Ordinary People

Something like that

A few months ago before cutting several costly cable channels from my bill I looked through the guide and recorded as many movies as I could. I had totally forgotten that I had done this when I turned on the television yesterday and saw that there was less than 3% of space left on the DVR. Do you have any idea how terrifying it is to think that it’s just going to start randomly deleting unwatched episodes of “Hoarders” ??

(All 22 unwatched episodes just scattered in piles all over the DVR.)

That’s when I noticed I had recorded Ordinary People, a movie I am embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about, only that I had recorded it because it stars Donald Sutherland and he has the dreamiest blue eyes. Had I been born in a different generation he’d totally be on my list.

Instead of deleting it, I pressed play to see if it would be something I’d want to watch in its entirety. And that’s the story of how I have a new favorite movie.

I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that I watched this movie after a particularly difficult week, one in which I had battled some lingering demons and weaknesses that rear their head when I’m exhausted. That’s the biggest trigger for me, fatigue, and when I’m run down I’m not proud to admit that sometimes my thoughts turn dark and hopeless and very reminiscent of the notes scribbled inside a 15-yr-old’s diary.

For those of you unfamiliar with this movie, here’s the trailer:

Timothy Hutton won an Academy Award for his role as Conrad Jarrett, the son of an affluent couple living in Illinois. He attempted suicide after his older brother died in a boating accident, and the movie opens a few weeks after he has spent four months in a psychiatric hospital. I normally don’t enjoy films that are adapted from plays or feel as if they should be carried out on a stage, and this one is a slow-moving, long-talking stroll through scenes that at times are bursting with awkward silence. But I don’t know if I have ever seen a more accurate portrayal of the effect that one person’s hopelessness can have on himself and those around him.

When asked why he tried to take his life, Conrad gives this insight:

Uh… I don’t know, it’s was like falling into a hole… falling into a hole and it keeps getting bigger and bigger, and you can’t get out. All of a sudden it’s inside, and you’re the hole, and you’re trapped and it’s all over. Something like that. And it’s not really scary. Except it is when you think back on it because you know that what you were feeling was strange and new…

And then he’s interrupted by a boisterous group of his fellow high school students. Who knows how he was going to finish that sentence, but I’m guessing that the strange and the new he’s talking about is the realization that you cannot get out. And that realization is so deafening, so consuming, that you cannot hear or see or feel anything else.

His father Calvin wants to understand him, wants to offer his hand in help, while his mother Beth wants him to snap out of it, won’t ever forgive him for being the brother who survived the boating accident.

The two of them are having lunch when his father brings up the idea of the family attending a therapy session together:

Calvin: I think we should go see him, Beth, Dr. Berger.

Beth (laughing): What?

Calvin: I thought we could all go see him together.

Beth (incredulous): Why?

Calvin: He thinks it’s a good idea.

Beth: Oh, he thinks it’s good idea? What does he know about me? About this family? I’ve never even met him.

Calvin: Exactly. That’s the point. Wouldn’t it be easier if we all talked about it, in the open?

Beth: About what? What are we going to talk about? Don’t try to change me, Calvin. I don’t want anymore changes in my life. For God’s sake, hasn’t enough happened? Let’s just hold on to what we’ve got.

Calvin: Darling, that’s what this is for. Maybe you’ll get a surprise.

Beth: I don’t want any surprises! I know I’m not perfect. If I can’t go around hugging everybody all the time the way you do, then I’m sorry.

Calvin: I’m not asking you to be perfect, you’re missing the point.

Beth: I don’t want to see any doctors or counselors! I’m me! This is my family! If we have problems then we will solve those problems in the privacy of our own home, not by running to some specialist every time something goes wrong!

I had to pause the movie at that point and get up and walk around for a minute. And cry.

“You’re missing the point.”

I can’t believe this movie was made in 1980 when even 32 years later it’s progressive to explore the reasons behind suicide not as a way of defining cowardice but as a way to figure out how “to hold on to what we’ve got.”

I’m very lucky that my mother is a lot like Calvin and that with just one call to her cell phone I could see and hear and feel something other than the hole inside.