In Ordinary People, Conrad struggles with finding the difference between who he is and how he feels about himself. After the death of his brother Buck, Conrad feels extremely guilty about the accident. He blames himself for not being able to save him. This is too heavy a burden for him to handle and he attempts to kill himself. Conrad should have realized that what happened doesnt define who he is. He wanted to kill his guilt and his poor self image, but along with it he was killing himself. When Conrad attempted suicide he did not want to die, he just wanted to end his pain. Conrads poor self image is reflected more throughout the book, but eventually he connects with who he is and how he feels and his true self comes forward.
There are many people in Conrads life that affect his self image. The most influential people are his parents, Beth and Calvin. Beth is a self absorbed perfectionist who is unable to show her true emotions. She always wants to meet the demands of what is socially acceptable and struggles to keep the familys issues private for her sake. She makes Conrad feel like she is ashamed of him. He feels like she will never forgive him for trying to kill himself, not because she loves him but because he makes things difficult for her. All right, she hates me. Theres nothing I can do about it. (114) Nothing seems to get to Beth. Rather than accepting reality she runs from it. Although she may seem to be strong, she is weak because she cannot handle things when they get messy. Her son needs her more than anything but she cannot be there for him. Calvin is just the opposite. He wants to understand Calvin. He can look past Calvins poor self image and tries to help Calvin find who he really is. However he often misses what is really bothering Conrad. No. I cant. Everythings jello and pudding with you, Dad. I cant- you dont see things. (114) He feels like talking is the way to heal, when Beth doesnt want to discuss anything. Calvin is constantly reaching out to Conrad, but Beth sees it as babying him and dwelling on Conrads rocky past.
However, Conrad is not the only one who is having difficulties. There are other people who also engage in self destructive behavior. The most obvious is Beth. She bottles up her emotions and is unable to confide in others. Her hair falls loosely, hiding her face, but he knows the expression she is wearing: a look reserved for airports and other public places- remote; responding only to inner sounds today. (192) She doesnt know how to respond to things that hurt. She wants to ignore them, but some things are just too big to run from. After Bucks death she lost not just her son, but the perfection that they once had, and that was all that was holding her together. Without that, Beth falls apart.
Calvin doesnt expect things to be perfect, but wants nothing more than for his family to be happy. However, he blames everything wrong in their family on himself. He constantly worries about Conrad and tries to listen. He wants so badly to fix things, but first needs to realize that he cannot control everything. This is apparent when it comes to his marriage with Beth. Two intelligent people, why cant they understand each other? Why cant they work out their differences? (254)
Later on Jeannine admits that she has had a hard past. She hung out with the wrong crowd and lost a lot of who she was. She felt like she was losing everyone and rather than reaching out to them she pulled away. Her dad tried to talk to her but she shut him out. I made up excuses, reasons for not listening to him, I didnt want to get involved, I didnt want to take sides, but I had already taken sides against both of them. I wouldnt talk about it, so finally everybody just left me a lone, and that hurt too. (248)
Even though there is so much pain and suffering in this book, there is the hope that they can find who they are and love what they find. Dr. Berger, Conrads psychologist, is an inspiration throughout the book. He teaches Conrad to protect himself from negative influences and self destructive behavior. First, he teaches him to express his emotions rather than keeping them all bottled up. He forces Conrad to let out his emotions, even when they hurt. Thats what happens when you bury this junk kiddo. It just keeps resurfacing, wont leave you alone. He explains his feelings are real and he needs to deal with them. However, he also teaches him never to blame himself for things that are out of his control. I want to get off the hook! Conrad cries, for killing him, dont you know that? For letting him drown! (223) There is no point in feeling guilty for things that will never change. Finally, Conrad learns to find himself and look past all the hurt and guilt he feels.
Nobody needs you to be Buck. Its okay to just be you. Con, that guy is trying so hard to get out, and hes never gonna be the one to hurt you, believe me. Let him talk. Let him tell you what you did that was so bad. Listen, you know what you did? You hung on kiddo. Thats it. Thats your guilt. You can live with that cant you? The thing that hurts you is sitting on yourself. Not letting you connect with your own feelings. It is screwing you up, leading you off on chases that dont go anywhere. Geez, if I could get through to you, that depression is not sobbing and crying it is plain and simple reduction of feeling.... People who keep stiff upper lips find that its damn hard to smile. (255)