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The best books on Marriage

recommended by Jonathan Rauch

The National Journal columnist and author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America recounts his own marriage odyssey, starting with Mary Poppins.

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Jonathan Rauch

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for the National Journal and contributing editor for The Atlantic, as well as a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington D.C.. He is the author of Gay Marriage: Why It is Good For Gays, Good for Straights and Good for America.

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Jonathan Rauch

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for the National Journal and contributing editor for The Atlantic, as well as a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington D.C.. He is the author of Gay Marriage: Why It is Good For Gays, Good for Straights and Good for America.

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So your first choices: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf and A Doll’s House. It’s not looking good for marriage.

And Mary Poppins.

Yes, why Mary Poppins?

I was born in 1960 and possibly my first and most enduring cultural artifact on marriage was going to see Mary Poppins. The Disney movie, of course. I saw it maybe five times when I was four. And Mary Poppins is really about a dysfunctional marriage. At least dysfunctional from the kids’ point of view – because the parents don’t pay any attention to each other or, especially, to the kids. And it’s all fixed when an outsider, Mary Poppins, the nanny, comes along and shows them the error of their ways. And since my own parents didn’t get along that was the ultimate fantasy for me.

“In my twenties I began to understand that I was gay. I did not want to be gay. I fought it very hard.”

And then, as I got a bit older and started reading things that were more literary, two things stuck in my mind. One was A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, which I helped dramatize in high school when I was about 15. And the other was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which I discovered at about the same age. And what those two plays have in common is their very dark view of marriage. Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf is all about a deeply dysfunctional, co-dependent marriage. The marriage of both couples that feature in the play is obsessive, destructive: they can’t escape except by liquor or by playing these insane games. A Doll’s House is not quite as dark. The notion is that a marriage is anti-feminist. That this woman, Nora, becomes free when she leaves her marriage, that leaving it is a statement of liberation. And in the 1970’s that made an immense amount of sense to me.

So that’s where I began, with an oppressive, dark view of marriage. And by the way, these are all very powerful works of art: very, very influential on anyone who sees them – including Mary Poppins, which also has great, great music.

So your next book, Dancer from the Dance, is less well known. The reviews talk about it as very evocative, capturing the spirit of an age, Great Gatsby-esque. Lost souls wandering around at parties off Long Island Sound…

In my twenties I began to understand that I was gay. I did not want to be gay. I fought it very hard. And the reason for that was not that I was prejudiced against gay people, or thought it was a sin. It’s that I did not want to live in what I thought was the dark underworld of homosexual life in the 70’s and 80’s. One of the first books I read in that period was this book, Dancer from the Dance, by Andrew Holleran – which is actually a pseudonymous name. It was published in 1978 and is a very powerful, very poetic, evocation of gay life in the 1970s, pre-AIDS. And what it highlights is the extreme unsettledness of gay life – the transience, the fluidity of relationships. They’re not even really relationships in many ways. Just a lot of sex. And to me that was very scary. I didn’t realize it at the time but in hindsight what Holleran was depicting so vividly is a world without marriage, a world without family bonds and family commitments.

So for you this book was not about a halcyon period for gay men—indeed it elicited rather negative feelings.

It is a poetic book and it is, in many ways, an affectionate book. But it captures a moment in history when you’ve got the emergence of an entire culture of people for whom free love is legal, but marriage is unthinkable. And family is, in many cases, rejected as a kind of bourgeois obstruction. It struck me much more as a dystopia than anything else.

Eventually a few years later I would read Randy Shilts’ masterpiece And the Band Played On, which is, in some ways, an even more harrowing vision of what a world without marriage finally looks like.

This is about the early days of AIDS.

Yes. And this is a world where people are debating whether to leave sex clubs open – even though they are immense transmitters of disease. In those days we didn’t have marriage, we had sex clubs. They were our community centers. That’s what happens in a culture without marriage. You get these very strange substitutes. Both of those, the AIDS culture and the promiscuity culture, scared the pants off of me.

So what happened next?

Well along came the late 1980’s and I was working in Washington as a journalist for the National Journal. I’m writing about economic policy and I run into an economist by the name of Sar Levitan. A delightful European guy. He died quite a number of years ago, unfortunately. And Sar was a deeply honest liberal academic – liberal in the American sense, from the moderate left. Now these were the days when the main people who talked about the breakdown of the American family were the religious right, and they did it in a way that was anti-gay.

