Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day by Deborah Cohen - review by David Gelber

David Gelber

Behind Closed Doors

Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day


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‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’. When Philip Larkin launched his broadside against parenthood at the start of the 1970s, the traditional family had already been consigned to the tumbril. During the previous decade, a ragtag cluster of forces, from the psychiatrist R D Laing and the social anthropologist Edmund Leach to the Gay Liberation Front and the nascent feminist movement, had denounced this once-hallowed institution as a cabaret of dysfunctionality, a cradle of repression and a coven of abuse. ‘The initial act of brutality against the average child is the mother’s first kiss,’ wrote Laing, in a typically pugnacious pronouncement. From this seemingly innocuous gesture, every other imaginable form of injury and distress proceeded. 

In Family Secrets, the social historian Deborah Cohen seeks to amend this vision of perdition and rescue the family from the modish opprobrium it has suffered since the first dawn of the sexual revolution. The tight helix of intolerance and authoritarianism that Laing and his disciples condemned was, Cohen argues,

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