Alva Myrdal: A Daughter’s Memoir
by Sissela Bok
Addison-Wesley (A Merloyd Lawrence Book), 375 pp., $22.95
by Jan Myrdal, translated by Christine Swanson
Lake View Press, 182 pp., $18.95
Far along in the impersonal, academic study of women and work, Women’s Two Roles, which the Swedish social scientist, diplomat, and peace activist Alva Myrdal wrote with Viola Klein in 1956, she inadvertently forecasts her own future.
Since in the field of parental upbringing the extraordinary situation exists that the product is in a position to judge the producer as well as the process of production, it is almost futile to aim at perfection. Once they are old enough to read psychological literature, many children will, anyway, blame their parents for committing one or the other sin or both.
At the time Myrdal was in her mid-fifties, the mother of three grown children, two of whom would distinguish themselves in the world of letters: Jan Myrdal and Sissela Bok. She was married to though estranged from Gunnar Myrdal, the principal author of An American Dilemma, the Carnegie Corporation’s ground-breaking report on racism, who would go on to receive the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974. Alva Myrdal would win a Nobel Prize herself, the Peace Prize, in 1982 when she was eighty, for her work on nuclear disarmament. It happened to be the same moment when those words, lost in Women’s Two Roles, proved to be true. Days after the Nobel committee announced its selection, fiftyfive-year-old Jan Myrdal, author of Report from a Chinese Village and Confessions of a Disloyal European, published Barndom, a book that in its newly released English translation is called Childhood. But this is only one of its meanings. The other is “child’s verdict.” And that is what the book is.
“I am not writing an autobiography,” Myrdal states in the preface. “The text does not pretend to be true confessions, objective and thus false as a police protocol. I write my words. The childhood I depict is mine.” Childhood was serialized in Swedish newspapers under such headlines as “JAN MYRDAL GETS EVEN WITH HIS PARENTS,” and “I DETEST MY MOTHER AND MY FATHER BECAUSE THEY NEVER GAVE ME LOVE” and read on Saturday morning radio.
Childhood was a national scandal. The Myrdal family was prominent both in Sweden and abroad: among their many achievements both Alva and Gunnar had served in the Swedish cabinet and in Parliament, they had headed separate UN departments, Gunnar had been the youngest person ever to hold the chair of economics at Stockholm University and the first foreigner to be cited as an expert on American race relations in a United States Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Board of Education), Alva was Sweden’s first female ambassador to India, and their daughter married a man who became president of Harvard. Their son was an activist with a visceral disgust for social democracy who in 1979 toured Cambodia with the blessings of Pol Pot. But what made Childhood especially enticing was that Alva and Gunnar Myrdal had spent much of their lives telling others how best to live theirs. They saw themselves both as social scientists, discovering …