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Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Chapters 27–28 | Summary



Chapter 27

At Dr. Berger's office Conrad pleads for something to get him "off the hook": Conrad feels responsible for Buck's death. He cannot accept the idea nobody is at fault for what happened. Dr. Berger explains that Conrad has survivor's guilt: "You know what you did? You hung on, kiddo. That's it." They go out to a restaurant because Conrad has not eaten. Dr. Berger addresses Karen's suicide by explaining appearances of good emotional health can be deceiving. People never have a view of another person's "whole picture." Once Dr. Berger is convinced that Conrad is okay, he sends him home.

In the shower Conrad relives an experience during which Buck, not he, got into trouble with Calvin. His father said "people get hurt without anyone meaning it." This comment makes Conrad realize the accident was "nobody's fault. It happened. That's all."

Chapter 28

Calvin gets third place in the golf tournament. Beth seems pleased enough and suggests they go golfing on their next vacation. When Calvin says "I'd bet he'd like that, too," meaning Conrad, Beth becomes upset that Calvin always inserts Conrad into everything. At dinner Beth does not look at him, their silence "hostile" and "full of unspoken words." After dinner they openly argue, and Beth exclaims that she is "sick of talking, talking, talking about [Conrad]." She claims Calvin blames her for Conrad's suicide attempt. She thinks Conrad did it to punish her, "to kill her," and Calvin has to realize it is true, at least partly. But while it "hasn't killed her," he knows "it has done something to her; something terrible."


In these chapters emotional outbursts help the characters reach catharsis and understanding. As Conrad ends his chapter in peace, however, Calvin feels he and Beth are going in "circles and more circles" and wonders where and how it can end.

Conrad fights to keep control over his emotions, but Dr. Berger points out this fight for control is the very thing hurting him. Depression is not "giving vent" to one's emotions but rather the "reduction of feeling." By not letting himself "connect with [his] own feelings," Conrad has been "sealing [himself] off" and "just going through the motions." Dr. Berger states that if he "can't feel pain" he isn't going to "feel anything else either." In this way Conrad and Beth are alike. Both have been holding on to the illusion of control. Conrad reasons that if he is in control, then he must have had complicity in what happened to Buck. This survivor's guilt has been tormenting him, but he has tried not to vent this torment because he, like Beth, has been taught emotion is the enemy. Conrad is finally able to let go of this illusion and face the reality that "life is not fair always, or sane, or good, or anything. It just is."

Beth's reality is too harsh for her to process without access to her emotions. She tells Calvin "mothers don't hate their sons!" This statement is revealing because she uses the general term mothers instead of I. She knows it is not socially acceptable to "hate" one's own child, so she cannot admit the ugly reality beneath her "perfect mother" façade, except through her annoyance when Conrad is mentioned. She finally breaks her "hostile silence" with Calvin by making it clear she felt personally attacked by Conrad's suicide attempt. His doing it in a manner "as vicious, as sickening as he could" was an attempt to "kill" her, and she "will never forgive him for it." Calvin finally understands all that "nightmare of blood" Conrad shed was to punish Beth, and their family can never be the same for it.

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