Ordinary People

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