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book review
  • Title: The Myth of Normal
  • Author: Gabor Maté with Daniel Maté
  • Genre: Health
  • Publisher: Knopf Canada
  • Pages: 576

A meditation upon trauma, and a call to transcend it through growth, The Myth of Normal, addresses individual, intimate issues – the lifetime reverberations of early childhood experiences, and the toll of our inner struggles upon the very function of our bodies and genes. It also invites the reader to re-examine shared phenomena – including the toxicity of current political culture and the impact of global capitalism, as both perpetrators and consequences of trauma.

“It’s about our hurting world,” write father and son co-authors Gabor and Daniel Maté as they assemble, like so many puzzle pieces, a picture of our frayed humanity. Throughout this powerful book, there is both incisive analysis and a cri de coeur – the championing of an implicit faith that people are capable of healing beyond trauma, and that collectively we can all do better – for ourselves and for one another.

The impacts of “big T” and “little t” trauma, the Matés argue – are omnipresent. The ways we contort our emotional architecture – perhaps as an essential matter of surviving childhood abuse, overt violence, or sudden catastrophe – are examples of ‘big T’ traumas. The internal concessions we make to the insidious experiences of racism, misogyny, and a dehumanizing modern economy, constitute “small t” traumas. In both, the core of trauma is the sacrifice of our “authenticity” for the sake of “attachment.” While trauma is fracturing us as human beings and as a society, we swim in it unaware – much as fish might not know of the existence of water, hence the myth that all of this is normal.

Confronting the notion that our bodily destiny is preordained in genetic codes, the Matés share the epigenetic science of how poverty, racism, and natural disasters alter the function of our DNA. We learn of trauma’s links to autoimmune disorders, cancers and mental illnesses. Addiction is shown for its frequent roots in adaptive behaviours.

Gabor interviewed people whose experience of illness was deeply intertwined with histories of trauma. Mee-Ok had a remarkable turn-around in her scleroderma “in defiance of all conventional medical logic,” when she confronted her deep history of abuse. V, formerly known as Eve Ensler, recounted her survival from a near-terminal diagnosis of cancer that came with aggressive medical intervention but not with her “fighting cancer.” She instead reckoned with her own history of abuse and engaged with a “willingness to experience disease … as a process that encompasses all of her life … and, ultimately, even as a teacher.”

The Matés challenge the paradigm of militaristic “battles” against illness, using evolving science to ask what an illness might show us about ourselves, and how that might inform medical treatment. Some of the book dances between a writer’s strength of illustrating through example, and the physician’s forte of scientific evidence – and there are signposts as to who is leading each dance.

The Matés’ critique of North American society’s disruptions of childhood development is a must-read for parents, caregivers, educators, and policy-makers, because the argument is that the strong attachment link between parent and child, which is essential for healthy human development, is only widely possible when supported by communities. Concepts such as a women-centric holistic approach to birthing and early child-rearing, generous parental leaves, and the importance of play within the education system, are easy to dismiss as “soft” in policy and public discourse. As such, a great contribution of this book is to situate these within a framework of developmental neuropsychology – showing why a mindful, attentive approach to childhood development is essential if we want healthier children and a healthier society.

Rather than elevating himself on some kind of mindfulness pedestal, Gabor contextualizes his observations within his own history of personal imbalances as a Holocaust survivor, a workaholic doctor, a brooding husband, and a stressed-out parent. To illustrate the ways in which trauma can fuel the messy and sometimes horrific arena of world events, the Matés give us sketches of the traumas that may have formed the psyches of the Nazi leadership, as well as Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton.

The principles of Gabor’s methodology of Compassionate Inquiry seem like kindred spirits to methodologies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Narrative Therapy, which fall under the umbrella of third-wave approaches to therapy. They share an embrace of authentic self-awareness through curiosity and compassion, the observing stance – the skill of noticing one’s own emotions, thoughts and story, and a practical orientation toward the capacity for choice.

Gabor shares his own experience involving psychedelics, but these substances are presented not as a necessary element of post-traumatic growth, but rather as a possible part of the journey. In his account, they didn’t do much for him until he was willing to humble his own ego and follow an unexpected path, leading to him “connecting whatever I previously thought of as ‘I’ to something mysterious, transcendent, awesome.”

In our legalistic culture, the understanding of a problem’s causation is often part of a mechanism for deciding whom to blame, and then assigning responsibility. The Matés seek to disentangle this “blame” trajectory as being in many instances unhelpful, whether telling us the stories of a former IRA militant and a victim of an IRA bomb climbing Mount Kilimanjaro together, or his own meeting with the grand-niece of Hermann Goering. In the realm of illness, understanding the link between a person’s own repressed responses to trauma, and their mental illness or autoimmune disorder, does not mean we should blame them for falling ill.

Meanwhile, in the Matés’ conceptualization, even if we are not individually malicious agents of wrongdoing, our interconnectedness comes with collective responsibility to address the harms caused by racism, misogyny, imbalances of privilege, and, in Canada, the legacy of colonialism. Trauma is not a hopeless dead-end, but contains the possibility of growth. There is a seeming paradox that we must value our intensely individual experiences – and yet our lives and actions are inextricably linked to our neighbours and our world. In keeping with third-wave approaches, paradoxes do not require resolution, but can serve to illuminate.

For anyone who feels a sense of vague disquiet, unsettled sadness, or baffled rage at the world around us, this book contains a vivid explanatory vision of the trauma we are all experiencing. For those who feel bewildered at what direction to take to heal, the Matés don’t offer a pat prescription, but a profound direction that this is revelatory, optimistic and ambitious. The Myth of Normal offers both respite from a chaotic world through its clear-minded conception of what ails it, and energy to move forward in ways that are practical, generous and true to ourselves.

Vincent Lam is a physician and author. He was awarded the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2006 for Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. His forthcoming novel, On The Ravine will be published by Knopf in February, 2023.”

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