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Student Question

What are the risks, buffers, strengths, and unspoken family rules in Gilbert's family in the film What's Eating Gilbert Grape?

Quick answer:

Gilbert Grape's family is beset by risk factors in the form of life stress, physical health crises, poverty, immigration status and a lack of social support. The film does not shy away from the reality of these many risks that the family faces. However, "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" does not focus on the negative factors as much as it celebrates how people deal with such issues as they emerge. The film showcases how people overcome situational risks and challenges; this does not mean that there are no residual effects, but rather that those who experience difficulties can still move forward with their lives and find happiness even in difficult circumstances.

Expert Answers

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Part of what exactly is eating at Gilbert Grape is seeing his family besieged with so much in way of risks and little in terms of buffers.  The risks that the Grape family face cut a wide swath in defining challenge.  Some situational risk factors that the family faces are issues of life stress and physical health crises.  These can be seen with the suicide of Gilbert's father, something that has not been processed by the family members at the outset of the film.  Gilbert's residual anger is due in large part to the lack of understanding about why his father took his own life.  Gilbert's mother has withdrawn from society as a result of her husband's death, and the entire family structure feels the weight of his absence.  At the same time, Arnie's condition is a health crisis that placed challenges on the family.  Gilbert's entire premise of being is to tend to Arnie, and to his many needs.  Enduring risk factors are also present in how Gilbert feels trapped in his life.  His hitting Arnie and temporary abdication of responsibility towards him is an example of an impaired relationship between child and care- giver, a condition that might have been impacted with the father's death and the mother's succumbing to a depression that has rendered her incapable of taking care of her children.  Poverty and economic challenge is another risk factor that "eats" at the Grape family.  There is a lack of stable growth when it comes to economic reality in the family.  Finally, Gilbert's own condition has impacted the relationship with his family, causing conflict within the structure.  

There are unwritten rules in Gilbert's family that create problems for individuals within it.  Some of the risk factors that the family experiences are rooted in these unwritten rules.  One unwritten rule is that Gilbert is responsible for keeping the family intact.  It was never fully articulated that Gilbert would become the primary caregiver in the family as well as its primary earner and source of emotional support.  This unwritten rule causes much in way of angst and challenge within Gilbert's characterization:  "Okay. I want a new thing. House. I want a new house. And a family...   I want Momma to take aerobics classes. I want Ellen to grow up. I want a new brain for Arnie. I want..."  The unwritten rule that Gilbert has to assume much in way of the family's primary responsibility is what causes so much hurt for him in the course of the film. This unwritten rule is evident when Arnie says that Gilbert will "take care of it" because "he's Gilbert."   Another unwritten rule is that Debbie is not going to be able to provide more for her family.  The family has accepted that Debbie's depression and physical condition are facts that cannot be changed.  This causes a problem because as she suffers, the family does as well because of the stress placed upon them.  

Despite such overwhelming risk factors, I do think that some buffers are present for Gilbert's family.  One distinct buffer is that there is a strength within the family which allows for reconciliation even after Gilbert rebels against the structure.  Another buffer is the coping strategy that Bonnie shows in standing up for Arnie when he is arrested, and how the children set the house on fire in order to prevent the public exhibition of Bonnie's corpse.  In burning the house, another buffer that is evident is the family's embrace of change, and willingness to make conditions work for their benefit.  In the end, Amy's new job and Ellen's new school both underscore a buffer of how change is accepted and embraced as a part of being in the world.  These buffers help to offset some of the most intense of challenges the family faces.

As a social worker, I would suggest that the buffers within the family are of vital importance.  Specifically, Gilbert finds a buffer in his relationship with Becky.  This set of circumstances enables Gilbert to actively confront the challenging set of risks that Gilbert must confront.  The social support and sense of personal support that Becky offers would be critical in my assisting Gilbert. As a social worker, I would stress to Gilbert that the strides he has made in coming to terms and processing his past and embracing it as a part of his identity for the present and future are productive steps towards being happy.  These same traits are evident in the family's unity and cohesion in the wake of Bonnie's death.  I would build upon these strengths in sessions that would accentuate how the family's ability to recognize what should be from what is represents a transformative ability to emerge stronger from challenging conditions.  

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