Marriage is hot these days. Same-sex or DOMA are at the top of the polemical menu. Watch The Jillster take her scalpel to Dr. Paul Popenoe, the U.S. guru of marriage in most of the 20th century. If this is a (fair & balanced) premarital examination, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
By Jill Lepore
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Marriage in America is in disarray, or so they say. Americans, among the marryingest people in the world, are also the divorcingest. Even during the downturn, business is up at eHarmony, which has taken credit for one out of every fifty weddings in the United States, but “The State of Our Unions,” an annual report issued jointly by the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values, warns of a “mancession”: in a lousy economy, more men than usual are working fewer hours than their wives, making for unhappier husbands and angrier rows. A spike in the divorce rate is anticipated, although this may be mitigated by the fact that divorce isn’t cheap and people are broke. You might think that the mancession would also foretell a falloff in couples counselling, which isn’t cheap, either, but there’s no sign of a, ah, therapycession. “I have a pretty good marriage,” Elizabeth Weil wrote in a December cover story in the Times Magazine, but “it could be better.” This is America. Why settle for pretty good? Weil and her husband have sought the services of half a dozen therapists; her memoir about “marriage improvement” is under way. Beginning this past summer, casting agents for NBC’s “The Marriage Ref” scoured the countryside in search of bickering couples (“No problem is too small!”) willing to submit to an arbiter advised by a panel of stars, including Alec Baldwin, who, though divorced, did play the title role in a movie called “The Marrying Man.” Meanwhile, a National Marriage Boycott is on: its members pledge not to get married, no matter how many people ask them, until the Defense of Marriage Act is repealed.
Campaigns to defend, protect, and improve marriage have been around for a long time. They’re usually tangled together. They even share a family history. David Popenoe, a founder of the National Marriage Project, is the son of Paul Popenoe, the father of marriage counselling, who is best remembered for the Ladies’ Home Journal feature “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” It’s still running. For decades, the stories in “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” came from Paul Popenoe’s American Institute of Family Relations, based in Los Angeles, the country’s leading marriage clinic. Reporters called it “the Mayo Clinic of family problems.” At its height, in the nineteen-fifties, Popenoe’s empire also included stacks of marriage manuals; a syndicated newspaper column, “Modern Marriage”; a radio program, “Love and Marriage”; and a stint as a judge on a television show, “Divorce Hearing.” People called him Mr. Marriage.
They also called him Dr. Popenoe, even though his only academic degree was an honorary one. For a time, he counselled more than a thousand couples a year. Consider a case published in 1953: Dick is about to leave his wife, Andrea, for another woman. He is bored with Andrea. “Living with her is like being aboard that ship that cruised forever between the ports of Tedium and Monotony,” he says. Can this marriage be saved? You bet. At Popenoe’s clinic, Andrea is urged to make herself more interesting. She learns how to make better conversation, goes on a strict diet, and loses eight pounds. The affair is averted.
Popenoe’s business launched an industry; marriage clinics popped up all over the country. They are popping up still. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, founded in 1942, has some twenty-four thousand members, although the actual number of therapists who see couples is much higher. Up to eighty per cent of therapists practice couples therapy. Today, something like forty per cent of would-be husbands and wives receive premarital counselling, often pastoral, and millions of married couples seek therapy. Doubtless, many receive a great deal of help, expert and caring. Nevertheless, a 1995 Consumer Reports survey ranked marriage counsellors last, among providers of mental-health services, in achieving results. And, as Rebecca L. Davis observes in an astute, engaging, and disturbing history, More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss (2010), the rise of couples counselling has both coincided with and contributed to a larger shift in American life: heightened expectations for marriage as a means of self-expression and personal fulfillment. That would seem to make for an endlessly exploitable clientele, especially given that there’s not much profit in pointing out that some things—like the unglamorous and blessed ordinariness of buttering the toast every morning for someone you’re terribly fond of—just don’t get any better. Not everything admits of improvement.
Popenoe is a minor character in Davis’s book, but, before he became “the man who saves marriages,” he was a leader in the campaign to sterilize the insane and the weak of mind. The American Institute of Family Relations was funded by E. S. Gosney, the president of the Human Betterment Foundation (for which Popenoe served as secretary). For Popenoe, marriage counselling was the flip side of compulsory vasectomy and tubal ligation: sterilize the unfit; urge the fit to marry. But what if the fit got divorced? “I began to realize that if we were to promote a sound population,” he wrote, “we would not only have to get the right kind of people married, but we would have to keep them married.” Popenoe opened the clinic in 1930, in order “to bring all the resources of science to bear on the promotion of successful family life”—that science being eugenics. He didn’t much mind if the marriages of people of inferior stock fell apart: “Divorcees are on the whole biologically inferior to the happily married.” By saving the marriages of the biologically superior, though, Popenoe hoped to save the race.
