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Anne Tyler’s Novels Offer Important Lessons on the Inner Workings of Families

This post originally appeared on the Institute for Family Studies blog.

Anne Tyler has written a wonderful new novel about every three years going back to 1964—or to be precise, about every 29 months, on average.  Now 76 years old, she recently released what I believe is her 22nd novel, Clock Dance, which means it’s time for my more-or-less triennial paean to her and her work. But this time, I also offer a suggestion to therapists, clergy, and others who work with husbands and wives during emotionally-saturated moments: their professional training would be enhanced if it drew on insights and lessons from literature and the other arts, especially Tyler’s novels.

Of her nearly two-dozen novels, I’ve read a lot of them—far more than those of any other writer, fiction or nonfiction, dead or living. Yes, I’m a fan. One reason, of course, is the beauty of her language, with characterizations of people, places, and situations that cause me to whisper “wow,” followed by, “How in the world did she know that?”

Yet one of the things that makes Tyler so exceptional is that I’ve learned more about the inner workings of families from her writing than I have via empirical, theoretical, or other studies. This is the case no matter the genius of the studies or the researchers who have designed and conducted them.

Let me offer as examples three of her books that together span about 33 years. The first is The Accidental Tourist, which I read soon after it was released in 1985. What I remember most vividly from the book, which was later made into a movie, is how its first approximately 30 pages effectively and painfully describe a crumbling marriage that has been devastated by the loss of an only son and is now on the brink of a divorce. Here’s a portion of a pivotal exchange between a husband and wife (see pgs. 6-7):

This rain, for instance,” Sarah said.  “You know it makes me nervous.  What harm would it do to wait it out?  You’d be showing some concern.  You’d be telling me we’re in this together.”

Macon peered through the windshield, which was streaming so that it seemed marbled.  He said, “I’ve got a system, Sarah. You should know I drive according to a system.”

“You and your systems!”

“Also,” he said, “if you don’t see any point of life, I can’t figure why a rainstorm would make you nervous.”

Sarah slumped in her seat.

“Will you look at that!” he said.  “A mobile home washed clear across that trailer park.”

“Macon, I want a divorce,” Sarah told him.

Macon braked and glanced over at her.  “What?” he said.  The car swerved.  He had to face forward again.  “What did I say?” he asked.  “What did it mean?”

“I just can’t live with you anymore,” Sarah said.

Macon went on watching the road, but his nose seemed sharper and whiter, as if the skin of his face had been pulled tight. He cleared his throat. He said, “Honey.  Listen. It’s been a hard year. We’ve had a hard time. People who lose a child often feel this way; everybody says so; everybody says it’s a terrible strain on a marriage—“

“I’d like to find a place of my own as soon as we get back,” Sarah told him.  

“Place of your own,” Macon echoed, but he spoke so softly, and the rain beat so loudly on the roof, it looked as if he were only moving his lips.  “Well,” he said.  “All right. If that’s what you really want.”

“You can keep the house,” Sarah said.  “You never did like moving.”

Another excellent novel is Breathing Lessons, published in 1988. I remember this novel as one of her funniest and most realistic portrayals of a long-lasting marriage. In the book, Maggie and her husband, Ira, who have been married for 28 years, are driving to a funeral. What follows, in the course of their 90-mile journey (and borrowing from the dust jacket), is “all there is to know about a marriage: the expectations, the disappointments; the way children can create storms in a family; the way that wife and husband can fall in love all over again; the way that everything–and nothing–changes.”

In an interview about Breathing Lessons, Tyler said she wrote it “with the thought that it might be interesting to cover 24 hours in the life of a marriage…I can easily imagine why I chose the subject of marriage—there’s no better mirror of character.”

And finally, here is a passage from her most recent novel, Clock Dance, which manages to tell hard truths about marriage (see pgs. 47-48):

So, this was the person she was going to end up marrying! After all her years of wondering. She had to keep trying the notion out, the way she would try out her image in the mirror after she got a new hairdo. Each time she returned to it, she felt a thrill all over again.  And yet . . . Nobody had told her that you could want to marry a person but still have conflicting thoughts about him.

