Talk with Po Bronson
author of "Why Do I Love These People?"
last book was about careers and work.
Why follow-up by tackling a subject like family?
Im interested in one essential
question. What makes life meaningful? What makes it all worth it?
Two of the most common ways people answer that are: 1) through finding a
sense of vocational mission, and 2) by caring for their family. Both books
portray real people struggling to find deep and meaningful connections.
Your years chronicling pop culture
and the next new thing won you fans like Tom Wolfe and Mario Puzo. But
five years ago you left that behind, and decided to focus on lifes
eternal questions. Why the change, and what are you trying to say to other
For years I had followed my
generation and chronicled its misadventures. The promise of pop culture
was that there is no limit to originality, and that originality is
intrinsically meaningful. Every consumer of pop-culture-reportage gets
infected with this value systemyour life has to be original to count.
You have to have tried to coolest new thing to belong to the club. Well,
one day I recognized that this simply wasnt trueall people count. In
fact, there was great meaning to be mined in these elements of our life
that pop culture ignored, such as our work, and our families.
The great questions posed by
philosophy and religion have been abandoned to the self-help authors with
the quick fix. It is no different than planners and architects abandoning
the central heart of their city for the suburbs, leaving the oldest of
neighborhoods to be redeveloped as cheaply as possible, without a lick of
originality. It is time for writers who take their art seriously to
reclaim the hallowed land.
If there were one trait that best
describes the families in the book, you say its resilience. Can
you elaborate on that?
resilience has taken on new meaning in psychology. Researchers are
studying resilience and breaking it down into componentsto quote one,
its the combination of self-love and self-efficacy. They wonder
if some people are just more naturally resilient, and whether we might
bottle this traitor pass it on genetically. However, I do not mean the
word in its new clinical connotations. I use resilience as a
literary term, applicable to ordinary situations that frustrate us and
cause us to withdraw. Weve become fragile by focusing on how each of us
has been cheated of a perfect mythic family life. Instead, we should
expect those struggles, and not feel so maddened, just because our spouse
or parents or children are driving us crazy right now.
Out of all the data, trend analysis, and other
research you did, what 2 or 3 things surprised you the most?
What are the biggest misconceptions about families that we hold as
Misconception #1: That families
used to be stable and traditional.
A hundred years ago, a child had
nearly the same chance of experiencing single parenthood as one does today
divorce was rare back then, but abandonment, separation, and early
death were very common. In fact, if you define a traditional family
as a male-breadwinner and mother-homemaker, with children from these
parents first (and only) marriage, then never have a majority of
children lived in a traditional family. Not even in the 1950s and 1960s,
the supposed golden age for family. So, alternative family arrangements
are not some new thing thats happened in the last forty years.
Theyve always been prevalent.
Misconception #2: That children
today are being shortchanged.
Researchers have conducted
time-motion studies around the home since 1915. Children actually get more
face-to-face interaction with their parents today, not less. This is true
even though far more families have both parents working. People today
engage their children directly in a way they did not used to. Then,
theres all the concerns about the quality of our schools. Actually, in
1920, only 16 percent of children graduated high school. Today, 84 percent
of children graduate high school. Kiss the ground your children are alive
Misconception #3: That fewer people
today are getting married, primarily because of the fear of divorce and
the easy alternative of cohabitation.
People might delay marriage, but
theyre still getting around to it. At rates that might surprise you.
For instance, of women who will turn 40 next year, 92% will marry at some
point in their lives. (83% of them had already married by age 35).
All this griping about how the
family is in trouble is not just inaccurate, its causing terrible harm.
So many well-adjusted and well-educated young people told me they were
scared of starting a family in todays environment. They are basing
their decision on the news they hear about the odds of divorce and the
hard challenge of raising children. But these risks are no greater than
they ever were.
The families in your book bring
traditions from so many cultures around the world. Japanese, Jamaican,
Nigerian, Filipino, Turkish. What were some of the most surprising customs
If I had grown up in Jamaica, I
might have children born by several women, and I might look after or look
in on all of them, and that would be normalthough its being
reconsidered now whether it is wise. If I had grown up in Japan, my older
brother would have taken over my fathers business, and I would have
been expected to leave and start over. But if I had grown up in Nigeria,
as a young brother I wouldnt leave the familyId actually spend my
life serving my older brothers needs, even as a personal assistant if
Without a doubt, each culture has
its own traditions of patriarchy and/or matriarchy, and means of physical
discipline. And as these cultures clash with modern values of gender
equality and nurturing children lovingly, you get a generation-gap, and
you get children who suddenly feel mistreated because their parents
havent adapted fast enough to the modern expectations.
At the same time, in almost every
culture there is an overt and joyous love for familywhere denigrating
your family is uncommonand I found that to be fresh, since in todays
society it has become so commonplace to belittle your family, or roll your
eyes at the thought of them.
How did peoples religion
guide them in times of family crisis?
A lot of the stories are about
redemption. But Redemption is defined differently by every religion. One
Southern Baptist ultimately disagreed with the Baptist notion that
Redemption is something Jesus has done on your behalf, and that you have
nothing to do with your own redemption except to pledge your faith. Each
religion teaches forgiveness differently, toothe Protestant notion of
forgiveness is very contrasting to the Catholic notion, and so Protestant
families and Catholic families get over things very differently. But
either way, if you go to church, you hear about forgiveness every week.
Those who dont go to church dont hear this message. They dont
think about forgiveness as actively. And one of the great mysteries
explored in the book is how a blue collar guy in upstate New Hampshire
survives the inexplicable death of his two year old son. In the end, I
realized that his belief in heavenand his belief he will see his son
againwas worth a thousand hours of therapy.
My email: email@example.com