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Ordinary people by judith guest

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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