Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ordinary People, the Movie: A Dysfunctional Family Catastrophe resulting from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Survivor Guilt

By Sudipa Sarkar

Ordinary people (1980) is a psychodrama indicating a disintegration of an upper-class family, staying at wealthy Chicago suburb, followed by the accidental death of elder teenage son and suicidal attempt by the younger one. Devastated by the loss of their older son, well-to-do suburban couple Calvin and Beth are trying to rebuild their lives after their younger son, Conrad, who attempts suicide after the traumatic incidence of his brother’s death. The movie takes its shape when we find that the mother Beth as cold and withdrawn from Conrad, and at times actively hostile to him and to her husband, too. Conrad, recently back home from three months in the hospital after slitting his wrists, is between uneasy and agonized in his high-school and family world. Calvin remains emotionally open but is perplexed and often caught between his wife and his son, talking about somehow irrelevant things that are not directly related or necessary to the context of the situation. Within that setting, the film tells the story of Conrad's attempts to deal with the guilt he feels after his brother's death. A series of psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) plays a crucial role. Seeing Dr. Berger also helps Calvin understand some things, and when in a midnight confrontation he tells Beth of his sorrow that she has substantially changed for the worse, she packs her bags and leaves. The film ends early the next morning, with Conrad and his father in an emotional embrace on the front steps of their home.

Mental Health Issues

It is found from the movie that Conrad was suffering from survivor guilt and post-traumatic-stress-disorder, which results from his being witness of his brother’s death and eventually promoting him into attempt suicide. Conrad was also suffering pain due to lack of motherly attachment and warm sensitivity, which is inevitably required for an individual to keep balance in his or her individual life as well as social life and to grow up in order to achieve a positive direction in life. Due to his mother’s avoidant attitude and non-expressive emotions towards him, he has developed a feeling of isolation and a feeling of rejection, followed by anger and resentment towards his mother result a frustration all through his mind. The movie shows the dysfunctional nature of mother-child interaction and its devastating outcome within an envelope of intense emotional pain and tragedy. Conrad’s post-traumatic-stress disorder stems from the tragic incidence of his brother’s death, naturally shatters him more when he receives condemnation from his mother along with her emotional isolation from family soon after tragic events. For Conrad to cope out with his own emotional trauma it was more than necessary to get the support from both of the parents in order to avoid the risk of developing intense depressive disorder, whereas, it seems that Conrad also somehow carries the positive energy and enthusiasm to cope with his pain, when he tries to build up new relationships with the persons outside of his family, but, he eventually again gives away all his positive efforts at the time he finds his friend committed suicide. Here, the most important thing comes into notice is that how the individuals perceives his or her own world and a significant individual difference comes into way. As Karen, Conrad’s friend, who committed suicide, was one of the most encouraging factors in Conrad’s life and used to be a positive source, constructs her own perspective of the world in a very different manner, resulting her inability to cope up with the surroundings and surrender to death. Conrad’s character specifically describes the essential factors to cope with stress as well as sustain in life in a positive manner must depend on a positive interpersonal relationship with close surroundings and a significant amount of positive support from parents or significant others as being a social element and playing the role of an active agent in influencing other’s life in the system to quite a length. As, Van der Kolk, et, 1996 and Wilson & Keane, 1997 in their studies, mentioned that there is a growing evidence of the fact that preexisting emotional and behavioral difficulties constitute significant vulnerabilities to post-traumatic-stress disorder and hence increase the likelihood. So here, in this movie ‘Ordinary People’, we can see that the reluctant behavior of Conrad’s mother also acts as an important factor for developing post-traumatic-stress supported with acute feelings of guilt and remorse. It causes him not being able to share his pain with his mother, an ought to be active agent while present in the system, rather indulging his guilt to an extreme to develop a survivor’s guilt at Conrad’s end followed by social withdrawn, irritation, inhibition, pessimism, impulsivity, dissociation tendencies, which leads to more vulnerability for Conrad towards traumatic experiences.