Sar was one of the first liberals to come along and say ‘No! We have a very real problem here.’ The breakdown of marriage, the rise of out of wedlock childbearing, these things are behind a whole lot of other social problems. The rise of crime, the rise of poverty – these are, to a large extent, a product of family breakup. So he published this book, What’s Happening to the American Family? Tensions, Hopes, Realities with two other authors, Richard Belous and Frank Gallo.

And I read it when the second edition came out in 1988 and it hit me like a thunderbolt. Because the message of this book is that if you want to fix a lot of things that are wrong with society and culture, you need to take a long, hard, look at marriage and family. And the social structures that support marriage and family. Sar was much too good an economist to say ‘everything is bad today and in the 1950s everything was good’. It’s a very nuanced portrait of the family.

It had the effect on me of saying that family is awfully important, that family is a core institution not just for transmission of traditional values—which is why the religious right likes it—but also in order to have an egalitarian society where most kids have a good chance in life.

The book is out of print but you can still buy it.

Yes, and it’s still in libraries. The data is out of date, but the framework is still right. And Sar, if he were alive, would be very pleased to see that a lot, in fact most, of the liberal establishment has swung behind him. You won’t hear a lot about how marriage is oppressive and evil from the left anymore.

So, onto the Andrew Sullivan article, “Here Comes the Groom.” It’s OK to be gay and bourgeois – you don’t have to be a rebel.

That comes out in 1989, which is about the same time that my thinking had swung around so much that I was beginning to think I was wrong about family and marriage, and that the literature I had grown up with (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf etc) had also been wrong.

So along comes Andrew Sullivan, this young, openly homosexual British writer, who publishes this article that still—almost on its 20th anniversary—contains pretty much the entire core of what I call the ‘conservative case’ for same-sex marriage. Which is that marriage makes sense for gay people for all the same reasons that it makes sense for straight people. That a whole lot of the tragedy of the AIDS crisis, a whole lot of those deaths, would not have happened, if you’d had young people coming out into a world where they could aspire to settle down, form a family, and have a destination for their love. That it in no way benefited society to have gay people live in a world where love and sex are legal, but marriage is absolutely forbidden.

“”

you can’t make the case for gay marriage, unless you make the case for marriage generally.[/pullquote}

So that was another piece of thunderbolt reading for me. Because that was when I realized what was so deeply unsettling, so profoundly alienating about gay culture in the 70s – the bars, the bathhouses, the drugs: it was a marriageless culture. And as it turned out, it was exactly what Sar Levitan had identified in the dysfunctional culture of some of the American inner cities: namely the decline of marriage. Or the absence of marriage, in the case of gay people.

To come out as gay meant alienating yourself from the core institution of adult life, from the institution that allows you to say, in society’s eyes, that you have formed the ultimate bond of commitment with another human being. That you’re not on the sex market anymore. And from that moment on I was a gay marriage advocate. I was really a complete believer – and I still am – that marriage is the solution, not the problem.

So 1989 was the turning point for you?

Yes, Andrew’s article. At that time of course it was pie in the sky, it was a short New Republic article. No one really thought it would happen anytime soon.

With all these states allowing gay marriage, even Iowa: are we at a critical juncture right now? Is the tide turning? I’m not close to the issue, but my feeling is that there’s something in the air. Is that misguided?

No it’s not misguided. But I would distinguish between the weather and the climate. We’re certainly at a dramatic moment in the weather. All of a sudden you’ve seen the political breakthrough of gay marriage in a number of New England states. It is being passed legislatively, through publicly elected officials. It’s not just happening because of court orders any more. And that’s something the right said we could not do. And there was always a legitimacy problem for same-sex marriage when the right could say ‘the only way you’ll ever get it is if the courts force it down the throats of the people.’ So that’s a very big breakthrough.

But the climate in the United States is changing only very slowly. The fundamentals remain that the public is divided into three very roughly equal parts. One part favors same-sex marriage. One part favors some kind of civil union or partnership provision for gay couples, but don’t call it marriage. And the third part says the law should make no provision for same-sex couples at all. And those polls are shifting gradually in the direction of same-sex marriage, as young people get older. But only gradually. After all, 29 states have outlawed gay marriage in their constitution. So it’s going to be a while.

