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Welcome to Disturbia

Why midcentury Americans believed the suburbs were making them sick

Picture a suburban housewife of the 1950s. Her name is Mrs. John Drone (Mary), and she lives in Rolling Knolls Estates, a new development of what the salesman calls "California Cape Cod Ramblers" on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Whatever knolls might have rolled gently over the land at one time have been flattened for muddy streets of two-bedroom houses, named after famous conflicts of World War II.

One rainy morning on Bataan Boulevard, Mary hangs her washing on a clothesline in the living room and knocks her shin on her son’s tricycle. Pain shoots up her leg and she bursts into tears. Then the front door blows open, and she starts shouting:

‘Watch out, can’t you see the wash is up? You’re getting the wash all dirty.’ Mary very nearly screamed.

‘I’m sorry dear,’ a familiar, monotonous voice said.

‘Oh, it’s you,’ Mary said.

And it was. John Drone, master of all he surveyed, had returned to his castle and to the bosom of his admiring family. He closed the door.

Mary and John are the unfortunate (fictional) protagonists of The Crack in the Picture Window, published in 1957 by John Keats, a journalist at the now defunct Washington Daily News. A lacerating (and very funny) indictment of postwar suburbs as "fresh-air slums," Keats’s polemic sold millions of copies in paperback. It revolves around the tragicomic story of the Drones, a nice young couple gulled, first, into buying a box at Rolling Knolls Estates, and then into thinking a larger, more expensive box in a different suburb could cure what ailed them.

When, near the start of the book, Mary hurts her leg and yells at her husband, Keats blames her agitation on her inadequate living space. If the house had had a basement, he notes, she could have hung the washing there rather than in the living room. If it had had more storage space, the tricycle wouldn’t have stood in her way. If it had had a separate dining room, rather than a rudimentary "dining alcove" off the kitchen, she wouldn’t have struggled to converse with a friend over the shouts of their children, which had frayed her nerves earlier the same day.

The problem was not Mary. It was her house:

[S]omewhere deep inside her she knew perfectly well that the house she inhabited had helped spoil her day; that it was harming her marriage and corroding her life. In fact, the corrosive process was well under way, for the Drones had lived in their new rambler for six months. The pattern of their lives was bearing out the truth in Winston Churchill’s dictum: ‘We shape our dwellings, and then our dwellings shape us.’

The shape of Mary’s dwelling was vile.

The Crack in the Picture Window was just one in a raft of books about suburban life that appeared steadily through the 1950s and 1960s. A few of these have become cultural touchstones: Richard Yates’s novel Revolutionary Road (1961) still disturbs with its portrait of a corroded marriage, dramatized in a 2008 film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. John Cheever’s stories of gin-soaked afternoons filled with longing and regret still telegraph upper-middle-class suburban anomie.

But the books that didn’t last—forgotten volumes of pop sociology and psychology like Keats’s, and pulp fiction—can also tell us a lot about the preoccupations of midcentury Americans. Most strikingly, they reveal deep and widespread concern over the stability of mental and physical health in the new suburban environment. This was not confined to popular reading material; at academic conferences, speakers struck worried notes about the "one-class community" and the "filtered experience" of children growing up in a suburban setting.

In the years after World War II, suburbs represented not just new places to live but a whole new manner of living, separated by more than physical distance from the big cities and small towns from which their residents hailed. Between the late 1940s and 1960, millions of Americans moved into raw neighborhoods containing people of about the same age, making about the same amount of money, starting families at about the same time. It was a social experiment unprecedented in U.S. history.

The first suburbanites themselves were well aware of this. Although they felt the optimism of pioneers, they shared in the widespread anxiety that the experiment might not work, an anxiety that manifested as worries about unanticipated health effects. These ranged from the daily, cumulative frustrations of a Mary Drone to more significant problems: stomach ulcers, heart attacks, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, and juvenile delinquency.

"John Drone did not know it when he signed the deed [for his house], but appalling human tensions were a condition of the sale," Keats wrote. The financial burdens of suburban life were thought to weigh heavily on young husbands and fathers, though not on wives and mothers; the theory of suburban pathology was profoundly gendered.

