Ordinary People

by Judith Guest

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In the upper-middle-class Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, Illinois, Conrad Jarrett is preparing for school. The seventeen-year-old joins his parents, Calvin and Beth, for breakfast, during which they exchange uncomfortable small talk. It is one month to the day since Conrad returned from a mental institution. He was institutionalized after he tried to kill himself following the accidental drowning of his older brother, Buck.

Conrad rides to school with several friends; he feels out of place in English class, and his swim coach alludes tactlessly to Conrad’s experiences in the mental hospital. Conrad feels less guarded and uncomfortable only in chorus class. When Conrad comes home, he and his mother engage in a brief, strained verbal exchange.

Beth recommends to Cal that they take a Christmas trip to London, which makes Cal uncomfortable since he not only is worried about Conrad but also is grieving silently over Buck’s death. As part of his recovery from clinical depression, Conrad begins psychotherapy with Dr. Berger. He reveals that his brother drowned in a boating accident, confesses his own suicide attempt using razor blades, and announces that he wants to be in better control of his emotions and his life.

Conrad meets Karen, a friend from the mental institution. He learns that, far from experiencing his awkwardness and discomfort, she is very happily involved in her school. At a neighbor’s dinner party, Cal angers Beth by drinking too much and revealing that Conrad is seeing a therapist.

When Conrad reveals to Dr. Berger his increasing disgust with being on the swim team, Berger encourages Conrad to trust and act upon his feelings. Conrad quietly quits the team, causing an unpleasant confrontation with his mother, who verbally attacks him because she found out about his decision from a friend and not from Conrad himself. Conrad angrily accuses his mother of not caring about him and accuses his father of not understanding the simmering hostility between mother and son. Dr. Berger encourages Conrad to accept his mother’s emotional limitations while not blaming himself for them.

Under Dr. Berger’s care, Conrad becomes increasingly strong emotionally; on Conrad’s eighteenth birthday, Cal admits that he wants to see Dr. Berger himself. Cal and Dr. Berger discuss Cal’s guilt at being a poor father and husband. He blames himself for failing to recognize signs that Conrad might attempt suicide, and he feels powerless to stop Beth and Conrad’s increasing isolation from each other and from him. Calvin ponders Beth’s coldness and need for perfection and order.

Conrad’s confidence grows to the point that, when he is unable to reach Karen by phone, he asks a friend from chorus class, Jeanine, out on a mutually enjoyable date. Later, however, Conrad loses control and punches a male student for making a vulgar remark about Conrad’s friendship with Jeanine. Lazenby, who was Conrad and Buck’s best friend, rebukes Conrad for his sudden aggression, whereas Calvin excuses Conrad for his outward, rather than inward, expression of anger.

Conrad stays with his maternal grandparents while Cal and Beth visit Beth’s brother and sister-in-law in Texas. Conrad spends a very relaxing evening with Jeanine; shortly after, however, he reads in the newspaper that his friend Karen has committed suicide. This triggers traumatic panic attacks, in which Conrad relives the horrors of the mental institution, feels again his powerlessness to save his brother during the boating accident, and remembers his own suicide attempt. Badly shaken, he meets with Dr. Berger in the middle of the night.

Through Conrad’s eruption of guilt, rage, and pain, Berger helps him understand that he is not responsible for his brother’s...

(This entire section contains 848 words.)

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death, and that his only “crime”—a forgivable one—is that he chose to cling to the boat and live. Berger explains that guilt is nothing more than irrational and undeserved self-punishment, that depression is a counterproductive stifling of feeling, and that being fully alive requires openness to all emotions, not just to happy ones. Berger uses their mutual sadness at Karen’s suicide to demonstrate that ugly things happen in life that cannot be understood or explained, but self-lacerating depression and guilt are not the answers.

In Texas, Calvin becomes increasingly enraged at Beth’s refusal to deal with Buck’s death and Conrad’s suicide attempt. Beth’s self-centeredness and need for predictability and neatness in life make her explode with paranoid rage. She even suggests that Conrad’s suicide attempt was intended to hurt her.

Conrad, now at peace, warmly welcomes his parents home, although Cal and Beth interact with each other icily. As his relationship with Jeanine deepens, Conrad is shocked by his mother’s sudden, unexplained return to Texas. When he blames himself, Calvin explains that people’s actions—like life events—are not always governed by logical cause and effect, are not always fully understandable, and are no one’s fault. Calvin and Conrad express their love for each other, and Conrad opens himself up to his old friends and to whatever life may bring his way.