Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, on extended families


A quiet evening at home

In a comment thread elsewhere on the blog, Cymast, LeFalcon, and I have had a thought-provoking discussion about the concept of extended family.  So I decided to post these remarks Kurt Vonnegut, Jr made in his commencement address at Agnes Scott College in Georgia in 1999.  You may recognize the passage; it has been widely quoted.  It’s still one of the first things I think about when the topic of extended family comes up, so here it is.   

OK, now let’s have some fun. Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about women. Freud said he didn’t know what women wanted. I know what women want. They want a whole lot of people to talk to. What do they want to talk about? They want to talk about everything.

What do men want? They want a lot of pals, and they wish people wouldn’t get so mad at them.

Why are so many people getting divorced today? It’s because most of us don’t have extended families any more. It used to be that when a man and women got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to.

A few Americans, but very few, still have extended families. The Navahos. The Kennedys.

But most of us, if we get married nowadays, are just one more person for the other person. The groom gets one more pal, but it’s a woman. The woman gets one more person to talk to about everything, but it’s a man.

When a couple has an argument nowadays, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, not how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this:

”You are not enough people!”

I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who had six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in any extended family.

They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages and sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle to it, and say how pretty is was, or handsome.

Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby?

I sure wish I could wave a wand, and give every one of you an extended family – make you an Ibo or a Navaho – or a Kennedy. 

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  1. lefalcon

     /  March 7, 2009

    I think Vonnegut was basically right about this, as he was about practically everything. It might be hard for us to get away from romantic love. But “soul mate”? That’s dumb. That’s a cultural disaster. The other side of the coin could be a bunch of obligations to other members of your extended fam / tribe. More obligations than we (Americans) are used to.

  2. cymast

     /  March 7, 2009

    The quote sounds like something Andy Rooney would say.

  3. acilius

     /  March 8, 2009

    I agree with both of you. The quote leaves out all the tough stuff about extended family systems that have existed historically, about patriarchy, arranged marriage, legitimate vs illegitimate children, property, etc. So it is like soething Andy Rooney would say.

    On the other hand, nuclear families based on love matches are too small, too inward-looking to meet the most basic needs of human beings unless the adults are exceptionally capable and the children are exceptionally independent. So Vonnegut is basically right.

  4. cymast

     /  March 9, 2009

    Would a family of 2 (a married couple) fit your definition of a nuclear family?

  5. acilius

     /  March 9, 2009

    Yes, that would be a nuclear family.

  6. cymast

     /  March 9, 2009

    “nuclear families based on love matches are too small, too inward-looking to meet the most basic needs of human beings unless the adults are exceptionally capable”

    Wow I hope Mr. Cymast and I are up for the challenge. Ditto for Mr. & Ms. Acilius.

  7. cymast

     /  March 12, 2009

    I remember in middle school one of my teachers asked the class why people get married. To my surprise, students were answering along the lines of pooling of resources, companionship, and status, until someone asked incredulously, “Love?” Then the teacher explained love marriages are more of a modern invention.

    But I can’t imagine getting married for any other reason. So maybe my and Mr. C’s most basic needs are different from others’ most basic needs. So far that seems to be the case.

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