The harried suburban family man, gulping coffee each morning to catch his train into the city and returning to collapse, martini in hand, into his armchair each night, was a stock comic figure in postwar culture. Keats made his John Drone a more pitiable example of the type. Drone, a government worker, feels a "tightening, knotted cord about his temples" after moving to Rolling Knolls. He lies awake at night fretting over installment payments on the car, the TV set, the dryer. When the family trades up from the rambler to a split-level in Maryland, he takes side jobs at a liquor store and at Sears to pay the mortgage, and he leaves the house at 6:00 every morning to beat the rush downtown. Despite all his labors, there is no final reward for John Drone: the victim of chicanery, he learns at the end of the book that he is liable for the mortgage on the rambler he thought he’d sold. The Drones are left to face financial ruin.

In The Exurbanites (1955), a droll portrait of the writers and ad men who were then fanning out from Manhattan to the sleepy country towns of Bucks and Fairfield and Rockland counties, A.C. Spectorsky (a magazine and television editor) dubbed those towns "the Psychosomatic Belt." He continued: "A physician with many exurban patients states that he has noticed, among a remarkably high percentage of those who are commuters, what he terms ‘extreme rigidity’ and a notable head of steam built up and (mostly) kept under pressure which he defines as repressed hostility." According to Spectorsky, the doctor cited hay fever, hives, hypertension, back pain, and chronic fatigue as the commuter’s usual disorders.

A quasi-scientific account of widespread male stress is presented in The Split-Level Trap, a bestselling 1961 study of suburban dysfunction by New Jersey psychiatrist Richard Gordon and his psychologist wife, Katherine Gordon. ("A Kinsey report on suburbia," according to a review in the Chicago Daily News.) The Gordons contended that the nation’s new communities were a "Disturbia" of restless and troubled young strivers, a lopsided society that lacked the balance of older, "integrated" towns (integrated by age and class, that is, not race). As suburbia’s men rushed to get ahead, the Gordons claimed, they would be vulnerable to developing early heart disease, especially if they had risen from a lower social class.

The authors included a table of local cases of heart disease broken down by age and income to support their point. The Split-Level Trap draws on copious data from Bergen County, N.J., health records, but it’s not very convincing to a 21st-century reader; chronic stress is always assumed to be the prime cause of illness, whether mental or physical. So, from the county health data on heart disease, the Gordons concluded that strivers must be pushing themselves too far, too fast. It being 1961, they didn’t ask how much the patients smoked and drank, how sedentary their habits were, or whether heart disease ran in their families.

The peptic ulcer, however, was the king of psychosomatic suburban ailments. The New Yorker ran a cartoon during this period in which one child, sitting in his front yard, says to another: "I don’t know what my father does all day. I just know it makes him sick at his stomach."

One of the several composite cases in the Gordons’ book is that of "Fred Bright," an ambitious junior sales executive who has overstretched himself financially (no thanks to his social-climbing wife, Eve) and can’t ever relax:

Fred’s pains eventually grew so bad that he went to see a doctor. The doctor told him that he had developed an ulcer, prescribed a rigorous diet and advised him to slow down. This was easy to advise. But Fred was not in a position to slow down … He had his mortgage, his car payments, his life insurance loan, his country-club dues … He did not feel secure enough in his job to cut his work load even a little. He had to work late at night; he had to travel; he had to visit the bar; he had to push and worry. Otherwise—who knew what might happen to him?

Finally, one day, Fred began to vomit blood. He was rushed to a hospital, hemorrhaging internally. The ulcer had eroded a large blood vessel. Bleeding heavily and in shock, Fred was a critically ill man.

In the early 1980s, scientists discovered the bacterium H. pylori, which is now known to cause most stomach ulcers. Following the medical establishment of the time, the Gordons attributed ulcers to a stressful lifestyle alone. Although that’s been disproven, it’s easy to see why the family man tortured by an ulcer has stayed with us as a stereotype. What more visceral symbol could there be of a life beset by stress than a stomach so flooded with acid that it "digest[s] itself," to use the Gordons’ phrase?

