Study Guide

The Usual Rules Guilt and Blame

By Joyce Maynard

Guilt and Blame

He sounded so sad, Wendy wanted to comfort him, but she knew her mother wouldn't like that. She could see the characters in Parent Trap rewinding to the beginning of the movie, where they hated each other, though in this case it seemed like it was only her mother who hated her father, not the other way around, and Wendy didn't understand how her mother could be so mean all of a sudden to someone who kept trying to be nice. (2.51)

When Garrett comes to see Janet and Wendy after being away for over a year, Wendy is quick to forgive her father—after all, she's missed him. But Janet isn't going to let him off so easy, especially when he hasn't helped raise his daughter at all in the past year.

I guess you wish now you hadn't said all that stuff about your mom, Amelia said.

Wendy couldn't speak.

I'll never tell anyone, Amelia said. Just because you were mad at her didn't mean you wanted a building to fall on top of her. Sometimes people say things. You should hear what I say about my mom. (3.245-247)

It's horrible enough that Wendy has to live with the fact that her mother died in the 9/11 attacks, but now she has to obsessively think about all the awful things she said about her, too.

I'm sorry, Janet, he said. It didn't mean anything. I didn't really care about her. It was just this thing that happened. You're the one I love. God, what was I doing?

You were screwing up our life, that's what. (4.91-92)

When Janet and Wendy surprise Garrett only to find him in bed with another woman, it's clear things aren't going to end well for their little family. It's his fault that this marriage is ending and that Janet has to raise Wendy on her own now.

Thinking about it now—all the times she should have helped out, but didn't, how selfish she used to be—made Wendy feel sick. In the past, she had believed her mother was unreasonable, having all these expectations for her behavior. Living with Garrett, she almost missed them. She could do what she wanted now. But sometimes she wondered if it meant he was nicer, or just that he didn't pay enough attention to notice. (19.6)

Before, Wendy used to blame her mother for all of their fights. But now she realizes that she was at fault, too—she wasn't a good daughter. She was often selfish and difficult, and that makes her feel awful and guilty.

Times like this, Wendy, she said. She said this very quietly, which was the worst. I wonder what I did to raise such a selfish, ungenerous daughter. I wonder if I even know you anymore.

When she said that, Wendy actually felt scared. What if she really had turned into this awful person? (19.15-16)

When her mother tells her that she's being selfish and mean, Wendy is angry but she also is worried her mother might be right. What if all of their problems are her fault and she's changed into a bad person? Can she change back into someone who won't be so mean to her family?

Once Wendy started thinking about all the things she regretted, she couldn't stop. Riding Garrett's bike in the hot, dry air of Davis, out along the flat expanse of wheat-lined highway, the pictures of her mother and her kept coming back to her, like buildings she passed along the road. Diner… gas station… avocado stand… fight with mother. (19.75)

Poor Wendy is so guilt-ridden and consumed with all the memories of the times she let her mother down. She can't stop thinking about how she should have acted, how she should have treated her mother when she was working so hard to provide Wendy with a nice home.

I know I let you down, too, he said. My mother was right about one thing probably. I was a major f***up as a father.

It's okay, she said, not exactly denying it.

Not only that. I screwed up where your mother was concerned, too. She was one terrific girl. I just wasn't ready to handle all the responsibility. (25.75-77)

When Garrett apologizes for being a bad father, Wendy can't exactly tell him it's not true—he hasn't been around in her life. But now he's trying really hard, and she can appreciate that.

We're not talking about some kind of husband-stealer. This is your mother's best friend. Someone else who happens to be missing your mom pretty badly and feeling this big, awful empty space of her own.

Kate and my mom talked on the phone every single day.

And all that time Kate and your mom were friends, did you ever get the feeling Kate wanted to take Josh away from her? Let alone wish she was dead. (28.144-146)

Although it would be easy for Wendy to resent Kate for being romantically involved with Josh after Janet's death, she knows it wasn't done in malice. Carolyn explains to her how this could have happened, and Wendy decides she won't blame them for anything.

Just a small scrap of something good is all. This is more like a harmonica tune and one small star shining down on them. You've got two good people who've had a crushing load of grief lately, and if they can find some way to give each other a little comfort one of these days, who'd begrudge them? (28.161)

Carolyn has a good point: It would be cruel to deny Kate and Josh the little comfort that they do have. After all, they're not bad people and they both loved Janet wholeheartedly. They're not doing this to hurt Wendy or Louie.

I just wanted you to know, Carolyn said. I can understand, now that you're about to have a baby yourselves and all, how it must be for you, imagining me giving you away like that. But it didn't mean I didn't want you. I was trying to do the best thing. Nothing else I ever did in my life was as hard as that. (28.206)

Carolyn can tell that Nate doesn't fully forgive her for giving him up for adoption—and she doesn't hold that against him at all. But she does want him to know how hard the decision was for her, and how much she wanted to keep him.