Ordinary People by Judith Guest is the story of a
dysfunctional family who relate to one another through a series of
extensive defense mechanisms, i.e. an unconscious process whereby
reality is distorted to reduce or prevent anxiety. The book opens
with seventeen year old Conrad, son of upper middle-class Beth and
Calvin Jarrett, home after eight months in a psychiatric hospital,
there because he had attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. His
mother is a meticulously orderly person who, Jared, through
projection, feels despises him. She does all the right things;
attending to Jared's physical needs, keeping a spotless home, plays
golf and bridge with other women in her social circle, but, in her
own words "is an emotional cripple". Jared's father, raised in an
orphanage, seems anxious to please everyone, a commonplace reaction
of individuals who, as children, experienced parental indifference
or inconsistency. Though a successful tax attorney, he is jumpy
around Conrad, and, according to his wife, drinks too many
Conrad seems consumed with despair. A return to normalcy,
school and home-life, appear to be more than Conrad can handle.
Chalk-faced, hair-hacked Conrad seems bent on perpetuating the
family myth that all is well in the world. His family, after all,
"are people of good taste. They do not discuss a problem in the
face of the problem. And, besides, there is no problem." Yet,
there is not one problem in this family but two - Conrad's suicide
and the death by drowning of Conrad's older brother, Buck.
Conrad eventually contacts a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, because
he feels the "air is full of flying glass" and wants to feel in
control. Their initial sessions together frustrate the psychiatrist
because of Conrad's inability to express his feelings. Berger
cajoles him into expressing his emotions by saying, "That's what
happens when you bury this junk, kiddo. It keeps resurfacing.
Won't leave you alone." Conrad's slow but steady journey towards
healing seems partially the result of cathartic revelations which
purge guilt feelings regarding his brother's death and his
family's denial of that death, plus the "love of a good woman.
Jeannine, who sings soprano to Conrad's tenor..."
There is no doubt that Conrad is consumed with guilt, "the
feeling one has when one acts contrary to a role he has assumed
while interacting with a significant person in his life," This
guilt engenders in Conrad feelings of low self esteem.
Survivors of horrible tragedies, such as the Holocaust, frequently
express similar feelings of worthlessness. In his book, "Against
All Odds", William Helmreich relates how one survivor articulates a
feeling of abandonment. "Did I abandon them, or did they abandon
me?" Conrad expresses a similar thought in remembering the
sequence of events when the sailboat they were on turned over.
Buck soothes Conrad saying, "Okay, okay. They'll be looking now,
for sure, just hang on, don't get tired, promise? In an
imagined conversation with his dead brother, Conrad asks, "'Man,
why'd you let go?' 'Because I got tired.' 'The hell! You never
get tired, not before me, you don't! You tell me not to get tired,
you tell me to hang on, and then you let go!' 'I couldn't help it.
Well, screw you, then!'" Conrad feels terrible anger with his
brother, but cannot comfortably express that anger. His
psychiatrist, after needling Conrad, asks, "Are you mad?" When
Conrad responds that he is not mad, the psychiatrist says, "Now
that is a lie. You are mad as hell." Conrad asserts that,
"When you let yourself feel, all you feel is lousy." When his
psychiatrist questions him about his relationship with his mother,
Calvin says, "My mother and I do not connect. Why should it bother
me? My mother is a very private person." This sort of response
is called, in psychological literature, "rationalization".
We see Conrad's anger and aggression is displaced, i.e. vented
on another, as when he physically attacked a schoolmate. Yet, he
also turns his anger on himself and expresses in extreme and
dangerous depression and guilt. "Guilt is a normal emotion felt
by most people, but among survivors it takes on special meaning.
