Alva Myrdal
Alva Myrdal; drawing by David Levine

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 the objective reality of institutions and their actors, and as social engineers, committed to enforcing that objective reality. Their recommendations on schooling, income, housing, and child care helped establish Sweden’s welfare state. Their son’s book promised something of a comeuppance.

And it delivered. Childhood is a rant—an articulate, stylish rant—a tantrum that has been put to words. It is, by turns, revealing and desperately, minutely, vituperative (though, as often happens, in its vituperativeness more revealing of Jan Myrdal than his parents). It’s an intellectual Mommie Dearest where Alva Myrdal’s dispassionate curiosity—her willingness to make Jan a subject of inquiry—is the perceived form of abuse.

Sometimes when I was at home she sat and looked at me and made notes about what I said and dated the notes. About 1933 she documented my fantasy life and the stories I drew and told. She sat behind me so I wouldn’t see her or be disturbed when I fantasized. I heard the pen scrape against the paper behind me, but I continued to talk anyway.

Alva Myrdal was a largely self-taught student of child development. Her dissertation, which she never finished, was a reconsideration of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and it and a year in the United States reading child psychology were the extent of her formal education in the field. She was able, nonetheless, to found and run and teach at the Seminar for Social Pedagogy, Sweden’s first preschool teacher training institute, and to lecture widely on “the culture of parenting.” Reflecting on this later, Jan Myrdal considered it “an example of black and surrealistic humor…. She simply was not good with children.” About children, though, she had made herself into an expert, with advice about the kind of toys that would best stimulate creativity and how to act to encourage healthy sexual growth—specifically, how to foster “happy development.” Whether it worked in her own house appears to have been beside the point. Hers were truths yielded from a systematic scientific inquiry—they were rational. For a rationalist, the rule not the exception is the thing.


Alva Myrdal, in fact, was an astute observer of domestic relations. Her early analysis of housewives and housework—her recognition that, for instance, radio and television isolated housewives and shut them out of the wider world; that for them, shopping is an expedition into that world—precedes The Feminine Mystique and is cited in it. Her sensitivity to the conflicting demands of home and work (borne of a home where her husband left all the work to her) led her to design a model apartment building, a Kollectivhaus, that would relieve women of some of the burdens of housework and child care. She advocated generous maternity leaves for women, encouraged men to attend child-care classes at the Seminar for Social Pedagogy, and argued in print and by example that women could have careers and children both, but not easily.

In her own life, home and work were not too happily wed. When she married Gunnar Myrdal in 1924 at the age of twenty-two she had envisioned their union as a partnership, a collaboration based on a “foundation of friendship.” They would live together, study together, write together, have adventures together. Their first book, Crisis in the Population Question, was a joint venture. But it soon became clear that their collaboration would go mainly in one direction—Gunnar’s. He considered himself a great man, a genius, and therefore exempt from common rules of conduct. To him the world was one long queue that he was entitled to jump. By all accounts he was a brilliant, original economist and a petulant, demanding man. Everything was subordinate to his work, including his wife. But then, his wife was a partner to her own subordination.

In 1929, when the two of them were offered a chance to spend a year in America on a traveling grant there was no question but that they would go, even though it meant leaving behind Jan, who was not quite two. (Alva was ambivalent at the time. Afterward, according to Bok, she considered it one of the great mistakes of her life.) Eight years later, when the Carnegie Corporation tapped Gunnar to lead its monumental study of “The American Negro Problem,” there was no doubt that his wife would abandon the Seminar for Social Pedagogy to keep house for him in America. When, in 1945, it looked likely that Gunnar would be named Sweden’s minister of commerce, Alva withdrew her name from consideration as minister of education to avoid a conflict. Asked the next year by Julian Huxley to be director of the newly formed UNESCO she turned him down because her husband did not want to move to Paris where the agency was based. He was, however, interested in running the UN Economic Commission for Europe then being set up in Geneva and asked his wife to convey his interest in her letter of rejection. He got the job.

It is at this point in the story that the limitations of relying on a biographer who is also a daughter become clear. While Alva Myrdal is a moving and unaffected elegy for her mother, Sissela Bok so closely identifies with her that she seems to be the medium of Alva Myrdal’s story rather than the messenger: her book so often reads like autobiography that one forgets that familiarity is not the same as intimacy. It encourages expectations that can’t, finally, be met. When the recitation of events in Myrdal’s life suggests that the action is really off-stage, in her mind, and the reader wants access to her inner life, there is no access. That door does not open for the reader because it is not open to the writer.

Something happened to Alva Myrdal in 1948, the year she followed her husband to Geneva. Bok reports from the outside edge, noting that Gunnar Myrdal was obsessed by his work and that Alva Myrdal felt shut out—but she had been shut out before. And she hints of an affair between Gunnar and his secretary, but obliquely. Something happened, and all we are told is the outcome: in 1949 at the age of forty-seven, with her husband running the ECE and her daughters still at home, Alva Myrdal left her family and struck out on her own. “The light in our home was dying out,” Bok writes. Her mother saw it differently: “Now I see clearly that I first became a free person in 1949.”

