Tyranny of the Normal

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In his controversial bestseller FREAKS: MYTHS AND IMAGES OF THE SECRET SELF (1978), Leslie Fiedler explored the lives of the congenitally malformed. Drawing on his knowledge of literature and myth, Fielder unmasked society’s ambivalent attitude toward the deformed which he found to be a perverse fascination with the “Other,” as well as the fear that the “Other” actually mirrors the “Secret Self” embedded in the human psyche. In TYRANNY OF THE NORMAL: ESSAYS ON BIOETHICS, THEOLOGY AND MYTH, Fiedler resumes his examination of society’s attitudes toward the abnormal from the perspective of bioethics.

Fiedler speaks of bioethics not as a health care professional but as a self-confessed outsider, a critic accustomed to plumbing the depths of literature through the lenses of mythology and psychology. In this collection of essays, Fiedler employs bioethics as a tool to reveal how the mythology of the abnormal manifests itself in our culture. He deals with the images of nurses, doctors, and the disabled in literature and popular culture; the relationship between child abuse and literature; and cultural attitudes toward organ transplants, sexuality, death, impotence, and deformity.

Although some subjects are disturbing, Fiedler does not flinch from probing the dark side of human nature. Using a multi-disciplinary approach which includes literature, mythology, theology, and psychology, he exposes our deep-seated fears and prejudices. For example, in an essay concerning organ transplantation, Fiedler draws on Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN: OR, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS (1818) to show how our archetypal quest for immortality is viewed by society as ambivalent. He suggests that the reason why a donor organ is rejected by the body may be because the supposedly willing recipient unconsciously perceives that there is something unnatural, even monstrous, about transplanting body parts from the dead to the living.

Of course many people who have experienced successful organ transplants would disagree with Fiedler’s analysis. Yet it is precisely the provocative nature of Fiedler’s ideas that make his essays so compelling—and worth reading, not once, but many times.