Book review of ‘The Myth of Normal’, Part 4

Last week, we shared the blog about Part III of ‘The Myth of Normal’; this week, we turn to Part IV, called ‘The Toxicities of Our Culture’.

Chapter 19 dives straight into the biopsychosocial aspect of who we are as human beings: we are enormously influenced by our context and suffer more the bigger the inequalities are, as they cause such a lot of stress. We can depoliticise health and make it an individual responsibility, but the fact of the matter is that political decisions have a huge impact on personal life circumstances and thus also on the stresses people have to deal with in relation to income (in)security, lack of control over their own lives, and dependence on jobs that bring no fulfilment only to pay (part of) the bills. Combined with stress physiology, these circumstances go “from society to cell” (p. 278), from public routines and institutions to personal lives and bodies. Capitalism, with all its pollution and unemployment, has arrived at a point “where everything is acceptable and no one is accountable” (p. 283).
The chapter ends with a definition of ‘alienation’ that deserves a full quote, despite its length, as it also has core characteristics of trauma: “It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies” (p. 285). What if we look at this definition from the perspective of children…?

Chapter 20 is about the impact of social disconnection and the illness that can but ensue because of the loneliness, stress, and immune suppression caused by it: truly “a public health crisis” (p. 293). The “social dislocation”, people finding “themselves cut off from autonomy, relatedness, trust, and meaning (…) is a potent source of mental dysfunction, despair, addictions, and physical illness” (p. 289). Seeing that humans are innately meaning-making creatures, a life with no meaning is bound to cause problems. Competition, as a driving societal force, causes us to strongly rely on how we perform in comparison to others, instead of on our authenticity. Because of our “need for belonging” (p. 292), our sense of feeling seen and heard and valued thus becomes highly conditional and fragile.

Chapter 21, again, contains a lot of societal criticism, this time about “sociopathy as a strategy”, as the chapter’s title calls it. It speaks about the difference between pleasure (‘This feels good, I want more’) and happiness (‘This feels good, I am contented and complete’) and how the yearning for pleasure feeds into addictions and the short-term satisfaction of dopamine rushes. Businesses (ab)use this the search for pleasure through “neuromarketing (…) a deliberate corporate conspiracy to hook people on addictive junk foods, with no regard for health consequences” (p. 299). This is not a theory, the authors state, but realism, primarily aimed at the vulnerable, among whom children. In this context, the term ‘Coca-colonization’ (p. 301) is used, a contemporary capitalist form of preying on certain groups. Many people thus get addicted on all kinds of substances, such as unhealthy foods, alcohol, and nicotine, that are not forbidden in the name of health, but often heavily taxed by the government and then cause illness that is often treated with medication. This is seemingly normal and often not frowned upon. Illness is still seen by many as a matter of ‘bad luck’. The addiction to medication (profiting pharmaceutical companies) concerns much larger numbers, however, than the addiction to opioids and the like. That last form of addiction, however, is most certainly condemned and those falling for it, in their effort to self-medicate, are heavily punished and stigmatised. The chapter then makes a comparison between characteristics of sociopaths and large corporations, arguing that the latter should be given that same label.

Chapter 22 and 23 discuss the dire consequences of the disadvantages certain classes and ‘races’ (some no longer want to use this word; see also p. 314) have to endure. Women are also routinely disadvantaged, their problems being compounded by their female sex added to race and class. This phenomenon can be called “biological embedding, (…) that our social environments and experiences (…) get under the skin early in life, shaping our biology and development” (p. 312). Another concept in this context is that of intersectionality, the idea that it is hard to clearly differentiate between certain factors as causal for hardship, because they are at play simultaneously, with the one often increasing the severity of the other. When you are constantly the target of ‘othering’, being treated as intrinsically different and alien, what may arise is an “assaulted sense of self” (p. 315), being defined by someone else’s negative ideas about you.

All these kinds of stressors and the way they get under the skin, are triggering for “inflammation-promoting genes” (p. 319), leading to a high allostatic load, toxifying the body and wearing it out. Different kinds of discrimination continuously trigger survival defenses, the basis of many diseases. This leads to much shorter life expectancies in the most underprivileged groups. Cited is anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who termed this “sociogenic brain damage”, with more recently a scientist calling poverty a “neurotoxin” (p. 326). All these factors are called social determinants of health (with a whole field of scientific study surrounding it, such as DOHaD, Developmental Origins of Health and Disease). A sobering example is given of how this would translate to healthcare advice. Instead of ‘Stop smoking’, practitioners would have to say ‘Don’t be poor’, ‘Don’t work in a stressful job’ or ‘Don’t live near a polluting factory’.

Chapter 23, on women as ‘shock absorbers’, adds another layer to all of this, namely patriarchy, bringing about toxic power dynamics. One effect is that women often resort to “self-silencing (…), the tendency to silence one’s thoughts and feelings to maintain safe relationships, particularly intimate relationships” (p. 333, 334). Anger building up inside, as expression would risk income or family security, in the long term leads to illness due to the never subsiding stress it causes. Women are often “the designated emotional caregivers” (p. 337), but they pay a price: it weakens their immune systems. There is still a huge male-oriented bias in many aspects of social life (wages, medicine, job positions). Men often feel very entitled, even to women’s care, which can have implications for children who may lose out on maternal attention. Women often decide to go along to get along, to “make sure everybody else is happy” (p. 340). This result of “toxic masculinity”, the authors say, such societal suppression of the feminine, is lethal, and in fact shows “male fragility” (p. 341, 342).
In this chapter, Gabor once again does not spare his own role within his marriage and family – a very brave way of showing the much needed vulnerability and accountability he advocates.

Chapter 24, the last of this part, deals with the way all of this seeps into our politics, with “the wounded electing the wounded, the traumatized leading the traumatized and inexorably, implementing policies that entrench traumatizing social conditions” (p. 344). The earlier described ‘social character’, a character that is very common and thus considered ‘normal’, is represented by politicians. The way they operate, maintaining established power patterns, leads to “toxic myths becom[ing] normalized truths” (p. 345). The authors refer to the way we build our worldview in the early years and how a closer examination of ‘troubled’ politicians shows that usually they did indeed have very troubled, traumatic childhoods, where harshness was not a stranger to the family dynamics. Once in power, these people often do not have much issue with creating their own reality: “there are plenty of congenial liars, but no congenital ones” (p. 350). This once again points to the fact that much of what we become later in life, is a consequence of how we were raised, whether in the early years our needs were met or not, and how we then may try to meet them after all, even if we will never succeed to obtain what we missed out on in the first place. Celebrating and encouraging such leaders and these leaders celebrating their own stern childhoods, the chapter says, is “a public celebration of trauma” (p. 352). These processes can also be recognised in the way other celebrities are pictured in the media and how they often portray themselves: “a fan base is the closest they can come to filling a life-long void of homegrown esteem” (p. 356). It can be hard to recognise this void as such, because we so want believe in the magic of their fame.

Next week, the final part of the book will be the topic of our blog. This Part V is called ‘Pathways to Wholeness’.

Posted in Book and movie reviews.