A Material Family

There is a family I have never met that I came to know quite well over my years as a college teacher. They are the Greenwalts, once of Birmingham, Michigan, a wealthy bedroom community outside Detroit, who were the subject of a documentary entitled "But What If The Dream Comes True?" that appeared on CBS in l970. Unlike other family portraits of the time, such as that of the Louds, where a hand-held camera picked up the wife telling her husband to move out, the portrait of the Greenwalts was not given to titillation or uncovering family ghosts. Nor was this a video blog pretending to be the real life of a celebrity with all but selected warts edited out. Its method was that of a standard documentary: interviews with the protagonists and film on the settings in which they lived their lives. Its purpose was an exploration of the American character, and its narrator, Charles Kuralt, brought his usual mixture of amusement and appreciation to an hour-long human interest story that was and is more than a sidebar.

A not so marginal advantage of being a teacher is the opportunity to consider texts at leisure, so that you can recompose them in your mind as you yourself change, and they come to meet your altered needs. As a sociologist, I don't have the opportunity to use Shakespeare or Homer for these purposes, but I showed But What If The Dream Comes True?  to my introductory classes for almost twenty years, until the whole of it had become dated. It stood up remarkably well over that course of time, irritating the students into taking an interest in the Greenwalts and the life of the rich, and repaying me with a changing set of reflections as I get older and as the film retreated from being a window into current events into being a slice of the historical past.

Though my own respect for the Greenwalts waxed and waned, most students, every year, took an instant dislike to them. In part, this is cultural shock: my students had never seen people like this before. They found little to admire in a family that seemed out of step with the traditional family values which they said were present in their own families, and which they defined as a father and mother who each work hard, in their own way, to take care of their children. Students questioned the strength of the emotional bond between the Greenwalts because they saw a dairyman coming in to replenish the refrigerator, or heard the parents say they do not see very much of their children except on weekends. Students thought the children were without sufficient adult supervision when they came home from school, and had been abandoned to a world of peer pressure. (The film, remember, was made in l970, and it looks hard to find evidence of a youth culture. It does find some pot and teenage shoplifting, and deftly asks what the teenagers are out to steal that they cannot purchase with the credit cards in their pockets and pocketbooks.)

At this point, I would launch into a defense of the Greenwalt's childrearing practices. Far from being negligent, I suggested, the parents are very involved in structuring their children's lives. They are setting the children on paths that will have them recapitulate the lives of their parents. Sam, the father, was an All-American at the University of Pennsylvania who was also a Marine lieutenant in Korea and went on to become a bank vice- president in Detroit. Now, at age 42, he sees to it that his grade-school son joins the football Little League where he is "supposed to be a bit better than the waterboy." The father worries that his son will be spoiled, not know how to "dig a ditch like the other boys" because all his life "he has run with thoroughbreds." Jane Greenwalt explains to her husband that they had moved to the suburbs in the first place to isolate their children from the dangers of urban existence, and her husband thinks he is agreeing with her when he says that perhaps the suburbs are not the right place to raise children, because they are bedrooms rather than communities.

Jane is less concerned about her daughters, perhaps because it is less of a struggle for them to meet her goals. Jane was a cheerleader before she found her football hero husband. Her daughters want to be popular in their junior high school, and find the televised Miss America pageant exciting and meaningful. They admire the traits on which they believe the contestants are judged-- beauty, grace and a bit of talent-- and are anxious about who will be picked the winner. (It turned out, that year, to be Phyllis George, who did go on to a bit of national recognition in her post-Miss America career.)

But Jane says something about her children that greatly offended my students. The remark provided a key test for distinguishing my interpretation of the Greenwalts as a loving and nurturing family from their own view of the Greenwalts as a selfish and emotionally negligent family. Asked about her responsibilities to her children, Jane picks her words very carefully. She says, "I can't be held responsible for my children. I can't be blamed if they take drugs, and so, if they bring home A's and B's and are in the Honor Society, and are well liked by their friends or teachers, I can't be responsible for that either. They are pretty much on their own now."

