In her book Primal Screams, American writer and widely respected culture critic, Mary Eberstadt, traces a direct line from the sexual revolution of the 60s to the febrile identity politics of our time. The title references the trauma of animals taken from their natural habitat and familial unit and the longterm, emotional damage caused by the rupture. Studies of animal behaviour, she says, has led to the banning of circus animals in a number of American states. It is not “zoomorphising humans” nor “anthromorphisng animals” to see parallels in the way family structure is crucial to the development of the young of every species.
Family is the nurturing place that fosters identity and security. The bonds of family, parents, siblings and wider circle of cousins and grandparents, aunts and uncles offers a network of learning and mutual support throughout life. It is within the familial community too that a sense of personal, social and ethnic identity is formed. The alternative is “the artifical pack” where one’s place has to be negotiated and re-negotiated, a place of “winners and losers”, a place where belonging is conditional. This is the reality for many people from the late “boomers” to Generation X for whom “familial forms of socialisation no longer exist”.
The long fallout from the sexual revolution has made divorce and absent fathers a common feature of life for many children. For many more, the devaluation of marriage means their parents were never married to begin with. In America today 70% of children, both white and black alike, are born to single mothers. Many are raised by their mothers with little if any involvement of their fathers though father figures and “uncles” may drift in and out of their lives. Eberstadt cites a study of children who become part of blended families and describe their identity anxiety in phrases like, “I felt like I had two families”. Children, she says, don’t want two families. They don’t want two addresses nor two places to holiday. They don’t want stepsiblings. For other children, “family shrinkage” means children have no male role models in their immediate family, no father nor brothers. While much as been written about the affects of the lack of fathers in the lives of boys, Eberstadt looks at how the “lack of socially informative, non-sexual experience of the opposite sex” may explain why so many of the young “liberal, successful and educated women” of the MeToo movement fell prey to predatory males. They appear never to have learned about “sexual differences”. Without protective male figures to guide them, their upbringing has left them “clueless” and “unable to stand up for themselves”.
The ethos of recreational sex and the mainstreaming of pornography has led young males to believe “that women are always available”. The sexual revolution that feminists saw as liberating and empowering for women has led to a feminist crusade against toxic masculinity. Yet, for Eberstadt, women and men are equally victims of the collapse of marriage and family. Thanks to contraception and abortion, men have “no say in fatherhood”. Both sexes take on “the protective coloration” of a “more ambiguous, androgynous mean”. Women adopt “the protective coloration of male characteristics, blustering, belligerence, promiscuity as needed”. They are orientated to sports rather than the domestic arts. Men live with the stigma of being branded unreliable and predatory often “a matter of fact, not feminist prejudice” says Eberstatd. Androgyny offers a sort of protective cover against such charges.
The sexual revolution has fractured family life and poisoned the relationships between men and women for a great many people over two generations. Mary Eberstadt fears “mass amnesia” as our experience of different ways of relating to each other fade and new social patterns become entrenched. We are “forgetting how we used to be because we can only learn from what we have access to”. The human animal like all others learns by example and imitation. If all we know is a culture of “sexual consumerism”, “laissez-faire sex”, where prostitution has become “sex work” and books like “50 Shades of Grey” are bestsellers, why would people not think or come to think that this is the natural, inevitable way of things? Alongside the weakening of family structure, the collapse of faith life, apart from what Rod Dreher calls, “the tepid modern form” of a Christianity that has been “colonised by a different religion”, has taken away “the social context of transcendent family” and the core identity of people of faith as children of God, thus deepening the experience of alienation.
Mary Eberstadt cites research that finds a seven year difference in life expectancy at age twenty between those who never attend church services and those who attend once a week. Again as the generational drift from faith continues, the decline in religious practice is followed by loss of “religious literacy”. This is where memory of the ethical as well as belief values of faith fade into oblivion and Eberstadt recalls the dire prophecy of Nietzsche that it will take humankind hundreds of years to understand the implications of “the death of God”.
What we already see are the manifold disorders and pathologies arising from our atomised, fractured society. Already, we have evidence that “family shrinkage” and “family scattering” has greatly exacerbated the loneliness and social isolation of old age. When family supports fail, at whatever point in life, the State steps in. The State becomes the carer, the guardian, the parent substitute and we slide towards what has been described as creeping totalitarianism.
The loss of a coherent frame of social, spiritual and familial structures has created identitarian obsession. Identify groups become an affirming refuge for people “who can’t find their selves anywhere else”. It is interesting that Eberstadt references the anguished lyrics about dysfunctional childhoods from rock singers and bands like Eminem, Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder in the early 2000s. Now, it seems the language to even articulate the hurt of family breakdown has been lost. Trauma is expressed through the hysteria of protests in campuses and on social media across the western world. “Pounding walls, shrieking, chanting”, “childlike demands for affirmation of identity” have become the language of the socially and spiritually uprooted human animal.
For Mary Eberstadt, these displays of irrationality demand empathy, not censure. The “safe spaces” of young adults are “figurative blankies”. Their angst is as “real” as the tantrums of toddlers. She notes the same pattern of fulminating, unforgiving outrage is mirrored among young alt-right, white nationalists, whose parents are more likely than not to be divorced, she says. The primal scream may have taken political and ideological colouring, it may be exploited by self-serving groups, but essentially it is, as Rod Dreher concludes in his commentary on the book, “pre-political”.
Mary Eberstadt wants her book to open a conversation about the direction our society is taking. She has begun the process by including comment from Mark Lilla, Peter Thiel as well as Rod Dreher at the end of her book which she rounds off with a closing Afterword that summarily addresses some of their points. The reader is left with a sense that there are other factors also feeding into this mass psychic disintegration. Materialism, consumerism, the pressures of the technological era, the role of big business, the rise of the big state, big data are all worth consideration.
The book left me with a sense that the belligerent, merciless and incoherent pursuit of identitarian causes that demand others to right wrongs, both past and present, is more than projection of personal, hidden hurt though it certainly is that. It is also a search for foundational meaning and moral compass. It is not only confined to those who have experienced family breakdown. The devaluation of marriage, family and religious affiliation has been preceded by the devaluation of motherhood. We know how critical the early formative years are for a child’s emotional and psychological development. How many of our Generation X have first experienced the “artificial pack” in child care centres? Trauma from the earliest months and years of life can only be expressed through projection. It is indeed ironic that the feminist movement is now fighting the complex consequences of the revolution they were first to espouse.
Mary Eberstadt’s book is a thought provoking, informed lead-in to a discussion that the world urgently needs to have.
Name: Primal Screams
Author: Mary Eberstadt
Publisher: Templeton Press
Length: 141 pages