From “Home-Alone America” to “Primal Screams”: in 15 Years or Less

This week, Templeton Press is releasing my new book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. Because the Faith and Reason Institute is my happy professional home, I’d like to set aside standard book promo, and instead share with TCT’s readers some of the backstory for this new volume.

Seen one way, the work leading up to this book began with a wisecrack. In the 1980s, right after graduating from college with majors in philosophy and government, I was hired as an assistant editor at The Public Interest magazine in New York. Its fabled editor was Irving Kristol, a formidable intellectual and wit with a first-rate, small-“c,” catholic mind. (He was also something of an imp – as his self-description of “neo-orthodox, non-observant Jew” might suggest.)

One day, as we were all sitting in the tiny smoke-filled office on East 53rd Street, Irving looked up from his newspaper and remarked, “One of the funniest things about the twentieth century is that if you were to read all of its documents and ask which one was the most prophetic about the world to come, it would be Humanae Vitae.”

The thought was unexpected and contrarian, as Irving’s bon mots usually were. The staff, myself included, duly laughed. But that heretical notion stuck. This was the first time I remember thinking that there might be something to the argument that the sexual revolution was upending the world – and that it wasn’t only the Catholic Church that could see it.

That small epiphany would go on to play a part in some of my work. My first book, Home-Alone America (2004), looked at the record of rising post-revolutionary damage in places that sociologists and others had been measuring for years – mainly, the ravaged home and its attendant problems, especially among children.

Adam and Eve after the Pill (2012) widened the lens to examine the revolution’s apparent effects on men, women, and the change in mores. Both books invoked evidence from across the cultural spectrum, including literature, popular culture, sociology, and first-hand reports from therapists and others on the front lines. These books also documented disturbing trends that would not become common knowledge until recently, such as rising rates of psychiatric trouble among the young.

The growing empirical record was greatly at odds with the dominant cultural insistence on the purported benefits of post-1960s liberation. How the West Really Lost God (2013) took the next logical step of examining the relationship between the new sexual order and the churches. Secularization, it concluded, has been widely misunderstood. It is not inevitable. History shows instead that religiosity waxes and wanes over time. It is as robust – or as weak – as the force through which it is largely transmitted: the family.

My new book, Primal Screams, is a capstone of sorts to these previous efforts. It examines the legacy of post-1960s change at one more macrocosmic level: politics.

Primal Screams argues in part that the signature political movement of our time – identity politics – is rooted in the post-revolutionary erasure of self, brought on by the shrinkage and implosion of the family.

Pace conservatives who dismiss such politics as mere theater, I argue that the anguish behind identity politics is real. But its foundation does not lie in abstractions like “whiteness” or “patriarchy” or the “binary.” What the timeline and other evidence shows instead is that identity politics cannot be understood apart from the familial dislocations and fractures endured by generations of homo sapiens since the 1960s.

Divorce, cohabitation, fatherlessness, abortion, reduced family size: all of these phenomena have left post-revolutionary souls with fewer people to call our own – fewer people who can be trusted to do what families are supposed to do: have our backs, teach us, and love us no matter what.

And with that radical diminution of the family and its protections has come an unexpected consequence: humanity is ever more unsteady, and ever less able to answer the question “Who am I?” as it always used to be answered before – relationally, with reference to one’s place in the natural social order. Deprived of this elemental way of constructing identity, many people now flee, ever more frantically, to collective “identities” that are inferior simulacra for the real thing.

For TCT’s readers, one lesson to be drawn from Primal Screams – as from those other books – might be summarized as follows.

Twenty-five years ago, the brilliant scholar Leon Kass wrote a meditation for Commentary magazine on the hidden beauty and logic of the dietary laws of Judaism. He observed that these laws protected God’s people from physical harms – including harms that did not even have names until millennia later, when science would uncover them. As he further observed: “These remarkable customs not only restrain and thwart the bad; they also commemorate the true and beckon to the good. Finally, the dietary laws of Leviticus commemorate the creation and the Creator and beckon us toward holiness.”

Just so, omitting the word “dietary,” certain other laws were handed down from the earliest days of Christianity that drew strict boundaries around related forms of unbridled consumption. These rules were among the features that set Christianity apart. They also protected the followers of Christ from something that joins us to those earliest believers, especially today: the wreckage that would result from failing to recognize in those laws a shelter, in which our kind would flourish.

We were protected all along, in ways that we didn’t understand in full until now. The cataclysm that has ensued will take generations of rebuilding – and in order to find the right stones, we must first understand the cause of the blast. I hope that Primal Screams, by discerning in identity politics the pre-political cries of a wounded time, makes a modest contribution to that end.

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and holds the Panula Chair at the Catholic Information Center. Her most recent book is Adam and Eve after the Pill, Revisited, with a Foreword by Cardinal George Pell.