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Remembering Mary Main (1943-2023)

8 January 2023
Remembering Mary Main (1943-2023) - Obituary by Carlo Schuengel

On January 6, 2023, Mary Main passed away at her home in Berkeley, California. She had been ill for quite a long time, receiving loving care from her husband and intellectual companion, Erik Hesse, and friends.

John Bowlby formulated the basic tenets of attachment theory and their implications. Mary Ainsworth developed a paradigm for the study of individual differences in the quality of parent-infant attachment relationships and their developmental significance. Mary Main, a student of Mary Ainsworth at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, went on to revolutionize our approach towards understanding how children’s organize their attachment behaviors and cognitions in response to their caregivers, and how this organization of memory and attention may become the basis for caregiving as children grow up and become parents themselves.

In 1973, after obtaining her doctorate with Mary Ainsworth, Mary Main joined the Department of Psychology of the University of California at Berkeley. Here she started a longitudinal cohort study of infants with their mothers and fathers, the Berkeley Social Development Study. Not only did the study provide the basis for replicating many of the preliminary findings of her former advisor, such as the classification of infant-parent relationships as secure, avoidant, and resistant on the basis of their response to the Strange Situation. The study also included the development and initial validation of new measurement paradigms for attachment with infants and adults, and generated hypotheses that have inspired scores of researchers across the world for testing. Furthermore, together with Judith Solomon she proposed that perplexing behavioral sequences by infants to be observed in the Strange Situation should be seen as indicating disorganization or disorientation with respect to attachment.

Only the briefest of summaries of the scientific achievements of Mary cannot do justice to the intellectual richness and depth of her work. An excellent treatise on the contributions by Mary Main and her Berkeley team can be found in Robbie Duschinsky’s book Cornerstones of Attachment Research (2020)[i].

Mary Main was a deep thinker, an astute observer, and an amazing teacher. She was not prolific in publishing work in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Many of her theoretical ideas are written down as chapters in edited books, sometimes with limited circulation. The library of measures that she developed with her team is only semi-public accessible, with coding manuals for major instruments such as the Adult Attachment Interview remaining unpublished, made available to a selective few who take training in this tremendously complex and laborious coding system. The enormous impact of her ideas and methods can therefore be ascribed to her dedication to training generations of international scholars, through week- to two-week training institutes in the Adult Attachment Interview coding system as well as the training institutes in attachment disorganization. I count myself privileged to have participated in one of these AAI Institutes in 1992 as well as helping to organize the AAI Institute of 1995 and the disorganized attachment institute of 1996 in Leiden. I continue to cherish fond memories of these formative interactions with Mary, her husband an co-teacher Erik, and the other participants in these institutes. With immense patience, Mary and Erik tried to teach a young, inexperienced doctoral student the complexities of what they had learned from years of studying the intricacies of unresolved loss and trauma, frightened and frightening caregiving behavior, and disorganized attachment.

As with many others who participated in these training institutes, Mary’s ideas and teachings continue to influence our ongoing research at the Section of Clinical Child and Family Studies. The Generations2-cohort study, co-led with Mirjam Oosterman, was designed partly as an effort to further understand the intergenerational transmission of maternal cognitive representations of attachment. The Consortium of Attachment Transmission Synthesis (CATS), co-led with Marije Verhage, brings together the accumulation of parent-child data produced by the painstaking data-collection and coding work of attachment researchers across the world, trained directly or indirectly by Mary Main. The work in CATS in particular has been instrumental in showing the robustness of Mary’s remarkable scientific discovery, namely that not the particular content, but patterns of narration of attachment-related experiences by parents are predictive of the attachment patterns that their infants display towards these parents.

Mary’s death coincided this week with a report that on average, scientific papers have become less disruptive, less revolutionary, and more incremental[ii]. While Mary may have encouraged and stimulated incremental work by others to replicate and bolster her revolutionary and bold conjectures, her life and work are also a stark reminder of the intellectual effort, patience, and dedicated attention true revolutionary ideas in science require.

With Mary’s passing, the world not only loses a formidable scholar but also a warm, passionate person with an unwavering interest in the people around her. My thoughts are with Erik, who has been her partner in all of this and the one who was her haven in her final difficult months.

Carlo Schuengel

*The photograph above was taken in Leiden in 1996 and shows Mary Main with Carlo Schuengel and his dissertation on the whiteboard.

References:

[i] Duschinsky, R. (2020). Cornerstones of Attachment Research. Oxford: Oxford Academic. https://doi.org/10.1093/med-psych/9780198842064.001.0001. (open access)

[ii] Park, M., Leahey, E. & Funk, R.J. (2023). Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time. Nature, 613, 138–144. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-05543-x