A Psychological Analysis on Ordinary People

A psychological analysis I did on the award winning movie, Ordinary People (1980).


Ordinary people is about an ordinary family, the Jarrets, who seem on the surface to be a typical middle class family. However, each member of the family is still trying to cope with the recent death of the oldest son Buck. The younger brother, Conrad, is having a hard time dealing with his brother’s death. He feels somehow responsible, so he tried committing suicide, and has recently been released from the hospital. The film gradually reveals more and more about each member of the family and allows us to piece together the current situation underlying fears and motivations of each character. Ordinary people is a psychodrama that accurately portrays the psychodynamic approach and all defense mechanisms used. 

Identify the parenting styles of each parent

In this movie, each parent had a different parenting style. I believe that the mother, Beth, took on the permissive parenting style. Even when Buck was still alive, she was permissive. For example, when Conrad had the flashback of hearing his mothers voice laughing and joking with Buck. In that flashback, Buck admitted to her that he was drinking, and her only reaction was to laugh. She was also a permissive parent when dealing with Conrad. She expects him to make his own choices and not have to be involved in his problems. For example, when Conrad tried to re-kindle the relationship by hugging her, she didn’t hug back because she didn’t want to get too involved. Conrad felt that his mother was never proud of him and blamed him for the death of his brother.

The father, Calvin, had a different approach to parenting altogether. I believe he was an Authoritative parent who does most of the parenting in the family. Calvin is someone Conrad can always go to when he is in trouble, even though Conrad didn’t want to talk to him at first. Calvin constantly monitors Conrad’s behavior to make sure that he follows rules, expectations, and is feeling better about his problems. He does this in a warm and loving manner. For example, when Conrad and his mother got into a fight, Conrad ran up to his room and started crying. Calvin followed him up just a few minutes later to help him feel better and give him some helpful advice.

Psychological Approach of the Psychiatrist (Dr. Berger)

I believe Dr. Berger approaches the Conrad’s problem by using the Psychoanalysis approach. In the movie, Dr. Berger was focused in particular on resolving unconscious conflict, mental distress and psychopathology. For example, Conrad was always mentally distressed after his brother died. When he heard that Beth moved away, the first thing he wanted to do was talk to Dr. Berger, because he was mentally distressed.

Analysis of the Mom

Beth in this movie remains to be a somewhat shadowy character throughout the movie. The viewer is only given impressions of her through the perceptions of Calvin and Conrad. Beth is described as a perfectionist, and this perfectionism does not allow forgiveness. She sees Conrad’s suicide attempt as a punishment directed at her, and she cannot recognize or understand Conrad’s emotional problem. Her mysteriousness and inconsistency draws Calvin to her, but it also makes it impossible for them to work out their problems. 

If I was her psychiatrist, I would confront her with the humanistic approach. The reason behind this choice is that she is an independent person, therefore the only person who can actually help her, is herself. I would attempt to emphasize the growth and fulfillment of the self (self-actualization) through self-examination and creative expression.

Stages of Grieving

In the movie, Conrad appears to be suffering from survivor guilt and post-traumatic-stress-disorder, which resulted from witnessing his brothers death. He undergoes the anger stage of grief because he felt like he wanted to fight back and had was very angry at everyone around him. For example, when his friend was asking him why he’s been feeling down and not hanging out as much as he used to, Conrad snapped and told him it was none of his business. He also went through depression because he was always frustrated and had an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. For example, Conrad attempted to commit suicide from the deep depression he was feeling six months after the loss of his brother. 

Beth went through different stages of grief than the stages Conrad went through, therefore not understanding his problems. Beth went through denial because she was such a perfectionist and just couldn’t accept a death in the family. For example, she exhibited this behavior in the movie when she wouldn’t talk about the issue, and went on with her life pretending nothing happened. Just like when she went to the party with her friends, she acted normal and didn’t talk to anyone about the incident. I believe she also went through suppression. For example, she kept all the pain inside, and and when Calvin talked to her about how she cared about what he was wearing to Buck’s funeral, she snapped and yelled at him for bringing it up.

Calvin was more like Conrad than he was like Beth, which is probably the reason they understood each other and didn’t understand Beth. Calvin went through depression, just like Conrad did. For example, Calvin was so depressed, he broke down on the kitchen table and started crying. He was concerned about the well being of his family, and pained by the loss of his eldest son. Compared to the other family members, Calvin was the closest one to accepting the matter. This acceptance was misunderstood by other characters as not caring about his son. For example, Calvin shared the news of his son at the party to one of his friends. This showed that Calvin was open about the situation, but because Beth wasn’t, she snapped on him.

Conclusion – Learning Outcome

I believe this movie best demonstrated the stages of grief and the parenting styles of each parent. It accurately depicted the stages of grief because it clearly showed what the characters went through by the way they interacted with each other. The parenting styles were also quite obvious because Beth completely neglected Conrad after the death of Buck. 

I think this movie is very appropriate for psychology because almost everything we went over in class was portrayed in the movie. Things like post-traumatic-stress to the parenting styles. I believe it covered all topics we went over in the first quarter. I really enjoyed watching this movie and I look forward to other movies in the future.

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  1. Posted November 24, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    nicely written…..

  2. Posted December 2, 2009 at 11:33 am

    I hope it helped you find what you were looking for.

  3. Mae
    Posted March 1, 2012 at 2:37 am

    thank you very much!!! this is a very helpful essay. i hope you also have for girl interrupted.

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