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The Death of the Family1

David Cooper


In this critique of the family most of my paradigmatic references will concern primarily the nuclear family unit in capitalist society in this part of this century. The broader reference, however, and most of my general statements, will cover the social functioning of the family as an ideological conditioning device (the non-human phrasing is deliberate and necessary) in any exploitative society - slave society, feudal society, capitalist society from its most primitive phase in the last century to the neo-colonizing societies in the first world today. It also applies to the first-world working-class, second-world societies and third-world countries in so far as these have been indoctrinated into a spurious consciousness that, as we shall see, is definitive of the secret suicide pact conducted by the bourgeois family unit, the unit that labels itself the 'happy family'; the family that prays together and stays together through sickness and health till death us do part or releases us into the terse joylessness of the epitaphs on our Christian tomb-stones erected, for want of any other sort of erection, by those who mourn for us in the curious mode of remembering very hard to forget us very hard. This false mourning is just and poetic in so far as no authentic mourning is possible if the people who mourn each other have never met each other. The bourgeois nuclear family unit (to use something like the language of its agents - academic sociologists and political scientists)has become, in this century, the ultimately perfected form of non-meeting and therefore the ultimate denial of mourning, death, birth and the experiential realm that precedes birth and conception.

Why don't we fall into the welcoming trap, the furlined beartrap, of the family's own hypostasization of itself as 'The Family' and then explore the various modes in which the intra-structure of the family blocks meeting between any person and any other and demands a sacrificial offering on the part of each of us that placates no one and nothing but this highly active abstraction? For want of gods we have had to invent potent abstractions, none of which is more powerfully destructive than the family.

The power of the family resides in its social mediating function. It reinforces the effective power of the ruling class in any exploitative society by providing a highly controllable paradigmatic form for every social institution. So we find the family form replicated through the social structures of the factory, the union branch, the school (primary and secondary), the university, the business corporation, the church, political parties and governmental apparatus, the armed forces, general and mental hospitals, and so on. There are always good or bad, loved or hated 'mothers' and 'fathers', older and younger 'brothers' and 'sisters', defunct or secretly controlling 'grandparents'. Each of us, in terms of Freud's discovery, transfers bits of our original family experience in the 'family of origin' on to each other in our 'family of procreation' (our 'own' wife and children) and on to each other in whatever situation we work. Then, on this basis of nonreality derived from a prior non-reality, we talk about 'people we know' as if we had the remotest chance of knowing the person who knows the people the person supposes himself to know. The family, in other words, as it is socially metamorphosed, anonymizes people who work or live together in any institutional structure; there is an effective seriality, a bus queue, disguised as friendly grouping in which each 'real person' co-operatively works with each other 'real person'. This exclusion of the reality of the person by internalized figments from his family past is also very well shown by the most basic problem in psychotherapy - the problem of the progressive depopulation of the room. At the commencement of therapy the room may hold hundreds of people, principally all the person's family, over several generations, but also significant other people. Some of the population inevitably include the therapist's internalized others - but the guarantee of good therapy is that the therapist is familiar enough with the machinations of his internal family and has them well enough tamed. Bit by bit in therapy one identifies the members of this vast family and all its extensions and asks them, appropriately enough, to 'leave the room' until one is left with two people who are free to meet or leave each other. The ideal end of therapy then is the final dissolution of the duality of therapist and 'therapeutized'* - an illusory state of non-relation in which therapy, of necessity, has to start and which derives from the family binaryrole system of bringer-up and brought-up. When will parents allow themselves to be brought up by their children?

It is fatuous to speak of the death of God or the death of Man - parodying the serious intent of certain contemporary theologians and structuralist philosophers - until we can fully envisage the death of the family - that system which, as its social obligation, obscurely filters out most of our experience and then deprives our acts of any genuine and generous spontaneity.

Before any cosmic questioning about the nature of God or Man commences other questions of a more concrete and highly personal type arise historically in each of us. 'Where have I come from?', 'Where did they get me from?', 'Whose am I?' (one asks this before one can consider asking 'Who am I?'). Then other less frequently articulated but vaguely suspected questions such as 'What was happening between my parents before and during my birth?' (i.e. 'Did I come from an orgasmic fuck or what did they think they were doing with each other ?'); 'Where was I before one of his sperms cracked one of her eggs ?'; 'Where was I before I was I?'; 'Where was I before I could ask this question where was I before I was this me?'

With a bit of luck one is 'exceptional' (and more of us are exceptional than most of us think if we can remember one or two critical experiences that manifest our exceptionality). Someone, for instance, told me that the midwife who delivered her told her mother: 'This one has been here before.' More commonly some people are told that they came from some other parentage -'They made a mistake in the nursing home and got the wrong label on you.' This can run, in terms of actual reported statements, to implications that a certain child comes from another species, that they are clearly non-human or even extra-terrestrial and monstrous. One can, however, be so totally conned out of any curiosity that one can internalize a series of unanswered questions as a built-in mystification about one's elemental identity - about who one is and when and where one's at. The Family is expert at the selfterrified and self-terrorizing inculcation of the nonnecessity of entertaining doubts on any of these points. The family, since it cannot bear doubt about itself and its capacity to engender 'mental health' and 'correct attitudes', destroys doubt as a possibility in each of its members.