Are these the words of an irresponsible parent, who no longer cares about what happens to her children? My students thought it would be the parent's fault if the kids started taking drugs. How can parents give up on children so young? I would suggest the text is more complex. First, Jane is saying that the minimum demand set for a child is very high. Anyone who does not do well in school is a candidate for counseling. But more important, Jane is relieving herself of a burden of guilt which is too heavy for her even in anticipation: she has invested so much in her children that she must be careful not to take credit for their accomplishments or their disasters, however much she knows that it will reflect beck on her abilities as a mother and as a person. She is a Dr. Benjamin Spock mother, which means that she believes in "early childhood development." By the time the child is in its teens, she has contributed most of what she can to its character, and she can only wonder if her nurturing has turned out well. There is very little she can do about it if her children decide to take drugs when they become teenagers.

Jane's dilemma served as the introduction for a little academic set piece of mine on the difference between child-centered families (such as those often found in the Greenwalt's social class) who influence their children's lives by involving them in a set of adult dominated activities like school and Little League, and those parent-centered families which are found in ever greater number on successively lower rungs of the social class ladder, where children more or less raise themselves in peer group packs and come to the attention of their parents when they get in trouble. I suggest that child-centered families think of the child's psyche as one that has to be nurtured like a hothouse plant, while adult-centered families treat children as hardy weeds that can grow up straight if left to their own natures.

But Jane's anguish suggests she is not as secure in her sense of her responsibilities about her children as I was in the rudimentary generalizations I offered about child rearing across the social classes. And lower class or poverty class parents, of course, might find my explanations unsatisfactory ways to rationalize their sense of kids walking a fine line and getting out of hand.

To appease their own sense that they are not doing enough to affect their children's lives, the Greenwalts invite some black teenagers home for dinner, much as the Junior League of Birmingham, of which Jane is a member, invited a black speaker out to Birmingham to accompany an exhibit of photographs of the Detroit ghetto.(Remember, again, that this is 1970; the film is much concerned with the contrast between white Birmingham and the riots and fires in nearby black Detroit.)

My students found the scene so embarrassing that they both fume and giggle. They think the blacks are being "used" to educate the Greenwalt children, and overlook the point that the black kids are more amused by the situation and seem less anxious than their white peers who are quick to declare themselves in favor of black kids coming to their school, where they would doubtlessly make a good impression. This interchange allows the filmmakers to take one of their few cheap shots: they end the sequence immediately after an eloquent speech by one of the black boys who says that he does not know why he should be required to make a good impression rather than get accepted for what he is. Jane Greenwalt, for her part, has been concerned with more immediate matters, which is to give the boys everything they want in the way of food and graciousness without, as she puts it, "making them jealous." My own students, most of whom had never had blacks in their homes, find the whole exercise a ludicrous evasion of racial realities. As one of the more outspoken ones suggested, the film uses black kids who are so nice that it will mislead viewers about what blacks are really like.

But I persisted in defending the Greenwalts' view of themselves, partly because it is my job as a teacher to make students sympathetic to people who would otherwise seem alien or evil, and partly because I myself admired the quest of the Greenwalts for ever more achievement. They see themselves as fiercely competitive-- indeed, Jane positively blushes and preens when, in the face of her demurrers, her husband suggests she is the most competitive person he has ever known. Sam, for his part, likes going to a job where he picks up his pace as he hits the bank's front door, and works up a sweat by eleven, his occupation a continuation of his life on the football field. And he gives in, so he claims, to his wife's desire to move to an even more affluent suburb, wistfully remarking that he is like a camel driver, moving from one oasis to another.

