Ozzie and Hariet Lied

The New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1992
By Donald Katz

Two models of the American family have been on view in this political season. The family Clinton has presented itself as an up-to-date survivormodel, replete with storytelling about family trouble - the beaming young couple who have worked past their problems, the working mother of the candidate, the once drug-addicted and imprisoned brother. The family Bush has appeared as a more traditional survivor family with a similar persistence of love and loyalty in the face of loss and pain, and yet, being "traditional," accoutered with all sorts of Little-League and car-pool nostalgia.

The purpose of the nostalgia, of course, has been to create a morally superior memento of a better family part. And it is what remains of this idealized, once-upon-a-time American family that the historian Stephanie Coontz shreds into tiny pieces in the first half of her often brilliant and invariably provocative new book, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. Pick a favorite presumption about American families during better times -- the "notion that traditional families fostered intense intimacy between husbands and wives while creating mothers who were totally available to their children," for instance -- and Ms. Coontz proceeds to unravel the mythical conceit. She says it is a 1950's vintage amalgam of the mid-19th century, middle-class obsession with the "mother-child axis" and the contradictory view of married life prevalent during the 1920's, which eroticized the adult relationship and called on mothers to curb their "over-investment" in their children.

No wonder that the pressure to abide by the hydraheaded, myth, as Ms. Coontz documents, drove so many women to therapy and substance abuse in the 1950's. Pick an era when you think a more decent American family was in ascendancy, and, Ms. Coontz, who teaches at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., offers dozens of facts in support of her contention that pain has always been a part of family life. The fabled colonial household was fragmented by early death, and children frequently heard explicit talk of sex. The idealized Victorian home hid a rate of marital dissolution, albeit without divorce, that would easily rival current divorce rates.

Contrary to popular opinion, Ms. Coontz writes, "Leave It to Beaver was not a documentary." In the Beaver's 1950's; before food stamps and public housing programs, one in four Americans was poor. There were Federal programs - G.I. benefits, housing loans, highway construction and job-creating research and development. But she argues that such programs rendered the 1950's suburban family "far more dependent on government handouts than any so-called 'underclass' in recent U. S. history." Incidents of family violence and abuse remained buried under the idealized images of the times, "Wife battering was not even considered a 'real' crime by most people," and "by 1960 ... experts described, incest as a 'one-in-a-million occurrence.'" Following a fascinating recapitulation of the development of modern gender roles, Ms. Coontz addresses contemporary myths about the American family. Here she begins to break less interesting historical news and clutters her effort to clear away the mist of myth. Her analysis is almost exclusively centered, on the economic and political genesis of domestic problems and the economic and political solution to them. Her discussions of heavily freighted cultural issues such as childbearing and maternal employment, latchkey children and the impact of day care on infants are terse; each subject is dealt with in a bit over a page, the boomers' penchant for "nesting" is written off as manufactured, romanticization.

But a change in focus has occurred, and Americans are leaving behind the habits of an era in which money-getting and what some commentators have called expressive individualism -- a phrase applied, depending on your point of view, to privileged self-involvement or Promethean liberation -- were idealized in a way that marked and even injured innumerable Americans. The current "turn toward home" that Ms. Coontz says is historically unproductive is precisely the cultural change that has allowed the warts-and-all family storytelling of the Clintons to appear just as all-American, value-laden and "pro-family" as the "nostalgia traps" laid out by the Bushes.

The last half of The Way We Never Were nevertheless complements the historical research contained in the first. Ms. Coontz tries to turn the focus of a tedious public debate away from an idealized image of individual roles and domestic life by using economic and social data to describe an America in which people are struggling every day to make ends meet, and raise their children.

Once we have shed all the unhelpful myths, our understanding of the American family must come to include the schools in which family members learn, the houses and communities in which families live, the medical system upon which families depend, and the economy that ultimately dictates the relative ability of each family to thrive. Perhaps at that point, somewhere in the future, we will finally create the Golden Age of the, American family.

Donald Katz is the author of "Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America."

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