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A Talk with Po Bronson
author of "Why Do I Love These People?"

Your last book was about careers and work.  Why follow-up by tackling a subject like family?

I’m 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 life’s eternal questions. Why the change, and what are you trying to say to other writers?

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 system—your 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 wasn’t true—all 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 it’s “resilience.” Can you elaborate on that?

The word resilience has taken on new meaning in psychology. Researchers are studying resilience and breaking it down into components—to quote one, “it’s the combination of self-love and self-efficacy.” They wonder if some people are just more naturally resilient, and whether we might bottle this trait—or 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. We’ve 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 true?

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 that’s happened in the last forty years. They’ve 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, there’s 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 today.

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 they’re 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, it’s causing terrible harm. So many well-adjusted and well-educated young people told me they were scared of starting a family in today’s 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 you learned?

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 normal—though it’s being reconsidered now whether it is wise. If I had grown up in Japan, my older brother would have taken over my father’s 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 wouldn’t leave the family—I’d actually spend my life serving my older brother’s needs, even as a personal assistant if necessary.  

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 haven’t adapted fast enough to the modern expectations.

At the same time, in almost every culture there is an overt and joyous love for family—where denigrating your family is uncommon—and I found that to be fresh, since in today’s society it has become so commonplace to belittle your family, or roll your eyes at the thought of them.

How did people’s 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, too—the 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 don’t go to church don’t hear this message. They don’t 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 heaven—and his belief he will see his son again—was worth a thousand hours of therapy.

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