Lest one think I took a major shot at psychologists, social scientists, and other scholars above, I have not. Rather, I meant to point out the inherent and frequent advantages of fiction as a means of more fully understanding the vagaries of family lives. Quantitative approaches, quite obviously, have large advantages of their own, and in no way am I denigrating academic researchers. In fact, I would have far less solid evidence to interpret and hold forth on, be it about families, marriage, or other things, if they didn’t first do what they do, frequently brilliantly. But there’s something about storytelling as a teacher when choreographed by masters.

This line of thinking gave me an excuse to email my old friend Bill Doherty, the eclectic professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and someone I’ve worked with for more than 20 years in our efforts to strengthen fatherhood and marriage. Without going on about the path-breaking importance of his work, let me just suggest reading his 1995 book, Soul Searching: Why Psychotherapy Must Promote Moral Responsibility. Enough said.

I asked Bill if he knew of any professors or courses that use fiction or the arts more broadly as a way of helping students learn about families and their problems more deeply. I also asked him what he thought of the idea.

He responded that he knows of only one professor of family studies, Scott Johnson at Virginia Tech, who wrote about using the arts, but who is now retired. On his own “modest end,” Bill told me, he has used segments of Rebel Without a Cause in classes, as the movie dealt with “core family systems dynamics” before the “first journal article on those dynamics” was published in 1956. He also has used the movie version of Death of a Salesman, where the family dynamic it portrayed was “triangulation,” which Arthur Miller and filmmakers captured “prior to scholars and therapists identifying it.” Bill added, “Come to think of it, Shakespeare got there first on stepfamily dynamics, in Hamlet, which I’ve also shown in class.”

Why don’t scholars (in Bill’s words) “make use of these treasures in their teaching?” His best guess “is that we have no training in how to do deep-dives into literature or film. We are in our silos, believing that data is what family ‘experts’ gather.”

Not one for silos, another professor who used the arts to help graduate students better understand human dynamics, this time in schools and other “complex organizations,” was my late doctoral adviser at the University of Minnesota, Samuel H. Popper. Back in the late 1970s, he created two courses under the shared heading “Pathways to the Humanities,” which he later turned into a book.

I don’t remember a great deal about any of the courses I took back then, but I do recall writing a paper about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the 1975 movie. It examined how a patient in a mental ward, “Randle McMurphy” (played by Jack Nicholson) held greater sway and power than the person “officially” in charge, Nurse “Ratched” (played by Louise Fletcher). My aim was to show how sometimes a movie does a better job than a learned essay in illuminating a hierarchal fact of life: What’s not in an organizational chart is frequently more consequential than what is.  I might have reinforced the point with something from Sophocles’ Antigone, though I might be conflating that with another paper I wrote for the two courses.

Were these courses valuable in helping me gain a fuller sense of the human element in organizations—in my case—universities?  Without question, yes.  But I also recognize how difficult it is to conceive and teach similarly intended courses. Again, few scholars outside of the humanities have as wide and deep a familiarity with a range of art forms as Sam did. Current-day silos and all.

Tyler doesn’t do many interviews, but in a recent New York Times profile, she said, “If I try to think of some common thread, I really think I’m deeply interested in endurance,” and then she added,

The clearest way you can show endurance is by sticking with a family. It’s easy to dump a friend, but you can’t so easily dump a brother. How did they stick together, and what goes on when they do? All those things just fascinate me.

Students in route to becoming family therapists and clergy (as well as couples themselves) would benefit from studying just a fraction of Anne Tyler’s enormous body of work, along with other great writers who have dealt with relationship dynamics, especially if good teachers help to flesh it out.

Mitch Pearlstein, Ph.D., is founder and senior fellow of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. His most recent book is Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.

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