Commentary Magazine

Family Fever Chart

The family was a social invention of our ancestors in the dim and shadowy past. They had been through the baboon troupe, and the primal herd, and apparently their new settled circumstances required a new kind of grouping. Through all the millennia that followed, the family survived various perils, defied destruction of every sort, and coped with attack from every quarter. In our own time, the family rarely encounters physical danger, but the intensity of other forms of assault makes up for the absence of savages, plagues, and acts of God. Of course, by now we all know that the family is mortally ill, and has been so for generations and generations. We have been having the news for some time. Signs of the illness can be seen way back, in the patriarchal family of the caves, then in early history, in Roman and Greek families, even in the medieval family with its large spirit and busy household of simple easy sociability. But disease may have really set in with industrialization and the break-up of the cohesive, comprehensive agricultural life. There seems to be general condemnation of the Victorian family of unhappy memory. The contemporary nuclear family, our suffering patient, has survived innumerable operations and barely retains its powers, except the power to legitimize children. We all know how diseased families transfer their affliction to innocent children, and, in fact, one of the most striking accomplishments of these times is the massive documentation of the family’s role as a deadly carrier of social and mental illness. Absurd, you may say, or surely true only of the “bad” families! No, it is asserted, of all: any family, no matter how enjoyable to be part of, how charming, how admirable in the community—any family, every family, is guilty of transmitting the dread disease, even without exhibiting any of the symptoms!

What, actually, is the disease—or the crime? According to David Cooper, a British psychoanalyst, it is the family itself, its very existence, which is a crime, a “secret suicide pact.”1 The procreative and nurturing and educational operation of the family makes it an agency of repression, “an ideological conditioning device in any exploitative society.” Like R. D. Laing, with whom he has been associated, Dr. Cooper believes that the family produces madness in its members, and then does not allow them to “live out” their madness, but imprisons them in labels and institutions. The intimacy of the family combined with its hierarchical structure make it “the ultimate form of non-meeting”; persons in a family are, by definition, unable to perceive and respond to one another’s deepest needs or feelings. “The infrastructure of the family blocks meeting between any one person and any other, and demands a sacrificial offering on the part of each of us.” Like Laing, Cooper believes that families oppress as “mad” those members who refuse to conform to the madness which is family life. Indeed, the behavior often labeled by psychiatrists as “schizophrenic” is, in this view, the really sane person’s attempt to cope with a really mad environment.

Cooper also believes that the problem is political, because the family is reinforced by the surrounding society—not just because we “project” family feelings onto society, but more because the forms of social life themselves replicate family tyranny: hierarchical groups reproduce the structure of family authority, and create the consequent repression, withdrawal, and deadening of affect. “Families destroy doubt and the experience of living one’s own body,” alienating people from their true selves, invading their personal space. “All the metaphors of ‘paranoia’ are a poetic protest against this invasion. . . . The problem is not to ‘resolve’ the persecutory anxieties but lucidly to use them to destroy an actual, objective persecutory situation that one is caught up in from even before one’s beginnings.”



The quarrel here is not merely with psychiatry, but more with society itself as it is embodied in the family. Cooper looks expectantly to the Third World, that is, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and also to what he calls the secret “third world” that lies hidden in the heart of the “first,” imperialist, world: “I shall define this secret third world later—for the moment, suffice it to say that it is black (whatever one’s literal color), hippie, orientated to local seizure of power in factories, universities, schools. It’s deprived not of education but by education, it breaks the cannabis laws and more often than not gets away with it, and it knows how to burn cars and make bombs that sometimes work.” Revolution is the point—the goal?—and, later on, continuous revolution will be urged as the only defense against rigid replications of family structure. In the meantime, the only salvation lies in the destruction of the existing family, and in the formation of non-hierarchical communities which allow each person the privacy of his own mind and body, and which can be entered into and left by choice, unlike the family. Cooper and Laing founded the Philadelphia Association to sponsor such groups, whose primary purpose is to allow people to integrate the “mad experience” by providing warmth and human acceptance in responsive, non-judgmental, non-psychiatric settings without the manipulation or repression of families and psychiatric hospitals. In addition to these “mad” communities, Dr. Cooper envisages “street communes” inhabited by people who would share one another’s lives and be able to “meet” in openness and non-possessive love, who could recover their instinctual lives and live in their own bodies again.

