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Rebuilding Our Families to Enrich Our Lives
By Mary Pipher
Grosset/Putnam, 1998, 352 pages

In this insightful, frank, and unsettling follow-up to Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher explores the challenges confronting the American family. The family is our most cherished and valuable institution, she observes, and yet our culture is "at war" with families. "Families in America have been invaded by technology, mocked or 'kitschified' by the media, isolated by demographic changes, pounded by economic forces and hurt by corporate values." Not only are today's families living without walls — unable to screen out unwanted influences wrought by the media, the Internet and other technologies -- but they now exist without what the Sioux call "tiospaye," or a sense of community. The result, she says, is that families — "our shelter from the storm, our last great hope" — are crumbling in the face of both internal and external pressures.

Pipher illustrates her argument with case studies drawn from her many years as a family therapist. She tells stories of families struggling against the forces of violence, drugs, sex, "virtual" relationships, stress, materialism and other cultural forces. She feels that psychology is partly to blame for the breakdown of the American family because it tends to explain pathology purely in terms of family experiences. While it is true that families "are screwed up in a variety of ways," Pipher says that therapists also need to examine how the culture at large affects mental health. Family therapists need to protect and strengthen families, connect people with their extended families and communities, help them to make affirming decisions, and offer ways of coping with stress, overconsumption, violence and addiction — not pathologize and alienate people from their families. "Therapy has contributed to the cultural shift from collective political action to individual mental health," Pipher writes. "We have encouraged self-analysis at the expense of social change" and, as a result, many people have chosen to work on themselves in lieu of working on their communities.

Pipher concludes with a variety of practical suggestions toward connecting families, toward "creating a tiospaye." These include making connections and bringing people together, turning off televisions and computers and spending more time in nature, engaging in community service, and sharing stories — stories of possibility and reconciliation. "The best stories," she says, "are stories that help us see the complexities faced by others. We need stories that connect us with each other, stories that heal the polarization that can overwhelm us.... Quilted together, these stories will shelter us all."

Related audio clip: Rebuilding Our Families — Mary Pipher talks with Scott London about the troubles confronting the American family. (Requires RealPlayer)

Copyright 1998 by Scott London. All rights reserved.