While considering the role of the father Calvin Jarrett, initially we can see him a rather inactive agent to influence the environment, though gradually improving his position and acts more as an active agent to influence the situation as a whole. The character Calvin Jarrett basically portrays a unique example of fatherhood, especially understanding the demand of the situation and hence dysfunction in the family. Initially he was trying to build up a bridge between his wife and his son out of his natural instinct and the tendency to maintain the secure structure of the system but ignoring the factor of human-mind complexities quite evidently. Throughout the movie, the father didn’t show any acute symptom of any kind of disorder as such, whereas he was suffering from major depression and frustration as not being able to find out any effective solution for the emotional paroxysm between his wife and his son. The conflict between his willingness to provide emotional support to their son, Conrad, after his comeback and his wife’s unwillingness to convey any emotional message to Conrad, made the father emotionally vulnerable to a breakdown. As Calvin, the father, always wanted a direct amend to their son from both of them to heal the wounds and express feelings throughout in the movie, but Beth, the mother, always wanted to move on from the past, gave birth of a conflict condition affecting Calvin a noteworthy extent, which only resolved at the end of the movie, when Beth leaves home.

Beth, the mother, is the most complex character throughout the movie. She, as portrayed and perceived by most of the audience of the movie, acts like an ogre and is absolutely disinclined about emotional communication with anyone in her family, though the psychological analysis of this character may not be as simple as it seems. The non-attachment pattern with the son prevails to the mother over her depression by means of creating emptiness around her and become isolated-self and thus indulging defense mechanisms such as denial and suppression, as described by Sigmund Freud, to cope with reality. By using denial, she is just ignoring the present context and hence escaping from reality in order to avoid any kind of emotional communication whatsoever and also by using suppression she tries to forget those events which bring anxiety in her life. To my consideration, she is also suffering from post-traumatic-stress and major depression, but with more complexities involved in her case, providing it more intense dimension for consideration. She became emotionally numb, as she was much inclined over his elder son Buck, and drastically affected by his sudden death causes her to deny the reality, which seems true when she feels uneasy about her husband’s concern over their son and his continuous insist to express feelings – as this causes her ego to be threatened to pursue anxiety on its way by facing reality.


Conrad has developed his major depression originating from his brother’s sudden death; his negative self-internalization for the event and his mother’s extreme non-emotional reaction. To help him out from his condition and being able to face the reality to cope with, Psychodynamic Psychotherapy would be of help. The techniques like (1) transference and resistance; and (2) neutrality and the real object along with cognitive-behavior approach would be useful and hence discussed below.

Transference and Resistance

By using the method of transference and resistance, the therapist would be able to intervene with the thought pattern and construe of Conrad and hence be able to moderate it to some extent and to remove the roadblocks to the unfolding of essential conflicts that Conrad carries within.

Neutrality and the Real Object

Being neutral if a therapist rationalizes the reason behind the behavior of both the agent, it would be encouraging for Conrad to further explore his deeper conflicts about missing, wanting and fearing his mother’s love as well as helping him to re-channel desires (id) into obtainable directions, challenging excessive self-blame (superego), and expanding his recognition and understanding (ego) of his conflicts.

While considering the case of Beth, it is observed that her defense mechanism for denying reality is so strong that she even left her house when time comes to face the reality, it is always recommended for Beth to go for psycho-dynamic therapy so that she can come up with the unconscious conflicts resulting her to develop defense mechanism and help her to identify them. But she is also needed to go under combined cognitive-behavioral therapeutic treatment, as it is suggested in Beck’s Cognitive Therapy which helps her in self-identification and hence be able to response to specific anxiety-provoking thoughts. But, prior to any therapeutic strategy applied on her, the rapport with Beth and the therapist would count a lot.


The movie ‘Ordinary People’, as its name implies, basically deals with average people who are actually very common in real world as their problems are. The problems are not only associated with their disorder, but also their willingness to pursue the therapeutic approach provided to them. The most common complication in such type of case may come with coercion, say for example, in the case of the movie character Conrad is pulled by his father, leads to ineffective result unless he develops his own willingness to share his life-issues. It is increasingly recognized that all therapeutic approaches need to be seen as part of an alliance between therapist and patient. Also situational context and level of interpersonal interaction play a crucial role in adherence for going with therapeutic session. As for example in the movie, we see that the relationship between the father and the son improves at the end of the movie, when they both become able to ventilate their true feelings to each other, which would work as a positive catalyst towards building an optimistic perception in life. But considering the case of Beth, it is nearly impossible for any of the family member to interfere with the cognitive-construe of Beth. But the situation might be improved by third-person intervention with a humanistic approach, which was beyond the scope of the movie. Also Beth is very unwilling to share her true feelings to any member, so it is quite evident that she might not want to open for discussion at ease, which stems from her deep unconscious conflicts like denial, suppression, for example. Therefore, to impel an effective psychotherapy in her case, it is always recommended to build an atmosphere of confidence and trust in which she becomes willing to make a frank and complete disclosures of facts, emotions, memories and fears.
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1 comment:

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