I am glad I wasn't born in Muncie, Ind. Ever since Robert and Helen Lynd chose that city as a specimen of America in the 1920s, and dubbed it Middletown, the people of Muncie have had all the privacy of a community of laboratory rats.
At least three generations have spent their lives being observed, quantified, stashed away into some statistical pattern. Studies have been its most important product.
Now they are into a multi-media spring. They are being profiled individually in a public television series, "Middletown," and profiled collectively in a book called, "Middletown Families."
Once again, the Muncie-Americans are bearing a message about our nation. A double message about the strength of our family life and the strength of our belief in its weakness.
On television I saw a portrait of the Snider family, headed by Howie Snider, ex-Marine, banjo-playing pizza parlor owner, one step ahead of his creditors. It was a tale full of the passionate intensity of family members.
Then in the book, I read a portrait of the whole city. After conducting 13 studies in the late '70s, an invasionary force of professors concluded that family life continues and in some ways is stronger than it was in the 1920s.
As sociologist Ted Caplow summarized, "We discovered increased family solidarity, a smaller generation gap, closer marital communication, more religion and less mobility."
The facts from Muncie were not shocking to those who have read other recent studies about American families. One after the other, researchers have checked in with news about the tenacity of family life. One after another, they have met head-on with the conviction, even in Muncie, that families are falling apart.
How do we explain this stark contrast between reality and attitude? Is it because we confuse change with collapse? Is it because we see a half- empty glass?
There must be a slew of theories. In a recent piece, "Middletown" author Caplow even suggested that "the myth of the declining family" has some value for its believers. "When Middletown people compare their own families," he wrote, "with the 'average' or the 'typical' family, nearly all of them discover with pleasure that their own families are better than other people's."
But I don't agree that this myth developed as a subtle way to applaud our own superiority. I suspect that it has deeper, more complex roots.
I think that we all carry around inside us some primal scene of a family Eden, an ideal of family life. Among the strongest yearnings we take out of childhood is the desire to create this perfect family.
We share a longing to have or to be a perfect parent, perfect mate. We share a youthful certainty that we will be able to give and take perfect love. We will experience the closeness, the union, the one-ness of our Eden. We will never be impatient, never yell at our children. They will never be distant or rude.
But each generation inevitably falls short of its own ideals about family life, and our personal disappointments harden into a national myth. I suspect that we date our belief in the decline of families from our eventual descent into reality. The vague sense that something is missing in our family becomes a general notion that something is missing in the family.
In Anne Tyler's moving novel "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," the elderly mother, Pearl, suddenly chokes up with a desire for the family life:
"Often, like a child peering over the fence at somebody else's party, she gazes wistfully at other families and wonders what their secret is. They seem so close. Is it that they're more religious? Or stricter, or more lenient? Could it be the fact they participate in sports? Read books together? Have some common hobby? Recently she overheard a neighbor woman discussing her plans for Independence Day. Her family was having a picnic. Every member--child or grownup--was cooking his or her specialty. Those who were too little to cook were in charge of the paper plates.
"Pearl felt such a wave of longing that her knees went weak." She could be any one of us.
In real life there were, of course, ants at the picnic, and tears and tantrums. In real life, the neighbor occasionally also grew weak at the knees with her own longing for a perfect family.
So too in real life, our families fail our fantasies. We know that. But they aren't failures. At best, like the Sniders, they are complex, powerful, imperfect. And their strength is too easy to forget.