BOOK REVIEW : Tallying Losses in the Family Revolution

My generation was nurtured on the sentimental lies of "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave It to Beaver," as sociologist Judith Stacey points out in "Brave New Families," but we find ourselves living amid the smoking ruins of the "traditional" family. In her new book, Stacey struggles to make sense of what has become of the American family in our troubled times. In the process, she makes some surprising discoveries about families in general and, perhaps more significantly, about herself.

"Brave New Families" is Stacey's account of two white, working-class families in the Silicon Valley, which she holds out as "pioneers of the postmodern family revolution." The patchwork of friends and relations surrounding the thinly fictionalized Pamela Gama and Dotty Lewison--"blended" and "extended" as a result of divorce, remarriage, and various other, less formal rites of life and love--exemplify what Stacey describes as "the contested, ambivalent and undecided character of contemporary gender and kinship arrangements."

Although Stacey is a sociologist at UC Davis, "Brave New Families" is not really a sociological study, as the author readily concedes. Rather, it is an intimate and forthcoming account by a social scientist--and a committed feminist--who grew so close to her subject that she began to insinuate herself into her own field study. Indeed, Stacey calls her book "a feminist Bildungsroman--my personal coming to consciousness and acceptance of the complexity of women's contemporary gender and kinship strategies."

Pam Gama, as we learn, works in a government office in Santa Clara County; Dotty Lewison is a former housewife and electronics assembly worker in Silicon Valley. Each is deeply enmeshed in so-called "kinship networks" of various friends and co-workers, ex-spouses and in-laws, children, stepchildren and grandchildren. Stacey sees in these complex relationships (which she terms, in an abrupt and ad hoc way, the "postmodern" family) a resource for emotional and spiritual survival in a perilous time and place, a font of affection, support and enlightenment. Stacey has seen the future of the American family, and it works.

Stacey invites the impatient reader to skip the first two chapters, which establish the scientific, ideological and personal underpinnings of her work, and go directly to the narrative heart of "Brave New Families." But I was charmed and fascinated by her introductory remarks, which are remarkably candid and, I think, essential to understanding Stacey and her book.

From the very outset, Stacey allows us to see and understand her own feminist political agenda, her emotional entanglements with her sources, and even her own failed attempts to fashion what she calls an "antimodern family." Her fieldwork, she confesses, was transformed from a sterile sociological study into "a voyeuristic exploration of contemporary family change."

"I accompanied family members to church services and on shopping excursions, hospital visits, and missionary work," Stacey writes, explaining her ethnographic technique. "I attended a variety of family gatherings and events, occasionally celebratory ones to honor marriages, births, job promotions, or anniversaries. Far more often, however, I found myself witnessing or commiserating over family crises and tragedies, including deaths, severe illness, layoffs, evictions, suicide attempts, infidelities, and problems with drugs, alcohol, physical abuse and the law."

Stacey, as she seems to concede, never decided exactly what to try to accomplish in "Brave New Families." It's a work of contemporary American ethnography, but it's also a nonfiction novel, a soap opera, a confession. Stacey's running commentary on the inner motives of the men and women she has come to know--and her own subjective reactions to them--are distracting and sometimes downright annoying. She tends to slip almost reflexively into the peculiar jargon of a feminist social scientist, prattling on about "gender justice" and "socio-spatial integration" and "gender-role reversal strategy" in what is otherwise plain-spoken and heartfelt prose.

But it is the messy authenticity of "Brave New Families" that gives the book the ring of truth, the ache of real life, and elevates it into the realm of confessional literature. In that sense, it is as much about Judith Stacey as it is about the men and women whose lives she attempted to study from the perspective of the social scientist. If Stacey is less than fully successful as a sociologist in "Brave New Families," she distinguishes herself as an empathic and engaged human being who does not allow her professional training or her distinct ideological point of view to blind her to the pain and redemption in other people's lives.

And, after all is said and done, "Brave New Families" is a courageous and optimistic exploration of the new frontiers of the American family. Stacey set out to discover how men and women struggle to find "intimacy, community, and spirituality" amid the stress and squalor of the "postmodern" world, and she surprises herself--and her readers--by discovering that the struggle has been a successful one.

BRAVE NEW FAMILIES: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late Twentieth Century America by Judith Stacey : Basic Books: $22.95, 320 pages

Next: Richard Eder reviews "The Stuff of Heroes" by Miguel Delides (Pantheon).

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