Born in 1888, Popenoe was the son of a California avocado grower and horticultural pioneer. He went to Stanford, where he studied with the university’s president, a biologist named David Starr Jordan. In 1906, the American Breeders’ Association appointed Jordan to head a committee to “investigate and report on heredity in the human race” and to expound on “the value of superior blood and the menace to society of inferior blood.” In 1908, Popenoe left college to care for his father and to study breeds of date palms. The following year, California passed a forced-sterilization law. (Two-thirds of American states eventually did the same.) In 1913, Jordan appointed Popenoe editor of the Journal of Heredity. With Gosney, he charted the progress of California’s sterilization project. He travelled from one asylum to the next, counting, inspecting. Some twenty thousand men and women were sterilized in California. Popenoe estimated that about ten million Americans—about a tenth of the population—should be sterilized. In 1916, his close friend Madison Grant published The Passing of the Great Race; or, The Racial Basis of European History. Grant practiced what was billed as “hereditary history.” He attempted to demonstrate that the “Nordic race” (the “blue-eyed, fair-haired peoples of the north of Europe”) was being overrun by stupider people who were “dark-haired, dark-eyed.” This, he believed, posed a particular threat to the United States, since “democracy is fatal to progress when two races of unequal value live side by side.”
Not everyone signed on. A Grant-like figure made an appearance in The Great Gatsby:
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?”
“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
“Tom’s getting very profound,” Daisy says. “You ought to live in California,” Jordan tells him.
In 1918, Paul Popenoe and Roswell Hill Johnson wrote Applied Eugenics, to explain “the practical means by which society may encourage the reproduction of superior persons and discourage that of inferiors.” It became the most widely assigned college textbook on the topic; it was also translated into German. Where Grant blamed “swarms of Polish Jews” and the like, and “half-breeds,” Popenoe and Johnson blamed college girls. Education, they warned, “is tending toward race suicide”: “Many a college girl of the finest innate qualities, who sincerely desires to enter matrimony, is unable to find a husband of her own class, simply because she has been rendered so cold and unattractive, so overstuffed intellectually and starved emotionally, that a typical man does not desire to spend the rest of his life in her company.” (Popenoe was, at the time, unmarried. Two years later, at the age of thirty-two, he married a nineteen-year-old dancer.)
“That something is wrong with marriage today is universally admitted and deplored,” Popenoe wrote in Modern Marriage: A Handbook, in 1925. “The number of celibates, of mismatched couples, of divorces, of childless homes, of wife deserters, of mental and nervous wrecks; the frequency of marital discord, of prostitution and adultery, of perversions, of juvenile delinquency, tells the story.” The next year, he offered policy recommendations in The Conservation of the Family, in which he defined the “normal family” as “one in which two adults live together happily and give birth to an appropriate number of healthy and intelligent children.” What number was appropriate depended on whether the parents were superior, inferior, or defective, because, “among the 1000 leading American men of science, there is not one son of a day laborer.” Defectives should have no children at all. Popenoe preferred sterilization to birth control, which he considered to be dangerous: “If charity begins at home, Birth Control should begin abroad. Continued limitation of offspring in the white race simply invites the black, brown, and yellow races to finish the work already begun by Birth Control, and reduce the whites to a subject race preserved merely for the sake of its technical skill, as the Greeks were by the Romans.” Most of all, he wanted to keep birth control out of the hands of advocates like his fellow-eugenicist Margaret Sanger. “If it is desirable for us to make a campaign in favor of contraception,” he wrote to Grant, “we are abundantly able to do so on our own account, without enrolling a lot of sob sisters.”
