YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 17, 2013

Bondage and the family

familymealMost of this website is preoccupied with the myth of the perfectly happy family. Soothing images of family solidarity are the most potent weapon in the arsenal of psychological warfare, and our worst villains are those that call into question the ever benign nature of the “family.” [This blog should be read along with http://clarespark.com/2009/07/13/eros-and-the-middle-manager-s-m-with-implications-for-multiculturalism/.]

Families are everywhere: even when there are inner tensions or mayhem on television dramas, the bad, criminal, murderous, deranged family is finally exposed, and the good family (usually in the form of government teams) rescues the viewers from those who would call families themselves as the locus of malaise and even more painful and dangerous problems.

Currently, there is a national battle raging over ownership of guns in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre of December 13, 2012, two weeks before Christmas, and several weeks after Thanksgiving: holidays that bring onto center stage the idealized family, where there is not only abundant food, but where a halt is usually called to addressing or acting out the troubled relationships between generations and between siblings. Did enforced family harmony bring out murderous impulses in Adam Lanza or Nehemiah Griego? We can’t know, and no one is asking the question anyway. Better to blame guns, movies, and videogames, although I have seen one report that Griego was sheltered from video games and “the culture of violence.”

I had originally intended to write something today about the academic preoccupation with the history of slavery. Although there are few academic jobs available today in the humanities, “African-American Studies” remain comparatively short-handed, and much work has been done in the field since I studied for my doctoral field exams in the early 1980s. But even then, the existence or non-existence of slave families was the subject of hot debate, and Richard Slotkin’s first major book, Regeneration Through Violence, condemned Uncle Tom’s Cabin for using the appeal to family solidarity as its primary argument for the abolition of slavery. On the other side of the issue, leftist historian Herbert Gutman wrote a rosy book on the persistence of families, even under the condition of slavery.

I had not thought about the focus on slavery in U.S. history and in American Studies as having anything to do with the idealized family, or families in general, but then I thought about the general appeal of bondage and sadomasochism that could be motivating an obsession with an institution that no longer exists in this country.

While researching the teaching of the humanities in 20th century America, I saw quickly that 1. Marx was much less controversial than Freud; and 2. What made Melville so controversial and the “Melville” revival so fraught with conflict was Melville’s exposure of the crazy-making family, especially in his novel of 1852, Pierre, or the Ambiguities. Some of the Melville critics even read Protestant Melville as a Jew, in my view because he shattered the myth of the perfectly happy family that academics were bound to promote. After all, were they not in academe, its departments based on the premise of solidarity with each other as seekers after truth, and never given to nasty rivalries and forms of professional mayhem?

Both Left and Right appeal to families today: the Left wants to bolster collectivist entities against the notion of the “narcissistic” individual of the “laissez-faire” anti-statist Right; while their opponents tout the father-headed reconstructed family (done in by welfare policies and feminism) as the solution to poverty and crime.

Neither side is willing to sponsor mental health services that are anti-authoritarian and that do not depend on some form of behavior modification, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and other sedatives.

What would be a sane alternative approach to the family? How about a more realistic approach to all the causes of inter-family conflict? How about a rehabilitation of Freud’s basic ideas?

How about teaching parenting and the managing of sex and aggression in middle schools, where puberty begins the long process of separating from the family of origin and forging ties with peers that are as problematic as ties with parents? How about insurance companies paying for family therapy, instead of focusing solely upon the individual snatched from the primary institution that contributes to her or his agitation/depression? How about enlarging that analysis, moving from the family to ever larger entities that exacerbate mental illness through psychological warfare and the urge to “compromise”, to conform to crazy-making policies, or to be silent?

Kim Novak Of Human Bondage

Kim Novak Of Human Bondage

Or, as Ishmael queried to the reader of Moby-Dick, after reporting his acquiescence to a cruel Captain, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.” [No disrespect meant to the unique awfulness of chattel slavery before the American Civil War.] For a preceding blog that also addresses family issues, particularly “undoing” the onslaught of trauma see http://clarespark.com/2013/01/16/gun-control-laws-quick-fixes-undoing/.)

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6 Comments »

  1. […] as they displaced us or bullied us in untold and/or repressed family dramas. (For more on this, see http://clarespark.com/2013/01/17/bondage-and-the-family/, and […]

    Pingback by Friendship in the era of anti-Freud | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 19, 2013 @ 4:38 pm | Reply

  2. [...] blog is about mental health and idealization of families (for a previous and related blog see http://clarespark.com/2013/01/17/bondage-and-the-family/); but this one emphasizes the fear of discovery, whether it takes the form of self-inspection [...]

    Pingback by Discovery anxiety « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 21, 2013 @ 10:32 pm | Reply

  3. Don’t you think that after the traumas of the Depression, WWll and Korea the greatest generation simply idealized the family as a place of safety and stability? My mother told me that when she went to Cal after the war, the GI Bill students weren’t interested in anything but getting a job and starting their families. I never thought about the primacy of contemporary families as the source of personal problems before, but it seems to make sense the more I mull it over. Once the financial pressures that made family life a necessary safeguard had disappeared, the motives for subsuming individual appetites for family unity disappeared as well. The only group where families still seem strong are the Mormons, for whom religious pressures have replaced the economic as the basis for family dependency.

    Comment by Erik Anderson — January 25, 2013 @ 7:47 pm | Reply

  4. [...] How many of us care about our own children enough to examine our own roles and performance as  parents, no matter how painful that self-scrutinizing process may be? (For more on this subject of families and their often conflicted internal relationships, see http://clarespark.com/2013/01/17/bondage-and-the-family/.) [...]

    Pingback by Gun control laws, quick fixes, undoing « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 18, 2013 @ 12:15 am | Reply


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