Reviewed by Ed Lengel
Mental illness already occupied a distinct position in American literature when Ordinary People first appeared in bookstores in 1976. Novels on the subject published over the previous three decades included The Snake Pit (1946) by Mary Jane Ward; The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath; and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964) by Joanne Greenberg. Plath’s and Greenberg’s novels especially are works of tremendous literary merit and cultural significance. Each novel was written during an era when Freudian psychoanalysis dominated the practice of psychology in the United States—in Ward’s book, the Freudian psychoanalyst Dr. Kik appears as an all-knowing savior to the troubled central character. Notably, each of these three earlier works features a female protagonist and includes deeply intense autobiographical elements.
The Snake Pit—by far the most commercially successful of the three books at the time it was written—was turned into a popular movie of the same name featuring actress Olivia de Havilland. Like other artistic treatments of mental illness—or insanity, to use the parlance common in its day—though, The Snake Pit’s popularity certainly derived from its luridly sensationalist elements, and its happy ending. Though Plath’s and Greenberg’s novels are far more authentic, however, their tone and narrative styles still left mental illness at least outside the realm of the everyday, if not actually darkly aberrational.
Ordinary People was remarkable, among many reasons, for maintaining authenticity while also bringing mental illness—and suicide—squarely into the mainstream of contemporary American life. The central character, Conrad Jarrett, is the eighteen-year-old scion of an upper-middle class Chicago family. His father Calvin is a successful tax attorney, and his mother Beth occupies her days in tennis, horseback riding, and keeping track of her husband’s golf game. Both parents, but especially Beth, are preoccupied with keeping up social appearances. The loss of their older son Buck in a boating accident a year and a half before the novel’s opening has already faded into the realm of the nearly unspeakable. In this world, Conrad’s depression, attempted suicide, and lengthy hospitalization presents nothing less than a scandal, a subject to be avoided in polite society.
Conrad visits his psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, at a dodgy urban office safely out of sight from the Jarretts’ leafy suburban neighborhood. Doing so provides him with relief from the oppressively conformist environment he encounters at home and at school. Berger, in contrast to Conrad’s friends and family, is a wildly offbeat nonconformist. Far from being a Freudian genius, he seems to follow no particular method of analysis. Rather, he employs teasing good humor as a means of encouraging Conrad to break through petty mental roadblocks and encounter his problems with courage and clarity. Berger’s support helps Conrad to quit the school swim team—where his only purpose came down to keeping up appearances for the sake of others—and chart his own path forward.
Unlike many other psychological novels of its era, Ordinary People reached beyond the central character to explore the unrecognized current of mental illness underlying “ordinary” mainstream society. Conrad’s parents Calvin and Beth are each deeply troubled individuals. Calvin, more easily sympathetic to the reader, is consumed by worry for his surviving son, and self-doubt about his abilities as a father and husband. Eventually he too goes to visit Dr. Berger. Outwardly, Beth is cold and selfish. The author nevertheless gently encourages the reader to see her as a tormented victim, so consumed by her societal obligations that she has become incapable of empathy. The relationship between Calvin and Beth occupies increasing dominance in the narrative, and by the book’s conclusion it has become the dominant topic.
Guest, a public-school teacher from Michigan, achieved instant and unexpected stardom from Ordinary People, which was not only her first novel but a rare instance of a successful “over the transom” submission unrepresented by a literary agent. In 1980 it was made into an Oscar-winning film directed by Robert Redford, with Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, and Mary Tyler Moore. Although Guest would never come close to this level of success with her later efforts, Ordinary People continues to hold an important place in the modern American literary pantheon, although it has been banned from some schools for language and suggestive content.
Unfortunately, Ordinary People is arguably aging fast; indeed, by the 1990s its contents already may have seemed tame aside searing memoirs such as Darkness Visible (1990) by William Styron, and Girl, Interrupted (1993) by Susanna Kaysen. The Jarretts’ privileged place in society, although realistically reflective of how many people live then and today, mitigates against contemporary authors’ efforts to generate empathy for the so-called underprivileged. By the end of Ordinary People, Conrad has more or less returned to the path of social convention; and although his parents’ fate remains troubled and unresolved, they can hardly be said to have broken free whether for better or for worse. All these disconnects aside, however, almost fifty years after its original publication, Ordinary People remains a vital and unpretentious portrait of human anguish and the long road toward healing.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.