Stop the sanctimony

It's time to question the popular wisdom about families

On the theory that it is sometimes helpful to point out the obvious, may I enter the debate on family values by pointing out that there are a lot of unhappy families in the world? Miserable, in fact.

Some sociologists study unhappy, unsuccessful families trying to figure out why their various pathologies get passed along from generation to generation. Money, as near as we can tell, has no direct correlation to family happiness (consider the charming Menendez clan). Divorce and violence--child abuse, spousal abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, emotional withdrawal--appear to run in families.

Genetic predispositions toward alcoholism, depression, manic-depression, sloth, hypochondria, and a perfect festival of other afflictions and failings have also been tracked in families. But they are not necessarily passed on.

As Jonathan Kozol, perhaps our most caring social critic, once pointed out, sometimes flowers bloom atop dung heaps.

Great novelists, playwrights, and poets still have the sociologists beat hollow when it comes to families.

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," observed Mr. Tolstoy.

I bring this up because it seems to me that we are in a phase when no one is questioning the popular political bromides about the family. "The family is the foundation of civilization." Perhaps it is, but is it not also the source of many of civilization's woes? "We must support the family; we must shore up the family; the family is all-important," say our politicians in chorus. But our economy is based on the mobility of labor, the constant moving that I believe is the single most destructive factor in family life.

You can love people who are far away from you, but it takes a whopping telephone bill to remain intimate.

Statistics show that Americans, offered an unprecedented amount of freedom and income, increasingly choose to live outside traditional family structures. I suggest there's a damn good reason for this. The best thing to be done about a lot of families is to get as far the hell away from them as you possibly can.

I find myself having to fight the impulse to soften this point. I want to rush to reassure people that I'm quite fond of my own family(and we have some strange specimens in ours). Oh horrors--oh goodness no--let no one assume that I am anti-family. That would be so dreadful.

Look, I assume that divorce is usually bad for kids (and economically bad for women), and that becoming an unwed teenage mother is a deeply dumb thing to do. But I do not think that divorce is the worst thing that can happen in a family. Sharyn McCrumb recently titled one of her books after an overheard remark from a battered woman: "If I'd killed him when I met him, I'd be out of prison by now."

But all we see on the Family Channel are such reality-based broods as "The Waltons." I believe that saccharine sitcoms have a lot to answer for. It turns out many of the TV preachers and politicians, from Randall Terry of Operation Rescue to radio's Jim Harnsberger, who so fervently tout the family, are themselves from scrambled families; and their idea of proper family life comes from "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver." For my money, "Roseanne" is the best family program on television; at least the problems they try to resolve in the 30-minute format are real problems.

But have you noticed that in real families, problems don't get resolved very often? They mostly just drag on until they become a family joke, or everyone goes to a shrink to learn how to accept things.

The constant presentation of ideal families makes everyone who is scraping along in a real family that fights about money, who's taking too long in the bathroom, and who ate three brownies, feel that there's something weird about them.

Imagine my surprise, upon reading an article on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal denouncing Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who drowned her two tiny sons, to find no mention of the fact that she had been sexually abused by her stepfather from age 15 on. The stepfather, a leader in the local Christian Coalition and the Republican Party, admits it himself.

No, I am not suggesting that this excuses her later having drowned her own sons. But it is more explanatory than House Speaker Newt Gingrich's contention that Smith's case shows "how sick the society is getting and the only way you get change is to vote Republican."

Smith's real father committed suicide when she was six; she tried to kill herself at age 13; psychiatrists recommended that she be hospitalized for depression, but her mother refused. At 15, Smith went to her mother for help with her stepfather's sexual abuse and was rejected; she went to the state for help and was rejected. What was she supposed to do? Turn to the church, where her stepfather--who was nicknamed "Thank-You-Jesus"--was a big wheel?

Given that some families provide a poisonous atmosphere for growing children, should we be putting all this emphasis on "the family"? Gingrich's alternative suggestion--that we should consider orphanages--is somewhere between screamingly horrifying and plain pathetic to anyone who has known children who were "state-raised." Dear God, please, not that.

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