Written by Sarah Duncan, blog contributor for Monstering
*Warning: Spoilers for the NBC Series, The Good Place
Mostly, I remember looking up. I was eleven years old, visiting my grandmother in Delaware, and I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I was kneeling on the fold out bed in the little room on the third floor, my face turned towards the skylight window as I whispered prayers to God.
I had become suddenly terrified of myself. Earlier that night, I had seen a knife on a counter, and my mind had whispered what-ifs to me. What if you harm someone with that knife? What if you want to? What if you already have, and you forgot? What if you are inherently a person who stabs people? What if you are secretly bad?
It’s easy to laugh a little at the absurdity of these thoughts. Or at least, it’s easy for me to laugh at them now, at 34, as a heavily medicated adult with an excellent mental health team and supportive loved ones.
But I couldn’t laugh when I was eleven. So I prayed instead.
~ ~ ~
Expertly portrayed by William Jackson Harper, Chidi Anagonye is a near-iconic television character from the brilliant show, The Good Place. Created by Michael Schur, The Good Place found a way to make personal growth, moral redemption, and the circle of life and death staggeringly hilarious without losing any profundity. It is a remarkable achievement. But, with that said, the characterization of Chidi Anagonye raises some important questions about the representation and coding of mental illness in television characters.
In the world of The Good Place, Chidi Anagonye was a moral philosophy professor born to other professors in Nigeria and raised in Senegal. The series begins in “the good place” — aka, heaven — and we meet Chidi right away, learning that he’s excited to spend his afterlife with his soulmate, relax with a good bottle of wine and read his favorite books of philosophical theory. Unfortunately, he ends up stuck in a “putrid, disgusting bowl of ethical soup” where he has to do the Right Thing(™) — except there isn’t only one right thing to do. Consequently, we watch Chidi flounder, perpetually sick with panic over almost every decision he makes and losing any opportunity he might have had to have a blissful heavenly R & R.
As the series progresses, we get a few, notable glimpses into his previous life on earth. In one flashback, Chidi and his best friend, Uzo, are arguing on a sidewalk. The two of them are trying to find a place to go to get a drink, but we soon learn that it is taking them over an hour to pick a place because Chidi is stuck in indecision.
“It is literally impossible to be your friend!” Uzo yells at Chidi. “You are incapable of making a single decision!” Chidi starts to defend himself, only to be cut off by his impending death: an air-conditioner falls from a building window above him, and he dies instantly.
Ah well. If only, the show tells us with a wink, if only. Had Chidi been a little more chill, a little easier to get along with, a little less impossible… he’d be alive.
~ ~ ~
Like Chidi, I became obsessed with being good. My father had an old card game called Scruples, where you guess which hypothetical decisions other players would make based on your understanding of their moral code. It was like ethics and moral philosophy poker, with a side of theology. I was hooked on it. In fact, if I couldn’t find someone to play with it, I would sit in my room, reading the cards on my own. What would I do in this situation? I asked myself. How about this one? Would that be the right call?
Of course, this is the lighter childhood story, the one I tell to get a laugh about my curious, endearing tween nature back in the late 1990s. But there are other stories. Mainly, one other story:
In the years following the incident at my grandmother’s house, I became more and more sick with obsessive and intrusive thoughts and compulsions, so much so that I spent every day of middle school seeking atonement for everything I could remember I had ever done wrong.
I am not being hyperbolic. When I say everything, I mean it. I would sit for hours, ruminating on my past memories, anxiously searching for proof of my inherent immorality. Once I found something (I always found something), I would confess this transgression to my parents in order to be forgiven. The real kicker was that when I ran out of factual memories, I started to “what-if” myself to oblivion, and I would confess to my parents that I might have done something, but I couldn’t remember whether or not I had. Examples are many, but they range from when I confessed about the time I actually stole cute tiny post-it note pads from my piano teacher’s house to telling my mother that I was afraid I might have gone into my pastor’s office at church and might have robbed it. Robbed it of what, exactly? I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. All I knew was that I was bad, therefore I could not trust myself — my memories, my own moral compass, or what I was capable of doing in the future. I saw myself as a monster. An 11 year old, guilt-ridden, monster.
~ ~ ~
Even though I was a pretty instant fan of The Good Place (drawn to it initially by Kristen Bell’s consistent allure), I felt a little embarrassed and pained when I watched Chidi onscreen because, from a certain angle, I knew I was watching myself, sans PhD. But it was even harder watching the other characters observe and react to Chidi. Naturally, I had never watched myself from a complete outsider’s perspective. Watching Chidi felt close to this. And it felt uncomfortable.
Chidi’s characterization as anxiously ridden with questions about the morality of his every action is framed in two main ways, both of which are quite ableist. First, the show presents his struggle as a pitiable, somewhat adorably anxious affliction that he brings on himself through his own passion for moral philosophy. The “pathetic” mentally ill or (dis)abled character that the audience feels a pity and frustration towards is a common (dis)ability trope in Hollywood. In The Good Place, this pitiable framing leads to lots of (admittedly often still quite funny) jokes about Chidi’s obsessive nature, his stomach aches, his nerdiness, and his inability to make even benign, small decisions (such as what to eat for lunch). The second way his anxiety and indecisiveness is framed is as his main character flaw: we learn, along with Chidi, that these attributes were a terrible inconvenience and even a harm to his loved ones, thereby dooming him to the bad place as a bad person. In other words, Chidi spent his life in fear of doing the wrong thing, only to learn after death that the fear itself was immoral. The irony is glaring.
Except it isn’t just ironic. For people with obsessive-compulsive disorder like Chidi and myself, a plot like this is nothing short of condemnation — the very thing we have pathologically feared our whole lives.
