When Glennon Doyle speaks, women listen. Doyle is part memoirist, part life coach. And she has a knack for tapping into the spirit of progressive, white, feminine suburbia. Doyle’s most recent memoirs, Savage, is to fall in love with professional football star Abby Wambach, end her unhappy marriage to Craig Melton, and build a new life as a blended family.
It’s a good story and has been a New York Times bestseller for over 77 consecutive weeks. Doyle’s ideas matter; many people take them as gospel. She describes her Instagram followers as a “church”, while throwing shade at actual churches: “Religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there before.
When Glennon Doyle speaks, women listen.
I’m a fan of Doyle’s old-school feminism. She is at her best when she encourages women to shape their lives instead of teaching their children by example that to be a mother is to be miserable. Women need to be reminded that it is normal to build a life very different from what their parents or their culture might have imagined for them.
But some of Doyle’s other ideas, like the notion that your nuclear or chosen family is an “island,” are symptomatic of a new Puritanism that is dividing our country. New Puritans left and right create echo chambers by encouraging their adherents to end friendships, cut off family members, and cancel neighbors on social media for bad thinking, even ambivalence.
In the “Islands” chapter, Doyle writes that her mother, who lives in another state, had trouble coming to terms with her decision to divorce her husband and marry Wambach. Doyle expends a lot of emotional energy trying to get his mother to understand what Doyle knew in her bones: that this was the best, truest, and most vital decision for her and her family. Doyle doesn’t say his mother was abusive or homophobic, but that she worried and called him worry love.
New Puritans like Doyle create echo chambers by encouraging their adherents to cut off their family members and cancel their neighbors.
In one of the book’s “aha moments”, which Doyle describes as “the moment I became an adult”, she explains to her mother on the phone that she cannot visit her grandchildren until she cannot come without complex. Doyle says, “When you’re ready to come to our island with nothing but wild acceptance, joy and celebration for our truly beautiful family, we’ll lower the drawbridge for you. But not a second earlier.
As she has in all of her other books, Doyle has once again taken the pulse of a certain kind of Americana. Indeed, more parents are estranged from their adult children than ever before. Joshua Coleman writes in The Atlantic: “Deciding which people to keep or exclude from your life has become an important strategy for achieving happiness. While there is nothing particularly modern about family conflict or the desire to isolate oneself from it, conceptualizing estrangement from a family member as an expression of personal growth as is commonly done today is almost certainly new.
Contemporary Western culture hates unchosen ties. The dependency of children on their parents, and of aging parents on their adult children, is a problem for us. She attacks the myth of the self-made woman and limits her freedom to choose herself. So being an island taps into a powerful fantasy.
Contemporary Western culture hates unchosen ties.
I admit it: putting your individual needs before the needs of the collective pleases me. Sharing DNA with someone doesn’t mean you have anything in common with them. Relationships with people who have known you all your life but do not always understand you are difficult. It’s hard to recognize that you weren’t perfectly parented, your parents weren’t perfectly parented, and your own children weren’t perfectly parented. But to know this is to forgive.
As Sebastian Junger writes in his book Tribe, people living in affluent societies like ours are eight times more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and other serious mental illnesses. He theorizes this is because in affluent societies we have “honed the art of making people feel unnecessary”. Older people in particular often feel out of place and sidelined, with most seeing their adult children less than once a year.
In the not so distant past, our ancestors lived in societies where they were almost never alone. Parents raised their children surrounded by other adults. They weren’t alone with their kids all day, scrolling through Instagram for a sense of connection. In a tribe, in a village, in a real extended family, everyone participated or it didn’t work.
In a tribe, in a village, in a real extended family, everyone participated or it didn’t work.
Today, the self as an island is largely a class-specific idea. A large extended family network is still valued by many working class and immigrant communities. When you’re poor and your car breaks down, guess who helps you fix it? When you need after-hours care, guess who watches your kids? Working-class people and many people of color still understand that there are practical and emotional benefits to living near sisters, aunts, cousins and friends who are like family, even if it means putting up with their weaknesses.
As Catholics, we have a similar worldview. For us, the basic unit of society is the family (and by extension our local church), not the individual. In households, we learn to deal with difficult people – homophobic uncles are still part of our family, although we hope they will learn the error of their ways. The Catholic vision of the family is a school of holiness.
Doyle’s concept of his family as an island, by contrast, is gospel for wealthy, able-bodied people who can afford to hire help. It’s gospel for the suburbs. It’s gospel for big houses with giant yards and neighbors who don’t really know each other because they don’t really need to know each other. But for most of human history, people have fallen on hard times knowing and caring for each other, and we’re still hardwired to feel happier when we do.
For Catholics, the basic unit of society is the family and our local church, not the individual.
There are also spiritual benefits. Knowing your enemies humanizes them for you and you for them. Our country is polarized by political tribalism and the childish belief that anyone who disagrees with you is not only morally wrong, but not worth talking about. We are hyper-divided, not just in our families, but at work, at school, and even in our neighborhoods.
I live in the same mostly affluent, mostly white neighborhood I grew up in. When I was a kid, street signs would go out at election time and then they would go in the trash. Today, people keep road signs and huge flags on their trucks all year round, often with hostile “political” messages. Face-to-face relationships with people very different from us are an antidote to this division. The family is seated around a table. It is the encounter.
We need more villages and fewer islands, especially now. Part of the reason parenting during the pandemic has been so exhausting is that we weren’t meant to raise our children alone. It therefore seems interesting to note that the notion of family that Doyle describes in Savage, a single couple with their children, is relatively new. It’s a concept embraced primarily by people who define their success by their ability to never have to ask anyone for help– unless you count the army of paid helpers, the people who cook their meals, dry-clean their clothes, mow their lawns and throw the ball with their children.
It is possible to break the cycle and teach your own children that you can love someone who is deeply flawed.
Of course, Doyle and everyone else going through adulthood and divorce and coming out to parents has my empathy. It’s incredibly difficult and everyone’s situation is unique. Sometimes a family member is abusive or has an untreated mental illness or addiction, and ending a relationship is the best choice. But most people need forgiveness. Most people change not by being ostracized but by being embraced. And change is slow.
It is possible to set a firm boundary without interrupting someone, although it is made even more difficult if our own parents have modeled the estrangement. But it is possible to break the cycle and teach your own children that you can love someone who is deeply flawed. As Richard Rohr, OFM writes, “If we don’t transform our pain, we will definitely pass it on.”
We need more aging parents who are willing to do their own emotional work and apologize when they make mistakes and overstep their bounds. And we need more adult children who can say both, “It’s painful that there are parts of my life that are beautiful and good and true that my loved ones will never understand” and “C It’s wonderful how good my family is to my children. “What would the world be like if we showed our children that family is family no matter what – that sinners are welcome at our table?
Instead, some of the biggest critics of purity culture are often the quickest to develop new purity tests.
John Donne wrote, “No man is an entire island unto himself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that life is short and fragile and most of us still need someone to call when we’re sick or in crisis or feel like we’re not. we can’t continue. For most of human history, that has meant relying on people we didn’t choose, but who didn’t choose us either.