Judith Guests “ordinary People”: SummaryJudith Guest’s “Ordinary People”: SummaryOrdinary People by Judith Guest is the story of a dysfunctional familywho relate to one another through a series of extensive defense mechanisms, i.e.
an unconscious process whereby reality is distorted to reduce or preventanxiety. The book opens with seventeen year old Conrad, son of upper middle-class Beth and Calvin Jarrett, home after eight months in a psychiatrichospital, there because he had attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. Hismother is a meticulously orderly person who, Jared, through projection, feelsdespises him.
She does all the right things; attending to Jared’s physicalneeds, keeping a spotless home, plays golf and bridge with other women in hersocial circle, but, in her own words “is an emotional cripple”. Jared’sfather, raised in an orphanage, seems anxious to please everyone, a commonplacereaction of individuals who, as children, experienced parental indifference orinconsistency. 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 andhome-life, appear to be more than Conrad can handle. Chalk-faced, hair-hackedConrad 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 aproblem 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 thedeath by drowning of Conrad’s older brother, Buck.
Conrad eventually contacts a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, because he feelsthe “air is full of flying glass” and wants to feel in control. Their initialsessions together frustrate the psychiatrist because of Conrad’s inability toexpress his feelings. Berger cajoles him into expressing his emotions bysaying, “That’s what happens when you bury this junk, kiddo. It keepsresurfacing. Won’t leave you alone.” Conrad’s slow but steady journeytowards healing seems partially the result of cathartic revelations whichpurge guilt feelings regarding his brother’s death and his family’s denial ofthat death, plus the “love of a good woman. Jeannine, who sings soprano toConrad’s tenor…”There is no doubt that Conrad is consumed with guilt, “the feeling onehas when one acts contrary to a role he has assumed while interacting with asignificant person in his life,” This guilt engenders in Conrad feelings oflow self esteem. Survivors of horrible tragedies, such as the Holocaust,frequently express similar feelings of worthlessness. In his book, “AgainstAll Odds”, William Helmreich relates how one survivor articulates a feeling ofabandonment. “Did I abandon them, or did they abandon me?” Conrad expressesa similar thought in remembering the sequence of events when the sailboat theywere on turned over. Buck soothes Conrad saying, “Okay, okay. They’ll belooking now, for sure, just hang on, don’t get tired, promise? In animagined conversation with his dead brother, Conrad asks, “‘Man, why’d you letgo?’ ‘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 youlet go!’ ‘I couldn’t help it.
Well, screw you, then!'” Conrad feels terrible anger with his brother, butcannot comfortably express that anger. His psychiatrist, after needling Conrad,asks, “Are you mad?” When Conrad responds that he is not mad, the psychiatristsays, “Now that is a lie. You are mad as hell.” Conrad asserts that, “Whenyou let yourself feel, all you feel is lousy.” When his psychiatristquestions him about his relationship with his mother, Calvin says, “My motherand I do not connect. Why should it bother me? My mother is a very privateperson.” This sort of response is called, in psychological literature,”rationalization”.
We see Conrad’s anger and aggression is displaced, i.e. vented onanother, as when he physically attacked a schoolmate. Yet, he also turns hisanger 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 onspecial meaning. Most feel guilty about the death of loved ones whom they feelthey could have, or should have, saved. Some feel guilty about situations inwhich they behaved selfishly (Conrad held on to the boat even after his brotherlet go), even if there was no other way to survive. In answer to a query fromhis psychiatrist on when he last got really mad, Conrad responds, “When itcomes, there’s always too much of it. I don’t know how to handle it.” WhenConrad is finally able to express his anger, Berger, the psychiatrist says toCalvin, “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 publicdisplays of emotion, Conrad keeps his feelings bottled up, which furthercontributes to depression. Encyclopedia Britannica, in explicating thedynamics of depression states, “Upon close study, the attacks on the self arerevealed to be unconscious expressions of disappointment and anger towardanother person, or even a circumstance…, deflected from their real directiononto the self. The aggression, therefore, directed toward the outside worldis turned against the self.” The article further asserts that, “There arethree cardinal psychodynamic considerations in depression: (1) a deep sense ofloss of what is loved or valued, which may be a person, a thing or evenliberty; (2) a conflict of mixed feelings of love and hatred toward what isloved 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 hisown admission, he drinks too much, “because drinking helps…, deadening thepain”. 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 towhether or not he is a good father. “What is fatherhood, anyway?”Beth, Conrad’s mother, is very self-possessed. She appears to have ahighly developed super-ego, that part of an individual’s personality which is”moralistic…, meeting the demands of social convention, which can beirrational in requiring certain behaviors in spite of reason, convenience andcommon sense”. She is furthermore, a perfectionist. “Everything had to beperfect, 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 theswim team and a list-maker. His father tells the psychiatrist, “I see her notbeing able to forgive him. For surviving, maybe. No, that’s not it, for beingtoo much like her.” A psychoanalyst might call her anal retentive. Someonewho is “fixated symbolically in orderliness and a tendency towardperfectionism”. “Excessive self-control, not expressing feelings, guardsagainst anxiety by controlling any expression of emotion and denying emotionalinvestment in a thing or person. “She had not cried at the funeral…. Sheand 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 seeConrad moving toward recovery and the successful management of his stage ofdevelopment, as articulated by Erikson, “intimacy vs. isolation”. At storyend, his father is more open with Conrad, moving closer to him, while hismother goes off on her own to work out her issues. Both trying to realizecongruence in their development stage (Erikson), “ego integrity vs. despair”.
ReferencesAn Introduction to Theories of Personality, Hergenhahn, B.R., PrenticeHall, New Jersey, 1994, page 60.
Psychology, The Science of Behavior, Carlson, Neil R., Simon& Schuster, MA, 1984, page 481.
Ordinary People, Guest, Judith, p. 253Psychology Today, An Introduction, Bootzin, R.R., Bower,G.H., Zajonc, R.B., Random House, NY, 1986, page 464.
FootnotesOrdinary People, page 4.
ibid, p. 116ibid, p. 118Carlson, Neil R., page 393.
Time, July 19, 1976, p.68Hergenhahn, 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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