The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap

The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap

The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap

The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap

Synopsis

From "a man's home was his castle" to "traditional families never asked for a handout", this provocative book explodes cherished illusions about the last two centuries of American family life to expose the falseness, sentimentality, and self-righteousness of our accepted familial morays.

Excerpt

Pessimists argue that the family is collapsing; optimists counter that it is merely diversifying. Too often, both camps begin with an ahistorical, static notion of what "the" family was like before the contemporary period. Thus we have one set of bestsellers urging us to reaffirm traditional family values in an era of "family collapse" and another promising to set us free from traditional family traps if we can only turn off "old tapes" and break out of old ruts. In this book, I am less inclined to identify some recent qualitative change in family patterns that people should repudiate or embrace. I am not going to recite a litany of ways in which modern families have "abandoned traditional commitments," failed their children, or "lost their moral compass." Nor, however, will I offer soothing words about achieving "self-actualization," making divorce a "growth experience," or celebrating the "new family pluralism." I hope to contribute to a more nuanced appraisal of where American families have come from and the challenges they face as they approach the year 2000.

When schoolchildren return from vacation and are asked to list the good things and the bad things about their summer, their lists tend to be equally long. Over the year, however, if the exercise is repeated, the good list grows longer and the bad shorter until by the end of the year the children are describing not actual vacations but idealized images of Vacation.

So it is with families. The actual complexity of our history--even of our own personal experience--gets buried under the weight of an idealized image. On both a personal and a social level, when things . . .

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