Ordinary People


Ordinary People Essay, Research Paper

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 martinis. 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 last." 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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