Smith, Janna Malamud 1952-
SMITH, Janna Malamud 1952-
PERSONAL: Born January 19, 1952, in Corvallis, OR; daughter of Bernard (a writer) and Ann (a homemaker; maiden name, DeChiara) Malamud; married David M. Smith, September 18, 1976; children: Peter, Zachary. Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1973; Smith College, M.S.W., 1979. Hobbies and other interests: Walking, reading, travel.
ADDRESSES: Home—170 Centre St., Milton, MA 02186. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Houghton Mifflin, 222 Berkeley St., Boston, MA 02116.
CAREER: Psychotherapist, writer. Cambridge Hospital, Cambridge, MA, social worker in department of psychiatry, 1979–; clinical social worker in private practice.
Private Matters: In Defense of a Personal Life, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1997, revised edition, Seal Press (Emeryville, CA), 2003.
A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
Contributor to books by others, including The Psychotherapist's Guide to Pharmacotherapy, PSG Publications (Littleton, MA), 1989, and Women and Group Psychotherapy, edited by Betsy DeChant, Guilford (New York, NY), 1996; contributor to professional journals and newspapers, including New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Family Networker, New York Review of Books, Family Circle, and Psychiatry.
SIDELIGHTS: Janna Malamud Smith is the daughter of author Bernard Malamud, who died in 1986. Because of her very visible father, Smith has given much thought to the issue of privacy and shares her feelings about her own life in relation to his and to the matter of privacy in general in Private Matters: In Defense of a Personal Life. Smith notes that her family's routine revolved around providing her father with the privacy he needed in order to write his novels. She herself found anonymity through marriage, by taking her husband's name. She sees privacy as a way to control what is known about oneself, a matter of increasing concern in a time when privacy is under assault and when opportunities for its misuse are escalating. She also looks at the downside to privacy, including misdeeds it can hide, as well as the personal needs it can serve.
Smith writes about solitary people and those whose privacy was invaded, including the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, who in 1875 was tried for adultery, and President Bill Clinton, whose privacy was invaded by opponents and the press that served them. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that in later chapters, "the therapist's voice is stronger; she examines function and dysfunction of our societally determined internal critic or observer—of our superego, if you will—and its relationship to self-control and to shame." Smith says that shame concerns "the wish to remain lovable, and the fear that if truly known, one will be found lacking." About reserve, she writes that "without the capacity and the freedom to stay silent, to guard one's psychic privacy, there is no possibility for authentic relationships."
New York Times Book Review contributor Richard A. Shweder wrote that Private Matters "reads like a successful therapy, in which the spirit of her father is finally made to rest. It is both a personal rumination and a gorgeously written anecdotal cultural history of the emergence and the fragile sanctity of the modern creative self, and of the development of the right to close the door, pull the shade, and shut out the gaze of the community."
A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear is an "earnest presentation likely to find a secure place in the canon of women's studies." The book is Smith's study of how through time, mothers have been made vulnerable and exploited by their fear of in some way losing their children. Of particular note, she says, is how mothers have been instructed and warned against pursuing their own aspirations because of the harm it will cause their offspring. She draws on her experiences as a mother and those of other women she interviewed in making her conclusions, as well as Greek myth and advice books, beginning with A Token for Mourners, written in 1674 by a Puritan minister, and ending with The Baby Book written in 1993, by William and Martha Sears.
Smith notes that in colonial America, where up to half the babies died of incurable illnesses, religious leaders often attributed these deaths to mothers' failings, or even excessive attachment. Katy Read wrote for the Star Tribune Online that "one could dismiss such heartless pronouncements as the product of a crueler era, but Smith finds startling parallels in our own, presumably more tolerant times. Although child mortality has plummeted, mothers haven't been let off the hook. On the contrary, the bar of idealized parenting has been raised." Smith questions why the Sears, who advocate "snuggling" don't "advocate for universal health coverage for children," or "suggest the need for federal laws to grant yearlong paid parental leaves."
Smith criticizes society's lack of support and acknowledgment of the difficult job mothers have in caring for their young as they are bombarded with warnings and visions of what could befall their children, from cradle to college and beyond, if mom doesn't live up to the mothering standards society has set for her. Smith is looking for change in public attitude and more family-friendly workplace policies for women, like herself, who chose to pursue a career. "What makes Smith's contribution to the cause arresting," commented Ann Hulbert in the New York Times Book Review, "is that her personal, impassioned essay … helps to explain why the complaints so far seem to have made little dent."
Smith told CA: "My primary motivation for writing is to have the opportunity to say what I think and feel in a way which allows nuance, ambiguity, and reflection on a level not always available to conversation. My work has so many influences it's hard to name one. The four most important categories are poems by everyone from Richard Wilbur to Edna St. Vincent Millay to Shakespeare, feminist writers from Katha Pollit to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, psychoanalytic writers like Sigmund Freud and Donald Winnicott, and my friends and family. I have learned lately that I love research and winding it into writing. With language, less is more."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, January, 2003, Susan Tekulve, review of A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear, p. 74.
Booklist, May 15, 1997, Mary Carroll, review of Private Matters: In Defense of a Personal Life, p. 1544; December 15, 2002, Vanessa Bush, review of A Potent Spell, p. 713.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2002, review of A Potent Spell, p. 1516.
Library Journal, June 1, 1997, Kent Worcester, review of Private Matters, p. 124; February 15, 2003, Deborah Bigelow, review of A Potent Spell, p. 160.
New York Times Book Review, August 31, 1997, Richard A. Shweder, review of Private Matters, p. 9; March 9, 2003, Ann Hulbert, review of A Potent Spell, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly, April 21, 1997, review of Private Matters, p. 55; November 4, 2002, review of A Potent Spell, p. 72.
Houghton Mifflin Web site, http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/ (June 7, 2004), "A Conversation with Janna Malamud Smith about A Potent Spell."
Star Tribune Online, http://www.startribune.com/ (January 5, 2003), Katy Read, review of A Potent Spell.