesia at that time.”
That time apart was hard for both mother and son.
“She longed for him,” said Georgia McCauley, who became a friend of Ms.
Soetoro in Jakarta. Barack spent summers and Christmas vacations with his
mother; they communicated by letters, his illustrated with cartoons. Her first
topic of conversation was always her son, her female friends said. As for him,
he was grappling with questions of racial identity, alienation and belonging.
“There were certainly times in his life in those four years when he could
have used her presence on a more daily basis,” Ms. Soetoro-Ng said. “But I
think he did all right for himself.”
Fluent in Indonesian, Ms. Soetoro moved with Maya first to Yogyakarta, the
center of Javanese handicrafts. A weaver in college, she was fascinated with
what Ms. Soetoro-Ng calls “life’s gorgeous minutiae.” That interest inspired
her study of village industries, which became the basis of her 1992 doctoral
“She loved living in Java,” said Dr. Dewey, who recalled accompanying Ms.
Soetoro to a metalworking village. “People said: ‘Hi! How are you?’ She said:
‘How’s your wife? Did your daughter have the baby?’ They were friends. Then
she’d whip out her notebook and she’d say: ‘How many of you have electricity?
Are you having trouble getting iron?’ ”
She became a consultant for the United States Agency for International
Development on setting up a village credit program, then a Ford Foundation
program officer in Jakarta specializing in women’s work. Later, she was a
consultant in Pakistan, then joined Indonesia’s oldest bank to work on what is
described as the world’s largest sustainable microfinance program, creating
services like credit and savings for the poor.
Visitors flowed constantly through her Ford Foundation office in downtown
Jakarta and through her house in a neighborhood to the south, where papaya and
banana trees grew in the front yard and Javanese dishes like opor ayam were
served for dinner. Her guests were leaders in the Indonesian human rights
movement, people from women’s organizations, representatives of community
groups doing grass-roots development.
“I didn’t know a lot of them and would often ask after, ‘Who was that?’ ”
said David S. McCauley, now an environmental economist at the Asian
Development Bank in Manila, who had the office next door. “You’d find out it
was the head of some big organization in with thousands of members from
central Java or someplace, somebody that she had met some time ago, and they
would make a point of coming to see her when they came to Jakarta.”
An Exacting Idealist
As a mother, Ms. Soetoro was both idealistic and exacting. Friends describe
her as variously informal and intense, humorous and hardheaded. She preached
to her young son the importance of honesty, straight talk, independent
judgment. When he balked at her early-morning home schooling, she retorted,
“This is no picnic for me either, buster.”
When Barack was in high school, she confronted him about his seeming lack
of ambition, Mr. Obama wrote. He could get into any college in the country,
she told him, with just a little effort. (“Remember what that’s like?
Effort?”) He says he looked at her, so earnest and sure of his destiny: “I
suddenly felt like puncturing that certainty of hers, letting her know that
her experiment with me had failed.”
Ms. Soetoro-Ng, who earned a Ph.D. in comparative education and works as a
teacher, remembers conversations with her mother about philosophy or politics,
books, esoteric Indonesian woodworking motifs. One Christmas in Indonesia, Ms.
Soetoro found a scrawny tree and decorated it with red and green chili peppers
and popcorn balls.
“She gave us a very broad understanding of the world,” her daughter said.
“She hated bigotry. She was very determined to be remembered for a life of
service and thought that service was really the true measure of a life.” Many
of her friends see her legacy in Mr. Obama — in his self-assurance and drive,
his boundary bridging, even his apparent comfort with strong women. Some say
she changed them, too.
“I feel she taught me how to live,” said Ms. Nayar, who was in her 20s when
she met Ms. Soetoro at Women’s World Banking. “She was not particularly
concerned about what society would say about working women, single women,
women marrying outside their culture, women who were fearless and who dreamed
The Final Months
After her diagnosis, Ms. Soetoro spent the last months of her life in
Hawaii, near her mother. (Her father had died.) Mr. Obama has recalled talking
with her in her hospital bed about her fears of ending up broke. She was not
ready to die, he has said. Even so, she helped him and Maya “push on with our
lives, despite our dread, our denials, our sudden constrictions of the heart.”
She died in November 1995, as Mr. Obama was starting his first campaign for
public office. After a memorial service at the University of Hawaii, one
friend said, a small group of friends drove to the South Shore in Oahu. With
the wind whipping the waves onto the rocks, Mr. Obama and Ms. Soetoro-Ng
placed their mother’s ashes in the Pacific, sending them off in the direction
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 19, 2008
An article on Friday about Senator
mother misidentified the profession of his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. She
has a Ph.D. in comparative education and works as a teacher; she is not an