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Should Novels be Educational?

January 29, 2011

Toni Jordan: Addition, Text, 2008

 

“Memo to self: when next considering coming off antidepressants cold turkey, choose something easier instead like teaching a Big Brother housemate advanced trigonometry.”

 

This is the edgy wit of Grace, the protagonist of Addition. After putting up with Jonathan Franzen’s characters for nearly 600 pages, I found it a joy to spend time with Grace. One forgives her cutting disdain for ‘average’ people because she is so funny and likeable, resisting all pressure to conform.

 

Grace lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). She is compelled to count everything: the food she eats, the steps she takes, the bristles on her toothbrush. In the first part of the book we see how this prevents her from working, participating in society or having relationships. Then she falls for Seamus, who encourages her to seek treatment.

 

Toni Jordan is a great storyteller, skilled in characterisation and plotting. But the story made me uneasy.

 

Spoiler Alert!

 

Grace consults a psychiatrist who immediately prescribes antidepressants. She has both individual and group therapy, which achieves nothing apart from fun at the expense of the pathetic therapist and the other group members, whom Grace labels the ‘Germphobics.’ The medication stifles her counting compulsion, but turns her into a fat, boring zombie with no interest in sex. Eventually she rejects treatment and returns to her former self, glorying in her OCD as the thing that makes her different from others.

 

Had the pyschiatrist and therapist been competent, the outcome would have been different. The psychiatrist may have suggested that Grace initially try behavioural therapy alone, with no medication, as she fits the profile for such a plan. Therapy for OCD is based on the “Exposure and Response Prevention” technique, which the therapist in the book is clearly hopeless at using. In the hands of an able practitioner it is likely that Grace would learn how to control her compulsion and consequently achieve a much better life. (There is a chance it mightn’t work: OCD ranges from mild to severe, and in a few cases resists any form of treatment.)

 

This would have been a very different story, not nearly as entertaining or engaging. And of course many psychiatrists do reach straight for the prescription pad, and some therapists are incompetent, and there are people who have had experiences similar to Grace’s. This is her individual story, and we can’t complain because it doesn’t conform to what we think should happen in an ideal world. But my concern is that a reader with little understanding of mental illness might come away from this book with untrue conclusions: that mental illness is what makes a person different from the “gray masses”, that it is better to keep the illness rather than seek treatment, that medication always turns you into a fat zombie, and that behavioural therapy is a joke.

 

I can think of only one suggestion to help resolve this dilemma: a short afterword at the end of the book with factual information about OCD and offering hope that treatment can help most of those who experience it to overcome its debilitating effects. What do you think?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Debs Baker permalink
    February 3, 2011 12:13 pm

    Bryce, it is wonderful to have found your blog. I will follow it with great interest in reading your thoughts and views.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    February 3, 2011 9:40 pm

    Great to hear from you, Deb, and thank you for your kind response to the blog. Are you still in Asia, or back home? Any books you’ve read recently that you would recommend?

  3. Debs Baker permalink
    February 4, 2011 12:13 am

    Hi Bryce,
    Yes we are still in Miri in Malaysia. Have just started Maddie at University back in Dunedin after her spending 4 years going to school in Brunei. She is doing a Foundation year this year and if she passes that gives her automatic entry into a degree, at the moment she is looking at teaching. A bit soon for us to let her go as she is not quite 17 but it is the best thing for her, she is staying with good friends of ours.
    We have been here now 4 years and still really enjoying it. Wilson is 12 now and he goes to weekly boarding school up in Brunei so its just Wayne and Buddy (our golden retreiver) and I at home. In saying that I am part of a charity group that is a bit like the SPCA, we rescue dogs and cats that are being abused or have been abandoned and as there is no animal shelter we are one of the foster homes the pups come too until they are well enough/or old enough to be adopted to good homes. The first lot I had were 5 2 week old pups so it was pretty full on with having to bottle feed them every 4 hours even during the night. Its very satisfying though when they find a good home to go to, I think we have now had around 35 pups stay at our Dog Hotel.
    We try and do some travelling while here and we took the kids to the USA 2009 for a month which was fab, also have had a look around various parts of Asia. Oh yes Wayne and I went to France also in 2009 and got to spend the weekend with Cara and her lovely boyfriend George it was a blast.
    As far as good books go no probably not, its pretty hard to get good books here and also I have just spent the last couple of years in denial that I was getting old and needed reading glasses so I couldn’t read much without getting headaches. Finally at Xmas I gave in and got a pair so I am just starting a book called “A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley” it has promise.
    I would love to hear some reccommendations of yours as I have always enjoyed the books you kindly let me borrow.
    Do you still keep in touch with Jill? I tried to purchase her book online but they wouldn’t ship it here, too many things go missing in the mail.
    Please say Hi to Anne for me.
    Take care

  4. Bryce permalink*
    February 4, 2011 4:10 pm

    Jane Smiley (especially A Thousand Acres) has been on my To-Be-Read list for a long time, but I haven’t got to her yet, so I look forward to your comments. Jill is still writing, and has been an enormous help in my current writing projects. Looking after her property takes up too much of her time, especially after the damage from the recent storms/floods. At least she dodged the wall of water that destroyed Grantham and much else.
    Ann says hello. Her blog’s at http://photovoiceaustralia.blogspot.com/ I will think about book recommendations. If you like family drama (eg A Thousand Acres) then Susan Johnson’s “Life in Seven Mistakes” is thought provoking (see my review at https://brycealcock.wordpress.com/2010/12/03/family-comedy-or-orwellian-nightmare/ ). I’ve had a memoir binge lately, also crime fiction, and I’ve reviewed some in previous blog posts.
    All the best

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