The health problems of the suburban man, according to these books, are caused by his incessant motion across the landscape. He is always in a hurry, commuting to the city and back every day, going on business trips. Women’s disturbances have the opposite etiology: They are the result of spatial confinement. Because suburban women spent so much more time at home and in the neighborhood, writers of the era tied women’s problems more closely to their environment, especially the house. This was nothing new: the archetype of the trapped woman goes back from Charlotte Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Charlotte Brontë’s madwoman in the attic to Danaë in Greek myth. But for the woman stuck in the new suburbia, the monotony of her surroundings—with only new gadgets for diversion—was thought to deepen her despair.

The "trap" referred to in the title of the Gordons’ book is the suburban house. Their first case study is of "Alice Hager," a young wife and mother from a genteel southern family who moves to a New Jersey suburb with her engineer husband, Carl. Alice is shy and old-fashioned. She waits for her new neighbors to introduce themselves rather than knocking on their doors. She hopes she will be invited to join local clubs. When those things don’t happen, she retreats into her home.

Winter comes, and the house itself begins to antagonize Alice. "Her head throbbed with the clunk-clunk of the washing machine, the yowl of the vacuum cleaner and the shrill voices of children." Before long, she is having panic attacks in the supermarket. When she runs a red light on the way home one day, she becomes convinced that the police will arrest her. She goes home and hides in the closet, where her husband finds her, weeping and terrified.

For Mary Drone, the picture window in her living room becomes a mirror of "her empty life staring at her across the treeless, unpaved street," and she automatically closes the blinds against it. Purchasing labor-saving devices only gives her more time to watch TV and covet more devices in a joyless Catch-22 of consumption.

Suburban alienation, especially that of the 1950s housewife, has become such a familiar cultural trope that we take it for granted. What’s unusual about the Gordons’ portrait of Alice Hager, though, is her utter solitude. Other writers describe suburban neurosis flourishing in a hothouse atmosphere of hyper-socialization, which could not be escaped and which broke down moral boundaries.

In The Crack in the Picture Window, Mary Drone is swept into daily kaffee-klatsches despite finding the conversation mind-numbing. Couples on the Drones’ block take turns hosting each other at barbecues. Children troop in and out of the houses. Keats quoted the opinion of a social scientist: "In these communities, there is no real privacy."

Against the Drones, go-along conformists who grow more miserable the longer they live in suburbia, Keats pitted the Wilds, the bohemian couple down the block. Adam and Eve Wild, as their names imply, exist in a prelapsarian state of indifference to suburban norms, and this is the key to their happiness. Adam is the only blue-collar man on the block, and unembarrassed to park his beat-up truck in front of the house. Eve keeps to herself more than the other wives. When Mary finally steps inside the Wilds’ house, it makes a strong impression:

Everything about the Wilds’ house fascinated Mary Drone, and at the same time made her a bit uneasy. Those strange, intelligent children, Abel and Delilah, seemed to regard Mary with a piercing compassion that was completely unnerving. An aura of self-sufficiency enfolded the family; the colors and furnishings of the Wild house made it difficult for Mary to believe she was in a Rolling Knolls home.

Not surprisingly, the Wilds are the first couple to move out of Rolling Knolls. None of the neighbors learns where they are going.

Meanwhile, all those cocktail parties and cookouts start to generate sexual tension. Jokes become dirty. Hands graze knees under dining tables. In Keats’s Rolling Knolls, that’s as far as things go, but fiction writers explored the possibilities of suburban decadence with gusto. In the 1962 potboiler The Split-Level Game (by Louis Lorraine, presumably a pseudonym), protagonist Spence Hawk is fed up with his thrill-seeking wife Leila and "the rotten crowd in the suburbs where they lived, the Upper Dales set." They go to a tiki party where the women dance under orange spotlights; the rule is that no one can object to what their spouse does during the party, like ducking into a bedroom with another guest.

Spence eventually divorces Leila and marries his mistress from town, and they decide to live in the city. "I sold the house. I got to hate that place," Spence says of his split-level.

