Jarrett Family Identifying Information
The Jarrett family is the main group of characters in the film “ Ordinary People” (Schwary & Redford, 1980). The Jarrett family genogram is presented in Chart 1. Jordan “ Buck” Jarrett is the oldest son, but he appears only during flashbacks and memories because the film takes place after his death. The main protagonist of the story is Conrad Jarrett, who was released from the hospital after a failed suicide attempt and exhibits symptoms of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Chart 1. Jarrett family geneogram.
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Communication barriers are the most pressing issue for the Jarrett family. It is likely that their detrimental coping styles after Buck’s death are the cause of those barriers. Each family member is dealing with Buck’s death alone without support from other family members or friends. Conrad failed to cope with his feelings of guilt and self-blame brother’s death, and he attempted to commit suicide. Calvin blames himself for both tragedies and deals with that issue by becoming obsessed with Conrad’s well-being to the point that Beth criticizes his parenting while they are playing golf with her brother and his wife. Beth is a perfectionist who identifies with her family to the extent that she discourages intimate levels of communication, but it is also clear that she always suppresses her emotions regarding the traumatic events concerning her children. She displays hostile behavior toward Calvin whenever he asks her to participate in discussing issues. She makes it clear several times that she does not want to talk about the past traumatic events and refuses to provide support to her son Conrad, who is convinced that she hates him. Although she denies that fact, she cannot forgive him for the suicide attempt. Overall, there is no open communication between the members of the family that would help them resolve the traumatic events they had experienced.
The communication barriers in the Jarrett family appear to be caused mainly by Beth’s lack of involvement in discussing issues. As soon as Beth leaves at the end of the film, Calvin and Conrad resolve their issues through communication. However, approaching family therapy under that assumption would prove counterproductive because Beth would probably feel blamed and resist therapy. Getting the whole family to participate in therapy requires redefining the presenting problem. In this case, the problem could be defined as dysfunctional family structure and detrimental boundaries between the characters. Beth may be the only character who resists communicating about issues, but the entire family displays dysfunctional behavioral patterns because of extreme boundary setting and the blurring of independent subsystems.
Family Developmental History
Prior to Buck’s death, it is possible to assume that the family’s subsystems were relatively functional, but only two scenes in the film apart from Conrad’s flashbacks can be used to infer that assumption. Conrad’s father recalls a situation in which he resolved a conflict between the two brothers during his commute home. After Conrad’s fight with Kevin, his friend Joe mentions that the three of them had been best friends before the accident. No conflicts in any of the subsystems are mentioned prior to the accident and Conrad’s suicide attempt, so it is possible to suggest that the family’s subsystems had been relatively functional prior to the traumatic events concerning the two siblings.
Two critical events that altered the subsystems in the family include Buck’s death and Conrad’s suicide attempt. When Calvin visits Dr. Berger, who is Conrad’s therapist, he reveals that he blames himself for Buck’s death and for failing to notice and prevent Conrad’s suicide attempt. Based on the interactions between Conrad and his parents, it is possible to determine that Conrad perceived Buck as the favorite child, and Calvin confirms at the end of the film that Buck did receive more attention than Conrad. However, Calvin explains to Conrad that his brother had required more attention to be raised properly, so Calvin never worried about Conrad’s well-being. Although Beth never states explicitly that Buck was her favorite child, that fact becomes clear Calvin calls her out for never visiting Conrad in the hospital and states that she would have visited Buck if he had been the one in the hospital. Beth responds by yelling that Buck would not have ended up in the hospital, so it is possible to assume that she favored Buck and believed that he was more competent than Conrad.
Chart 2 shows how the Jarrett family’s interaction patterns prior to the accident. The solid lines between the parents and Buck represent the higher levels of attention he had received compared to Conrad. Conrad wants the same level of attention from the parents as Buck had received, so he aims to take on the role of the “ perfect kid,” as his psychotherapist Dr. Berger puts it. According to Namysłowska and Siewierska (2010), when parents divert their attention to one child, they increase the risk for negative behaviors in the other child because the other child will aim to receive the same level of attention by changing behavioral patterns. In Conrad’s case, those behavioral patterns include attempting suicide, followed by shaping his identity and actions to please others.
