During the early 1980’s  I wrote a regular psychology column for Newsday called, “Families”  



Families Column

Villain-mother an unfair stereotype in ‘Ordinary People’

By Stanley Robert Siegel


The motion picture “Ordinary People,” heralded as “rich in the real-life complexities of human relationships,” presents a view of the affluent American family as repressive and harmful. The free expression of emotion is equated with decency and wholeness, as catharsis triumphs over privacy and discipline. It is an absorbing film that is drawing crowds, and it’s been named best picture of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle. But its vivid messages are deceptive, and therein lies the danger.

“Ordinary People” is the story of 17-year-old Conrad Jarrett, just home from a psychiatric hospitalization after a suicide attempt. The film shows how this prosperous suburban family deals with the reconstruction of ordinary life in the face of such extraordinary circumstances as the death of their eldest son, Buck, and Conrad’s subsequent paralyzing panic.

Filmed from the psychoanalytic perspective, the Jarretts are presented as three guarded, isolated individuals. There is sparse and austere interaction among them. Calvin Jarrett, the father, is shown struggling to express his emotions and return to a life of normalcy. His awkwardness gives him substance and sensitivity, and he thereby gains our sympathy. Bet Jarrett, in contrast, is portrayed as private and restrained, role-playing the efficient, competent wife-mother. Through her exaggerated rigidity, the film promotes the concept that polite and orderly living is synonymous with repression. We are given to understand that in such circumstance it is impossible for people to express their emotions except in extreme explosions.

To complement this, Dr. Berger, a psychiatrist, is idealized for his genuineness and presumed familiarity with pain. It is in the characters’ therapy sessions with Dr. Berger that the popular psychoanalytic position is proclaimed–that the free expression of emotions leads to personal freedom. Through Dr. Berger’s coaxing, prodding and shouting “How does it feel?” Conrad begins to have breakthroughs that magically lead to the loosening of emotional knots. Berger supplies the necessary unconditional love and emotional support that we are led to believe should have been offered by Beth.

In ordinary families, unlike in the Jarretts, problems grow slowly, building on the many interactions among family members. This film disregards what has been learned about families over the past 25 years: that every member in a family influences the others’ behavior and, in turn, is influenced by theirs. “Ordinary People” fails to dramatize this sequence of behavior, which produced and maintained Conrad’s problem. Instead, true to psychoanalytic tradition, the mother is held responsible for her son’s vanishing confidence and her husband’s unnamed anguish.

Although there is virtual silence in the Jarrett household, communication is not lacking. Like most families with problem children, one parent is over-involved and sides with the child against the other, and Calvin Jarrett does this exquisitely Generic Viagra. What the filmmakers would like us to believe is that it is Beth’s emotional failing that leads to her rejection of Conrad. But what is less visible is a powerful alliance between father and son that excludes Beth. Calvin blocks conversation between Beth and Conrad at the dinner table, apologizes to Conrad for Beth’s not being able to love him more, and ignores her plea for time together as a couple. In taking sides with Conrad, Calvin indirectly communicates disapproval of Beth, thereby furthering her emotional distance from the family. Yet Calvin gains our sympathy because he is willing to “open up.”

Like most extreme behavior, Beth’s did not originate exclusively within herself. Nor, as we are given to believe, was Beth, like a whole class of affluent Americans, bred not to say what was on her mind. Behavior originates within the context of ongoing relationships What would have been the price to Calvin and Conrad had Beth confronted her self-restraint and changed? Beth’s refusal to change had an important function in the family. Just as the dead son’s room was kept unaltered, as a shrine, family life was frozen and Beth’s silent resistance kept Buck’s memory alive. Beth’s vigil distracted Calvin and Conrad, protecting them from the depth of their own grief.

“Ordinary People” focuses on Conrad’s struggle to construct a new self, a new life after his attempted suicide. The origin of his depression is traced to a boating accident in which his older brother drowned. Conrad feels guilty because he has survived the accident and he believes his mother blames him. But the film’s conventional explanation of Conrad’s behavior does not take into account its relevance in the vacant marriage between CAlvin and Beth. Conrad’s failures bring life to the marriage by providing the vehicle through which family interaction can occur. Both Beth and Calvin used Conrad’s problems to veil their disapproval of each other. Beth’s persistent expectations of Conrad were indirect messages to her mild and ineffectual husband. Calvin’s apology to Conrad was a hidden statement about Beth’s inability to love her husband. It is precisely at the point at which Conrad becomes successful and rejects this role of intermediary that the true discontent in the marriage emerges. But as Calvin reveals his emotions to Beth, he is drawn closer to Conrad by their mutual triumph over repression. Beth, hopelessly excluded from their relationship, silently packs her suitcase and leaves the family’s imposing home.

The price for Conrad’s “cure” through individual therapy was the dissolution of the family. Had the filmmakers understood the forces at work within the family, Dr. Berger might have treated the family unit as the patient. Even if the end result had been the same, at the very least Conrad and Calvin may have come to appreciate Beth’s dilemma and millions of Americans would have been spared the ultimate image of the rejecting, villainous mother.