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The ties that bind need not restrict

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Po Bronson has taken another look at an important part of society in a new book about family, Why Do I Love These People? Honest and Amazing Stories of Real Families. Just as in his 2002 What Should I Do with My Life? about careers and work, Bronson used research and interviews with families to discover what makes them tick and how they grapple with life's tragedies and challenges.

There's the New Hampshire family whose 2 1/2-year-old son did not wake from his nap. There's the 80-year-old mother of eight who, despite never hugging her children nor telling them she loved them, raised them to do their best. Six earned scholarships to Ivy League colleges, but one remains missing and is presumed destitute or dead.

Bronson, 41, says he interviewed about 700 families and used more than 500 sources to tell the intimate stories of resilient families, some of whom still face troubling times. Although the book is not intended as a memoir, Bronson gives readers insight into his own family life as well: His parents divorced when he was 12, after 20 years of marriage; his own marriage ended in divorce; he's now happily remarried and has two children. Bronson talks about the importance of family:

Q: I guess it's kind of a big question, but what did you learn from writing the book?

A: I learned not to compare my family to a mythic, perfect ideal which always established an expectation in which my family fell short and deprived me of learning to really appreciate what they did give me. At the starting point for this book, I had real hot and cold feelings for my family. I loved them, but I didn't know why. Being around other families helped me appreciate and accept my own and love them more resiliently and firmly than I ever had before.

Q: What have you learned about families? Are there some generalities that you can discuss?

A: Families largely used to be connected by obligation, economic hardship, necessity of survival, by law. Families today are held together by desire and love. As they become no longer economically dependent and no longer constrained by geography, they're free now to leave if they choose. I also see that those who do seem to pull away from their families start new families that are bound by joy and kinship and desire rather than obligation and economic interdependence.

Q: When you talk about the families in your book, you say you interviewed 700. How did you whittle it down to just 20 to write about?

A: I wanted to represent the variety of family cultures that are present in our country today. That involves class and education and ethnicity and coping styles and loving styles. And I particularly looked for stories that made me think twice, think three times, think four times. Stories that challenged my perception and ultimately taught me something.

Q: What did you learn about your own family from interviewing all these other families?

A: I learned I'm luckier than I thought. I learned we're doing better than I thought. My last book was about this notion of mission and avocation and calling. And I learned to hear my calling for family.

Q: Do you have any specific advice on marriage and on having children?

A: I'm going to pass on the advice my wife gave me. We can worry about whether or not we're ready. We might feel only half-ready. But then you hear the stories of other people, things that happened to them that they're never ready for. My wife wasn't ready for her parents to die so young. When your kid is sick, you don't get to say "I'm not ready for that." You learn that being half-ready is a significant advantage in this world and being half-ready may be as good as it gets. You may be more ready than you think. And that goes for marriage and for children.

Q: Did you in your research or your interviews come up with a list of characteristics that contribute to a functional family vs. a dysfunctional family?

A: I learned greatness fits no demographic test. I learned that greatness is not about not bickering over holidays. A great family is not always about everybody always being mutually supportive. Or a great family doesn't mean you don't necessarily have a grudge. A great family means you deal with life's most difficult problems together. You might not always want to sit there on the couch with them all day long watching the TV on the day after Thanksgiving. A lot of things that we think of in our own family that make us dysfunctional or disqualify us from greatness -- they don't disqualify us from being a great family. Just because you have a fight at Thanksgiving doesn't mean you're not a great family.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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