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Book Review: "The Myth of Normal" by Gabor Mate

3/5 - an interesting analysis with some highlighted flaws...

By Annie KapurPublished about a month ago Updated about a month ago 7 min read
From: Amazon

I had only sparsely heard of the author of this book before actually reading it and that was only through what other people had to say about him. I always knew him as the guy who talked about everything as if it was linked to childhood trauma and, though there are many criticisms I can say of his work, this book was actually pretty insightful. No, it wasn't perfect and not everything can actually be blamed on childhood trauma, sometimes I think these people are scared to admit that we don't know why certain things happen. This book though provides an insightful look into how the author thinks about processes of mental health, how wellbeing has a stronghold on our emotional health and how very serious diseases can come out of personality types rather than just lifestyle choices.

The author establishes that contextual factors are not only just as important as physical factors when looking at health, but they are even more important. The book proceeds to go through the many different meanings that the author has attributed to 'contextual factors' and what that might entail. Honestly, I think that this starting point is a good idea though there are some issues with it. The advantage is that it starts at a point where it can branch off, the problem is there are far too many branches to take in. After 'contextual factors' the author begins defining the different types of trauma and the different applications of meanings to the word 'toxic'. This gets a little overwhelming all at once and probably could have been left to the sections that deal with them individually instead of cramming it into the beginning.

From: eBay

The author goes on to state some obvious things about health in the modern day. The first one is that nonsmoking-related cancers are on the steady increase, (and we know that this is specifically amongst my damn generation) as is child suicide. I don't think this book answers why these two things might be increasing as much as it gives roundabout reasoning for it which is probably good enough considering nobody has an actual answer/solution. What he does state is that traumas of any kind can prevent a person from 'being present' or rather 'engaging with the present'. Now, he doesn't say what 'being present' means and I don't want to assume it is the pop-psychology meaning of the term because honestly, that would ruin the book for me. I denounce pop-psychology as being bulls***.

He states that trauma is so pervasive that anyone who doesn't have it should be considered a great outlier as it dominates everything we do - he also accepts and analyses the fact that women have it far worse than men do when it comes to health and trauma. But, it must also be acknowledged that even though: "all traumatic events are stressful but not all stressful events are traumatic" - all of it, whatever it is, causes health problems somewhere down the line.

From: Amazon

I would like to pause here to make a side comment. The disadvantage of this book (which is quite a huge disadvantage for me) is that the author continuously talks about trauma stopping people from experiencing the beauty and wonder of life but though he defines traumas and their types, he never actually says what the beauty and wonder of life actually is. I myself am not sure what this is. Very rarely do regular people with regular jobs find any beauty and meaning in existence. This can be a fault point where the cure is therefore impossible because the goalposts are like the fuzzy static of a 90s TV set. Nobody really knows what's going on but you keep paying attention anyway, mostly waiting for something to happen.

Emotions relative to trauma cause self-hatred and shame - I think we all know this and it is quite the statement to make in a book which is supposed to be teaching us branches of new things. But the fact that self-hating people often get ground down even more by societal expectations to be contented is even worse. It produces, as I believe, a downward-spiral effect. This then distorts our view of the world to make it even more suspect and nasty than it is in reality. We get either the extreme negative or the traits associated with naivety and therefore, the extreme (and blinded) positive.

From: Amazon

Here is another comment. I think that this part about trauma causing shame and self-hatred really didn't need to be in the book because it seems too obvious. This is not a 'mythbuster' of any kind but leads into a greater argument about how self-hatred causes depression and how depression causes illness. However, it is not really developed like that in the text and we don't get much after this self-hatred and shame section when it comes to the author's comments on this personality type.

