Ordinary People 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