Alone, a person becomes “mad” trying to live in a “mad” society; but working together with others who don’t think him mad, and who are like him themselves, it becomes possible not only to seek a sane life, but to revolutionize private life altogether, and, by explicit program, to disrupt and destroy the entire functioning of “imperialist” society. Dr. Cooper not only calls for destructuring and dissolving the family, but speaks of Centers of Revolutionary Consciousness, and Red Bases, which could sponsor cells in universities and institutions; the cells would offer sanctuary as non-hierarchical communities and also plan disruptions of the institution by various guerrilla tactics. These communities must be seen as prototypes, examples for the future, rather than the future itself. Naturally, we are all still in the “first world,” not the “third world,” but Dr. Cooper advises that “in a sense, all we have to do first, in our first-world context, is to liberate ourselves personally by a Madness Revolution”; we have already been told that, among other things, madness is “the attempt to make oneself ungoverned and ungovernable.” The program is explicitly political: “what we want, in short, is not to chew our loaf, but to consume the system, so that at last we might get a taste of ourselves.”

The echo of old familiar controversies hovers over Dr. Cooper’s angry flat assertions, his gnomic slogans, his impatient summaries of ideas and events. If his tone recalls the late prose style of D. H. Lawrence, his subject points back further, linking the death of the family with the long history of the interest in madness and sanity. Writers, philosophers, poets, priests, rulers, and social scientists, all have considered the links between private disorder and public order, between schism in the soul and schism in the state. Calling into question the health of the whole society, Dr. Cooper inevitably raises in our minds, if not in his own, the long lineage of these problems and the record of so many serious confrontations with them.

Cooper also speaks of tenderness and self-realization, meeting others in honesty and freedom, living one’s own life and dying one’s own death, about people who dare not speak their truth but can be liberated to do so, everyone free from others’ demands, loving in freedom, revealing one’s dreams, and loving oneself before loving others. In Cooper, this nearly exhausted but still hardy strain is crossed with Guevara, existential psychoanalysis, and Maoist activism, to emerge as an ostensibly new revolutionary “third world” gesture directed at the “first. world.” But, after Marx, after the history of socialism, after anarchism, after Freud, after Keats, after Joyce, Mann, Gide, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Valéry, after the Russian Revolution, China, Czechoslovakia, after Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian, Pollock, after Corbusier, after Artaud, Ionesco, Beckett, the Becks—are we supposed to respond as if we had never heard anything like it before, had never heard any doctrines of liberation, or of the inspired language the self requires, any ideas about the fate of old forms or the explosion of new ones, or the urgency of expression, in short, as if we were coming freshly to new and vibrant ideas? After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Revolutionaries who read will look to mentors other than David Cooper and R. D. Laing, and young people intent on founding or joining communes, or devising other ways to live, may not consult anyone except their peers and The Whole Earth Catalogue. Of what use, then, is this discussion of the family? Who will read it, whom will it affect? It is not a series of observations or a study whose conclusions can be tested; rather, it is a manifesto, an exhortation, a prescription. Social change is slow, however. The family is obviously resilient, flexible, useful, ancient, and capable of almost unimaginable adaptation. What if the new social forms take longer to establish themselves than is currently being predicted? Or what if they don’t occur as described? After all, many people do not believe the family is dead or dying, even if it is not the most satisfactory arrangement; they would rise to preserve, protect, and defend this endangered institution with power and conviction, quite as determined as those who would destroy it. All the engaged girls composing their own marriage services, and planning the ceremonies for dawn in the forest or dusk on a hilltop, they don’t believe the venture they’re embarked upon has already failed!



Furthermore, there are numerous people in many parts of this country, and in the rest of the world, in many countries, who live in families, who bring up children expecting to live in families, who find family life essential, even rewarding. These families may not approximate the extended family of socio-historial mystique, or the free-floating claustral nuclear group, and their problems and inconsistencies are quite well-documented, but, nevertheless, they are durable and useful associations. Quite large numbers of people would not welcome any of the new forms of social life, and would reject opportunities to become part of group marriages, or communal families, or unisex dormitories. The people who predict and record the death of the family always assume that these large numbers simply haven’t gotten the good news about communes, and that, when they do, they will rush to join up. This is by no means self-evident.

