Ordinary People Through the Lens of Family Therapy

I’ve decided to take a scene from the movie Ordinary People to analyze from the perspective of a family therapist.  I had never seen Ordinary People and truly enjoyed watching the very believable family dynamics that occurred. The scene I chose to focus on occurs at about one hour into the film.  Calvin, the father, and Conrad, the son, are putting up the Christmas tree when Beth, the mother, enters the room after having found out that her son has quit the swim team.  Her affect is very morose and angry.  This is a very emotionally charged scene in which several hurtful and angry things are said.


There are several patterns that are acted out within this scene, though the end contains a pattern breaking move by Conrad.  The first pattern is that Beth personalizes her son’s actions.  So what could be seen as a very important, self-defining act on the Conrad’s part (deciding to quit the swim team on his own) is immediately cast as an act against Beth.  Put in another light, Conrad quitting the swim team could be concerning for both parents as it could indicate a loss of interest in previously pleasurable experiences in line with depression.  However, instead of talking to Conrad from a position of concern, Beth frames things as Conrad acting out to hurt and embarrass her.  Calvin enacts his typical pattern by acting as a buffer between Conrad and his mother.  In fact, Beth reinforces Calvin’s position as buffer by not directly confronting Conrad about quitting the swim team herself.  She instead tells Calvin to ask Conrad why she is so upset.  When an argument erupts, Calvin literally stands between them while they shout at him to tell the other what they think. Lastly, Conrad has a historical pattern of trying to protect his mother.  This takes several forms throughout the movie, such as Conrad accepting the role of the weak one, or letting his mother off the hook when she can’t handle emotionally charged topics, but in this scene, he largely violates this pattern by shouting at his mother about how she deserted him in his time of need.  This is the first time we see Conrad directly confronting his mother about how he feels and his mother responds by attacking him with the comment, “Buck never would have been in the hospital”.  The subtext of this comment is that Conrad is weak.


Several of these patterns could also be seen as themes throughout the family.  In general, Conrad is the problem.  Beth puts on a great outward expression, but has difficulty with her own emotion and asking for help.  Calvin is the buffer in the family and slightly enabling of Beth’s problems.  Presumably, they all are acting and reacting this way in response to the death of Buck, the oldest, though it is hard to tell since, except for a few flashback, we only really see their actions after the loss of Buck.  It would be interesting to try to understand how much of these patterns and themes existed before the death of Buck.


Treating this family would be extremely challenging.  Not having any real experience in conducting family therapy, I would probably borrow from a couple theoretical orientations.  My first instinct would be to try to gain an understanding of each family member’s perspective.  In an effort to disrupt the system a bit, I would have them all talk to, and maybe even through, me.  This would be in line with aspects of Systems Theory and parts of Strategic Theory.  The purpose would be to insert myself into the dynamic and disrupt the triangle that exists for them.  I would also hope that in doing this Calvin would be able to set aside his role as mediator and perhaps begin to explore another way of being important in the family.  As I mentioned above, there is a quality of co-dependence to the way he makes excuses for his wife and tries to shield her from responsibility.


In Cognitive Behavioral Family Therapy there is often an identified patient.  I imagine that Beth would largely be the identified patient as she seems to have the most problems.  While I don’t necessarily agree with assigning the label of “identified patient” to one person, it does appear that significant work would have to be done with Beth around several issues.  For one, it would be important to try to help her see that her coping mechanism of shutting out uncomfortable emotions weakens, not strengthens, her family.  Several times throughout the movie she says things like, “this is a private matter” intimating that the best way to deal with the crushing loss of Buck is by including less people in the process, and in essence to uphold her status quo.  While I would want to validate her experience, I would also try to get her to understand how shutting Conrad and Calvin out is having a negative effect on their family as a whole.  I would also seek to help Beth reframe her son’s actions similar to how I describe them above.  Yes, his quitting the swim team could be an act against her, but there are several other possibilities for why he did this, many of which have nothing to do with her (this would be in line with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).


Conrad travels the farthest distance in the movie.  Beginning at a very stuck position, we see him challenge and change himself in several areas.  I would seek to support his moves and try to remain cognizant of how his changes may upset the overall system of the family.  In the movie, towards the end, Conrad walks over and gives his mother a hug, telling her how much he missed them while they were away playing golf.  She is stunned.  This kind of strength is very admirable.  To walk over and hug the person who disappointed him so gravely, abandoned him and blames him for so much shows a real transformation of his position and role in the family.  No longer the sulky, powerless victim, Conrad extends his peace and forgiveness.  And the upsetting of roles continues as Beth leaves for Texas after Calvin reveals he may not love her anymore.  The very last scene shows Conrad serving as a support for his father who, in so many words, tells him that he doesn’t have all the answers.  This is quite a transformation for Calvin, who continually strove to solve the family’s problems.  All in all, a very honest, yet still somehow Hollywood, portrayal of the struggles that can occur within a family of “ordinary people”.

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