Tolstoy famously opened his magnum opus with the truthy formula “All happy families are alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.” It sounds good, concedes Ursula K. Le Guin: “It’s a great first sentence.” So many families are extremely unhappy! And this extreme unhappiness feels unique, because its structural character—like the structure of capitalism—is cunningly obscured from view.
In fact, Le Guin suggests, the reverse of Tolstoy’s apothegm is ultimately closer to the truth. She knows of what she speaks, having herself grown up “in a family that on the whole seems to have been happier than most.” She finds it “false—an intolerable cheapening of reality—simply to describe it as happy.” To her, the very phrase “happy families” bespeaks a fundamental incuriosity about the nature of happiness, which—under capitalism especially—comes with enormous costs.
Genres of family critique other than the bourgeois novel do exist, but they aren’t necessarily pretty. I’m thinking of the medium crawling with moms turned murderers, blood-spattered dining-rooms, incest revenges, and homes set ablaze: Hereditary, The Shining, Society, Goodnight Mommy, Psycho, The Stepfather, Us. Critical cinema scholars have long identified a latently insurrectionary desire at play in horror movies, especially those that depict attacks (often from within) on the propertied white family, the patriarchal regime of housework, or the colonial homestead. Books like Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film argue that violent and scary movie-making is, more often than not, a popular vehicle for mass anti-family desire.
Think of the menacing domestic interiors, hostile kitchen appliances, creepy children, murderous kin, and claustrophobic hellscapes of your favorite horror flick. In slasher, home-invasion, and feminist horror canons, the narrative pretends to worry nationalistically about external threats to the family while, in fact, indulging every conceivable fantasy of dismembering and setting fire to it from within. From gore to so-called “psychological” horror, diverse genres openly implicate the family-form in the tortures it is enduring. In these movies, the suppressed, disavowed violence of the home is returning home. The monster is coming from inside the house.
Wow, who am I calling monsters—dads and moms and great-aunt Trish? No: family abolition is not “puerile” politics (albeit children must be on the front lines of imagining it). Family abolition does not expect a state of perfect, uninterrupted, universal happiness. Rather, I would ask you to flip the script and consider that it is the family that is unrealistic and utopian. The family, right now, is supposed to make everybody happy. We are all supposed to be avatars of our little biological team of competitive social reproduction. When we are delinquent, we are a burden on the family: an experience which, ideally, reforms us by making us remember (like it’s a good thing) that family is all we’ve got. Even when we are exceptional, we are, in a sense, chips off our biogenetic clan’s block; something for blood relations to be proud of.
I’d wager that you, too, can imagine something better than the lottery that drops a neonate arbitrarily among one or two or three or four individuals (of a particular class) and keeps her there for the best part of two decades without her consent, making her wholly beholden to them for her physical survival, legal existence, and economic identity, and forcing her to be the reason they give away their lives in work. I’d wager that you, too, can imagine something better than the norm that makes a prison for adults—especially women—out of their own commitment to children they love.