Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ordinary People: Grief and Mourning in America

I never know what to do with my blogging self on 9/11. Being so very far removed geographically from the attacks eleven years ago, I never feel comfortable or confident talking about what that day meant, and still means, to me emotionally. I do feel not only obligated but called to do something to remember and process, and the way I remember and process is through movies. So.

When scanning Netflix and HBO Go for something appropriate, I saw that Ordinary People had been added to the latter. It's a movie I have always meant to see and never crossed paths with until today, so I decided to postpone a 9/11 movie for the evening and watch that this morning. As it turns out, it was exactly the film I needed to see.

Ordinary People came out in 1980, so it obviously is not at all about the attacks or their aftermath. What it is about is trauma, and how horrific things happen to people who do not deserve it, and how much hard physical and emotional labor it takes to heal from profound loss. The movie follows Conrad Jarrett (a young Timothy Hutton who earned every inch of his Oscar, though it should have been for Best Actor rather than Supporting), a young man suffering visibly and gut-wrenchingly from depression and anxiety following the accidental death of his older brother. Conrad's attempts to manage, or in his words, "control," his rapidly deteriorating psychic state in order to protect his parents (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore) grow increasingly unsuccessful and difficult to watch as he stops eating, sleeping, and interacting with his friends. The fact that he has recently attempted suicide clearly consumes his anxious father with guilt and concern, though his mother remains distant and seemingly uninterested in his breakdown. A moment of desperation leads him to a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch), who slowly, painstakingly, and doggedly brings him out of numbness and darkness and enables him to imagine a life liberated from guilt and self-loathing.

This is probably the finest representation of the power of talk therapy that I've ever seen on film. Dr. Berger meets Conrad where he is, calls his bluffs, and never allows him to surrender to the stories that he has internalized about himself. As Conrad slowly allows himself to feel the pain of his unbearable loss, the implications of his burgeoning recovery reverberate through his grieving family. His newfound ability to articulate his rage and disappointment, particularly at his mother's coldness, does not result in any easy answers for the Jarrett family. Moore's Beth is increasingly threatened by her husband and son's desire to talk about the twin traumas that struck the family, and it becomes obvious that Conrad learned his earlier (unsuccessful and dangerous) coping strategies from her.

Though the film doesn't offer a happy ending, what it does offer is the belief that people can, with help, bring themselves back from the darkest places in their minds and hearts. And it demonstrates that those who reach out in pain and desperation will find arms to pull them up. And it argues that though the world can be cruelly capricious and astoundingly unfair, redemption and forgiveness and hope can find their way into hearts that have been broken wide open. I needed to be reminded of that today. 

I also have to say that one of the people dearest to me was born on this day, which also helps me remember that there is always brightness and love to be found in moments that seem irredeemably dark. Happy birthday, Nat!

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