Judith Guest\'s "Ordinary People": Summary


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