The Myth of Normal

by Gabor Maté

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Last Updated on November 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841

In the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita, the divine avatar Krishna declares, “They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them.” And the early seventeenth-century cleric and poet John Donne famously mused, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” He composed this line, perhaps not coincidentally, during a period of illness and convalescence. (Chapter 3)

The fact that this quotation contains two other quotations—and that neither of them is from a scientist or medical authority—is characteristic of Maté’s style and approach. He is eager to explore all potential sources of wisdom, including religion and poetry. Maté often laments the narrowness of his own medical education and the fear other doctors have of appearing unscientific in their approach to their work. He distinguishes between being unscientific (making statements contrary to scientific evidence) and his own approach, which is to draw upon a range of nonscientific sources as long as they do not conflict with science. His comment on Donne’s state of mind reflects his insistence that emotions constitute evidence, which is too frequently ignored by doctors who only want data they can quantify.

Yet who was I within myself and within the four-walled world of our home? A depressed, anxious, psychologically underdeveloped man, years away from addressing his core wounds; a man whose family bore the burden of his dysfunctional, erratic, and emotionally hostile behaviors; a man whose workaholism took the form at home of physical and emotional absence, even negligence; a man addicted to his own internal drama, not knowing how to be responsible for his actions and mind-states or their impacts on his family, least of all his child-to-be. (Chapter 10)

In this passage, the author moves from discussing his wife’s anxieties about the birth of their third child to his own inadequacies in his role as father. This is a technique he employs throughout the book, using himself as a bad example and an illustration that change can be made from an unpromising start. The long second sentence, seventy-four words of self-condemnation, piles up the charges against him in a highly rhetorical manner, using anaphora and ascending tricolon (“a man. . . a man. . . a man”) to emphasize the number of ways in which he fell short of the ideal of fatherhood. This technique not only highlights the improvements Maté has made since that time, but acts as a preemptive defense against possible charges of smugness or preaching.

If I could distill my message and insert it into that beautiful cinematic moment, I would have Robin Williams look all of us in the eye—including himself—and say with assurance: “It’s not your fault… and it’s not personal.” It’s about our hurting world, manifesting the illusions and myths of a culture alienated from our essence. (Chapter 18)

In chapter 18, Maté discusses the mental anguish that drove the actor Robin Williams to suicide. At the end of the chapter, he describes a scene from Good Will Hunting in which the psychologist played by Williams looks Will in the eye and tells him that the childhood trauma from which he is suffering is not his fault. Maté restates the words of the film but then adds his own modification which more precisely expresses his message. Throughout the text, he emphasizes that blaming oneself for trauma is counterproductive, as is blaming others. The toxic culture in which everyone exists is never far from his mind. While there is a great deal of scientific information in the book, Maté prefers to end his chapters with references to popular culture in order to drive his message home in the simplest and most direct way possible.

Once upon a time, our wholeness was lost to us when our all-star team of inner friends—Guilt, Self-Hatred, Suppression, Denial, and the rest—came aboard to keep us safe. We had no choice in the matter, of course, and mostly we didn’t notice them as they went about their business. Like a cadre of reality-TV design experts, they set about remodeling our personalities so that we’d make it out of childhood in one piece: beautifying certain rooms and boarding up others, installing alarms, locking the cellar door. (Chapter 30)

The author refers to this passage as “a bedtime story,” and it begins with the four words that define this genre. It is also a parody, a parable, and an allegory. Even in his more straightforward scientific passages, Maté is fond of personification, and he refers to Guilt, Self-Hatred and other obstacles to healing throughout the chapter as friends, teachers, and elders. This passage provides a vivid illustration of the chapter’s central theme, that negative emotions are not enemies but helpers who have outlived their usefulness. They should be dismissed but without acrimony, since they did, after all, ensure that “we’d make it out of childhood in one piece.” The simile comparing these emotions to “reality-TV design experts” humorously emphasizes their benign intentions and the way in which their plans are all too likely to produce disastrous consequences.

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