Mary Catherine Bateson died on January 2, 2021, holding her daughter’s hand.
Bateson was a best-selling author, a linguist, and a cultural anthropologist like her parents Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.
She met her lifelong partner, J. Barkev Kassarjian, in 1957 while they were graduate students at Harvard University. They married in 1960.
Bateson’s first book, Arabic Language Handbook (1967), is still in print. Our Own Metaphor: A Personal Account of a Conference on the Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation published in 1972. With A Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson made the New York Times “Best of the Year” list in 1984. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred was cowritten with her father before his death and published in 1987. While dean of faculty at Amherst College, Bateson worked with biologist Richard Goldsby, and they coauthored Thinking Aids: The Social Response to the Biological Threat (1989). Her New York Times best-selling book Composing a Life published in 1991. Many other books followed, including her follow-up Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, based on the contributions and improvisations of engaged older adults. This led to further exploration of intergenerational communication and changing ways of experiencing time, and to her involvement as a special consultant to the Lifelong Access Libraries initiative of the Libraries of the Future. In 2000, she wrote Full Circles, Overlapping Lives: Culture and Generation in Transition, reflecting on her time teaching at Spelman College with a group of students of diverse ages, exploring women’s life histories.
In 2019, Bateson and Goldsby collaborated again with Thinking Race: Social Myths and Biological Realities. At the time of her death, she was working on a book with Stephen Guerriero based on six lectures she gave at Boston College titled “Love Across Difference.” This book will be published posthumously.
Her literary legacy will be cataloged at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.
Bateson taught and lectured at many institutions, both nationally and internationally. She was the dean, social sciences and humanities at the University of Northern Iran, dean of faculty at Amherst College, and president of the Institute of Intercultural Studies in New York City.
In the later part of her life, Bateson was dedicated to preserving our natural world and addressing the social and environmental impacts of climate change and the dire need for intergenerational communication. She was a visiting scholar for the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, served on the ethics committee for the American Society of Cybernetics, and on the board of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. In 2004, she founded Granny Voter, now a program of Generations United, where she was part of developing ongoing efforts to involve seniors on behalf of children. She was a cochair of Seniors4Kids.org and served on The Possibility Project’s advisory board.
Bateson was a MacDowell Fellow in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in 1993, 1996, and 1997. She was well known locally for her monthly salon-style gatherings at the Mariposa Museum, which included topics based on her approach to life; “Learning from…” prompts included learning from children, other cultures, nature, and death.
She is survived by her husband of 60 years, J. Barkev Kassarjian, her daughter Sevanne Margaret Kassarjian, son-in-law Paul Griffin, grandsons Cyrus James and Anton Gregory Griffin, and her half-sister Nora Bateson.
In the spring, Bateson’s family will have a private tree planting to celebrate her life. In lieu of flowers, they invite everyone to plant trees.
“We are not what we know but what we are willing to learn.”—Mary Catherine Bateson
(Edited from a slightly longer piece received from Mary Catherine Bateson’s personal assistant and family).
Cite as: “Mary Catherine Bateson.” 2021. Anthropology News website, January 15, 2021. https://doi.org/10.14506/AN.1576