The displacedness caused by upper class achievement continues to seem to me a genuine insight: achievement is a way of life in itself rather than the cause of a proper life into which one becomes settled. While our usages suggest that a social class is a place that can be left or entered, like an ethnic homeland or a new citizenship, orientation toward achievement is, in fact, a complex but imperious motive which launches the Greenwalts and their peers on lifelong travels between the suburbs of one or another corporate center. The film does not suggest they have ties to friends or family, but only to one another in their own expensive Conestoga wagon. And yet their life is the goal to which other Americans supposedly aspire, and we all try to get to the top from someplace less than that.

A student once cut through a potted piece on upward mobility in America to angrily state that he was happy where he was and had no desire to change his social class, and why was I going on about everyone in America valuing upward mobility? I don't remember what lame answer I gave, but I do remember that I was taken aback that I had become so involved, along with other sociologists, in seeing upward mobility as an explanation for class dynamics in America that I had allowed myself to forget that the desire for upward mobility is itself variably distributed across the social classes, as are so many other social attributes.

Afterwards, I remember thinking how nice it would be if I could lay before my students the penetrating things students had said about the film over the years. There was the student who found the movie an occasion to recite his own list of ambitions, or the young woman who said that her own parents were wealthy enough to afford many of the services the Greenwalts had, and she did not think her parents did not love her because of that. It is always an uphill fight for teachers to paraphrase such thoughts because the discussion the teacher leads is not just about the idea of upward mobility, but about the students' sense of the own lives--and the teacher's sense of his. Students are apt to think, with some justice, that the teacher is projecting his vision of life onto the canvas of American society and that he will select and massage his citations accordingly.

My own views of the Greenwalts turned more critical at about that time, but not only because of that particularly astute perception about the relativity of the value of mobility. Partly it was because I had myself come to find the Greenwalts smug in their class prejudices. Sam Greenwalt felt he had worked himself to the top, and wanted his children to do the same, even though he and they hardly started at the bottom. Sam Greenwalt may have been upwardly mobile in the sense that the class of his origins was a little less elevated than the class in which he lived, but for the most part, he was a success story within a social class, where he seemed to have moved a little more quickly than most through the age-graded divisions of an upper middle class life. The much vaunted drive for achievement had accomplished only the conventional move from a junior management position to a senior management position.

The Greenwalts also had come to offend my sense of things because they did not have what by my lights would be a culture: they did not have a set of images or beliefs which supercede everyday concerns and to which they owe allegiance. The Greenwalts had no transcendental world of events and personages by which to take their own measure and to inspire and comfort them. No spirits of place, no sense of world history, no literary pantheon. Not a book was to be seen in their home. There was no hint of any political or religious identity. It seemed to me that football and Miss America were an insufficient basis for finding meaning in life, however affluent that life was.

Jane and Sam were permanent adolescents, it seemed to me. They had never grown out of the schoolyard sense of winning, and so did not know what to do with their lives but push on. My students' view that the rich did not know what to do with their money came to make sense because I too began to measure the Greenwalts against how I would spend their money or their time. Sam and Jane spent their money on a large family self-portrait, which provided the only self-identity they had, rather than on art. The women in the Junior League were outfitted with very large diamond rings, and went to their encounter groups sporting the same fashion in carefully applied eye makeup, revealing the true priorities of their personal quests. Jane went to these meetings to give advice about how to fit into Birmingham life more than to look for what Charles Kuralt called "something else."

My respect for the Greenwalts went up again, however, when I reshaped the film's themes, ten or more years into the viewing, sometime in the Eighties now, so that their materialism played a less central part. The issue of blacks versus whites and youths versus adults were increasingly anachronistic, but the struggle of Jane Greenwalt to come to terms with her life was not, and it moved her to the center of the movie. It had been, after all, her struggle much more than Sam's that had offended my students over the years. The film, it turned out, was mostly about the motives for women's liberation: not about abortion or equal pay, but a way to turn the years after marriage into a meaningful life for a woman.