Aims to take his brother’s place
after the accident by pleasing everyone.
Chart 2. Historical family interactions.
The relationship between Calvin and Beth resembles the functionalist family in terms of labor division. Calvin is the provider for the family, and Beth manages the household. However, the differences between their relationships with Conrad become evident as soon as they return home from the play at the beginning of the film. Calvin checks on Conrad in his room to ask him how he feels and whether he is considering calling the psychotherapist he had been referred to after being released from the hospital. Throughout the film, Beth is not emotionally involved with the family. Even though she cries when the ambulance takes Conrad to the hospital, she never forgives him because she takes the suicide attempt personally and believes his motivation had been to “ kill her, too.” Consequently, her relationship with Conrad is superficial for the sake of appearances, so Calvin takes on the role of the nurturer while Beth becomes uninvolved.
The differences between their attitudes towards their son are a major source of conflict between them. According to Goettig (1986), becoming separate individuals is required for children once they reach the adolescent stage. However, Conrad is still looking for emotional support from his parents, which is characteristic for a family during the childhood phase (Goettig, 1986). Therefore, the marital and parental subsystems overlap, so the hierarchical structure of the family is threatened, causing the family becomes dysfunctional.
The relationship between Calvin and Beth is also affected because they had set extreme boundaries in their relationship. Calvin’s over-enmeshment causes him to pressure Beth into confronting family issues against her will. Beth is coping with her loss by becoming over-detached, so she becomes hostile whenever confronted for suppressing her issues. As they fail to resolve their issues, Beth and Calvin become separated at the end of the film when she leaves the house, presumably to stay at her brother’s house in Houston.
Chart 3. Jarrett family marital subsystem.
The purpose of the parental subsystem is to raise children. During Conrad’s therapy sessions, Conrad is consistently asking Dr. Berger to tell him what to do with his life. For example, he demands to know whether he should take medication or quit swimming and expects explicit answers from Dr. Berger. Berger does not give in to the pressure and explains to Conrad that he lacks a self-identity and is attempting to build an identity by pleasing others. Those efforts are unsuccessful because of the boundary barriers between him and his parents (see Chart 4).
Calvin’s over-enmeshment becomes evident from the beginning of the film when he tries to pressure Conrad into having breakfast, wants to drive him to school, and finds it difficult to let his son go out of the house on his own. Although Calvin is showing genuine concern, he fails to build rapport with Conrad, possibly because Conrad feels too much pressure due to his father’s over-enmeshment.
Beth’s over-detachment also becomes evident at the beginning of the film when she does not care about Conrad’s appetite and throws away his food as soon as he says that he was not feeling hungry. She also expresses her disagreement with Conrad’s and Calvin’s appointments with Dr. Berger because she feels that exposing the family’s issues is a threat to her privacy and public appearance. Conrad is trying to gain his mother’s approval, but her over-detachment is a significant barrier in their relationship because she does not support the resolution of his issues and chooses to ignore them instead.
Chart 4. Jarrett family parental subsystem.
Father-children. During his therapy sessions with Dr. Berger, Calvin admits feeling guilty and responsible for Buck’s death and Conrad’s suicide attempt. Under the assumption that he could have prevented both events, Calvin becomes over-enmeshed with Conrad (see Chart 5). Calvin admits to providing more attention to Buck because he needed more discipline, but he also expresses regret for failing to provide adequate levels of attention to Conrad, so he is now trying to compensate for his past mistakes through over-enmeshment.
Chart 5. Jarrett family father-children subsystem.
Mother-children. The tragedies concerning her sons made Beth over-detached in her relationship with her children (see Chart 6). She does not want to talk about Buck’s death and denies her loss when Conrad reaches out to her during their talk in the garden. Beth also fails to discuss her issues with Conrad and displays avoidant behaviors instead. An example of an avoidant behavior is refusing to take a picture with Conrad on Christmas at her parents’ house. Based on her viewpoint, which she angrily expresses to Calvin during their visit to Ward and Audrey in Houston, Conrad is seeking too much attention from her and she refuses to give him credit for everything positive thing he does.
Chart 6. Jarrett family mother-children subsystem.
