Sometimes I come across books with attractive and interesting titles that just don’t seem to pan out to my liking. Here’s a review of one of them.
1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America by Andreas Killen
It’s a mildly redundant cliche to talk about any year as an ‘eventful year’, but 1973 had its fair share of noteworthy events, particularly for Americans. From the Roe vs Wade decision (22 January) to the release of the film Deep Throat (ruled ‘irredemably obscene’ by a New York judge on 1 March), and from the start of the televised Watergate hearings (17 May) to the first shots of the Yom Kippur War (6 October) and the subsequent oil embargo by the OPEC members of the Middle East, 1973 was by any account a year of social and political upheaval. The sights and sounds of that year continue to haunt the American consciousness into the present day — President Richard Nixon’s insistence that he wasn’t a crook, prisoners of war returning from Vietnam, even a controversial new ‘reality TV’ show (An American Family, broadcast on PBS). Add to those events the well-publicised increase in the number of religious cults and airplane hijackings, which would culminate a year later in the iconic figure of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in the fatigues of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and it might not seem so strange that 1973 was also the year in which The Exorcist made film-going audiences sick in theatres across the country. But why was 1973 so seemingly crazy a year?
Andreas Killen takes the title of his book from a review that rock critic Lester Bangs wrote about the Rolling Stones’ album Goat’s Head Soup, in which Bangs essentially said that the Stones had reduced themselves (or been reduced by their long period of rock-stardom) to a band that was merely going through the motions. But Killen uses ‘nervous breakdown’ in another context to points out what he sees as a number of neurotic undercurrents in American society, revealing a country still shaken by the redefinition of the social landscape that happened in the 1960s. If America as a country really was having a nervous breakdown in 1973, what were the causes? Killen points to a belief that American youth were under assault from corrupting moral influences in films and television, with cults and communes as particular symptoms of their fragile grip on reality. Connected to this is a deep sense of paranoia, exemplified by Richard Nixon’s audio tapes but covering a wide range of fears about America’s position in the world and a powerful feeling of self-doubt — a feeling that would continue to have repercussions on American politics and culture through the rest of the 1970s and into the 1980s.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t enjoy 1973 Nervous Breakdown. Other reviews I’ve read have pointed out that trying to shove the ‘end of the 1960s’ into one single year forced Killen to jam together a number of narrative threads in a way that didn’t do proper justice to any of them. But what bothered me most about the book is the fact that Killen’s analysis seemed to just skim the surface of the year and the time period as a whole. It’s terribly U.S.-centric, which might not seem that big of a flaw in a book about post-1960s America — but to me, that line of thought just seems to reinforce why the book didn’t satisfy. There’s very little sense of a deeper connection to other things that were happening in the world, other trends and and other events that had more of an impact on America in the 1970s than Killen describes in the pages of the book. The general destabilisation of American society that led to many of the events in the 1970s was not purely the result of various social changes and political happenings at home. While Killen did a fairly good job of highlighting many of the symptoms of the 1973 nervous breakdown, in my mind he fell more than a little bit short of diagnosing the causes. For all of the talk about how the culture wars of the 1970s are still being fought today, it’s a shame that a book that tries to explain the ‘why’ leaves out more than a few key contributing factors along the way.