I happened to be in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 16th 2004 and went to watch at midnight when the first gay couples to be married came out of the city hall. The atmosphere was extraordinary, it was so poignant, so romantic. I was there to interview Wang Dan, one of the student leaders at Tiananmen Square in 1989, who had spent nearly a decade in a Chinese prison but had been let out and was a student at Harvard at that time. He was outside at midnight too. He said: “I want to be here for this historic event.”

2004 was a major event – but there were others. The original Hawaii decisions that put gay marriage on the map in the 1990s. All the way back to 1970, the year after the Stonewall riots. 1970 is the first time a gay couple walked into a courthouse and said we want to get married. Of course they got thrown out. What’s happening now is that it does start to feel more like a tipping point. It’s very hard now to say that we’re ever going back to an age where gay marriage might not exist in the United States. It’s now clearly with us for good and the question will be on what terms and in what places. Not whether, but how. Once we’ve got legislatures passing it voluntarily, it’s really all over for people who thought they could ban it on every square inch of US soil.

And if it’s going to happen it’s probably going to be marriage rather than civil unions?

I think at the federal level, marriage may be quite some distance away. It may end up being civil unions combined with robust protections for religious liberty. I think that’s much more doable. The country is ready to see certain parts of the country have same-sex marriage, but I don’t think it’s ready to see the whole country have it. But I could be wrong.

Tell me about your last book then, the Case for Marriage

I wrote a book on gay marriage in 2004. And what I found while writing that book is that you can’t make the case for gay marriage, unless you make the case for marriage generally. People need to understand why marriage makes sense in order to understand why gay marriage makes sense. I don’t make the rights-based case – that marriage is a civil right and everyone should be able to do it. I make the responsibility-based case, which is that marriage is something that people should do for the benefit of each other, and their children, and society. Marriage creates family, it creates kin, it creates social capital. It’s the best way to raise children. People who get married are not people that society is doing a favor for – they are doing a favor for society. They are undertaking an extreme promise and burden – of lifelong care of another person and of their children. So I was casting about to make the case for gay marriage and came across what I thought was a wonderful book called the Case for Marriage, which is by a scholar named Linda Waite and by Maggie Gallagher, who is a pro-marriage activist. And one of the reasons I picked this book is that it’s a good book if you want to understand why marriage is such a socially and personally productive thing. But also because, ironically, a couple of years later Maggie Gallagher emerged as one of America’s leading opponents of same-sex marriage.

She opposes same-sex marriage?

Yes, vigorously. She’s helped found a group called National Organization for Marriage, which is trying to oppose it state by state, and was a key player in opposing it in California.

California voted against gay marriage the same day Obama got elected. How depressing.

But it’s also ironic. Because if you turn to page four of Maggie Gallagher’s book, you’ll find “Five Myths of the Post-Marriage Culture.

And post-marriage myth number two is as follows: “Marriage is mostly about children; if you don’t have kids, it doesn’t matter whether you cohabit or marry or stay single.” She goes on to say that that’s false, and she says: “We will show you how, in some cases, for some people, marriage can literally make the difference between life or death.”

Of course that’s exactly the position I take about marriage, and anyone who has lived through the AIDS crisis knows marriage can literally make the difference between life or death. And that’s why I like to send people to this marriage advocate book, to explain why she’s wrong, and why marriage makes sense for gay people – for all the same reasons it makes sense for straight people.

In the circumstances, I’m impressed she’s one of your recommendations.

The Case for Marriage is still a very good book. It’s just ironic to me, that so many people who made such good traditional arguments, such a compelling traditionalist case for marriage, turn their backs on many of those same arguments when the word homosexual is applied.

What made you write your own book?

Well Maggie wasn’t going to do it.

There are lots of books out there on same-sex marriage. Was there still a gap in the market?

What happened was that in 2003, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the sodomy law as unconstitutional. And that set off a backlash. And one of the things people started saying was ‘Next thing we’ll have homosexual marriage!’ And then of course on November 18th, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court orders gay marriage. So you can imagine there was something of a panic going on. And it seemed to me very important that people understand this is not just a civil rights question. It is that to some extent. But more fundamentally it is a question of: What is the best model for human relationships? Why do we believe in marriage? If it’s so important for children to grow up in households with two married parents, why would we want gay couples with kids to set the opposite example by raising their kids out of wedlock? Why would we want to turn all same-sex couples into advertisements for cohabitation? And I also wanted to make clear that what gay people are asking for here is not benefits. No one delivers a truckload of cash to your door when you get married. All they’re asking is to make the noblest commitment that most adults ever get the chance to make.

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