A book that teaches families how to succeed
By Paula Marantz Cohen
Recently, I assigned Carl Whitaker and Augustus Napier’s The Family Crucible: One Family’s Therapy—An Experience that Illuminates All Our Lives to my Family and Literature class (the subject of a previous column). Whitaker was a giant in the field of family therapy as it emerged in the 1960s and ’70s, and Napier for many years was his co-therapist. Their book follows a family in therapy, from their first presentation, when the teenage daughter is in crisis, through the threatened divorce of the parents, to a successful outcome, in which the family, though not perfect, has learned to solve problems together. The Family Crucible is a serious case study that reads like a novel. It offers my students tools to analyze the literature we read in the class— works ranging from Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, to Alice Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home.
Early in our study of the book, I asked my students whether they thought it is dated. I certainly find it so. The family roles Napier describes are very mid-20th century: stay-at-home mother, distant, workaholic father, kids who speak in the manner of a 1970s sitcom. The book was written as the women’s movement was getting underway, and the mother does ultimately decide to get a part-time job and go back to school. But none of my students called attention to this evidence of a traditional family structure that has grown increasingly rare in more recent decades. Instead, what they found dated was that the therapist, Carl Whitaker, smoked a pipe during the sessions—and with a child present! “That would never happen today,” my students said.
This seemed like a rather trivial element on which to focus. But as I turned the observation over, I began to see my students’ rationale more clearly and found it more convincing than my own. They looked at the mother’s housekeeping role as a singular case, whereas I generalized it as the expression of a state of being that the feminist movement, which I had lived through, vigorously critiqued. By the same token, I viewed Whitaker’s smoking as unique to him rather than a reflection of life-threatening behavior, bad for the smoker and bad for those around him.
Smoking is a dangerous activity, no matter the context, whereas the role performed by the mother could be a choice—for good or bad, depending on the individual and the context. I had dismissed smoking as trivial because it had no symbolic meaning for me, but that was precisely why my students singled it out: it is bad in itself.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.