Print Post
  • What Primal Screams does so masterfully is to hold up a mirror to our own cultural collapse and point a laser beam right at the heart of the problem: familial breakdown. Tweet This
  • "The new wealth in America is familial wealth, and the new poverty, familial poverty,” writes Mary Eberstadt Tweet This

Who am I? Be it Jean Valjean or Elvis Presley asking, it’s a question that has plagued all of humanity from the very beginning. And in today’s post-sexual revolutionary world, it’s perhaps harder to answer than ever before. So writes Mary Eberstadt in her latest book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics

At just over 100 pages, the book, which is an expansion of her essay by the same title for The Weekly Standard, reads more like a treatise, a handbook of sorts for understanding the connection between identity politics’ ever-tightening grip on American culture and the fallout of the Sexual Revolution. The connection isn’t just deep, she argues, it’s primal. 

Eberstadt focuses on the nuclear family, which the Sexual Revolution exploded. Once the ultimate human safe space, the place where we first extracted a pre-political sense of identity, the family has now been shattered by everything from no-fault divorce to abortion to out-of-wedlock childbirth to amorphous definitions of marriage, all cultural offspring of the revolution. This “familial liquidation,” as she calls it, or the Great Scattering, as she describes it elsewhere, has destroyed the natural human habitat and left much of humanity feeling completely unmoored, without a sense of belonging or a clear sense of identity. 

As a result, people are increasingly filling the void with identity politics. Eberstadt quotes Allan Bloom, who wrote, “The more people feel themselves adrift in a vast, impersonal, anonymous sea, the more desperately they swim toward any familiar, intelligible, protective life-raft; the more they crave a politics of identity.” She takes the point further, arguing that “some people, deprived of recognition in the traditional ways, will regress to a state in which their demand for recognition becomes ever more insistent and childlike.” Think, liberal arts students putting scholars in neck braces and the like.

Therein is the profundity and the novelty of Eberstadt’s argument. The children of the Sexual Revolution may have grown into adults, but they are still afflicted by the pathos of lost children, quite literally howling, whether at a demonstration like the Women’s March or live on MSNBC, out of a deep desire for belonging.

Eberstadt adds an interesting dynamic to the book by drawing stark parallels to nature. Be it wolves or monkeys or elephants, Eberstadt cites study after study that looks at the way other mammals organize into families, and the devastation wrought when those animal families are destroyed. She flips the script if you will. Usually, the focus is on the habitat and its effect on the animal. Primal Screams tells the other story—what happens to the habitat when the animal’s natural familial orientation is destroyed. 

Perhaps her most striking example is that of elephants. She quotes Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, who said, “Destroying the family life of highly social, intelligent animals leads inevitably to misery among individual survivors and pathological misbehavior among the group.” She documents the breakdown of the elephant family structure as a result of various environmental disruptions like poaching, which has unraveled elephant culture as a whole, so much so that we are witnessing what one ecologist described as “a precipitous collapse of elephant culture.” 

What Primal Screams does so masterfully is to hold up a mirror to our own cultural collapse and point a laser beam right at the heart of the problem: familial breakdown. Identity politics is a symptom of that collapse. According to Eberstadt, “Our macropolitics have become a mania about identity because our micropolitics are no longer familial.” Her thesis sheds new light on modern-day phenomena like androgyny, the feverish rush to gender ideology, and the ongoing fallout of #Metoo.

Finally, she provocatively suggests that the revolution has given way to “evolutionary winners,” those people who manage to stake a claim to marital happiness and familial stability. She alludes to the research and work of many on this site, including IFS senior fellow Brad Wilcox, explaining that already, “the new wealth in America is familial wealth, and the new poverty, familial poverty.” She continues, “Perhaps the real divide of postrevolutionary humanity lies between those who have figured out how to navigate the Great Scattering successfully and those who have not.” 

Survivors who are seeking navigation tools would do well to start with Primal Screams.

Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).