The world's oldest story becomes serious news

Several times a year, The New Yorker publishes a special issue devoted to a single subject. Topics range widely, including everything from culture, business, and fashion to money and music.

Now, in a double issue dated Aug. 18 & 25, the editors have branched out into the intriguing sphere of domestic relations. The Family Issue, they call it.

Although a special issue a year ago dealt with the family in fiction, this current spotlight focuses on what long-time staff writer Roger Angell calls "a mixture of memoir and reporting about families." Even poetry, cartoons, and reviews explore the messy complexities, the strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows of those joined by blood ties and marriage vows.

Five or 10 years ago, the prospect of a whole issue on The Family might well have struck New Yorker editors as being too soft, too sentimental for the magazine's urbane readers. Yet there is nothing sentimental about the approach here.

The issue includes a sobering piece on the economics of child-rearing. Katharine Boo reports on efforts to promote marriage among single mothers living in public-housing projects in Oklahoma City. David Sefaris offers an essay about a young man's unsettling friendship with a 9-year-old girl, with their two mothers as stage-left figures.

A mother recounts her young daughter's sudden illness during a family vacation on Cape Cod. And reviews critique a new movie, "Le Divorce," and books considering the question, Who discovered childhood?

This special issue serves as the latest example of the extent to which the American family - nuclear, extended, blended - now ranks as a mainstream subject, worthy of attention in even the most sophisticated publications.

What a change from earlier decades! Until the early 1970s, newspapers typically relegated coverage of the family to what journalists call the back of the book - the feature pages. News editors didn't quite say family stories were fluff, but they definitely didn't regard them as important enough to appear in the front of the paper, where the "real" news, the "hard" news went.

Times - and attitudes - change. Little by little, amid the tumultuous social upheaval of recent decades, family coverage inched its way forward in newspapers, gradually gaining respectability as a legitimate topic worthy of Page 1 coverage.

In the process, subjects that once remained hidden behind locked doors and closed curtains - abuse, infidelity, and custody battles among them - received new scrutiny, greater sympathy, and widespread attempts to find solutions.

Still, it's no wonder, perhaps, that we cling nostalgically to the tidy stereotypes wrought by 1950s sitcoms from the "Father Knows Best," "Leave It to Beaver" era, when togetherness supposedly reigned supreme, and vows of "till death do us part" meant something.

Yet family upheaval is nothing new. Walk through an old cemetery and read the dates on gravestones. They tell sad, silent stories, worthy of New Yorker writers, of lives and marriages cut short. There are octogenarians buried in these long-ago graves, but also infants, children, and young adults.

The pages of family genealogies spanning many generations tell similar tales of families reconfigured, more often by death than divorce. They, too, reveal a web of remarriages and new relationships for half brothers and stepsisters to sort out. It's all grist for a novelist's - or a journalist's - mill.

The family is the world's oldest story, beginning with Adam and Eve and continuing through the millenniums with all those Biblical "begats." Even now, the explosion of memoirs in the past decade is but further evidence of a touching fascination with family; a hunger to know how other people live, form relationships, rear children, and chart their course through the sometimes roiling waters of domesticity?

Every legitimate story about the family attests to the longing for connection, for love, stability, and safety. Whatever the specific focus, the family in all its complexities remains an endlessly fascinating topic, one for The New Yorker and other publications to return to again and again, with intelligence, honesty, compassion, humor, and above all, hope.

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