Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Context


Attitudes toward Psychiatry in the 1970s

Ordinary People is set in the mid-1970s at a time when American attitudes toward psychiatry were influenced by the deinstitutionalization and anti-psychiatry movements as well as popular films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Deinstitutionalization is the shift, beginning in the mid-20th century, away from long-term care institutions—or asylums—to outpatient community care and rehabilitation facilities. The anti-psychiatry movement, active for nearly two centuries but termed as such by psychiatrist David Cooper in 1967, views many mental health treatments as brutal and harmful. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest a sadistic nursing staff promotes dangerous procedures such as electroconvulsive ("shock") therapy and lobotomies. The book and its film adaptation criticize institutionalization, but in doing so, exaggerate portrayals of mental illness.

In Ordinary People Guest tackles "the anatomy of depression—how it works and why it happens to people." Traumatized after witnessing his brother's death, Conrad goes through a depressive episode and suicide attempt while struggling with survivor's guilt. Conrad is committed to a mental hospital for eight months and given electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Electroconvulsive therapy was first used on humans in 1937 and proved therapeutic to patients with schizophrenia and depression. During ECT small electric currents are passed through the patient's brain, causing short seizures. In the early years of the therapy, doctors administered the shocks without anesthesia, leading to its stigmatization in the 1970s as unnecessarily harsh treatment. In the novel Conrad's swim coach asks about his time at the hospital getting "shock" and comments, "I don't think I'd let them mess around with my head like that."

Studies reveal a tendency among non-sufferers to consider depressive disorder as something that can be solved if only the affected person would try hard enough. This false conception is shared initially by Conrad's father, Calvin, in the novel. In Chapter 17 Calvin admits to Conrad's psychiatrist he "always thought that intelligent people could work out their own problems." Guest clearly dismisses this dangerous thinking in the character of Karen, a friend of Conrad's from his time at the hospital. She accepts her father's conclusion that she no longer needs therapy "because the only person that can help you is you" and ends up attempting suicide—this time successfully. Depressive episodes left untreated can result in suicidal ideation. Unfortunately, the adolescent suicide rate has tripled since World War II (1939–45) and remains the second leading cause of death for high school and college students.

Allusions to Jude the Obscure

Guest refers to English novelist Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895) at multiple points in the novel as a way for the reader to consider similarities between Conrad Jarrett and Jude Fawley. A literary fatalist, Hardy believed chance is instrumental in shaping human destiny. Hardy argued that although humans are not completely without free will, it is not powerful enough to overcome fate. In his novels Hardy portrays characters who, like Jude, are tragic victims of the indifferent will of the universe.

In Chapter 3 of Ordinary People Miss Mellon asks Conrad in English class for his theory on Jude. Conrad "guesses" Jude felt powerless "in the grip of circumstances." Jude experiences much tragedy in his life, including the death of his parents when he is 11, entrapment in a miserable marriage, rejection by his true love, and the death of his children—particularly horrific in that his disturbed older son kills the younger two children and then hangs himself, believing the family would be better off without them. Seeing no way out and wanting to die, Jude commits a slow suicide by deliberately going out in the rain while already sick.

As Jude is a victim of the whims of fate, so too is Conrad. His brother Buck's death is a senseless act of fate. Conrad tries to convince himself he should have been in control of the accident and therefore must be complicit in Buck's death, a belief that leads to his depression and subsequent suicide attempt. Guest uses the novel to explore how much control Conrad and his parents have over their own lives. Through the wise and sympathetic Dr. Berger, Conrad comes to understand he does not have control over acts of fate and must let go of his survivor's guilt. However, the very act of working on his problems through therapy suggests some measure of control over his healing and therefore his destiny—which Jude does not have.

Emergence of the Psychological Novel

Ordinary People joins The Bell Jar (1963), I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964), Flowers for Algernon (1966), and Lisa Bright and Dark (1969) as novels that captured the popular imagination by bringing a previously taboo topic into the open and portraying it with sensitivity. These novels employ sympathetic characters with mental illnesses and use psychological realism to depict the challenges they face in their attempts at recovery.

The Bell Jar by American writer Sylvia Plath, based on the author's personal experience with mental illness and suicidal ideation, charts 19-year-old Esther Greenwood's progress toward mental health while in psychiatric institutions from 1953–54. Plath's novel deeply explores the psyche of suicidal ideation and is still relevant to today's understanding on the topic.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is American author Joanne Greenberg's semi-autobiographical novel about a teen girl's battle with schizophrenia. In the novel the patient's parents allow her to continue treatment with a sympathetic doctor despite feelings of shame and stigmatization. The patient eventually recovers and pursues a normal life. At the time of publication in 1964, a variety of mental illnesses were lumped into the category of schizophrenia, which has no cure, and therapists would now characterize Greenberg as suffering from depression and somatization disorder—reports of bodily pain that cannot be medically diagnosed.

Flowers for Algernon by American writer Daniel Keyes follows Charlie Gordon, a man with intellectual disabilities who undergoes a procedure similar to psychosurgery (lobotomy) to increase his brain functionality. Keyes was inspired by a student with a low IQ he taught who wished to function beyond a remedial level.

Lisa Bright and Dark by American writer John Neufeld centers on a teenage girl, Lisa, who seems to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. Her classmates are mystified by her bizarre, violent behavior and attempt to get her the help she needs. In the late 1960s when the novel was published, Lisa's affliction was not well understood, and the treatment she received at the time (an extended stay in a rest home for the elderly) would be unthinkable today.
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