One Big Happy Family:
18 Writers Talk about Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, House Husbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love
by Rebecca Walker
Reviewed by Danielle A. Jackson
Most likely, a reader familiar with Rebecca Walker’s canon (her memoirs Black, White, and Jewish and Baby Love, as well as the anthologies To Be Real and What Makes a Man) has learned to expect her work to summon an emotional event —a catharsis on some level that requires one to confront his own assumptions. Walker, without fail, demands that her reader is emotionally present, open-minded, and open-hearted enough to grasp the myriad and often conflicting realities she presents. Her latest, One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk about Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, House Husbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love, handily meets those expectations, and shatters the myth that non-conventional families lack enough coherence to raise well-adjusted, highly functioning members of society in 19 unique voices. Successfully repositioning the issue of “family values,” Walker and her coterie of writers deliver an accessible, candid body of work that manages cohesiveness without a trace of monotony.
Each writer within this anthology graciously invites the reader into his/her home, starting with Rebecca Walker’s introductory essay, in which she informs the reader that her long-standing interest in families is a direct result of the experimental way in which she grew up. After divorcing, her African-American mother and white Jewish father agreed, “without lawyers or acrimony,” to an unstructured, bicoastal, biennial custody arrangement that left a young Rebecca reeling between varied lifestyles and wide-ranging realities of race and class. The result was a fractured childhood without a great deal of context with which to place her experiences. Rather than rejecting its fluidity, Walker insists that the lack of stability, and real, unconditional commitment to her development was the undoing of her childhood. While her parents destroyed old modalities, “cultivated their careers,” and started new families, Rebecca was often left to her own devices, spending an inordinate amount of time exploring the home lives of her close friends.
Walker recounts these experiences with the same tinge of bitterness that often colored her previous works, most notably, Baby Love. Within that context, the book as a whole, including the works of the other writers, often reads as a condemnation of whatever plagued Walker’s childhood. Each writer, no matter how artfully he/she recounts the beauty of parenthood, or the vastness of their love, is somehow blatantly adamant about everything Walker claimed she missed, most notably, stability and free-flowing communication.
Underlying bitterness aside, all of the essays, including Walker’s, include enough sincere examples of love and how to practice it that even the most cynical reader would be moved. Each addresses the passion that encircles their home, and describes the technique involved in integrating the passion with the mundane. The collection begins in earnest with “And Then We Were Poly,” Jenny Block’s treatise on how her marriage became polyamorous. (Polyamory is defined by the Polyamory Society as “the nonpossessive, honest, responsible, and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously.”) With candor, wit, and a full grasp of her own sensuality, Block delightfully explains that love, by its very definition, is not a scarce commodity: “There is no shortage of love to go around when there are people around to love.” Block describes how, by remaining flexible and thoughtfully communicative with each other’s needs, she and her husband built a home that makes room for her girlfriend (Block chooses to have another partner, while her husband does not) and prioritizes the well-being of their daughter. Despite leading an extremely non-conventional, sexually fluid household, Block makes it clear that the “children come first.”
And they do “come first” in asha bandele’s “Woman Up” and in Suzanne Kamata’s “Foreign Relations.” bandele recounts the sad breakup with her incarcerated husband that almost drove her to the brink of sanity and plunged her head-first into single motherhood. Bravely, she faces the relationship’s end, considering it a choice made in affirmation of her daughter’s well-being. Kamata, a self-sufficient American expatriate wife in rural Japan, is completely opposed to living with her mother-in-law. Her husband, a Japanese baseball coach and eldest son feels compelled by the tradition of the arrangement, but Kamata herself is steadfast. After an uneventful pregnancy, she gives birth, prematurely, to twins, one of whom is diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Feeling the pressure of staying home and raising a disabled child, Kamata eventually relents, creating an extended family in which the children thrive because they adore their grandmother, and their mother sometimes gets to take a break.
Even when children aren’t a factor, as in Judith Levine’s offering, “Love, Money, and the Unmarried Couple,” thoughtful deliberation and calculated decision-making are essential “family values.” Levine explains that though opposed to the ideology of traditional marriage, she and her partner have chosen to be together through both short-and long-term commitments to each other. Though living within a nontraditional, unmarried arrangement, their choices have an air of practicality that creates stability.
Walker and company convincingly make the point that though the paradigm may be fluid and ever-changing, the modern family must exist upon a stable, deliberate foundation to ensure the well-being of those involved and to minimize chaos. As a fan of Walker, however, I often wonder how the tenor of her work would be different if she approached it with an enhanced spirit of gratitude for all that she gained from her own nontraditional upbringing, rather than a repudiation of all that she lacked. That her famous mother was a trailblazing artist who created a voice for black female writers and shoved their contributions into the Western literary canon, all the while raising a brilliantly curious daughter is no shoddy birthright. Careful consideration and artful planning may be essential in creating a functioning home life, but so is a real and balanced sense of one’s past. This unfulfilled, unreconciled bitterness of sorts with her upbringing has never taken away from the brilliance of Walker’s work, nor does it detract from the work of any of the essayists in One Big Happy Family. However, the reader is often left to question, for example, whether or not a family with a polyamorous love affair at its center can honestly exist without creating an environment of vagaries for the children involved. I don’t suggest that vagaries are necessarily pathological. Likely, growing up in an environment without ideological rigidity is intellectually nurturing. What is not entirely convincing, though, is the subtle suggestion that each of the families presented within One Big Happy Family possesses some stash of “family values” that Walker’s own did not.