Family redefined…

I’m happy to introduce Rhetorica readers to my wife, Lola, who has kindly allowed me to publish this review.

A Review of: “Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family” by Al and Tipper Gore (Henry Holt and Co., 2002)

By Lola Butcher

The ideal family includes two married people and their biological children. The nuclear family should be the primary source of emotionally intimate relationships. And the difficult challenges that face families today threaten to destroy the basic unit of American society.

So says conventional wisdom.

Thankfully, Al and Tipper Gore lay all those truisms to rest in their thought-provoking book, “Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family.” The work is devoted to describing families as they really are, identifying the challenges those families face, and suggesting that if there ever was a golden era of the family, this is as likely a time as any.

The Gores earned the right to opine on families by organizing the annual Family Re-Union conferences forums for research about family issues for the last 11 years. In the book, they use anecdotes from interviews with several families to illustrate and support research data and theoretical work from a large group of sociologists, psychologists, economists, and other social scientists. From the outset, it is clear that they recognize their own version of “family”-they’ve been married forever and have four children together-is not the norm. Their interview subjects include the Fadleys (the product of two divorces and children from three sets of parents, including one child born out of wedlock); the soon-to-be Logans (two white gay men who adopted an African-American child and a Latino/African-American child and are taking on a new name-Logan-to underscore their family connection); and the two-home family of severely disabled Brett Philpott, who divides his days between three primary caregivers-his thrice-divorced dad; his mother, and her husband, who considers Brett’s biological father to be his best friend.

They and the other families are presented as an honest ideal of what it means to be family in America today. As the Gores say, “family is quite simply the people about whom you care the most in the world, regardless of their legal or biological relationship to you.”

If this definition surprises, it is because it is fairly new, and those who cast a nostalgic eye for the better families of earlier times still haven’t figured it out. When, after thousands of years, the nuclear family transcended the extended family in importance, it emerged to serve as an economic unit-a group of people who worked together simply to survive from one generation to the next. It is only in the last few generations that the family has come to be seen as the locus of emotional intimacy and love, which puts rising expectations-and indeed pressure-on the quality of family relationships. This, in turn, has prompted a re-ordering of the process. Today, “emotional connection” means “family” instead of the other way around.

With this background in place, the Gores spend the rest of the book laying out a vast landscape of challenges in which today’s families negotiate their emotional connections. In chapters on work, play, communication and other topics, they bounce quickly from one issue to the next. For example, in “For Richer, For Poorer,” we move from homelessness to poverty to the consumer culture, shopping as a leisure activity, the role of advertising in making us want things we can’t afford, the role of the media in setting the “keeping up with the Joneses” bar ever higher, common misunderstandings about Social Security, the revelation that credit cards are “the cocaine of consumer debt,” a lamentation about too many cars and not enough public transportation, and the disparagement of our health care system. Whew. It’s a fascinating gallop-but I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do with the information.

In fact, where are the Gores in all this? In their concluding chapter, they give a once-over-lightly of some policy positions (reform of public education, universal public preschool, more environmental controls), take a couple swipes at Bush policy proposals, and urge families to be more involved in the political process. They occasionally draw on their own experience to illustrate a point they wish they make, with mixed results. Tipper, raised largely by her grandparents after her parents’ divorce, reminds us that her mother struggled with mental illness and relates her own experience as a stepchild after her father remarried. Al’s birth family is presented briefly as an iconic ideal. The anecdotes drawn from their own nuclear family are a little too flattering, and usually off point to boot.

The book is devoid of any “smartest family in school” attitude, for which we should be grateful (probably to Tipper.) But I found myself wanting policy-guy Al to step up with some new ideas I could grab hold of. Instead, I learned that the Gores believe the first step our country must take to help families is to change the way we think about families-and perhaps that is the contribution this book is intended to make. If so, it accomplishes its goal.