April 1, 2016KR BlogBlogReadingRemembrancesWriting

No One Is Ordinary; Everyone Is Ordinary

Whenever my brother and I have talked about depression or therapy, which have both been part of my life for over half of it, he will bring up the film Ordinary People. Having never seen it, I wondered why. I knew the basic storyline—it was about a boy whose brother had died. My brother had seen it for a class in high school. I wrote to him: Was it Mrs. Lipson for psych? Critical Thinking and Writing. Mr. Musgrave, my brother texted back. He left. He was awesome.

I watched the film for the first time a few weeks ago. I only knew Judith Guest, who had written the bestselling novel upon which the film was based, because she had also written the foreward to Natalie Goldberg’s classic book about writing, Writing Down the Bones. I wanted to see Ordinary People because I was spending a few weeks in Lake Forest—the posh, picture-perfect suburb of Chicago where the movie was filmed.

Judith Guest wrote the forward to the class book about writing by Natalie Goldberg.
My dog-eared copy of this 80s classic.

At my suggestion, some of the others at the artist residency in Lake Forest and I watched the film together on an old-school TV (pre-flat screen) in a comfortable, dimly-lit living room. Watching the film with people I had just met was an unusual experience—one which I found oddly moving. We sat and talked over wine—a screenwriter, a few novelists, an essayist, a poet, a painter—about the setting, the characterization, the plot, the film’s pacing, the deliberate and effective use of music. Even our own siblings.

I would not have watched Ordinary People at home with my husband, because it is about the trauma a family endures after the sudden death of a son and beloved older brother—a trauma that my husband’s family experienced years before I met them.

To watch the film was occasionally uncomfortable—we talked about it afterward. The camera shots are long. There are pauses. Timothy Hutton’s pained looks, Mary Tyler Moore’s tightness and control in gesture and facial expressions, Donald Sutherland’s genial helplessness. I did love seeing the world of 1980 again on the small screen. The preppy, vintage crew-neck Henley and Fair Isle sweaters of the 1980s sported by Elizabeth McGovern and the other high school girls.

Elizabeth McGovern in Ordinary People
Elizabeth McGovern in Ordinary People

It had been years since I had watched a movie with friends on a couch in a living room. Ordinary People gripped me—Mary Tyler Moore’s WASP coldness, her inability to connect to her son; the surviving son’s stint in a psychiatric hospital and his attempts to articulate his pain. Everyone stumbling around what can’t be said. Timothy Hutton as Conrad Jarrett shivering in swim practice, folding his arms across his thin chest; MTM straightening something on a table so that it is just so; Donald Sutherland running and then stumbling along the shore of Lake Michigan. Judd Hirsch as the Jewish psychiatrist Conrad sees—who is kind, who is tough, who helps him to connect.

Why, I asked my brother, did you like the film so much? So many messages. Look at the title. Everyone has problems underneath. Just because you are smart doesn’t mean u can work everything out yourself.

Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People (1980), directed by Robert Redford.
Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People (1980), directed by Robert Redford.

Both my brother-in-law and Conrad’s brother in the film died suddenly. The visual that struck me the most in Ordinary People was the kitchen table, shown repeatedly. At one time, it would have been set for four, but now it had three place settings. The way a family must rearrange itself from an equal trapezoid or square or circle into a triangle, into an ellipse, something oblong, something lopsided. Symmetry and shape broken, and so altered.

After we watched the film that night, I mentioned my brother and his love of the movie. I mentioned my brother-in-law, now 17 years since he passed. A woman I had only talked to briefly before, sitting on the couch next to me, told us that her sister was in a psychiatric hospital. She and I stayed in the living room talking until late, after everyone else had left.

Two of my graduate school fiction professors at UMass Amherst wrote books about their siblings and their relationships with them. In Brothers and Keepers, John Edgar Wideman wrote about his younger brother, who is in prison for life. Jay Neugeboren also wrote about his younger brother, in and out of mental institutions and hospitals for most of his life, in his thoughtful memoir, Imagining Robert. Neugeboren once said that your sibling relationships are often your longest primary relationship.

My graduate school years in Massachusetts seemed at the time like an extension of high school or college. (I was not alone in thinking this; several of my classmates not only sensed this about our program, but celebrated it—they threw an MFA prom every spring.) Western Massachusetts, also called the Pioneer Valley, had the nickname of the “Happy Valley.” Everyone was aspiring, educated, liberal, and under 40. We were always at bars or in bookstores, in class or at readings, at concerts or in coffee shops. We had time. I had time, but the most severe depression of my life flattened me in that most picturesque valley.

A few years later, LeeAnne, my closest friend from UMass, took her life at 36. She had been an older sister to me. Two other friends from UMass died in the past few years, at 40 and 42, both in wrenching circumstances. Last year I married my husband, who lost his only brother when they were both still in their twenties. None of this is extraordinary; everyone loses someone or will.

To recite their names (this is one way to keep the people you love alive):  LeeAnne Smith White. The eldest of seven. We went to the Brimfield Antique Flea Market together and brought home too much stuff. We liked to drink vanilla au laits after teaching our Friday composition classes. She called my brother, worried, when I was depressed.

Mary M. Reda. The youngest of five. She introduced me to restorative yoga (you could exercise and lie down at the same time—brillant). Our friends married in Maine and we were there together. She wrote her dissertation on quiet students.

James (Jim) Wright Foley. The eldest of five. He had the best laugh. We both loved Junot Diaz’s book, Drown. He had this restlessness and this charm. He listened hard when you talked. He grew up to become a conflict journalist.

Mahesh Venkatesh Singaravelu. The elder of two. He was friends with everyone. He threw parties in high school (the neighboring school from mine) when his parents went to India. We knew three people in common. I never went to those parties (I never went to any parties). We never met. This is my start.