‘Gump’: Joy and Regret

<i> Muriel Cohen, a Los Angeles writer on the subject of mental retardation, is the mother of a mentally retarded adult son who lives in a care facility near the family home and participates in a work program and community activities</i>

As a parent of a mentally retarded adult son, I viewed the splendid new film “Forrest Gump” with both joy and disappointment. I reveled in the picture’s tone of affection and sympathy for Gump, hoping it may well inspire more people to believe in men and women with developmental disabilities. However, it is the reliance on fantasy, on the unreal for Gump’s triumphs (as much as I enjoyed them) that let me down.

I loved it when the scenes moved the audience to cheer Gump, the unlikely football star, applauding right there at a Saturday matinee, as he raced across the field. I appreciate as well Gump’s heartbreaking Vietnam experiences. Through them and the other exploits one comes to know the reality of Gump’s basic decency, his inner strengths. For me, at least, it is Gump’s personal qualities that are celebrated with accolades and medals rather than the heroic but make-believe outcomes.

In the movie, Gump’s loving mother is a beacon light. Her meaningful instructions wrap her son in a protective cover. It is one of the nicest truths in the film. Gump’s mother comes close to the parents I’ve known who privately teach their sons and daughters the words and ideas to live by while publicly working together to advocate for better lives for their disabled loved ones.

Ironically, while Gump’s glory years are romanticized, they occur during the same time span when all too many developmentally disabled individuals had the most dismal lives. The story takes place before the passage of significant legislation that recognized the rights of developmentally disabled persons; when integration in schools and work settings was unheard of, many special-needs services were still unavailable and parent advocacy organizations were just beginning. Even a fictitious Gump had to be removed from that reality and placed in an artificial life.


The movie’s special effects are wonderful, part of the magic of innovative filmmaking. And yet the story and its attitude are old-fashioned. It idealizes Gump’s lack of sophistication. Gump remains an outsider, not one of us, because he is linked to myth and make-believe. Somehow it does a disservice to today’s men and women with Gump’s 75 IQ who are working and participating in the daily life of their communities.

I am glad the film “Forrest Gump” was made. Tom Hanks’ deeply moving performance alone justifies it. Besides, Hollywood is fast developing quite a library of films that involve the lives of disabled individuals. I welcome it as yet another facet of integration. But, now, let us move on to the other story out there that is waiting to be filmed. It will be filled with its own kind of romance and high drama showing what it’s like contributing to contemporary American life when you are developmentally disabled.