Sobran's -- The Real News of the Month

 Family Secrets 

March 22, 2005 
The Schiavo family tragedy, which has begotten such bitter national controversy, reminds us how complicated and vexed family matters can be. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.It’s easy to speak sentimentally of “family values,” as if cozy affection and settled morality could be taken for granted, but it doesn’t always work out that way in our real experience.

Often, thank heaven, it does. Let’s not forget or belittle that. There are many happy families and, no matter what Tolstoy says, they aren’t all alike. They may not be quite as dramatic as unhappy families, and they may not make headlines quite as often, but under scrutiny they can be every bit as interesting.

In recent years psychologists have begun to study happiness for a change. Psychology has generally been the study of pathologies and abnormalities — failure, in a word — but now it’s turning its attention to happy and successful people. That study should include families that don’t wind up in court, jail, or angry memoirs.

Still, close kinship is no guarantee of bliss, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise. C.S. Lewis once wrote that the Victorian sentimentalization of the family produced the reaction of a “savage” anti-family literature in Ibsen, Shaw, Samuel Butler, and just about every early modernist novel you can name; one thinks of P.G. Wodehouse’s unsparing realism about aunts.

This reaction wasn’t confined to literature. It’s still with us, in the form of “sexual revolution” for instance. Today, in an inversion of Victorian sentimentalism, one gets the impression that the only happy marriages are those of same-sex couples. Among the rest of us, the fatherless household has become virtually normal. As Ellis Cose has observed, the problems observed in the black family a generation ago now afflict white families with similar frequency. Should that surprise us?

From the Greeks to Shakespeare to the Russian novel to Tennessee Williams, literature and drama have dealt with the most embarrassing (white) family secrets. And the remarkable thing is how close to the bone they can get. When you watch King Lear make a horrible fool of himself and tear his family apart with his crazy demands, you don’t feel you’re watching some incomprehensible stranger. If he doesn’t remind you of your own dad, you may have an uncle just like him.

[Breaker quote: The survival of the family]I recently caught up with a family I used to be close to but hadn’t seen in decades. These people, all lovable, aren’t speaking to each other anymore. It’s sad, even heart-piercing, but not that unusual. You don’t really know a family, sometimes, until you know things about them you wish you didn’t.

The Schiavo case also reminds us what has become of marriage. We used to think you had to stick it through in sickness and in health, but soon we may have to amend wedding vows to take into the account the option of pulling the plug. Isn’t relieving oneself of an unwanted spouse a fundamental human right? Michael Schiavo, Robert Blake, Scott Peterson — sure, we may disapprove of their methods, but don’t we all know where they’re coming from?

Such men show that conjugal love isn’t unconditional; at least not always, or not for long. Men may abandon their children, but they seldom want them dead. Even the man who kills his wife may still adore the kids she gave him. It’s Terri Schiavo’s parents who want her to live.

Comedy rings down the curtain just when everyone is about to get married and live happily ever after. Tragedy shows what may actually happen afterward, when Othello and Desdemona get around to setting up housekeeping and discover each other’s little quirks. Soon the neighbors are talking, and finally Verdi is writing an opera. From romance to family squabbles to La Scala — you never know where it will lead.

But Otello is a worst-case scenario. In spite of everything, there are still happy families, and even husbands who stand by their hopelessly ailing wives to the bitter end. In fact, these are the norm we should be paying more close attention to.

The beleaguered and battered family still exists, and it still manages to produce healthy children. It has even survived all of our enlightened modern society’s determined attempts to reform it. That’s because modern society knows when something is working wrong, but hasn’t a clue when, or why, it’s working right.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate

small Griffin logo
Send this article to a friend.

Recipient’s e-mail address:
(You may have multiple e-mail addresses; separate them by spaces.)

Your e-mail address:

Enter a subject for your e-mail:

Mailarticle © 2001 by Gavin Spomer
Archive Table of Contents

Current Column

Return to the SOBRANS home page.

FGF E-Package columns by Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and others are available in a special e-mail subscription provided by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Click here for more information.

Search This Site

Search the Web     Search SOBRANS

What’s New?

Articles and Columns by Joe Sobran
 FGF E-Package “Reactionary Utopian” Columns 
  Wanderer column (“Washington Watch”) 
 Essays and Articles | Biography of Joe Sobran | Sobran’s Cynosure 
 The Shakespeare Library | The Hive
 WebLinks | Books by Joe 
 Subscribe to Joe Sobran’s Columns 

Other FGF E-Package Columns and Articles
 Sam Francis Classics | Paul Gottfried, “The Ornery Observer” 
 Mark Wegierski, “View from the North” 
 Chilton Williamson Jr., “At a Distance” 
 Kevin Lamb, “Lamb amongst Wolves” 
 Subscribe to the FGF E-Package 

Products and Gift Ideas
Back to the home page 


SOBRANS and Joe Sobran’s columns are available by subscription. Details are available on-line; or call 800-513-5053; or write Fran Griffin.

Reprinted with permission
This page is copyright © 2005 by The Vere Company
and may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of The Vere Company.