Each of us are each of its members.

Each of us may have to rediscover the possibility of doubting our origins - despite and in spite of being well brought up.

I still find myself somewhat incredulous when I meet people who were adopted or one of whose parents left the home and has never been seen since, and who so deprive themselves of doubt and curiosity that they make no attempt to find the missing parent or parents - not necessarily to have a relationship with them but simply to witness the fact and quality of their existence. Equally disturbing is the rarity in fact of fully developed fantasies about a 'romance family' and the sort of ideal and strange family that one might imagine oneself having come from a family that does not project its problematic on to oneself but which becomes the imaginary vehicle for one's own put-out existence.

In short, one has to reach a position of summing up on one's whole family past; achieving a summing up of all that so as to be free of it in a way that is more personally effective than a simple aggressive rupture or crude acts of geographical separation. If one does it the former way - and this is always through relationships, not necessarily formal therapeutic relationships - one may attain the rare state of actually liking and being freely fond of one's parents instead of being engulfed in an imprisoning, ambiguous love - by which of course parents are victimized as much as their children.

If we no longer doubt we become dubious in our own eyes and can then only opt to lose our vision and see ourselves with the eyes of others -and the eyes of others (each other tormented by the same unrecognized problematic) will see us as duly secure and securing of others. In fact we become victims of a surfeit of security that eludes doubt and consequently destroys life in any sense that we can feel alive. Doubt simultaneously freezes and boils the marrow in our bones, it shakes our bones like dice that are never thrown, it plays a secret and violent organ music through the different calibrations of our arteries, it rumbles ominously and affectionately through our bronchial tubes, bladder and bowel. It is and is the contradiction of every spermatic contraction and is the invitation and rejection in every vaginal muscular fluctuation. Doubt, in other words, is real if we can find our way back to this sort of reality. But if we are to do this we have to eliminate false routes of athleticism and ritualized yoga - these rituals simply confirm the family plot to externalize bodily experience into something that can be done outside real relationship and according to a time schedule that reminds one of the toilet-training one was bound to submit to in the second year of one's life, or even one's first few months when one was 'held out', and unminds one of the precise balance between the possibility of evacuating or retaining a certain clearly felt turd.

This destruction-of-doubt sensation and of the experience of living one's body originates in the need for human grouping which is developed first of all in the family. One of the first lessons one is taught in the course of one's family conditioning is that one is not enough to exist in the world on one's own. One is instructed in great detail to disown one's own self and to live agglutinatively so that one glues bits of other people on to oneself and then proceeds to ignore the difference between the otherness in one's self and the self-sameness of one's self. This is alienation in the sense of a passive submission to invasion by others, originally the family others. But this passivity is deceptive in so far as it conceals the choice to submit to invasion of this sort. All the metaphors of 'paranoia' are a poetic protest against this invasion. The poetry, which of course varies in quality, is, however, always unappreciated by society and, if it becomes spoken aloud too much, it gets treated by psychiatry - which is, after educational institutions, the third rung of family defence against autonomy on the part of its members - psychiatry, that is, along with special schools and prisons and a multiplicity of other more discrete rejection situations. It seems to me that paranoia in our age in the first world at least is a necessary tentative to freedom and wholeness; the only problem is how to be discrete enough to avoid a social assassination or the gentler and more civilized gradual induction of socially acceptable responses by the lengthy psycho-analysis of one's 'persecutory anxieties'. The problem is not to 'resolve' the persecutory anxieties but, lucidly, to use them to destroy an actual, objective persecutory situation that one is caught up in from even before one's beginnings.

The therapist in working with people might far more often have to confirm the reality of paranoid fears than in any sense disconfirm or attempt to modify them. This would no doubt be a projection of the therapist's own paranoia were it not possible often enough to work out strategies of escaping from or decisively attacking the particular sector of the world, with its full persecutory reality, in which the person is immersed and has to ascend out of.

I think, in fact, that what we have to do is totally to reevaluate certain experiential and behavioural states that are regarded as morbid, and then, through a radical declinicalization of our conceptual framework, see them as more or less abortive or successful strategies to achieve autonomy and self-consistency. In a previous work** I have shown the polar opposition, in terms of the truth of a life, between normality (which is the sorry fate of most of us) and sanity and madness which meet each other at the opposite pole.


In French there is no word corresponding to the English word 'analysand', implying some sort of development. The only French word for the person on the receiving end of the curative can/n/on is analysé. The analysé really gets it.

**Psychiatry and Antipychiatry, Tavistock Publications, London, 1967

"The Death of the Family"
by David Cooper
from the Pelican Paperback Edition, 1973
pp. 5 - 31

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