Study Guide

Ordinary People Mortality

By Judith Guest


He wills his mind to slip over it, a blur of gold leaves and green grass sliding, sliding as they turn into the parking lot behind the school. (3.28)

The book drops hints early on that Conrad's brother, Buck, is no longer with us. We can infer that he is dead, and not simply away at college, from the way Conrad doesn't want to think about it, but at this point, we don't know for sure.

"Then, are we going to live like this? With it always hanging over our heads?" (4.51)

Beth is probably talking about Conrad's suicide attempt, but she might also mean Buck's death—or maybe she's even referring to both. Both of her children have been touched with death, and she is unable to deal with it. She would rather go on vacation and ignore it.

"I tried to off myself." (5.47)

Here is the first example of Conrad's aloof attitude toward his suicide attempt. He casually brushes it off, which is an avoidance tactic. But the thing is, by avoiding a problem, you never actually get past it. You just keep avoiding it and avoiding it and avoiding it.

"I had a brother. He's dead. It was an accident on the lake. We were sailing. He drowned." (5.73)

Conrad has the same bland attitude about his brother's death that he has about his own attempt at suicide. Is that how he really feels? Or does he just talk about it this way so that he won't have to say anything further about it?

The fear behind the fear of losing people is that there might have been something you could have done to prevent it. (19.63)

Death is complicated, although many people don't actively fear losing people. They just assume it won't happen to them, and then they have to deal with both the shock and the grief when it happens. It's another avoidance tactic.

"Look, I don't know why you want to be alone in this, but I wouldn't s*** you, man. I miss him, too." (22.49)

Buck's death hits the Jarrett family hard, but it affects others, too. Conrad isn't able to look past his own grief and see that his good friend Lazenby is grieving, too. He doesn't know until Lazenby tells him.

"It hurts too much to be around you." (22.51)

We can tell Conrad is still grieving, even if he doesn't say it that way, because he tells Lazenby he can't be around him. Lazenby reminds him of his brother, and his death is still an open wound.

"Karen Susan Aldrich […] dead on arrival at Skokie General Hospital…hose attached to the car's exhaust pipe was drawn through a rear window." (26.19)

Conrad is shocked to learn that Karen killed herself. He wants to believe that the hospital helped him, but if someone else in the hospital killed herself, that means Conrad might not have been "cured" after all, and what little security he derived from the belief in his cure is shattered. Now he is scared.

The police chief was quoted. He couldn't understand why a kid would want to hurt himself like that. […] He had tried to explain that he had not been trying to hurt himself, he had merely been trying to die. (26.40)

Notice that Conrad makes a distinction between "hurt[ing] himself" and "trying to die," not thinking they are the same thing. Why are they different to Conrad?

When did it happen? When did they stop calling to one another from opposite sides of the stern where they hung for better more even balance did he think it was over? (26.65)

It isn't until the end of the book that we find out how Buck died. Does finding this out in a flashback change anything? Does it change your perception of Conrad? Why does Judith Guest keep this from us until the book's final act?