The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture is a big book. Not only is it hefty in size, it’s massive in terms of the ground it covers and the ideas it proposes.
Dr. Gabor Maté has dedicated much of his remarkable career to the most challenging aspects of mental and physical health, and the interconnections between the two. The Myth of Normal, co-authored with his son Daniel Maté, is a magnum opus.
It could not have come at a better moment, with escalating crises not only in political arenas, but social relations and environmental catastrophes. Just about everywhere you look, the situation feels untenable.
But this might actually be a good thing.
The notion that humans should keep doing what we’ve been doing not only to the planet but to ourselves has reached the end stage. The Myth of Normal addresses both the micro and macro, everything from learning to say no to addressing the pathologies of politicians. It is also a profound reminder that the capacity for sweeping change lies within every one of us. Quite frankly, it changed me, and I’m not easily changed.
On the eve of its release into the world, The Tyee asked the Matés — father and son — to talk about their collaboration, the timing of the book, and the wonderful things that can happen when you get fired by a group of Indigenous healers in Peru. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: You mention in your acknowledgments that this book took a long time and that it came from a place of being fairly frozen. What precipitated coming back to it in this moment?
Gabor Maté: I had a book contract. A very respectable one here in Canada and a more modest one in the States for a previous iteration of this book, and I began to write it. And [then] I realized that I can’t, it’s not in me. So, I gave the money back to the publisher.
I'd been working on it for 10 years. I've literally collected 20 files with 25,000 different articles, all archived under different topics: stress, childhood, prenatal, perinatal, politics, neuroscience. And I'd read or had an assistant read and made excerpts from 200 books. There were many hour-long interviews, many of which had been transcribed.
And then I just didn't know what to do with it. Four years ago, I was sitting in San Francisco having breakfast with my wife, and all sudden, The Myth of Normal, a new title, came to me, and then a new concept. I got the contract message in Bucharest where I was giving a talk. I was in a taxi with my wife. And when I read the email with the publisher’s offer, I went pale apparently. At some point, my son came on board, which was a great support to me. I couldn't have done it without him.
Had you and Daniel worked together before?
Daniel Maté: I had always been at most his editor and sometimes a bit of a ghostwriter. I did more writing than most editors would do at times, and I had been the voice of all of his audio books. We were working together leading these Hello, Again workshops, which is the topic of our second book. But as far as actually stepping out into some kind of public writing partnership, this was the first time.
I remember when he sent me the book proposal, he was feeling a bit unsure about it. I took a look at it. I said, a) I can totally help you with this and b) I'm going to have to be more than your editor, because this is going to be a heavier lift. We had to negotiate the role distribution as we went. It was definitely a process, but we found a really good groove, I think.
In typical father-son fashion, do you ever disagree fundamentally?
DM: Only often! (laughs) I mean, not fundamentally about the message of the book. I came aboard fully aware that this is his vehicle. I'm helping him fly it. From the beginning, I saw my role as making it tighter and brighter. I'm a lyricist and composer. When you write a song, you want the lyrics to really pop out, to get it on the first read, the first listen.
I think that Dad is used to speaking to audiences that are at least partly on board with what he's saying, and they're hungry to hear more. But, you know, some of it is quite counterintuitive. And it’s certainly cutting against the grain of our normal way of thinking. So, I saw one of my primary jobs to make sure that the on-ramps to all the arguments were strong and solid, that we stuck the landing in each case, and that it was as maximally inviting, persuasive and enjoyable as possible.
On the Opportunity of Crises
In the book, you talk about how crisis can be an opportunity for a significant and sizable change. And every time I look at the news lately, I think, okay, something's gotta give.
GM: The timing is amazing. All the delays that were caused by my own writer's block around this book, and then COVID and all that. The fact that we were slower in writing it much more than we thought, they all conspired perfectly to bring this book out exactly when it needed to come out, because so many people are getting that what was [considered to be] normal, doesn't work anymore.
There was an article in New York Times in the Sunday edition about a teenager on ten different psychiatric medications. That's madness. It's medical madness. So, this book couldn't be timed better. And who created that? Well, the universe itself.
DM: The public discourse around topics that you've been writing about for a long time shifted since your last book. Addiction in particular, and trauma is much more of a buzzword now than it was in 2008.
GM: There is an [online] film called The Wisdom of Trauma. It's been seen by 8 million people in 22 countries. So, the zeitgeist has really shifted.
When you're talking about huge systems like education, the prison system or the health system, all of these were forged inside the human mind. Do you have to go back to this smaller more individual place of healing before you can address the bigger, more encompassing issues?
