Question Of The Week: "Ordinary People"

by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

This is going to sound like a bad undergraduate paper, but one of the movies (and the novel it was based on) that really impacted me is "Ordinary People."

I saw this movie when I was a senior in high school. I grew up in the suburbs and identified with this family as depicted. My upbringing was not quite as upper middle class, more lower upper middle (if that makes sense). But we lived by the same unwritten/unspoken WASPY suburban rules. The biggee was that we didn't put our business on the street. No matter what was going on at home, we presented a happy, shiny, upstanding suburban family to the world at large. We didn't talk about our thoughts, our feelings, our fears. We got up everyday, made our beds, washed our faces and went to school or work where we tried our hardest to excel. While my mother was not nearly as brittle as the Mary Tyler Moore character, she could be emotionally restrained and a bit unavailable in that way. I don't see this now as a personality flaw. She was a product of her time and upbringing. My father was less emotionally available than the Donald Sutherland character. But he worked hard to provide for his family and chased the upward mobility expected of him.

What blew me away about this movie was that this family was truly ordinary (in my world view). They were moving through each day, doing what was expected without question. They were attractive and they seemed to have it all. They did not appear to be very self-reflective; they were where they were supposed to be. When a senseless tragedy blew their world apart, it became quickly apparent to everyone but them that they weren't a happy solid family unit that could weather any storm. 
This rocked my world. It made me wonder -- could my seemingly happy and cohesive family unit withstand such a tragedy? Would we hang together or fracture separately?  I can report that over the past 30 years we have been tested in large and small ways. We also grew together and separately. We're more open and demonstrative than we used to be, but as we've all grown older, we've naturally grown apart. Through deaths (my father's), marriages, divorces, births, career upheavals, etc., we've gone our separate ways but also come together when needed. We're all less concerned with what other people think and live more authentically (at least I like to think so).
I don't know if it was my age and/or the fact that I was getting ready to leave the nest (as it were), but that movie was the first time I seriously considered some age-old truths. Things are not always what they seem. Bad things happen to good people. People in pain will lash out and push away those they love and need the most. Toughness and inflexibility do not equal strength. "Ordinary People" is still one of my favorite movies. It is beautifully written and superbly acted. Though it is a product of its time in term of styling, it holds up.