~ ~ ~
The tropes and assumptions about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are well-recognized, but the overproduction of these tropes in the media has obscured symptoms and experiences of the disorder that don't fit common perceptions. Compulsions such as excessive hand-washing, counting steps, door locking, stove checking, and compulsive neatness are real symptoms of OCD. But these symptoms are only part of the much broader, and multifaceted, disorder.
There are seven types of OCD: checking, contamination, mental contamination, hoarding, ruminations, intrusive thoughts, and symmetry and orderliness. There are multiple subtypes of intrusive thoughts as well: HOCD (Harm OCD - fear of doing harm to others), POCD (either Postpartum OCD - fear of harming the child - or Pedophile OCD - fear of being or becoming a pedophile), ROCD (Relationship OCD - fear of not being enough for a partner or of one’s partner being wrong or bad), Sexual Orientation OCD (fear of being a different sexual orientation), Sensorimotor OCD (preoccupation with body functions like breathing), Existential OCD (fear of there being no meaning) and Scrupulosity OCD (fear of being inherently immoral, doing the wrong thing, going against God and/or being evil).
In an essay about Scrupulosity OCD she wrote for The Mighty, Kelly Nicole writes:
“Non-religious moral scrupulosity is also a very common OCD presentation among children. There are no media representations of this sub-type, and many parents and medical professionals miss it due to a lack of awareness. In children, this subtype will often start displaying as the child feeling the need to “confess” to thoughts and feelings they’re experiencing. They may feel compelled to tell you every single time they ever lied about something or did something “bad,” no matter how small or inconsequential. The central theme is that the child feels they are morally “bad” or “wrong” for a thought or behavior that they had or did, and the only way they can deal with the building anxiety is to “confess” and get it off their chest.”
“Some of these [her OCD’s] “rules” seem to make sense at first, with “don’t lie” being one of them. Why has my OCD prescribed this rule? Because lying makes you a “liar,” which makes you “bad.” Society teaches that if you are a “bad” person, this may lead to ostracism, shame and abandonment. Therefore, “it is bad to lie” may seem like a fair enough moral judgment at first. But what are the implications of this thinking for me, someone who lives with moral scrupulosity OCD? In my reality, living out the rule “don’t lie” looks like not being able to read something aloud to my partner without reading it exactly word-for-word because to paraphrase is “lying.” It means not being able to round up numbers when I’m telling someone what the time is or how much something costs because then I’m “lying.”
In later episodes of the series, Chidi’s relationship to lying is explored in a few notable incidents. In one scenario, the main characters all have to lie about who they are so they won’t get caught and tortured by evil demons (we’ve all been there, am I right?) But not Chidi. Chidi refuses to lie, even to demons. Strict Kantian that he is, Chidi argues that this is simply proof of his firm moral code. But everyone else around him points out that not lying in this harrowing (and very specific) situation would directly harm people including himself.
But he can’t do it. Because when you have Scrupulosity OCD and you are asked to lie, you know that if you comply, you will experience a level of immense suffering. What kind of choice is that?
Chidi was luckier than some. He was able to turn his fears into a profession, doing his compulsions (mental checks, ruminating, and seeking reassurance) on the university’s dime. He didn’t get much relief through this, as compulsions only further the OCD cycle. But still, he had work, shelter, his life, and his agency throughout his time on earth. Many people with mental illness are stripped of one or all of these in their attempts to navigate a hostile, ableist world.
And I, too, have been lucky. The combination of my class status, citizenship status, and whiteness meant that resources like therapy, medication, and support groups have been easily accessible for me most of the time. Yet, even with these structures in place, Chidi and I continue to live with, and often suffer from, OCD. Because our compulsions don’t give any of us with OCD any lasting relief — that’s why it’s a disorder. We obsess, we compulse, we repeat. Human record players, the lot of us. And this is why we drive everyone “crazy.”
We get it. OCD drives us “crazy” too. In fact, not to pull rank, but uh… it made us crazy first. Which is a lighthearted way of saying: don’t forget that it’s worse for us.
~ ~ ~
When I write about ableism in popular television and film, I tend to go at a film or television show with my fists reflexively up, ready to strike. Honestly, I like to imagine myself like Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Wearing a hot coat, effortlessly energetic, simultaneously quipping and defeating oppressive tropes and messages (metaphorical vampires) that lead to violence against the (dis)abled, mad, and neurodivergent communities. Of course, there are a few issues with this mental exercise, the main one being that Buffy is supposed to be the savior of all humanity (aka blonde Jesus) and I very much am not, thank goodness. I worked with others to save myself, and while I’ve failed some people, I’ve been able to help some people fasten their own life jackets. None of that is quite as dynamic sounding as defeating the forces of pop culture’s evil in the dead of night, I suppose.
Good. Because I’m feeling much softer here, at the end of this winding essay. Even though I still firmly object to Chidi’s OCD being unnamed, unaddressed, and plotted as the reason for his damnation to “The Bad Place,” I have surprised myself at how fond I still feel towards the series. I suspect this fondness is for Chidi himself. It’s not a fondness born out of pity, but necessity. I want to reach for him, find him in the timeline where he’s still on earth.
Nice sweater-vest, Chidi, I’d tell him, without a hint of sarcasm (and in fluent French, because in this imaginary scenario I speak French). I’m difficult too, I’d say. But not impossible. And neither are you.
I’m certain such an exchange would really weird him out, if we’re taking this scenario literally. But still, I’d give him tenderness. The same tenderness a scared child whispering prayers of apology could have used, once, long before.