The constitutionality of compulsory-sterilization laws was brought before the Supreme Court in 1927, in Buck v. Bell. As measured by an intelligence test, Carrie Buck and her mother were considered “feebleminded,” a trait that was associated with “moral degeneracy.” After Buck, who was raped by the nephew of her adoptive parents, bore a child out of wedlock at the age of seventeen, she was placed in an asylum in Virginia, run by J. H. Bell, who scheduled a tubal ligation. (Buck’s daughter was deemed an imbecile at the age of seven months, after a social worker testified that there was something about her “not quite normal, but just what it is, I can’t tell.” Reporters who met Carrie Buck later in life—she died in 1983—described her as a woman of normal intelligence, who liked to do crossword puzzles.) Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., writing for the eight-to-one majority, concluded, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Buck was sterilized. Not long afterward, in Sterilization for Human Betterment, Popenoe and Gosney reported on operations performed on thousands of “mentally defective” and “mentally diseased” Californians. A German edition of the book was published in 1930.
That same year, Popenoe opened his marriage clinic. Its services included a premarital conference to eliminate those among the betrothed who “are not qualified to marry.” He used a personality test called the Johnson Temperament Analysis, devised by his co-author from Applied Eugenics. It consisted of a hundred and eighty-two questions, a Stanford-Binet of nuptial fitness. In counselling, Popenoe stressed the importance of sex, subscribing to the belief that nearly “every instance of marital disharmony” arises from “sexual maladjustment.” He recommended that a husband determine whether his bride is “frigid, normal, or ardent,” as “some frigid women require surgical treatment.” The American Institute for Family Relations also published a pamphlet titled “Are Homosexuals Necessary?” Dr. Popenoe thought not.
Eugenics relied on a colossal misunderstanding of science and a savage misreading of history. William McDougall, a Harvard psychologist, believed that ignorance could be eradicated by encouraging people who could read to reproduce and forbidding those who couldn’t, as if this followed naturally from Mendel, with his peas, wrinkly and smooth. Madison Grant cobbled together Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, and Frederick Jackson Turner to write the history of Western civilization as the Nordic race’s epic battle for demographic supremacy. It has become a commonplace, on the right, to label eugenics “progressive” (in order, presumably, to make the word “progressive” as ugly a smear as “liberal”). Eugenics dates to the Progressive Era, when it was faddish. Early on, and particularly before the First World War, it was embraced by reformers on the left, from Jane Addams to Woodrow Wilson, but the movement that lasted was, at heart, profoundly conservative, atavism disguised as reform. After a while, but nowhere near soon enough, the disguise got pretty flimsy. In “The Eugenics Cult,” an essay that Clarence Darrow wrote in 1926, a year after defending Scopes, he judged that he would rather live in a nation of ill-matched misfits and half-wits than submit to the logic of a bunch of cocksure “uplifters.” “Amongst the schemes for remolding society,” Darrow wrote, “this is the most senseless and impudent that has ever been put forward by irresponsible fanatics to plague a long-suffering race.”
The week Holmes handed down his decision in Buck v. Bell, the Times reported that Harvard declined a sixty-thousand-dollar bequest to fund eugenics courses, refusing “to teach that the treatment of defective and criminal classes by surgical procedures was a sound doctrine.” Popenoe, undaunted, pressed on. In 1933, he wrote to Bell, asking for photographs of Carrie Buck and her mother and daughter for his archive. He told him, “A hundred years from now you will still have a place in this history of which your descendants may well be proud.” Popenoe, in fact, had become something of a historian. Later that year, Grant published The Conquest of a Continent; or, The Expansion of Races in America, a “racial history” based on “scientific interpretation,” recommending “the absolute suspension of all immigration from all countries,” to be followed by the deportation of illegal aliens. Popenoe had spent four years conducting the research for Grant’s book; he had also compiled the bibliography. Unlike The Passing of the Great Race, Grant’s American pseudohistory met with a furious reception. Ruth Benedict said that the only difference between it and Nazi racial theory was that “in Germany they say Aryan in place of Nordic.” Franz Boas attacked Grant in The New Republic; Melville Herskovits did so in The Nation. The Anti-Defamation League said that The Conquest of a Continent was “even more destructive than Hitler’s Mein Kampf.”
