In Ordinary People by Judith Guest, there are few scenes between Beth and Conrad. Much of the story about their relationship is seen through Calvin, who frequently acts as a buffer between his wife and son. In part, the reason that there are not many scenes in which Beth and Conrad speak to one another directly is to emphasize their estrangement from one another. They live in the same house. They are mother and son and yet, they do not have much of a relationship.
Over the course of the story, it seems clear that Beth is “emotionally crippled,” as the author says. She suppresses her feelings and does not seem compassionate to her son, who is trying to regain his stability after a devastating boating accident in which his brother drowned and his subsequent suicide attempt.
Beth remains distant to Conrad and almost seems to blame him for the suicide attempt. Conrad slit his wrist, discharging an enormous amount of blood. It is almost as if Beth is angry with him for the messy way he tried to kill himself. The reader wonders whether she would have been less angry if he had attempted suicide in a cleaner way. She also blames him for trying to hurt her through the suicide attempt. It is almost as if she feels that it was the ultimate way for him to place guilt on her for her inadequacies as a mother who clearly lacks maternal feelings.
Although they never confront one another about the suicide attempt, they do have a fight over Conrad’s dropping off the swim team and failing to tell his parents about it. When they fight, the response story that Beth uses with Conrad is to relate the outing she had with her friends when it became apparent that she did not know her son's activities. She imagines the friends saying to themselves, "Poor Mrs. Jarrett, oh the poor woman, she has no idea what her son is up to, he lies and lies and she believes every word of it—”
She wants to know why Conrad tried to hurt her. This is one of the only scenes in the book that involves any direct dialogue between them. She refers to his deceit in pretending that he was still on the team, but perhaps she is also referring to his suicide attempt when she asks why he tried to hurt her. In response, he says,
“Hurt you? Me hurt you! Listen, you’re the one who’s trying to hurt me!”
“And how did I do that? By making you look like a fool in front of a roomful of people? Did you have to sit there, getting those looks? Poor Mrs. Jarrett, oh the poor woman, she has no idea what her son is up to, he lies and lies and she believes every word of it—”
“I didn’t lie—”
“You did! You lied every night that you came into this house at six-thirty. What do you mean, you didn’t lie?” She presses her hands tight to her head. “I can’t stand this, I really can’t! If it’s starting all over again, the lying and the disappearing for hours, the covering up—I won’t stand it!”
After this, he breaks down and unleashes his anger. He accuses her of being angry merely because she felt embarrassed in front of her friends. She is all about appearances and was blindsided when a friend knew that Conrad was no longer on the swim team but she was taken by surprise.