Another pulp novel, Love in Suburbia (1960), is set in the Tucson foothills, in a small, isolated loop of houses, making it easier for the characters to hop in and out of each other’s beds. The action kicks off when Elena Anders, the impulsive young wife of a rich suburbanite, brings home her beatnik friends from San Francisco. Dressed in "freakish" clothes like turtlenecks, they descend on a polite party thrown by Elena’s husband and turn to guitar-strumming and skinny dipping, much to the delight of the other guests.

Social critics of this period couldn’t square the intense sociability of the new suburbs with the alienation many women felt in them. Keats fell back on misogyny, portraying the women of Rolling Knolls as such mean and petty gossips that Mary Drone would not want their company—yet she, too, lacks self-awareness. ("[S]he was not a thinking person, and enjoyed no point of vantage," he wrote condescendingly.) In No Down Payment—a popular 1957 novel by John McPartland that was made into a Hollywood movie— the woman who adjusts well to suburbia is Betty Kreitzer, a devout churchgoer and civic joiner who feels fulfilled by her roles as wife and mother. Jean Martin wonders why she can’t be more like that, blaming her own "strong, unsatisfied pride." It took Betty Friedan to bring much deeper insight to the "problem with no name" a few years later in The Feminine Mystique (1965).

The Gordons—whose research was to inform Friedan’s classic—believed the tenuous health of suburban women was a national crisis. They found that young married women made up the largest share of psychiatric patients in Bergen County, and that suburban women were even developing high blood pressure and ulcers (although not on par with their husbands). "[I]t is obvious that unpleasant things are happening to the young wives who come, so full of hope, into the apartments and housing developments of Disturbia," they warned.

[I]t is obvious that unpleasant things are happening to the young wives who come, so full of hope, into the apartments and housing developments of Disturbia.

Although the Gordons’ villainizing of mobility now seems quaint (and the "integrated" town they rhapsodize about seems more like Mayberry than any real place), their case study of "Gina Conning" is still a moving picture of postpartum depression before that term was commonly used. Gina’s mother is dead and her friends are back in the city; her in-laws never warmed to her because she is Italian-American. So she cares for her baby alone in her house, which she tries to keep spotless. She worries that she’s not a good mother and has a momentary urge to prick the baby with a pin, which scares her. She can’t sleep, has nightmares when she does, and develops a heightened interest in sex. Finally, terrified that she will harm her baby or her husband, Gina flees to the police station in her nightgown.

The path to recovery that the Gordons imagine for Gina might apply today (minus the tranquilizers): Gina’s mother-in-law begins to help out with the baby several days a week. Her husband does more around the house. She enrolls in a class at the local college to rekindle her artistic talents. Her interest in sex declines as her condition stabilizes, but interestingly, the Gordons argue that her husband must meet her halfway and set aside his own WASPy hangups about sexual experimentation.

Another depressed woman whom the Gordons profile is "Martha Kohler." In her fifties with grown children, Martha becomes suicidal after financial problems push her husband into alcoholism, and she swallows a bottle of pills. She eventually finds a sense of purpose in the Homemakers’ Service, a group of older women who help overwhelmed young mothers like Gina.

The case of Martha and her husband is part of a larger morality tale in The Split-Level Trap, a warning that the comfortable milieu of suburbia was producing too many "non-producers" and "freeloaders" for America’s good. These weak individuals weren’t just a burden on their loved ones—they were enemies of society, as the Gordons saw it (writing, of course, during the Cold War):

We are in competition today with new, tough nations that have arisen in once remote parts of the world. Russia and China are climber nations. Like ours, their mobility is breeding emotional problems … They are willing to work hard for what they want.

Against this tough-minded determination only a sturdy people can compete successfully. We have been sturdy in the past, but a softening has set in. We will not be sturdy enough if the something-for-nothing syndrome weakens us much further.