If the death of the family is not to happen right away, then how do we wait out the period of inevitable dissolution? After all, people have to commit themselves to jobs, schools, apartments, houses, vacations, secretarial help, welfare payments, construction projects, domestic help, available funds, transportation, business decisions. A man who runs a landscaping service and employs his old father, his two cousins, an occasional nephew who can’t find a summer job, a married niece to do the bookkeeping—how should he view the future of the family? He does lawn-mowing and general gardening for a number of families, and supports his own large family by this business. How soon should he plan to give it up entirely? If all those families are about to break up, the children to children’s communes, the parents to their own separate communities of self-realization, then what about the lawns and gardens? Of course, the houses might accommodate communes; the living rooms might not be big enough for meetings, but there are playrooms, dining rooms, studies, libraries; the kitchens can’t feed more than twenty-five at a time, but they could eat in shifts. Some communards might pitch tents on the lawns. And they would all want to do their own lawn-mowing, if they mowed at all, or perhaps turn all the lawns into vegetable gardens which they would work cooperatively. And when will all this happen—in a day? a year? a decade? or a generation?

Institutions change more slowly than feelings, as we know. The family may be long in dying, but in the meantime, behavior will be modified, customs changed, beliefs, convictions, habits will fade, become distorted, or disintegrate. Tone, temper, and manners can turn sour and abrasive before the crumbling of the relationships they characterize. This discrepancy, that forms can be maintained even when emotions and opinions are ambivalent or ambiguous, has always been taken as a sign of the insincerity of the family, of its failure to permit true “meeting” among its members. Indeed, the evidence of hidden hostility and unconscious or disguised motives in the forms of family life is used as proof, if it were needed, of the constraint and repressiveness of the family and of the society that replicates it.

Perhaps this lack of congruence between feelings and forms can be allowed—reculer pour mieux sauter—and we can consider the possibility that if social forms were entirely transparent and unambiguous, social change would probably be impossible. Even in practical terms, this discrepancy has shown itself to provide a certain convenience and utility: those who mount guerrilla actions against the institutions of society always count on the conformity of their enemies, their observance of social forms, and their liberal devotion to parliamentary procedures which may fail to express the passions of the moment. Would a guerrilla group have entertained a guerrilla action against Columbia or Stanford or the London School of Economics if they had thought they would meet other guerrillas when they got inside?



Nevertheless, prototypes are examples, and people pay attention to examples—“For, by the image of my cause, I see the portraiture of his,” said Hamlet, and why not everyone? It is especially true in a country with powerful and sophisticated mass media, and a large post-literate public. All sorts of notions spread with unimaginable speed, not only notions but trains of thought, whole arguments, ideas, attitudes: everything is vulnerable. One can no longer even speak of people being influenced by the mass media when so many do not even live at a sufficient distance from the media for influence to occur. The consequences of living in the media, as fish live in water, is not that social change necessarily occurs as fast as opinions change, but perhaps the opposite: that opinions and preoccupations shift with vertiginous rapidity while social institutions follow a different sequence, and pace, of change or of adaptation.

Thus, as “the nuclear family” and “the death of the family” become catchwords, and young people decide not to found families—or, as is common, to have babies but not families—it will be interesting to observe what happens to existing family relationships: Are they maintained, or do they weaken and shrivel? Do parents contribute to communes the money formerly set aside for college fees? Won’t older people get the message, too, and, like the young, withdraw their feeling from a project they are told is irrelevant, and instead devote themselves to belated self-realization? What of uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers? And if any young woman has been so foolish as to begin a family life, at least she need not now compound the error by wasting time on it. Nor will the father of the young family fail to see the handwriting on the wall. Of course they will find no grandparents around to advise or baby-sit, because the grandparents are not asleep. And certainly no cousins, young nieces, unoccupied aunts—that all disappeared years ago, when the family’s existence was first observed to be precarious. Then, let us include the parents of middle-aged children, as they are sometimes called, the eight-to-thirteen group, and the teen-aged. Why should anyone care whether this child perfects his tennis, or that one gets a cage for mice, or another is on the swim team? The merest shelter will do for this defunct alliance, minimal standards of comfort and order, the most rudimentary provisions for recreation, food, and clothing, to supplement the school and daycare center. And what of the children themselves? What will be their perception of these decaying relationships, these desiccated feelings, and the observed consequences? What will they learn about their own future from what they see?2

