Transcript: Mary Eberstadt
My conversation with the American essayist, novelist and cultural critic
Who am I? What am I here for? These are fundamental questions in life — and throughout human history, they’ve often been answered through relationships to kin.
But with the collapse of the family unit and the atomization of individuals, my guest on this week’s program argues, we have become unmoored. And we are now experiencing a crisis in identity, “a psychic howl” that’s shaping our culture and politics in profound ways.
Mary Eberstadt is an American essayist, novelist, and cultural critic. Her latest book is Adam and Eve After the Pill, Revisited. But today we’re going to talk about her previous title, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics.
This edited transcript is for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Mary, welcome to Lean Out.
ME: Thank you, Tara. It’s great to be here.
TH: It’s nice to have you on. As I mentioned to you, this book has had a huge impact on me. In Primal Screams, you argue that identity politics was not born out of liberation, but out of desperation. That this is a survival strategy. That the pain we are seeing expressed in this movement is very real. People just aren’t claiming to be victims. They are victims — but not of what they think they are. You’re saying that this psychic howl that we’re witnessing is about pain over dissolution of close, intimate bonds. Walk me through how you think this state of affairs came about.
ME: Yeah, thank you, Tara. First, I would like to say that I know this is a contrarian take. Because most people tend to divide on this issue into two camps. They either embrace identity politics or they dismiss all of that as snowflake-ism, as the actions of supposedly spoiled children. But I think there’s something very different going on that needs to come to light. Identity politics — to go back to the beginning — was born in 1977. The phrase was first used in a document by radical African American feminists called the Combahee River Collective. That document is a profoundly sad manifesto. It shows you the true origins of this desire to leave the rest of the world behind and band together with people who are just like us. In that manifesto, the authors explain that they are going to stick together as a political and social unit because they cannot trust the men in their lives. They don’t believe in the traditional family. They think the only people they can trust to have their backs are people exactly like them.
We see this echo, all these decades later, growing stronger and stronger with the passage of time. We hear this emanating from groups like Black Lives Matter, which is a direct descendant of the Combahee River Collective. But not only Black Lives Matter, all of the identitarian groups that we are seeing today, that are increasingly affective in our politics, are coming out of this same broken place.
Because what’s happened since 1977, of course, is that families have also imploded. Families are smaller, families are often broken. Something like 40 percent of American kids are growing up without a biological father in the home. And this means a lot of things, I think, for the way we do politics. It means a lot for our society, because it means that people have reduced social knowledge, for example, including social knowledge of the opposite sex. And as you know, I get into this in Primal Screams by talking about animal science, because that often gives us a safer way of broaching these subjects. But going back to the foundation of identity politics, it’s a place of despair and distrust — this, I think, is what continues to motivate people who embrace these identity groups as if they were families.
TH: It’s the lack of real families in their lives. Is that what you’re saying?
TH: I wonder, too, this Great Scattering that you write about — you’ve identified that it’s not just about family shrinkage and the extended family, it’s about family implosion. So, I want to start with this idea of family breakup. There is a huge body of evidence showing how it impacts children not having a father in the home. This still does not really get talked about. It is still somewhat of a taboo to go there. But what does the data tell us about the impact of fatherlessness?
ME: Well, Tara, it’s the best known fact in sociology. As James Q. Wilson — the late, great social scientist — pointed out long ago, everybody knows about the connections between fatherlessness and truancy, poor educational performance, criminality, drug use, early sexual experience, that list could go on and on. And to enumerate those things is not to point fingers at anybody. The reason we have so much trouble talking about these things is that so many families are affected. And perhaps one reason I feel free to discuss them is that I was myself raised by a single mother for some years. So I don’t feel that trepidation that many people do when they take these things into the public square.
But the point in Primal Screams is that we have reached a place where we can no longer ignore these things out of a desire to be polite. Because this social disintegration of the family unit is now affecting our politics and our wider society in ways that I think everybody is aware of. You hear Americans from all over the political spectrum decrying our divisiveness, and the rise of violent language, and the real violence in the streets, et cetera.
What I’m trying to do is get at the thing that’s powering all of this. That’s not to say there aren’t other causes of our ills. But this family implosion is the least understood and the least acknowledged causes. That’s why I think we need to zero in on it.