Her career, then, was just taking off. She became head of the United Nations’ Department of Social Affairs at the secretariat in New York. The next year she was off to paris to run the UNESCO Division of Social Sciences. Then she collaborated on Women’s Two Roles. She was picked to be Sweden’s envoy to India where she stayed for five years, until 1960. She wrote Our Responsibility for the Poor Peoples: A Social Close-up of Development Problems. She was elected to parliament as a Social Democrat. She planned and then chaired the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. She became the only minister of disarmament in the world. She was Sweden’s chief delegate to the SALT talks. She wrote The Game of Disarmament. She founded Women for Peace. She was awarded the first Norwegian People’s Peace Prize. She received the Nobel Prize. Her life would have been empirical proof of the thesis put forward in Women’s Two Roles—that it was possible for women to have a family and a career as long as they had them in succession—had not home tangled with work at the end of her life in the form of Childhood. The book was a thief, stealing into her past. Her daughter quotes her as saying,


It is as if I, too, were forced into a regression—a compulsion to go through the whole experience of expecting his arrival, giving birth to him, seeing him develop…. Now it is so difficult to live with thoughts of what it is to have been a mother. And to have lost a son to whom I gave birth in such love.

Sissela Bok has written that she barely knew her brother as a child. He was seven when she was born. She was eight when he dropped out of school and left home. Yet Bok is not spared Jan Myrdal’s humiliations—he ridicules her book of popular ethics, Lying. (“It made sense that her first book, when she was an American and over forty, was about lies. She dedicated it to her husband, Derek. If I had written a book about lies and dedicated it to [my wife] she would have filed for divorce.”) He says she is “as phony as a three-Crown coin,” that she has “American blonde hair, [a] rigid face and high voice from which small cold laughter comes….” He could be talking about his mother—and maybe he is.

Alva is blonde…. I have been married three times, but none of my wives have been blonde, and none have been the same type as Alva…. When I think about it, I notice I have almost never been with a blonde. I don’t like blondes. Only two have been blondes. In spite of everything there haven’t been so many that I can’t remember them. My relationships with the two blondes didn’t last. Mistakes.

Blonde hair, cold hands, a “flute-like voice”—these are his metaphors for things orderly and rational. His mother was orderly and rational. He was “a problem child. They all said it…. Alva and Gunnar said it. They said it to me…. They said it to each other and to everyone they knew.” He learned to speak so as not to be exactly understood. He ran through the house in the middle of the night. He wet his bed. He came to blows with his father and shrank from his mother.

There is no way to know, of course, if Alva Myrdal was a bad mother (or if she was any worse than anyone else’s mother). What is clear is that she gave more thought than most to child rearing, an activity that is not primarily intellectual. Indeed, she seems to have confused thinking about raising children with raising them. The idea of the family is much more manageable than the family itself—which is to say that Myrdal seems never to have quite believed that domestic life is too messy and idiosyncratic to be tamed into precepts.

While Bok’s early relationship with her mother was also troubled (“I have no memories of her doing such ordinary things with us as putting on Band-Aids, helping us take baths, baking Christmas cookies, or consoling us when we were sad. And even when she was with us we could never be sure that Gunnar would not make loud, insistent calls for her presence”), she later reconciled herself to her mother’s shortcomings and became her friend. It is out of friendship, as much as filial loyalty, that she has put herself in the awkward position of defending her mother’s life.

Bok takes on her brother the way he once took on their parents, with studied indirection. She is not only telling her mother’s story, she is retelling it, reclaiming it from Jan. Though she never says it is meant to, her book spars with Childhood. Where Jan Myrdal contends that his mother was so disliked by her relatives that she was not invited to her brothers’ funerals, Bok’s version has Alva on a plane flying in from America, not receiving the telegrams informing her of the deaths in time to get to the cemetery. Where he complains that his mother gave his bedroom to one of his sisters the day after he moved out, Bok notes that stripping the room of Jan’s possessions was Alva’s way of demonstrating that she was taking his declaration of independence seriously. Where he says, “No one knew I was going to be born. Alva hadn’t told anyone she was going to have a child before they heard I was born twenty minutes after four on the afternoon of July 19, 1927, a Tuesday,” Bok suggests that perhaps a miscarriage the year before “led her to wish to guard against all who would otherwise come running with good advice and warnings, perhaps begin to knit or sew for the baby in whose arrival she did not yet quite dare to believe.” And on and on. Bok shadowboxes to her brother’s sucker punches. It could be dizzying, this back and forth, but instead it’s a sad, trying spectacle.

Sissela Bok calls Alva Myrdal’s life from 1949 on “Act II.” It is the act in which the heroine triumphs, and not only because the other players mostly disappear. (They’re back for Act III though, and with a vengeance.) In Act II, her subjects also change—she turns her attention to world poverty and disarmament, and the stage gets bigger, and the audience welcomes her call to the rational as a bulwark against the despair of the nuclear age. “I know only two things for certain,” Alva Myrdal said in a speech at the Stockholm Concert Hall late in her life:

One is that we gain nothing by walking around the difficulties and merely indulging in wishful thinking. The other is that there is always something one can do oneself. In the most modest form, this means: to study, to try to sort out different proposals and weigh the effect of the proposed solutions—even if they are only partial solutions. Otherwise there would be nothing left but to give up. And it is not worthy of human beings to give up. This wonderful planet that we have been given…should we not be capable of preserving it, guarding its peace, developing its resources to share in justice with our fellow humans?

The gains of the last few years offer some hope that her rationalist’s optimism is justified, at least in the case of nuclear weapons. As her children’s books make clear, nuclear families may be harder to reckon with.

This Issue

March 5, 1992