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All in the Family: A Cultural History of Family Life

by Suanne Kelman

“Family life is imperfect and difficult everywhere, all the time,” according to author Suanne Kelman. How much more humanely – and helpfully – government programs might operate if politicians trumpeting the demise of the Canadian family had also come to Kelman’s sensible conclusion.

Kelman, a Toronto freelance writer and journalism professor at Ryerson Polytechnic University, has attempted to survey family life from prehistory to the present, around the world, to unearth the truth about the best ways to structure family interactions. Her conclusions will dismay those conservative critics convinced the family is disintegrating as a result of feminism, but will comfort and delight those soldiering on in imperfect conjunction. In short, All in the Family argues for the multifariousness of the family unit and against simple-minded definitions of it.

“I do not believe there is some golden age to which we can return,” Kelman writes. “We cannot now go back to the forests to live communally as hunter-gatherers. The restoration of supposedly ‘traditional’ family values is a hopeless dream: there is no one tradition, and economics, technology and irreversible social change in any case bar the way.”

Instead, Kelman calls for a more realistic vision of the family. Although she criticizes government for insufficient funding and wrong-headed, ill-informed programming, Kelman also chides citizens for their own immature and self-centred views of the family: “I wish that Westerners would renounce their delusion that they can be happy all the time, and learn to deal with the less-than-perfect families they have.”

Family structure, Kelman says, is less important than the way people choose to live within the family. If we learn to live with “restraint and kindness and intelligence,” she believes families of all stripes can be healthy habitats, not the dysfunctional hell-holes sensationalist reports portray.

Kelman, like any good teacher, has done her homework: her endnotes consist of 45 pages of citations to support her conclusions about the family. She cites anthropologists, sociologists, demographers, psychiatrists, historians, journalists, and novelists to build a compelling history of the family’s fluctuations and permutations across cultures throughout history.

Despite All in the Family’s immense load of information, Kelman writes in an accessible, personal style. She is forthright in admitting her own biases. And she shares her own history – life in an extended Jewish family – and confesses that in May she will, at the age of 49, marry a man she met through a Companions Wanted ad. Not surprisingly, her mate also comes from a large extended family himself.