About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

#36 - The sky is falling! Gimme Shelter!

A bit behind on the blogging lately, but my 36th book of the year was The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families, by Mary Pipher (1996, G.P. Putnam & Sons). I knew nothing about it beforehand, but had high hopes based on Pipher's earlier mega-hit, Reviving Ophelia, which I'd read years ago. (As an aside, I'm embarrassed to say I don't remember much about that one; one of the perils of being a quick reader, and one of the reasons I started this blog, was to force myself to think about what I read a bit more deeply and critically.)

Anyway, I hate to say it, but I was underwhelmed by The Shelter of Each Other. I'd hoped for some research and observations on building and maintaining strong, solid family relationships in today's complex, ever-changing culture, and there was some of that here, mostly in the very last chapter. However, the bulk of the book seems overly focused on idealizing the past (specifically, Midwestern small-town life in the 1950s, which mirrors Pipher's own childhood), and lamenting everything that's gone to heck in a handbasket since then. Ever since reading Stephanie Coontz's The Way We Never Were, I'm leery of rose-colored accounts of the 1950s, and frankly, even the ancient Greeks engaged in hand-wringing over "What's the matter with kids today?" And to her credit, Pipher seems to recognize the dangers here; she acknowledges in the first chapter that "today's families have the old problems that they have had for centuries, the problems described in the Bible, The Canterbury Tales, and the works of Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Ibsen: ungrateful children, self-involved parents, jealous siblings, insane relatives, unfaithful mates and prodigal sons." Shortly thereafter, she acknowledges that yes, the 1950s were "a time of Jim Crow laws, anti-Semitism, McCarthyism and the enforced housewifery for women," among other things.

But that's about where the balance ends. When Pipher writes about today (or the mid-90's, when she wrote the book), it's almost always negative and vastly oversimplified. Some examples:

"Unwritten rules of civility -- for taking turns, not cutting in lines, holding doors open for others and lowering our voices in theaters -- organize civic life. Unfortunately, those rules of civility seem to be crumbling in America. We are becoming a nation of people who get angry when anyone gets in our way."

"We have a crisis in meaning in our culture. The crisis comes from our isolation from each other, from the values we learn in a culture of consumption and from the fuzzy, self-help message that the only commitment is to the self and the only important question is -- Am I happy? We learn that we are number one and that our own immediate needs are the most important ones."

"This generation is sophisticated, cynical and tired. There's a morass of angst. Some young adults are dissatisfied with corporate consumer values. They drop out of mainstream culture and go trekking in Tibet or work minimum-wage jobs and write poetry."

I mean, come on, now. For someone who devotes so much time to criticizing "junk media," Pipher seems to have fallen hook, line, and sinker for all the worst things said media tell us about today's youth. Surely she understands that even at the height of the 1990s economic boom, not everyone under 30 was either a soulless corporate shill or a poetry-writing, Tibet-trekking, Gen X slacker. To me, statements like this just seem unnecessarily hysterical and polarizing. Similarly, she claims that "in the 1990s the dysfunctional version of the family seems the most influential," and that our contemporary culture is one of narcissism. These are interesting ideas, and I'd have loved to see a reasoned discussion to do them justice, but instead, Pipher backs them up only by citing "pop psychology" and "talk shows" -- hardly a complete or accurate reflection of the larger culture.

Similar flaws undercut Pipher's discussions the shortcomings of therapy and the different impact of external vs. internal problems on families. In both cases, she presents some interesting ideas, but then degenerates into statements and case studies so extreme and inflammatory that they generate lots of heat, but not much light. The anti-therapy chapter is promising at the outset; it's a rare mental health professional that will come out and admit in plain English that not all therapies are created equal, and some may do more harm than good. Says Pipher:

"[Popular psychology] has been oversold. Its hackneyed, imprecise language is part of all our vocabularies. ... Popular psychology uses generic language that reduces people to slogans and categories. ... Sometimes therapy derived from popular psychology encourages self-doubt, self-pity, and self-absorption. It can give people labels rather than direction, and excuses rather than motivation. Sometimes therapy is a Band-Aid that gives people just enough support to stay in miserable situations."

Sounds good, until she goes on to flesh out her list of 10 mistakes therapists make with more than a few straw men, e.g., her assertion that therapists believe "[f]amily is the cause of all problems," "[encourage] narcissism and [check] basic morality at the door," and "[suggest] that therapy is more important than real life." Do they really? Where's the evidence? Sure, I'd believe there are hack therapists out there on the loose, just like there are bad cops and teachers, but I hardly think any of these subgroups' mistakes are widespread enough to tar their entire professions, and Pipher doesn't offer any compelling evidence to convince me otherwise.

Perhaps Pipher's strongest argument about the current state of American families is her comparison of the concrete external problems which confronted Depression-era families with the diffuse, often internal challenges we face today. "[In the 1930s] families were clear that their biggest enemy was low cattle prices, dust or hailstorms and farm foreclosures. These outside problems united Depression-era families. Fighting them together built up family loyalty." I do think Pipher's understanding of the '30s is limited by her Midwestern upbringing, so I'd expand this list to include urban poverty and racism, but I don't dispute her claim that the families of 75 years ago faced major problems which clearly originated far outside the home. By contrast, "today's families are much more confused about who the enemy is .... They are less clear about their external enemies, such as an unfair economic system, an alcohol- and drug-soaked society, crime and the fear that comes with it, junk media and the pressures of consumerism. It's harder to fight an enemy that isn't properly identified." Again, I'd personally be inclined to place more emphasis on the unfair economic system and less on Pipher's "junk media" (a symptom and/or an escape from contemporary problems, rather than their cause, IMO), but I do think her point about the perils of prosperity is interesting, and deserves a lot more attention than it gets in this book. "Today we have the poverty of consumerism, which means never having enough. We're impoverished in a different way -- we are ... 'thirsty in the rain.'"

I'd be a lot more inclined to recommend this book, albeit with a few grains of salt, if I didn't think Pipher's gross oversimplifications wouldn't do more harm than good for someone who's honestly trying to keep her family safe and strong, but doesn't have the option of returning to a 1950s-style small Midwestern town surrounded by 7 generations of extended family. She presents a number of truly horrific case studies based on her experience as a therapist, which were certainly jarring, but again, probably not representative of the general population (and without solid explanations or data, it's not clear what purpose Pipher intends these extreme examples to serve.) In contrast to numerous gratuitous references to mothers who work long hours while leaving their kids in mediocre-but-affordable day care, there's the cloying example of Eduardo and Sabrina, whose problems are miraculously solved when Sabrina quitting her job, Eduardo begins refusing to work Saturdays, and they're able to make ends meet by moving Sabrina's mother in with them and pooling both households' resources.

"Building family means driving all night to a cousin's funeral or telling co-workers that you can't work Saturdays. It means avoiding the need to work overtime by going without a new car, or turning down a promotion that involves moving teenagers to a faraway city. It means missing Seinfeld to attend a grandmother's Eastern Star installation."

Hey, more power to Eduardo and Sabrina -- but certainly, not everyone has the option of making it on a factory worker's salary, turning down overtime and still keeping their job, or moving Grandma into the spare room to help out. And to imply that those who don't are selfish, choosing to prioritize new cars and favorite TV shows over their families, does a disservice to those for whom reality is far more complicated.

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