In 1934, Popenoe wrote about Mein Kampf admiringly, and at length. “Hitler himself—though a bachelor—has long been a convinced advocate of race betterment through eugenic measures,” he observed. In 1937, L. C. Dunn, a geneticist at Columbia, delivered a radio address condemning American immigration restriction and Germany’s sterilization campaign, both of which he attributed to the quackery of eugenics. “What can science do for democracy?” Dunn asked. “It can tell the people the truth about such misuses of the prestige of science.” Not until the end of the Second World War did Popenoe stop publishing on racial purity, and then only begrudgingly, complaining in 1945, “When it comes to eugenics, the subject of ‘race’ sets off such tantrums in a lot of persons that one has to be very long-suffering!” The next year, at the Nuremberg trials, lawyers defending the Nazi doctors cited Madison Grant’s work. “My interest in eugenics . . . is as keen as ever,” Popenoe wrote, privately, in 1949, “although most of the work I am doing is in a slightly different field.” Four years later, Ladies’ Home Journal began publishing “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”
The history of quackery is a book of many chapters. Some people will always think they know how to make other people’s marriages better, and, after a while, they’ll get to cudgelling you or selling you something; the really entrepreneurial types will sell you the cudgel. They’ll use whatever’s handy—Darwin’s an add-on. In eighteenth-century London, troubled husbands and wives could pay fifty pounds a night to sleep in a “magnetico-electric” Celestial Bed; today’s marriage therapists draw on different schools of thought. Laurie Abraham’s new book, The Husbands and Wives Club: A Year in the Life of a Couples Therapy Group (2010), began as a 2007 cover story in the Times Magazine. (The book’s tagline, “Can These Marriages Be Saved?,” would seem to allude to Popenoe, though Abraham never mentions him.) Abraham observed five couples undergoing group therapy with the Philadelphia clinician Judith Coché, whose work she admires. The group meets for six-hour sessions, one weekend a month; most of Coché’s patients also see her one-on-one, or in pairs. A highlight is the Sex Weekend: two days of marathon group-therapy sessions led by Coché in tandem with a sex therapist who was once a monk and is now paid by a pharmaceutical company to talk to men about erectile dysfunction. There is discussion of sex toys. Wish lists are made. Oral sex is much contended. (“Do you want to give or receive or both?” Coché asks.) On Saturday night, after the group watches clips of “March of the Penguins” and “The Full Monty,” Coché confides to Abraham that she “sees progress” in one of her patients: “Last year during movie night, ‘Marie was curled up on the floor practically in a fetal position. At least this year she was stretched out.’ ” Leigh and Aaron have been in Coché’s care for a decade; recently, they have broken new ground: “They may still be using the vibrator more than she’d prefer, but Aaron is ‘really there.’ ” Michael and Rachael have been discussing Michael’s desire to buy a motorcycle. Rachael is against it. Michael is frustrated, and says so:
“It hurts when you talk about it like that,” Rachael says to her husband.
“Anybody understand why Rachael is hurt hearing Michael talk about it ‘like that’?” Coché asks.
After some back-and-forth, Coché explains, “Rachael is chastising herself for being too emotional and ‘overreacting,’ echoing her parents’ criticism of her; Michael is abruptly dropping his motorcycle dreams, capitulating rather than facing his wife’s disapproval and distress.” Later, Michael states the problem differently. “Um, the trouble is, Rachael’s not a man,” he says. After he separated from his first wife, Michael slept with men. By the book’s epilogue, Rachael has had a baby. When Michael professes his love for his wife, “the therapist chuckles deeply. ‘That is so wonderful.’ ” Michael and Rachael have “wondered whether they’d still be married without the group.” I wondered about that, too.
Lori Gottlieb tries computer dating in Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough (2010). Paul Popenoe launched computer dating in 1956, on a UNIVAC. Gottlieb is forty-one, and a single mother. Determined to find a husband, she investigates every possible matchmaking method, from speed dating to something called Cupid’s Coach. She signs up with Evan Marc Katz, a “personal trainer for love,” who sets about improving her marital fitness. She is concerned about her age. “Think about it this way,” Katz says. “Your market value may be lower than it was ten years ago, but it’s also a lot higher now than it will be ten years from now.” Gottlieb begins her book with a list, running to pages, of all that she wants in a man. In a chapter titled “How Feminism Fucked Up My Love Life,” she starts thinking that women are better off getting married in their twenties, before their market value plummets, instead of pursuing an education and a career. Paul Popenoe always said the problem with coeds was that they got uppity. Past the midpoint of the book, Gottlieb has winnowed her list down to just three traits: “intellectually curious, kid-friendly, and financially stable.” At the end of the book, still single, she takes the list, stuffs it into a helium balloon, and lets go. I think it was Popenoe who fucked up her love life.
