Those who gather under the same roof

Not long ago a French conference on the family solemnly recommended that "all the components of the group" formerly known as the family "should now seek to avoid being pinned with a label, be it that of 'child' or that of 'parents,' and simply be 'persons.'" As a euphemism of family, the substitute phrase was suggested: "persons gathering under the same roof." The advice was published under the fitting title, "The End of the Family?"

The First White House Conference on Families -- or "persons gatherting under the same roof" -- has now been held. At last! For all these semantic differences about "family" almost kept the much-delayed conference itself from gathering under the same roof.

As JAcques Donzelot -- the author of a brilliant new study, "The Policing of Families," -- has observed: "A pair of tongs are needed in order to talk about the family."

"Family," if not quite a dirty word, has become a noun that reverberates with doubt and a vague sense of threat. Once respected as the bulwark that held the rest of society together, the family is now suspected as the weak spot where everything first starts to fall apart.

As children, it seems, we have all been terribly disappointed that our parents were not sufficiently "supportive" of us. Meanwhile, according to the most flagrant of double standards, we promise as parents that we will not let ourm children make slaves of us!

And so the headlines are filled simultaneously with horror stories about the abuse of children and the abuse of grandparents.

We appear to regard the family as a trap, designed by ignorant or malicious forebears to keep us from our happiness and self-fulfillment. Instead of being our oasis from the pressures of modern living, the family is taken to be one of the worst of those pressures, deforming our natures as the practice of binding deformed the feet of Chinese girls.

A whole industry of counselors and therapists has sprung up the help us survive the family -- the "psy" people, as Donzelot calls them.

The "psy" people instruct us that, as husbands and wives, we must "care" most intensely -- but without a trace of "possessiveness." Then they tell us that, as parents, we are responsible for "motivating" our children -- but without, of course, making them "anxious."

Do we realize how influential the "psy" people have been in making the modern family what it is -- and then criticizing it for that fact? This is one of the central questions in Donzelot's book. The "psy" industry "acknowledges the family to be a fundamental agency," Donzelot writes, "but in a form that implies the latter's devitalization," reducing the authority of both father and mother to "a mere skeleton."

The 671 delegates to the White House conference -- about 40 percent of them, experts -- passed 57 resolutions, many of them admirable. We have become very good at passing admirable resolutions. The other thing we are very good at is declaring a crisis. The more the family is in crisis, the more we need experts to save it. So goes the circular argument. But what if the "psy" people, for all their good will, are part of the problem? Who, in fact, has taught us to see the family as a "problem," beyond the ancient resources of common sense and love? Still another matter to be left to the specialists!

We despair of the family -- whatever it is -- and yet four out of five of us, according to a Gallup poll, count it the single most important part of our lives. Why do we insist on thinking of the family as obsolete, even though we want it as much as ever and all our alternatives seem like feeble imitations?

Donzelot found it appropriate to conclude his study with the account of a hunger strike by an obscure inmate of a provincial prison who was protesting because only his unhappy childhood, his martial instability -- his family flaws -- had been noted down in his dossier. Why, he asked, shouldn't his endeavors, his attempts to nourish and be nourished by other people, also be recorded?

Good question -- for all of us, who have been given only the dossier on what is wrong with the family.

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