Last Updated on November 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 814
Gabor Maté is a physician and author who was born in Budapest in 1944 and emigrated to Canada with his family at the age of twelve. Many writers on scientific subjects would consider such biographical details to be incidental or irrelevant, but Maté believes that they are mistaken. One of his most frequent complaints about the medical profession in The Myth of Normal is that doctors treat their patients as textbook cases rather than as living human beings and do not make any inquiries about the experiences that have shaped their lives.
Maté, by contrast, draws on his own experiences and those of many others throughout the book to illustrate his ideas about trauma and healing. Many of these experiences in adult life are trivial, but the trauma of his childhood certainly was not. When he was fourteen months old, his mother was compelled to entrust him to a stranger in the street to allow him to escape from the horrendous conditions of the Budapest ghetto in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. His father was sent to a forced labor camp, while his mother’s parents died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
Maté states clearly that these events do not excuse his petulant response when, more than sixty years later, his wife is too busy to meet him at the airport and drive him home. However, he does not think his childhood trauma is irrelevant in this situation either. Judgment, justification, and blame are, in his view, unhelpful concepts in the treatment of pathologies so universal they have become invisible. Most people did not experience the aftermath of the Second World War in Central Europe, but trauma can arise in many ways, from absences as well as from occurrences.
This is particularly true of the trauma experienced in childhood. Maté takes issue with Emily Oster, an economist who has written a book on parenting, in which she emphasizes the needs and preferences of the parent. However, he expresses sympathy for her view that “motherhood can be lonely and isolating.” He mentions an experience Oster recounts of “trying to nurse my screaming daughter in a 100-degree closet” at her brother’s wedding. This, according to Maté, is the perfect metaphor for the stresses imposed on both mothers and children by a toxic society. Motherhood is isolating in contemporary society because contemporary society does not value motherhood, as traditional tribal societies do.
To point out the numerous flaws in modern parenting is not, therefore, to blame parents. The idea that contemporary culture is toxic is central to Maté’s thesis. Parents, he says, are responsible for their children but not for the flaws of the society in which they have to raise those children. The opposite of a moralizing approach which castigates individuals for their failures is not, in Maté’s view, one that is free from ethical values but one that is holistic. It might be argued that this amounts to a counsel of perfection for anyone treating or attempting to understand victims of trauma—which in Maté’s view means everyone. One must see not only the sources of trauma that afflict people and the life experiences they carry with them but also their connections to others and the effect that society has had on them. It is difficult to imagine that a busy physician would have time to be so thorough.
As Maté points out, however, enormous amounts of time and resources are poured into maintaining the status quo. His accounts of the ways in which addiction and mental illness are currently treated contain examples such as that of the comedian Darrell Hammond, who spent more than thirty years taking prescription after prescription from dozens of psychiatrists—only to have his life changed in a moment by the revelation that his psychological wounds were the result of a traumatic childhood and could not be healed by purely pharmacological means.
Maté is not opposed to the use of drugs or of natural substances, such as ayahuasca and peyote, which he differentiates from the products of Big Pharma. He reports taking Prozac himself, with positive effects, and as recently as 2019, he experienced a healing vision induced by ayahuasca. However, his holistic approach is to treat such substances as a relatively small though often technically useful part of the healing process. This is a process which takes place within the individual, but, as Maté continually reminds the reader, the sickness is also present in society. While there is no prescription to cure a toxic culture, the act of shedding the social character and becoming authentically oneself is at least a recognition and rejection of its toxicity. Once people have shed their illusions and woken up to the atrocities this culture has persuaded them to accept as normal, they can at least try to make the changes needed for everyone to enjoy better health.