Most feel guilty about the death of loved ones whom they feel they
could have, or should have, saved. Some feel guilty about
situations in which they behaved selfishly (Conrad held on to the
boat even after his brother let go), even if there was no other way
to survive. In answer to a query from his psychiatrist on when
he last got really mad, Conrad responds, "When it comes, there's
always too much of it. I don't know how to handle it." When
Conrad is finally able to express his anger, Berger, the
psychiatrist says to Calvin, "Razoring is anger; self-mutilation is
anger. So this is a good sign; turning his anger outward at
Because his family, and especially his mother, frowns upon
public displays of emotion, Conrad keeps his feelings bottled up,
which further contributes to depression. Encyclopedia Britannica,
in explicating the dynamics of depression states, "Upon close
study, the attacks on the self are revealed to be unconscious
expressions of disappointment and anger toward another person, or
even a circumstance..., deflected from their real direction onto
the self. The aggression, therefore, directed toward the outside
world is turned against the self." The article further asserts
that, "There are three cardinal psychodynamic considerations in
depression: (1) a deep sense of loss of what is loved or valued,
which may be a person, a thing or even liberty; (2) a conflict of
mixed feelings of love and hatred toward what is loved or highly
valued; (3) a heightened overcritical concern with the self."
Conrad's parents are also busily engaged in the business of
denial. Calvin, Conrad's father, says, "Don't worry. Everything
is all right. By his own admission, he drinks too much, "because
drinking helps..., deadening the pain". Calvin cannot tolerate
conflict. Things must go smoothly. "Everything is jello and
pudding with you, Dad." Calvin, the orphan says, "Grief is ugly.
It is something to be afraid of, to get rid of". "Safety and
order. Definitely the priorities of his life. He constantly
questions himself as to whether or not he is a good father. "What
is fatherhood, anyway?"
Beth, Conrad's mother, is very self-possessed. She appears
to have a highly developed super-ego, that part of an individual's
personality which is "moralistic..., meeting the demands of social
convention, which can be irrational in requiring certain behaviors
in spite of reason, convenience and common sense". She is
furthermore, a perfectionist. "Everything had to be perfect, never
mind the impossible hardship it worked on her, on them all."
Conrad is not unlike his mother. He is an overachiever, an "A"
student, on the swim team and a list-maker. His father tells the
psychiatrist, "I see her not being able to forgive him. For
surviving, maybe. No, that's not it, for being too much like
her." A psychoanalyst might call her anal retentive. Someone
who is "fixated symbolically in orderliness and a tendency toward
perfectionism". "Excessive self-control, not expressing
feelings, guards against anxiety by controlling any expression of
emotion and denying emotional investment in a thing or person.
"She had not cried at the funeral.... She and Conrad had been
strong and calm throughout."
The message of the book is contained in Berger's glib saying
that, "People who keep stiff upper lips find that it's damn hard to
smile". We see Conrad moving toward recovery and the successful
management of his stage of development, as articulated by Erikson,
"intimacy vs. isolation". At story end, his father is more open
with Conrad, moving closer to him, while his mother goes off on her
own to work out her issues. Both trying to realize congruence in
their development stage (Erikson), "ego integrity vs. despair".
An Introduction to Theories of Personality, Hergenhahn, B.R.,
Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1994, page 60.
Psychology, The Science of Behavior, Carlson, Neil R., Simon
& Schuster, MA, 1984, page 481.
Ordinary People, Guest, Judith, p. 253
Psychology Today, An Introduction, Bootzin, R.R., Bower,
G.H., Zajonc, R.B., Random House, NY, 1986, page 464.
Ordinary People, page 4.
ibid, p. 116
ibid, p. 118
Carlson, Neil R., page 393.
Time, July 19, 1976, p.68
Hergenhahn, page 481.
Carlson, Neil R., page 484.
Against All Odds, Helmreich, William B., Simon & Schuster,
New York, NY, 1992, p. 134.
Guest, p. 217.
Guest, p. 218.
Guest, page 98.
Guest, page 116.
Guest, page 97.
Bootzin, et. al., page 459.
Bootzin, et al., page 459.
a psych. book, p.
Helmreich, p. 234.
Guest, p. 100.
Guest, page 190.
Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 7, p. 269.
ibid, p. 269.
Guest, page 30.
Guest, page 59.
Guest, page 114.
Guest, Page 127.
Guest, page 173.
Guest, page 8.
Guest, page 26.
Bootzin, et. al., pp. 457-460.
Guest, page 89.
Guest, page 147.
Hergenhahn, page 40.
Ibid, page 147.
Guest, page 204.
Guest, page 225.
Bootzin, et. al, page 467.
Ibid, page 467.
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