Ordinary People by Judith Guest

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