At the beginning of the movie “ Ordinary People,” Buck is already deceased and Conrad is dealing with depression and PTSD. The analysis of the historical family development reveals that Buck was the favorite child, so Conrad is looking to build his identity around pleasing others, especially his mother, after his death because he hopes to take Buck’s place in the family. Conrad needs reconciliation with his survivor’s guilt to stop trying to be his brother and start building his own identity. The breakthrough he experiences after calling and meeting Dr. Berger in the middle of the night is the turning point, after which he experiences less guilt and stops trying to please his mother. Finally, after talking with Calvin once Beth leaves, Conrad accepts that he is not his brother and that he cannot have the same relationship with his parents as Buck had.
Chart 7 shows the areas of interaction specific to each member of the Jarrett family. The red names and groups represent the relationships that had been terminated. Dr. Crawford is only mentioned as the person who made the referral to Conrad for Dr. Berger. When Conrad quits the swimming team, he also terminates the relationship with coach Salan, who appears to be hurt because he cared about Conrad’s well-being. However, Conrad still has adequate social support from his friends at school.
The extended family serves as a social support network for Beth, who runs to them whenever conflicts in the family arise. Ward and Audrey support Beth’s viewpoint that everything is all right with her while everybody else is trying to change her so that she will meet their expectations. Although they support her attempts to run away from personal issues, Beth needs the kind of social support that helps her cope with her issues, but she does not participate in therapy and her only source of socialization is the country club.
Calvin’s relationships at work are not helpful in terms of resolving personal issues, but he does have a formal relationship with Dr. Berger, which proved useful for identifying and resolving his issues. Like Beth, Calvin’s only source of socialization is the country club, so both of them need to expand their social circles.
Chart 7. Jarrett family interactions with the community.
Based on the examination of the Jarrett family subsystems, the most evident issue is the blurring of the marital and the parental subsystems. According to the family systems theory, the marital and sibling subsystems must be independent of each other, and issues that occur within each subsystem need to be resolved without transferring them to other subsystems (Bowen, 1966). In Calvin’s and Beth’s case, Conrad’s issues are affecting their relationship because they are transferring their boundaries with him to the marital subsystem. Therefore, restructuring the hierarchical relationship of the family is required. As an adolescent, Conrad needs to work toward establishing individuality and build his self-identity. The hierarchical structure will be re-established when Conrad stops looking for approval from his parents and turns mainly to his own social network for support.
The father-child and mother-child subsystems also have unhealthy boundaries because Calvin shows over-enmeshment whereas Beth shows over-detachment. Therefore, the treatment goal would be to remove the existing boundaries and set new, productive boundaries between the parents and Conrad. That goal will be achieved when Calvin stops interfering with his son’s life too much and when Beth starts showing more affection to her son. For example, Calvin needs to encourage his son to deal with his own issues rather than trying to become involved every time. Beth needs to show more support and appreciation for his actions achievements, such as his grades or the ability to choose what he wants to do with his life, even if that means quitting activities he does not like, such as swimming.
Community interactions between the Jarrett family members would need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis because each character is involved in different settings outside of the home. Based on the current social networks of the Jarrett family, Calvin and Beth would benefit from more interactions with other people. Both characters are enmeshed because they usually spend most of their social time together, and their circle of friends does not extend beyond the country club. Therefore, extending their social network is the treatment goal, and it will be reached when they start spending some time (e. g., once per week) with their friends independently of each other.
Conrad already has a social support network, but needs to stop dealing with his issues alone and involve his close friends in the coping process because they are ready to help. Towards the end of the film, Conrad re-establishes his relationship with his best friend Joe and works out his issues with his girlfriend Jeannine. Therefore, no changes in this area are necessary, and the treatment goal is to maintain those positive changes.
Bowen, M. (1966). The use of family theory in clinical practice. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 7(5), 345-374.
Goetting, A. (1986). The developmental tasks of siblingship over the life cycle. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 48(4), 703-714.
Namysłowska, I., & Siewierska, A. (2010). The significance and role of siblings in family therapy. Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 1, 5-13.
Schwary, R. L. (Producer), & Redford, R. (Director). (1980). Ordinary people [Motion picture]. USA: Paramount Pictures.