“Understanding the science of marriage gives us a crystal ball of sorts,” Tara Parker-Pope writes in For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage (2010). Did you know that the first three minutes of an argument are the most important? That “strong marriages have at least a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative interactions,” so that “for every mistake you make, you need to offer five more good moments, kind words, and loving gestures to keep your marriage in balance”? That “happy couples say ‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘our’ when telling stories”? Parker-Pope, who writes the Well blog for the Times, was divorced a while back, which led to her decision to investigate the work of “top scientists,” because “the best insights about love and relationships are coming from the scientific community.” She cites a study titled “Ovulatory Cycle Effects on Tip Earnings by Lap Dancers” as part of an argument that a woman shopping for a husband shouldn’t take the Pill, because it suppresses ovulation, and lap dancers command more tips when they’re ovulating. In a chapter on “The Chore Wars,” she attributes the “Housework Gap” (i.e., men are bad at cleaning up after themselves) to heredity, since cutting-edge research hints that “natural selection pressures resulted in neurobiological differences related to domestic skill.” Her book is crammed with quizzes. Quiz No. 1, Passionate Love: “I yearn to know all about my partner.” On a scale of one to nine, just how true? Quiz No. 2, Defining Your Love Style: “When my lover doesn’t pay attention to me I feel sick all over.” True or False? It’s important to understand how you fight. Do you express complaint, contempt, or criticism? Sometimes. But I believe scientists are working hard on a cure.
“What has puzzled me,” David Popenoe has written, “is how fast my father’s name passed into oblivion.” But, of course, Popenoe is all over the place—in Sex Weekend, in Cupid’s Coach, in the heritability of housework. This past January, David Popenoe was invoked in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the California suit testing the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the 2008 Marriage Protection Act. Under cross-examination, a flustered David Blankenhorn, the founder of the Institute of American Values, exposed as having no scholarly expertise whatsoever, cast about for academic authorities to support his position that same-sex marriage reduces hetero marriage rates, and named Popenoe. “I can’t sit here right now without reference to his works to prove it in exact word formulation,” he told the court. “I believe if he were here right now, sitting here, and you asked him, I believe he would say yes. Those are my beliefs.” David Popenoe, a professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers, once wrote, vaguely, that the “institutional purpose, and therefore the importance of the social institution in general, would surely be compromised by incorporating the marriage of same-sex couples.”
David Popenoe is best known for his work on single mothers. In the “family values” nineties, his controversial findings about the damage that divorce does to children lay behind everything from Dan Quayle’s attack on Murphy Brown to the Defense of Marriage Act itself. That’s why the National Marriage Project is so worried about the mancession: in Popenoe’s most influential book, Life Without Father (1996), he described what he called “the human carnage of fatherlessness.” The nation, Popenoe worried, was at risk “of committing social suicide.”
David Popenoe is no eugenicist, and he certainly isn’t responsible for anything that his father said or did. He has also wrestled, genuinely and openly, with his father’s legacy. History is hereditary only in this way: we, all of us, inherit everything, and then we choose what to cherish, what to disavow, and what to do next, which is why it’s worth trying to know where things come from. Paul Popenoe stepped down as director of the American Institute of Family Relations in 1976, and died three years later. David declined his father’s invitation to take over the institute. He and his father had had their differences. Paul Popenoe was a lifelong Republican; his son is a Democrat. In the nineteen-eighties, the institute foundered, then disappeared. “Last I heard,” David Popenoe wrote, in 1991, “it had vanished from the American scene.” He went to L.A. and drove down Sunset Boulevard, searching for the building, near Hollywood and Vine, where his father had worked. Nothing looked familiar, except, on the side of the building, embossed on stucco, the faint shadow of a sign, long gone. He could just make out the letters. Ω
[Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and chair of the History and Literature Program at Harvard University. She received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale in 1995, an M.A. in American Culture from the University of Michigan in 1990 and a B.A. in English from Tufts University in 1987. She is an elected member of the Society of American Historians and a Distinguished Lecturer of the Organization of American Historians. A co-founder of the magazine, Common-place, she is currently writing a history of Dickens in America, a book of essays about how historians write, and a biography of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister. Lepore is also a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her books include New York Burning (2005), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History and winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award for the best non-fiction book about race; A is for American (2002); and The Name of War (1998), winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award and a finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Award. Her New Yorker essay about Noah Webster's dictionary appears as the introduction to Websterisms (2008). Blindspot, her first novel, written jointly with Jane Kamensky, was published in 2008. Lepore put her biography of Benjamin Franklin and Jane Mecom aside for The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History (2010). Her most recent book is The Mansion of Happiness (2012).]
Copyright © 2012 Condé Nast Digital
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