The one part I did like in this book is where the author analyses how our modern culture continuously exploits and reinforces trauma in order to make us not 'feel present' (still undefined and I still don't know what it means). It seeks to distract and waste the present moment by distracting us with time-killing activities. According to the author we are being distracted from living. Though I like the analysis, I don't fully agree with it. As I think about this I am obviously writing on a device which is made by a company who is known for this distracting behaviour. But, it is really making me feel better about myself to share this with you - so therefore, whatever sadness I might be feeling is being squashed in the midst of writing a nice book review for you. Am I 'not being present'? No. Do I feel bad about it? Also no. I don't like to make anecdotal generalisations but just because something is well-analysed doesn't make it one-size-fits-all.

From: Amazon

Here we come on to the one of the disadvantages of this book. The very first one I want to discuss is the constant reference to taking a 'wellness perspective' on illness. I know that this can be a good idea to start the curing process, confronting the negative emotions can make you feel better. However, it's probably not a good idea to suggest that this is the main thing that a patient has to do in order to recover from cancer. Cancer is far more complex than homeopathic 'wellness perspectives' and 'confronting trauma'. Not everything can be explained away because of some horrid childhood event because not everyone suffers with one.

The word psychoneuroimmonology is used and refers to how emotions and stresses can cause disease. Now, it is not that I don't believe this but it is that I think this is a reductive statement. Instead, I think it would be better to think that emotions and stresses can cause the conditions and contexts where diseases would be allowed to flourish in a human being. But, emotions directly causing disease is not something I think is the exact definition we are looking at even when reading this book. Between the references to popular culture such as Bruce Springsteen's music and that god awful 'Addicted to Love' song (I forget who it's by but it's a bad song), the author seems to show that people already know this: but then how is this book supposed to be the 'mythbuster' it is claiming to be if we already know about it? Paradoxical, I know. But it's useful in learning how we already know and yet choose to ignore.

From: Amazon

Throughout the book there are case studies where the author interviews certain people when they are sick, when they are getting better and throughout all different stages of the recovery process. Mostly these are women who go through having the dreaded 'people pleaser' personality, which according to the author is bound to give the on-set of horrific diseases from cancer to cardiovascular disease. I found these parts to be far more interesting that the author just trying to teach the reader about how this is true in scientific terms. It actually solidified something and provided proof. Facts like marriage having far more health benefits for men than women with women taking on the vast majority of stresses and, how single women are almost always likely to live longer than married women is explored not as a singular but alongside a whole host of different contexts which also impact our health. This is something the book does shakily, but well on the whole.

Epigenetics is a new word I learned in this book and apparently it is the study of how genes react to their environments and circumstances. Throughout the book, this is explored as being the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to the very beginning of the 'process' of illness. I like this because it suggests that illness is actually present long before diagnosed by a doctor in a medical setting, but I don't like it because it leaves open more questions than it actually answers and therefore is essentially useless. Having race, class and sex be quanitifiers independent of lifestyle choices of illness is something I feel is actually helpful in some respects when looking at demographics being diagnosed with certain illnesses. However, it doesn't actually help when it comes to solving these problems. Anyone can analyse something and say it's there but finding the solution is an entirely different thing altogether.

From: Facebook

From autoimmune disorders going up in women but remaining stagnant in men to how childhood traumas basically shape the world we live in and how we understand it, there are some shaky premises in this book which refuse to be expanded. Though there is some scientific merit, I think that this book might be blanking out things that it doesn't mean to, to look from only one perspective is a strange thing to do and essentially helps nobody. However, the chapters on addictive behaviours and addiction as coping mechanism was so brilliant I'm actually going to give his other book (on addiction) a go. But, as you can tell, this particular text was somewhere in the middle for me. Neither good nor bad, it makes some interesting points but fans the flames of an anti-science approach however discreetly it tries to do so. Doctors still have to be trusted and though we vary, they understand the inner-workings of the body more than the person simply inhabiting it.


About the Creator

Annie Kapur

200K+ Reads on Vocal.

English Lecturer

🎓Literature & Writing (B.A)

🎓Film & Writing (M.A)

🎓Secondary English Education (PgDipEd) (QTS)

📍Birmingham, UK

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