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The 'Discovery' of Child Abuse : HEROES OF THEIR OWN LIVES: The Politics and History of Family Violence by Linda Gordon (Viking: $24.95; 372 pp.)

May 01, 1988|Jonathan Kirsch | Kirsch reviews regularly for View.

Child abuse was 'discovered' in the 1870s," according to Linda Gordon's "Heroes of Their Own Lives," when WASPish ladies and gentlemen turned their attention to the children of the immigrant poor. The Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children--"the Cruelty," as it was known--became the model for a proliferation of what Gordon calls "child saving" agencies around the country. "Poor children said to their immigrant parents, mothers-in-law said to mothers, feuding neighbors said to each other, 'Don't cross me or I'll report you to the Cruelty.' "

Gordon has focused on the work of the Cruelty and two other Boston-area "child saving" agencies in "Heroes of Their Lives," a study of the causes and the cures (more often imagined, hoped-for or failed) of family violence in America between 1880 and 1960. She reminds us that family violence--now expansively defined to include child abuse, child neglect, wife-beating and sexual abuse--is not new, and not even newly discovered. Rather, she shows us that consciousness of family violence and concern for its victims have ebbed and flowed with the political tides of American history.

"For at least 150 years there have been periods of fear that 'the family'--meaning a popular image of what families were supposed to be like, by no means a correct recollection of any actual 'traditional family' was in decline; and these fears have tended to escalate in periods of stress," Gordon writes. "Thus an historical analysis of family violence must include a view of the changing power relations among classes, sexes and generations."

"Heroes of Their Own Lives" is neither a political tract nor a morality tale. (Indeed, the stirring title promises something rather different than what the book delivers.) We meet very few real human beings, we witness very few incidents of family violence--the data from which Gordon worked are the flat, one-dimensional notations of a social worker's casebook. "Agent Smyth . . . to see B . . . children. Father & mother dead some years. Thirteen-year-old boy in bed--so called--to keep warm. He got up and when dressed looked like a 'scarecrow.' " Rather, Gordon's book is a work of sound scholarship informed by a firm grasp of dialectics and enlivened (but not distorted) by the author's unmistakable compassion.

In fact, Gordon's study is considerably enriched by her ability to evoke the telling detail in a deft aside. Thus, she points out that the prim costumes of the Cruelty's social workers were cut from a bolt of blue cloth purchased from the police department--a conscious effort to clothe the social worker (who, after all, was not an agent of the government) with the authority of a cop. Gordon ponders the awful phenomenon of "baby-farming," the practice of sending unwanted infants off to boarding homes where they were badly neglected or simply allowed to die: "The baby-farming service resembled that offered by abortionists."

So, too, does Gordon capture the quiet horror of incest. "One of the most striking things about incest," she observes, "is its capacity to be ordinary." The case histories are told in a kind of grim poetic shorthand by the caseworker: "Mo was sick and 'could not have anything to do with fa' and he was going out with other women and mo did not like this and so fa began having relations with . . . chn. He used to use safes." Here, as elsewhere in her book, Gordon goes on to ask the hard questions: "Despite the revulsion incest has provoked," she suggests, "it opens a frightening but vital line of questioning about ordinary family relations."

Gordon is a social scientist, but she is also a social critic--and, in her own way, a social activist. She has thought deeply about the historical and scientific data and she comes to well-considered (if unconventional) conclusions about the interplay of aggressor and victim. Family violence, according to Gordon, is a matter of politics, "not only in its definitions, but in its causes"--and she means both societal and family politics: "It usually emerged from power struggles in which family members were contesting for real, material, and often scarce, benefits." What's more, Gordon sees family violence as smoke from the fires of history: "Family violence is not the unilateral expression of one person's violent temperament, but is cooked up jointly--albeit not equally--by several individuals in the pot of the family," Gordon concludes.

"Most of this book is sad," Gordon admits. "Most of the individual stories had bad endings. Family violence has not been stopped. Moreover, there is more wretchedness than heroism." But Gordon insists on seeing redemption in these wretched lives. "Even in the worst of times, there were many family violence victims attempting to become the heroes of their own lives, as Charles Dickens puts it. Using the 'powers of the weak,' attempting to replace with creativity and stubbornness what they lacked in resources, they manipulated every device at their disposal to free themselves from abuse."

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