The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture – A Review

I don’t know anyone who has escaped trauma in their life. We try meditation, physical fitness fads, reading self-help books and listening to success gurus, yet without seeing the situation for what it is, how do we know we’re getting off of the toxic behavior carousel?

I just recently became aware of Dr. Gabor Maté and find him to be careful in speech with a soft-yet-sharp delivery in matters of human nature.

I decided to make The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture the first book of his to read and I am not disappointed.

Any conversation on trauma piques my interest, but this passage was the first of many I found enlightening.

“Response flexibility is a function of the midfrontal portion of our cerebral cortex. No infant is born with any such capacities: babies’ behavior is governed  by instinct and reflex, not conscious selection. The freedom to choose develops as the brain develops. The more severe and the earlier the trauma, the less opportunity response flexibility has to become encoded in the appropriate brain circuits, and the faster it becomes disabled. One becomes stuck in predictable, automatic defensive reactions, especially to stressful stimuli. Emotionally and cognitively, our range of movement becomes well-nigh sclerotic–and the greater the trauma, the more stringent the constraints. The past hijacks and co-opts the present, again and again.”

On our current medical procedures during childbirth:

“Years later I happened to learn from some midwives–who, in the Dark Ages of the 1980’s, were still working illicitly here in British Columbia–that episiotomies were completely unnecessary in most labors. There was an organic process trying to happen, they kindly explained, which allowed a child to be born without my surgical intervention: Who knew? More surprises followed. Women can, it turns out, deliver babies without their feet in stirrups and even without reclining on a narrow metal contraption. “Try taking a shit while lying down and your legs in the air,” a midwife suggested when I questioned her wisdom. Other startling news was that, barring complications, the newborn is best handed to the mother for skin-to-skin contact, rather than being poked and prodded under bright lights and having plastic suction tubes shoved in its mouth. Nor does the cord have to be cut immediately: it can be allowed to complete its pulsations, delivering more oxygen-carrying red blood cells to the infant. It’s almost as if Nature knows what it’s doing.”

On childrearing, Maté covers books on parenting that instruct the parent to care more about what the parent wants rather than what the child needs.

“In the mid-nineteenth century arrived what [Lloyd] deMause terms the socializing mode, the goal of which is the fostering of a socially functional personality, one that “plays well with others”–that is, conforms to society’s expectations. The approach became “the source of all twentieth-century psychological models.” Among them is one popularized by the iconic Dr. Benjamin Spock, parenting pundit for millions. In Baby and Child Care, his bestseller that influenced generations, the good doctor proposed a cure for what he called “chronic resistance to sleep in infancy.” The way to ensure that the infant doesn’t “get away with such tyranny,” he wrote, was to “say good night affectionately but firmly, walk out of the room, and don’t go back.” That’s right: the “tyranny” of a baby who is physiologically and emotionally programmed to crave physical closeness with the parents, as do all mammalian young.”

And really, it’s the one line that sums up toxic culture, for me. ‘It’s almost as if Nature knows what it’s doing,’ when we don’t interfere. Reading this only a few months after watching the documentary series The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis that covers post World War I propaganda under the title “Public Relations” really screams what many of our issues are here in Western Civilization. Because Edward Bernays and others sought to unify and control the Unites States’ population through advertising and consumerism, they began a campaign to program and dummy down the masses. The negative effects are innumerable. Curtis says of the documentary, “This series is about how those in power have used [Sigmund] Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.”

I also watched an interview where Dr. Maté explained that if he could go back and change his life, he would not be the person he is today. He feels that life is better spent playing and being childlike and enjoying it. I also think that is the way we were meant to spend this precious time. Not reading book after book to cope with our individual and collective trauma. On the other hand, since that is not the world many of us live in, I am grateful to Dr. Maté for his insights and contributions.

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