When humans are experience emotional turmoil, it is absolutely critical to be surrounded by people who are not only sympathetic, but good listeners. Conrad, the main character in Ordinary People, experienced a tremendous amount of psychological pain because for much of the movie he felt he had no one to talk to about the death of his brother in a boating accident and his resulting suicide attempt. His relationships with his parents and his swim team buddies suffered dramatically because of all of the pain he held inside.
From the outset of the movie, it is obvious that Conrad is not skilled at articulating his emotions. His conversations with his parents are strained and awkward, and he offers as little elaboration as possible to any questions asked of him (mostly by his father). While many adolescents are reluctant to share feelings openly, there are factors that contribute to Conrad’s reluctance, namely the fact that he obviously does not feel comfortable discussing his past experiences and emotions with his mother.
At the beginning of the movie, the three central characters (Conrad and his parents) are having breakfast, and even though his mother made Conrad his favorite breakfast, he refused to eat. It was apparent that something was bothering him. His father tried to ask what was wrong, but his mother’s attention was clearly elsewhere. This reality became more and more obvious as the film moved along. His mother’s other preoccupations not only greatly contributed to Conrad’s deepening psychological pain, but served to illustrate how her poor listening habits helped drive a wedge between them.
Conrad’s mother is obviously emotionally unavailable to Conrad, and this is borne out in several instances. One is when Conrad walked in on her when she was in her deceased son’s room, and a conversation about Conrad’s trigonometry ensued. She started to discuss how she struggled with trigonometry in high school, then hesitated and realized she never had it. It was apparent that she was simply making conversation and not really listening to what Conrad was talking about. A second instance that shows that she is uncomfortable listening to Conrad is when they are in the front yard and the topic of conversation turned to family pets. Conrad began talking about a dog that he remembered from his childhood, and his mother quickly claimed she had somewhere to go and walked away from him. According to Larry Barker and Kittie Watson, authors of Listen Up, showing interesting in things other than the conversation is an “irritating listening habit”, which Conrad’s mother shows whenever he seems to want to talk about what’s troubling him.