Far worse than suburban adults were their offspring, in the Gordons’ eyes: "[T]he suburbs are full of obedient parents and spoiled, lazy, materialistic children." Anxiety about suburbia warping a generation of children jumps off the pages of their book and others. In No Down Payment, Michael, the only child of dissolute Jerry and Isbel Flagg, has frequent and violent tantrums, his howls reverberating around the neighborhood. "That poor little guy’s so mixed up he’s like a loaded bomb," the paragon Betty Kreitzer remarks with sadness. In one discomfiting chapter, Jerry and Isbel lock Michael outside on the patio while they get drunk, fight, and have sex, their Sunday night routine.

Contemporary writers’ complaints about suburban children were legion. They were rude to their parents and demanded spending money and expensive toys. They didn’t do chores around the house. They didn’t want to work hard in school. They started experimenting with sex too early.

Keats quoted a Miss Elizabeth O’Malley of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Social Service League, who observed perceptively that many suburban houses weren’t big enough for grandparents to move in to help raise the kids, and neighborhoods weren’t set up for healthy play. "There is no recreational area. There is no place for the children to play but in the yard, which is too small, or in the street. … It is out of such conditions that delinquency develops."

More than the physical environment, however, it was the social conditioning of suburbia that was thought to be harmful. And one aspect above all: the dominant role of mothers in their children’s lives. In one of the Gordons’ case studies, the overprotective mother of the juvenile delinquent "Alec Green" makes him "soft" and entitled. In another, the permissive mother of "Tom Krazinkow" declines to parent him because she wants her son to "find himself"; he continues to wet his bed until the age of 16, and ends up being arrested for peeping on women through their bedroom windows.

The real problem with suburbia, Keats and the Gordons believed, was that it was a matriarchy. "Mary had fallen into a world of women without men," Keats wrote. "Mary Drone in Rolling Knolls was living much closer in every way to 1984 than to 1934, for she dwelt in a vast, communistic, female barracks."

Despite their sympathy for the struggling Gina Connings of the world, midcentury critics held mothers more or less responsible for all the disadvantages of suburban living. A mother couldn’t win: If she wanted to live in a nice house, she was effectively, if not outright, goading her husband to work long hours, perhaps developing an ulcer or heart disease in the process. She’d then be required to raise her children more or less single-handedly, an enterprise at which she’d inevitably be found wanting. If she made use of modern conveniences like a dryer or prepared food, she risked increasing her own boredom and further sapping her children’s moral fiber. One author connected thermostat-controlled homes with coddling, and judged that putting nice furnishings in children’s rooms stifled their creativity.

Amid this milieu, the casually misogynistic treatment of the suburban mother in Suburbia’s Coddled Kids (1962) stands out. (Incidentally, its author, Peter Wyden, was the father of Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.) In chapter two, "What Ever Happened to Daddy?," Wyden recounted a small boy telling him that "Mummy is the boss and Daddy carries the luggage," and this comes replete with a line drawing of a downtrodden husband trailing after his imperious wife, clutching her purse between his teeth.

Wyden worried the boys of suburbia were going soft. "A boy like that [with a largely absent father] may grow up to bake a fine cake, but he won’t be much of a boy," he claimed a social worker once told him. The masculinization of girls was also a concern. "What about all the housewives who wear pants, perform rugged chores around the house, and call themselves Billy or Sydney?" Wyden asked. "What notions about femininity will a little girl glean from a mother who acts much of the time in a bi-sexual capacity?" Later in the book, he quoted the director of a drug rehab clinic saying many of his young patients "come from homes dominated by the mothers."

How much truth was there in these pictures of suburban dysfunction? Did the postwar suburbs really make their first inhabitants sick?

Even at the time, the research findings of the Gordons and observations of Wyden et al. were viewed with skepticism. (The Kirkus Review called The Split-Level Trap "condescending, watered-down, [and] superficial.")

The science may be sounder, but the tone of moral approbation from the 1950s still clings to many polemics against suburban life.

Journalist William H. Whyte wrote The Organization Man (1957), a study of the midcentury white-collar professional and his environs, published the same year as The Crack in the Picture Window and also a bestseller (a better seller, in fact). In contrast to the thin sourcing of Keats’s book, Whyte made a careful study of Park Forest, Ill., interviewing numerous residents and analyzing how the physical layout of housing affected behavior.

