Economics is an incredible book. Writer Fanny Howe in a mere 134 pages does what conservatives have wanted to do for decades – lay out the failures, neurosis and narcissism of the Baby Boomer generation. Howe does this with finesse and, through the medium of fiction, is able to show the real life consequences of 1960s liberalism.
Fanny Howe is not a conservative, though I am sure reflexive progressives who came across this book would label her as such. She lays out what she portrays in the book as “the necessary errors” of 1960s liberalism.
A common thread throughout Economics is bad parenting, or a general lack of parenting at all. Howe starts off by telling the story of an elite, university employed white liberal couple in Massachusetts. It’s the late civil rights era and the couple, largely driven by the wife, Carol, whose husband John is detached at best, decide to adopt a black child as an example of their stalwart anti-racism.
They decide to name the child Malcolm, a name the author notes they never would have given to a white child. Malcolm’s gender also brings out a very nasty side in Carol and eventually drives her to abandon the child and her husband as she discovers something about herself in the process of her failed parenting:
Deep down, she didn’t like boys or men. Raised by her mother alone, she was not used to the other sex. Even her husband was, at heart, a stranger, and not fully welcome, as her mother and daughter were, into the heart of her affections.
Carol exports the job of mother to her husband John and only decides to take Malcolm out when attending demonstrations or meetings on the issue of race. She finds that the presence of a black child with her helps strategically to make her look like a caring, liberal woman. She realizes that she is a hypocrite and purges herself to her therapist. In “dealing” with the problem, she ends up deciding to give up Malcolm and leave her husband.
Several things with the child Malcolm end up occurring that only solidify her decision to leave her family and run off with her daughter. Carol begins to harshly bully Malcolm, expelling her failures on an innocent bystander:
“Don’t pretend you like me,” she would snap.
“I hate your smile,” she would hiss.
“Just go away.”
Hoping that her black child would “ward off danger” at racial politics meetings, she instead became reminded of her problematic parenting. Malcolm’s skin had started to peel drastically and during a meeting, a black woman came up to her and said that his skin needed oil. The woman even recommended the brand Johnson’s, but Carol could “only get the energy to oil his limbs twice,” leaving Malcolm’s skin ashy and patchy.
While at school, a teacher reports to Carol, Malcolm’s anxiety over his place in Carol’s family showed. A teacher called Carol and said that he would spend hours in school peeling at his skin. When asked, what he was peeling, he replied that he was peeling off “the black paint.”
When she eventually goes through with abandoning Malcolm, the social worker shows little sympathy at all, saying that he will be passed around from foster home to foster home. The social worker derides her for waiting an entire three years if the arrangement had been so terrible. When asked about the social worker by her husband John, Carol dismisses her concerns by describing her as a “fascist.”
The first story has the most impact, and the rest of the book follows suit. Howe is at her best in the book when race plays a strong role – as with one short story about a young black man living in Boston’s ghetto who develops a relationship with a white woman. The desire on his part to leave the hood is so strong that he ignores what he knows – that the relationship is false and that his girlfriend doesn’t really desire him but desires what he calls “some kind of image” of a black man, one that will uplift her feeling of righteousness on racial issues.
In this book, Fanny Howe opens up a box that has been largely closed: the story of parenting by the Baby Boomer generation. Unlike their parents, Baby Boomers had far higher divorce rates and rates of out of wedlock births. The Sexual Revolution, post-feminism and Roe vs. Wade made acceptable what would have been unacceptable in previous generations. The cultural effects of a large degree of absentee parenting has been felt by popular culture but rarely spelled out explicitly. It’s popped up a bit in film, like in the Jim Carrey film The Cable Guy, in which Jim Carrey plays a crazed cable guy who was driven mad after being placed in front of the television by a busy mother. It’s almost popped up in music, such as with the rapper Eminem, who had a public dispute with his own mother, who he claimed on several occasions suffered from Munchausen’s syndrome and substituted foster homes and prescription medication for direct parenting.
The box Howe opens up is a vast one and quick answers are only so useful. One of our writers at Gonzo wrote a piece called “It’s Not Easy For The Girls,” about how oppressive expectations bombard young girls. Fanny Howe’s work Economics is a good investment for anyone genuinely interested in the role of children in post-industrial American society.