A book that teaches families how to succeed
By Paula Marantz Cohen
March 11, 2014
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 dean of the Pennoni Honors College and distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs. Her latest novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo & Juliet, will be published in March.