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Why all those predictions about death of the family were so wrong


Modern approach: Mary Portas has become a parent with her civil partner Melanie Rickey

Modern approach: Mary Portas has become a parent with her civil partner Melanie Rickey

Modern approach: Mary Portas has become a parent with her civil partner Melanie Rickey

Fifty years ago, in 1965, the most fashionable, the most avant-garde thinkers were confidently predicting "the death of the family". That, indeed, was the title of an iconic book by the psychiatrist David Cooper, and it was hugely influential. One of Cooper's supporters and associates was the maverick writer and fellow shrink RD Laing, a charismatic figure in medicine and society. He advocated the use of psychedelic drugs for "enlightenment" (Edna O'Brien has written about her experimental use of LSD with Laing).

Laing, a flaky but brilliant Scot, regarded "the family" as the harbinger of all those nasty repressions: bullying and scapegoating was endemic to family life, he said. Schizophrenia, he asserted - quite unscientifically - was triggered by the repressive family constellation (he concocted a memorable slogan about mental illness which was replicated as graffiti in north London: "Do not adjust your mind - there is a fault with reality").

Laing and Cooper's notions were followed in much of popular culture: Cosmopolitan magazine predicted that among the rising generation, friends, not family, would be the nexus of human connection. Feminism saw the family as "patriarchy": Germaine Greer said that, in old age, our generation would be living in communes - preferably in Tuscany - based on communities of freedom-loving comradeship.

These predictions about the death of the family could not have been more wrong. Half a century on, the concept of "the family" has not only endured: it has had an extraordinary recrudescence. Far from "family values" receding, there is a growing preoccupation with "family", even to the point where "family" is now used as a political metaphor for any form of political or cultural connection. (Putin reckons that Ukraine is "part of the Russian family"). People seem obsessed with searching their family ancestry and online facilities have opened up family research to a mass audience. Programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? are not only enormously popular, they amount almost to a cult of ancestor worship.

Far from dying, "the family" has risen again, like a triumphant phoenix, and it's not the first time that "the family" has defeated the many systems which threatened to abolish it, from early Christianity (which emphasised monasticism) onwards, including Marxism, Maoism and the Israeli kibbutz experiment.

Octopus-like, the family can change shape, and chameleon-like, it can alter appearance, but its essence is such that it always reconstitutes itself, and often in the most surprising ways.

For any social historian, surely the most dramatic example of the resurrected family is the way in which modern homosexuals have embraced a concept which, originally, "gay liberation" repelled as incorrigibly heterosexist.

In his famous text Enemies of Promise, the literary essayist Cyril Connolly advanced the view that the greatest benefit of being a homosexual was that you weren't burdened by the baggage of family life. You were free of all that. There was "no pram in the hall" to destroy an artist's creativity; no vexatious worries about pregnancy to inhibit sexual freedom. No ghastly in-laws!

His contemporaries - famous gay men like Noel Coward and the wonderful playwright Terence Rattigan (not to mention the outrageous, wildly drunken spy Guy Burgess) were exemplars of the freedom from the oppressions of family life enjoyed by a homosexual lifestyle.

And yet today it is the gay celebrities who are embracing family life as a right: from Elton John and David Furnish to Mary Portas - whose own brother supplied sperm for her lesbian wife, so they "could be a family". Advocates of same-sex marriage affirm, sometimes eloquently, that they are only asking for "equality" in family relationships. They simply want to be part of a family. (Similarly, many of the radicals who previously dismissed marriage as "just a meaningless piece of paper", and who rebuffed marriage for themselves now claim it as a "human right".)

Historically, these changes can be seen as another stunning victory for family values, and a resounding defeat for the fashionable thinkers of yesteryear who denounced "the family" as backward, primitive and ultra-conservative.

Family is an inevitable aspect of human attachment - but is it always a good thing? All human institutions are fallible and extremism in any cause leads to distortions. The Mafia is built on "family loyalties", as are many criminal gangs. A preoccupation with genes - Mary Portas has said she wanted her baby son to bear a "genetic family likeness" - has led, in the past, to unpleasant developments in eugenics.

The global trade - now flourishing - in surrogate parenting is, in truth, the buying and selling of sperm and ova and the hiring of wombs to "commission" babies. All this because of an obsession to acquire "families".

Families can be wonderful - and most of us are deeply attached to our families - but family life can have its problems and dysfunctions, too.

The untold aspect of Philomena Lee's story is that it was her family who consigned her to an institution, and that was true of almost every resident of a Magdalene Laundry. Family values, yes: but like everything else, with the checks and balances of proportion and common sense.

Belfast Telegraph