What Whyte discovered was that physical propinquity determined social relations a great deal—and that people in Park Forest were generally quite happy. Mothers liked the support and companionship of other mothers. "You don’t find as many frustrated women in a place like this," one told him. "We gals have each other."

The Feminine Mystique was far less rosy. But Friedan didn’t see women’s dissatisfaction as stemming from a particular kind of environment. She described housewives feeling cooped up in city apartments and suburban ranches alike, and saw the birth of the suburbs as, in fact, "a limitless challenge to the energy of educated American women," with abundant opportunities for civic innovation and leadership—which women too often rejected in their efforts to be ideal housewives and mothers. "The ability of suburban life to fulfill, or truly use the potential of the able, educated American woman seems to depend on her own previous autonomy," she wrote.

Herbert Gans, who wrote the masterful sociological study The Levittowners (1965), lived in Levittown, N.J., for the town’s first two years to conduct his research. His account of early suburbanites as proactive "joiners," generally content with their lot, differs starkly from the critiques of popular writers. Not only did he reject those critiques, he came to the opposite conclusion about Levittown: "that suburban life has produced more family cohesion and a significant boost in morale through the reduction of boredom and loneliness." (The one exception was the town’s teenagers.) Gans was quite cutting about intellectuals who condemned suburbia’s "little boxes" and mocked their inhabitants as feeble John and Mary Drones: "This is upper-middle-class ethnocentrism."

Whether the suburbs were welcoming and cohesive for those who weren’t white Anglo-Saxon Protestants is another question. Whyte argued that the apparent middle-class homogeneity of suburbia actually worked to assimilate people from lower-class backgrounds and minority ethnic and religious groups—although this stopped firmly at the color line. Interestingly, the popular fiction of the time reflects the idea of suburbia as a melting pot with limits. In Love in Suburbia, there’s an upstanding Jewish family on the cul-de-sac, but conflict over the pending sale of a house to Mexican-Americans; in No Down Payment, Herman Kreitzer offers (after much hesitation) to help his black employee Jim Kemp buy a home near his in Sunrise Hills, but Kemp turns him down.

Although our diagnoses of its problems differ, we still invest suburbia with considerable power to influence people’s behavior, almost always for the worse. (Of course, people make the same claims about hectic cities, too.) The stereotype of the intense "soccer mom" at the helm of her minivan, channeling her thwarted ambitions into her kids, harks back to the crude caricatures of Wyden (who titled one chapter of his book "The Junior Rat Race"). Rather than small houses with too-near neighbors causing people to crack up, today we point to large lots, unwalkable streets, and single-use zoning as the agents of obesity and diabetes, and the SUV parked in the driveway as a vector of climate change. The science may be sounder, but the tone of moral approbation from the 1950s still clings to many polemics against suburban life.

Keats’s jibe about "fresh-air slums" was resurrected in 2008 by Christopher Leinberger, who asked, in a much-discussed feature in The Atlantic, "Are Suburbs the Next Slums?" Let’s hope not, since the majority of Americans live there, a trend that shows no sign of abating: Despite the hype around an urban revival, the share of Americans living in urban neighborhoods actually dropped from 2000 to 2014. Suburban millennials outnumber their urban counterparts, and as they start to buy homes, most are buying in the ’burbs.

Today, if Rolling Knolls existed, its residents would be a far more racially and ethnically diverse group, and they’d look out from their picture windows onto streets of mature trees, the houses differentiated by three generations of paint jobs and renovations. They might have grandma living with them, or be raising their kids alone. They’d work on construction sites and in restaurants as well as in offices downtown. Some would fuss over their emerald lawns, while others would grow corn and peppers out back. Yet the idea of suburbia as smugly white and middle-class persists, as does the suspicion that all its inhabitants are secretly miserable. Like Mary Drone closing the blinds to shut out the "ghastly view," we may be too trapped by old preconceptions to take the honest measure of suburban life today.

Editor: Sara Polsky
Photographer: Max Touhey


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