TH: You also talk about family shrinkage as a significant fact. And that it becomes more dramatic over time, and more dramatic at the end stage of life. Talk to me about your research in that area.
ME: This is something that occurred to me years ago. Several years ago, I idly Googled the words “loneliness studies,” because I had seen that phrase used. Loneliness was a thing that was being studied. And to my surprise, there were thousands of entries from countries all over the West. If you Google “loneliness Portugal,” “loneliness West Germany,” “loneliness Canada,” you’ll find plenty of examples of this trend. Loneliness has come to be a very studied area of sociology. It seems to be worst in the 20s and at the end of life.
My point is to connect the dots and to ask: Why do we have so many lonely old people? The answer is that we’ve had 60 years of the Sexual Revolution, which has shrunk families. Many people decided not to form families in the first place. And the result — which is completely unintended — is that people are reaching one of the most vulnerable phases of their life without anyone in attendance. There’s some very poignant examples given in the book, in the footnotes, of what I am describing.
So, loneliness, again, is connected to this social fracturing that we are seeing. Lonely people are people who are not learning from others. Another example of the breakdown in social learning is the fact that so many households are now households of one person. This, again, is factoring into the wider world.
TH: Let’s pause for a moment, as we get into this, and define what we’re talking about when we talk about the Sexual Revolution — for people who may not be clear.
ME: Yeah, sure. This is a non-controversial definition. I think most people would agree that the Sexual Revolution comes into being due to the technological shock of the birth control pill. When the birth control pill was legalized in the early 1960s, pretty much across the West, it was widely embraced and it was widely hailed as something that would liberate people. This is something that is harder to see today, when the negative consequences of this thing are all around us. But at the time, people thought it would strengthen marriage to have widespread contraception. People thought it would give women a stronger hand in the workplace, which absolutely it has — it has increased women’s earning power tremendously. People thought that it would be good, even in the sense that it would reduce the need for abortion. The argument was that if we have more contraception, we’ll have less abortion. It seemed reasonable.
These things didn’t come true. Instead, what happened was that in tandem with the adoption of the birth control pill, aka the Sexual Revolution, rates of fatherlessness and rates of abortion and rates of broken homes skyrocketed, as did out-of-wedlock births. The reasons for this are deep and complicated, and they have been studied by perfectly secular economists. Religion has nothing to do with this argument, is what I’m trying to explain. But the consequences of broken homes is a direct descendant of this Sexual Revolution. And that’s what, again, is at the forefront of many of our social problems, I believe.
TH: Circling back to the elderly now. The pushback I hear from liberals to this [critique of family dissolution] is often this: “Look, we’re not denigrating the family. We’re just saying that family comes in different forms now — and that chosen families can be as powerful as biological ones.” Why is that not the case?
ME: That’s a great question. I think one reason is that the presence of protective males is very important to the flourishing of women. That’s a transgressive thing to say. But let me give the example of the #MeToo phenomenon, because I think that’s striking. We had hundreds of women coming forward in 2018, and afterwards — the products of elite education — saying that these terrible things had happened to them, that predatory men in powerful positions had done X, Y, and Z. And without judging either side in any given case, what was striking about those reports was that these young women had apparently been launched into the world with no one having their backs. In almost none of these #MeToo stories was there a father, for example, who came forward to confront the man who had done these terrible things. There were, in my reading, no mention of protective brothers or uncles. Once in a while, one would find an account of a boyfriend confronting said man. But this is striking. It is to say that the women who are now having all the advantages that their grandmothers only dreamed of have nevertheless got a kind of cluelessness about social relations. I think, again, that this is coming from the fact that fewer of them are growing up with brothers, uncles, fathers, and the rest — protective male figures — simultaneously.
Men without things to protect are more likely to become predators. Men growing up without sisters, or in dysfunctional mother-led homes, are suffering the same kind of social deficit from a different direction.
So, to the question: Why can’t chosen families do the same thing? We only need to know that children in homes without biological fathers, but with father figures — stepfathers, mom’s boyfriend, et cetera — are at much higher risk of all kinds of abuse. That’s all we have to know to know that the experiment of putting children willy-nilly into homes with unrelated men is probably not a good idea.
TH: I want to unpack this more. When you say “cluelessness about social relations,” what do you mean by that, for women? And what do you mean by that, for men?
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