Book Review: Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown

The New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd’s recent comments about the US having a nervous breakdown with the widespread reaction to Barack Obama, the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy and the like makes me think of an era when the country had a real nervous breakdown: the 1970’s.  In the wake of the 1960’s, with all of the cultural overturning and the Vietnam War, the US came much closer to coming unglued than most people who came after realise–or most people who lived through it will admit.  Sometimes it seems to be difficult to get meaningful discussion going about the era, but City College of New York professor Andreas Killen gives it “the old college try” (sorry!) with his book 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol and the Birth of Post-Sixties America.

Killen’s book starts with the assumption that 1973 was the pivotal year of the decade.  He’s got a strong case going for him: it was the formal end of the Vietnam War, the time when the Watergate scandal spilled into American televisions and radios, the first Arab oil embargo which began the wild energy ride that defined the decade economically.  It’s as good a point as any to say that the 1960’s officially “ran out of gas” and the culture reached a turning point.  For me personally, it was the year I graduated from prep school, a time when my own life was making some significant transitions.

So how well does Killen, who obviously didn’t live through the era, accomplish his task?  There are pluses and minuses to his presentation.

First, the pluses: his recounting of the major events of the year is generally good.  In addition to the major events I’ve already mentioned, he hits some others, such as the hijacking craze, the first reality show (An American Family), the return of the Vietnam POW’s (including John McCain, who hadn’t run for President at the time Killen wrote his book), the Kohoutek comet (I was amused at this, I went to Texas A&M with a Kohoutek), the Fifties “revival,” and the Symbionese Liberation Army, who kidnapped/recruited Patty Hurst.  Throughout his recitation of all of these and other events, he faithfully recreates all of the psychodrama that went with them.  That adds an element of realism that’s hard to overestimate: it was an era when just about everything you said was a Freudian slip and everything that you and everyone else did was couched in psychological (real or pop) terms.  The whole era was, in many ways, a theatre of the mind, and Killen does a good job recapturing that.  He also recaptures the paranoia and conspiracy theory mood of the era on both sides of the political spectrum, something that obviously hasn’t decamped from the American scene.

The biggest minus–and it appears in the middle of the book–is his overemphasis on Andy Warhol.  Warhol is definitely an important figure in American pop culture, but by this time he had become a recluse, and in any case there was a great deal more going on than Andy Warhol.  That overemphasis skews his whole presentation of the pop culture of the time, which in turn degrades from his attempt to use the various works that he does to portray the times.  That’s something that comes off better in a book like Modris Ekstein’s Rites of Spring; Killen’s effort seems both biased and unfocused.

His presentation of the religious trends of the year is mercifully brief.  His focus on “fundamentalist Christian sects”  includes the Children of God and the Moonies, both of which qualify as cults–in the eyes of their “fundamentalist” counterparts.  He notes that TBN was founded in 1973, but “Paul and Ann Crouch” should read “Paul and Jan Crouch.”  In any case it’s interesting to note that the 1970’s, which in Killen’s opinion “…for gays, the decade…represented, in retrospect at least, a golden age,” was also a golden age for Jesus Music as well, suggesting a social dynamic that has long decamped from our society.  One thing that Christian readers will find disconcerting about the book is the language he sometimes quotes, but, as I found out writing this, it’s difficult to document the era without vulgarity.

The best takeaway from the book is the fact that 1973 was the turning point in our culture from modernity to post-modernity.  It’s easy to forget that the 1960’s, which are generally depicted as a revolt from “traditional values,” were also a revolt from modernity.  Killen’s illustration of that is the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, that modernist dream in steel and concrete by architect Minoru Yamasaki.  (Yamasaki’s other notable project was the World Trade Centre, which suffered a demolition of a completely different kind.  I’m tempted to think that Killen originally wanted to draw a parallel between the two events, but his editor put a stop to that.)  Students of post-modernity would do well to understand the nature of this turning point.

Personally I found the book fascinating; Killen brings up events that I had not thought about in a long time and brought up some that passed me by when they happened.  After ending my secondary education in that fateful year, I went on to Texas A&M.  The conservatism of that school, and the general unreality of being a traditional college student, made me oblivious to many (but not all) of the trends going on around me.  When I graduated and entered the workforce, I began to realise that something profound had changed in our society.  Killen helps to make that change more identifiable.

At the end of the book Killen tells us that “…the crises of the 1970’s are not so easily buried; indeed they have reemerged with new intensity in our own time.”  Our renewed national upheaval underscores that fact. 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol and the Birth of Post-Sixties America isn’t the definitive book on the era, but it’s a reasonable start.

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