Jane Greenwalt had a left-over life to lead. She is said by Kuralt to be just as smart as her husband, to have her home as well organized as his bank. Kuralt is also right to say that Sam doesn't understand the pressures she is under. But Jane's perception of Sam's job, limited by the perspective of one who is outside every office door, is that Sam's job is satisfying because so many people want to like him. She can't quite translate her own and her daughters' need for emotional support into the instrumental terms of business. Sam's staff and loan applicants like him because he has power, not because he has a pleasing personality. The closest Jane can come to sensing some unfairness in the world, as opposed to some lack of adjustment in her own personality, is when she wishes there were a transfer for volunteers in the cancer drive, so that she didn't have to start all over again as a block worker. She wouldn't expect the promotion Sam got when his job moved him and her and the children from Grand Rapids to Detroit. Instead, she feels guilty for having pressed Sam to move on to a new house.

The black speaker at the Junior League had said that affluent white women were pampered and put on a pedestal, and that there was nothing closed to them. It seemed that they had not taken advantage of their opportunities. The reason for this, feminists assert, is that women are brought up with cloudy and false notions of themselves. Feminists say this because objective class-like or racial-like discrimination cannot very easily be identified as the source of women's oppression. But saying you are passive because you were brought up to be passive is lame as a political excuse, because then there is nothing to keep you from getting off your duff, and so lays the blame for the victim's condition on the victim. Ingrained female psychology becomes a more serious argument when it is another aspect of the battle between the sexes: to what extent does femininity or womanhood require meekness or only the kind of indirect rule that is characteristic of the working class family?

That theme continued to generate considerable heat in the classroom, and even animosity towards me as its explicator. My students, for the most part, still saw staying home to raise the children as a matter of moral propriety, an essential part of the female role. This is in the late Eighties. Jane's quest for independence, such as it is, seems contemptible. Women should work only if they have to contribute to a family's support, which Jane does not have to do. She should stay home, do the vacuuming, and serve milk and cookies to her children when they return from school. The change in values that the media claimed at the time as having occurred over the just past generation had not occurred for my students, partly because, in their families, the ability of the woman to stay home is a luxury Jane Greenwalt doesn't seem to appreciate.

The film penetrates platitudes about gender equality. The older men and women who had come back to school to further their careers in middle management, as well as the students whose parents had some college, think that there is more to life than tending children, but the majority of my students admired overt parental discipline and could only picture an adult woman as first and foremost a wife and mother. They were cynical enough to think that only traditional values can take the edge off the harshness of life, by telling you to do the right thing, even if you are uncertain of the consequences. That way you at least have a chance to get ahead. But my students were not so cynical as to think that material affluence can itself so successfully take the edge off life that people can become sufficiently secure so that they can turn to looking for personal satisfactions.

Since the Greenwalts appear to violate a sense of family proprieties which my students believed to be natural and universal, even if these proprieties are violated by people who live almost next door, speak what is presumed to be the same language, and are rich besides, my students wanted the Greenwalts to get their comeuppance. It is far easier to be tolerant of the customs of the pygmies than it is of people whose wealth does not make them so unrecognizable that they do not have to be dismissed for what seem the profound differences between them and you. And it is the same with a teacher who wants so much to be clear to the people across the desks that it is difficult to see that students may not wish, for the sake of objectivity, to give up on the differences that separate them from their teacher.

The extent of student anger is quite upsetting to a teacher who says he just wants to lead a discussion, but knows, as the students also know, that he and the Greenwalts are challenging their sense of family values. Some of my students stood or went mute, as if they had been tricked into saying too much.

Other students wanted to know what had happened to the Greenwalt children since the time the film was made. Some were sure one or another came to a bad end because of all that neglect. I, on the other hand, was curious about what happened to the adult Greenwalts. I fancied Sam became an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the first Reagan Administration, and that his good wife Jane became a Republican woman for the ERA. But that was not as important to my students as what the Greenwalts represented. About that, my students and I could agree. What the Greenwalts did with their later lives is not as important as what they did in making this film, and so I never wrote to CBS to inquire about their fate. For me, the Greenwalts had passed into literature.