Perhaps we should ask, instead, whom will they see? Teachers, counselors, and day-care assistants, obviously. If the family is dead or dying, such children as do exist, or arrive by social parthenogenesis, will probably be brought up in a children’s house, in a children’s world in which the restrictions and constraints on the children would have to be very great so that the adults might have the way clear for their own openness and self-discovery, even for their own communal labor, as the reports of the kibbutzim make clear. There is further evidence from other kinds of communities that the organization of labor poses certain problems once the number of workers increases to a point larger than the family, even when there are shared and agreed-upon goals. In fact, the history of utopian communities should be made required reading for anyone interested in non-hierarchical consensual groups.



But is it really a choice only between family and commune? Is there nothing in between, has there never been anything else? What about labor unions, dining clubs, skating groups, tennis groups, singing societies, charity organizations, alumni activities, professional societies, sports clubs, secret societies, social-welfare associations, baby sitters, car pools, poker clubs, religious organizations, local political parties, adult schools, municipal government, hospital auxiliaries, groups for civic betterment, friends of libraries and museums, ethnic organizations, dramatic societies, parent-teacher associations, choirs, dancing schools, women’s organizations—why has the discussion of the family been allowed to proceed without any mention being made of all those countless links and reverberations, those ancillary activities and connections which are not the family, but which are nevertheless very strong associations between people, and not only in tiny claustral groups, but in smaller and larger assemblages of heterogeneous people, and not merely temporary but often of some duration? These are, moreover, communities one enters and leaves by choice, and they provide the setting for innumerable forms of self-realization.

The web of extra-familial groups, voluntary associations as they are often called, was exactly what de Tocqueville noticed when he came to this country: in the absence of large ancient families, rooted to place, with a sense of connection, the Americans developed other kinds of associations, invented communities. Other nations have had them in addition to the sense of family, as, for instance, in the workingmen’s societies in England. We may wonder, is it part of the assertion of the death of the family that voluntary associations have expired as well? Or is it rather that those who are most convinced of the death of the family, and most optimistic about its speedy decline, have seen only the tiny nuclear family in the vacant interstellar spaces, and have simply never noticed this complex set of structures?

In an atmosphere of new relationships and self-discoveries, it becomes ominously clear that very little will be done to preserve or defend relationships which already exist, or people already in specific situations; not much effort will be made to repair damaged families or damaging relationships, but only to foster new self-realizations, We might well ask, whose self-realizations? People intent upon freeing their own potentialities, and recovering their own instinctual lives, are not always alert to the needs of others in different situations; indeed, it is the needs of others they are often fighting. And those who are going through the madness which Dr. Cooper wants to protect for them will require others who are willing to help, without demanding the same thing for themselves at the same time. Why should anyone do it? How will they have learned to do it, if they have never seen anyone older in daily life?

And, for those who are perhaps too old to begin living in new communities, or who have already had their dramas of self-discovery and self-realization and may not wish to have another, or may now have something else in mind, who is to help? Older people may not have so much to contribute to new communities, they may have lost, or never possessed, wisdom, charm, talents, accomplishments, wealth, or strength. Like children, adolescents, and everyone else, they have the wish and the need to be valued for themselves alone, not because they are interesting, affable, useful, or companionable, but only because they exist. Today there are as many old people in the country as there are black people—are they to be locked up in the ghettos of St. Petersburg, in leisure villages, and old people’s homes? And what will the society be preparing for, when that often-cited 50 per cent of our population now under twenty-five becomes, before they realize it, over sixty-five? All those uncles and grandparents, and second cousins and sisters and aunts, they won’t live to see the death of the family and their own liberation from constraint, all they will see is despair, unpleasantness, false personalization, cruelty, indifference, selfishness, their own and everyone else’s, and abrasive behavior everywhere. And what will be the value, then, of these impassioned attacks on families, these evangelical appeals for consensual communities and freedom and feeling and the imperatives of personal identity? Who then will be constrained, manipulated, alienated from their feelings and bodies?




1 The Death of the Family, Pantheon, 145 pp., $5.95.

2 I am grateful to John and Elizabeth Gutman for valuable discussions of this whole subject.

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