GM: It speaks to the interconnection of everything. Go to a forest and try and understand the trees or the mycorrhizal networks, the soil, the weather, the other plants and animals. That's just science. And what's astonishing there is not the simplicity of that concept, but its absence from medicine and medical ideology. We are only looking at the micro, not at the macro, which flies in the face of science.
DM: The inverse of that or a corollary: we only have a chance of aligning the larger world in a way that's healthy if we adjust the eyes and mindset with which we're looking at it, because otherwise you're just piling solutions on top of problems.
But the solutions themselves are coming from the same fundamental problematic concepts and assumptions. The book is aimed at encouraging each person, first as an individual, because that's the easiest, it's like think locally, act globally, heal locally, so that you can have a chance of getting together with other people and making a larger difference in the macro.
On Getting Fired in Peru
I was curious about the experience that you had in Peru with ayahuasca? (A quick point of explanation: while attending a conference in Peru, Gabor Maté was asked by some of the other healing practitioners to deal with his issues before trying to help others.) How fundamentally transformative was it for you, especially at this point in your life?
GM: It was a profound experience. And not the least of it was that I'd been knocked off my perch as expert. Buddy, you need healing before you can dish it to others. That the [Indigenous healers] had the insight and the courage to do it, and that I had the grace to accept it at that point, that itself is fundamentally a change, let alone the experience that followed.
DM: I remember getting the news, I think, from my mom. I said, “Have you heard from dad, how's this retreat going?” “He got fired.” She told me basically what had happened, and I said, “That's fucking awesome!” I instantly knew that was exactly what he needed. I was so impressed that they did that and I was also inspired and impressed that he took the prescription.
GM: As soon as I came back from Peru, I began writing this book. It was literally as soon as I landed on the airplane.
When you revisit that moment in Peru what profoundly affected you the most?
GM: It gave me a portal to something that was new, which was the experiential awareness. That my past could have been exactly the same as it was, in fact, it never will be any other way than the way it was, but that the view of myself and the world that I developed as a result of it, that's my own responsibility. It's my own possibility as well.
The meaning that I created as a one-year-old [child] doesn’t have to govern how I live for the rest of my life. What [psychiatrist/author] Bessel van der Kolk meant when he said, “What's wrong with you?” That experience really gave me that.
DM: Who was the thinker that you quote in the book who says you have to have a taste of victory?
GM: Thomas Merton.
DM: That's been my experience too, with any kind of actual growth, you have to have an experiential reference point. You have to have tasted it, because otherwise it's just rumours, just theory. And it can be a soothing piece of intellectual knowledge, but it doesn't actually satisfy. Even if you would find it very hard to access again, you can never go back, you see something that you can't unsee.
I think for all the stories of healing in the book, every single person had to have experiences that showed them something they could no longer unsee, which started to debunk and unfasten their certainty about who they were, what their limitations were, what the boundaries were. What was possible. When the self gets a hit of that, it lasts.
In terms of accessing this body of knowledge, had you had prior experience working with Indigenous healing?
GM: Oh yeah, I was in Peru, Columbia, and with Indigenous people here in Canada. One of the tragedies of Canadian history, apart from the oppression that we've imposed and continue to impose on Indigenous people here, is that we have closed ourselves to learning from them. There's so much wisdom to offer. And if that was combined with modern achievements in science and such [it would mean] more of a satisfying and happy world.
We don't know what we've lost in denigrating their culture. Somebody like Conrad Black writes that there's nothing worth preserving in traditional culture. He speaks from such dark, doleful baleful ignorance, and unfortunately, it represents, at least on a passive level, the prevailing ethic. We might feel guilty towards [Indigenous people] but we don't see how stupid we are not learning from them. When [Indigenous people] say all my relations, everything I'm related to, that's pure science. It's quantum physics, and modern neuroscience.
On Why Politicians Do the Things They Do
You reference a number of times throughout the book, how people who seek power in the realm of politics are often fundamentally damaged human beings.
GM: The extreme example is you get to Hitler or Stalin, both severely traumatized children, who were actually, by the end of the lives, driven to the point of madness. If you look at the life histories of politicians from [Stephen] Harper to the Trudeaus, Hillary Clinton, the Bushes, [Ronald] Reagan and [Barack] Obama. There was an article in The New Yorker about the alcoholism history in the Biden family, and of course, [Donald] Trump. That kind of deep trauma with a lack of self reflection, leaves a person willing to do all kinds of terrible things.
DM: I'm always struck by the tenacity of monsters like [Henry] Kissinger. He's never gonna die.
GM: He's somebody, who, in his own world, is universally admired. He's considered this sage, this icon of international wisdom. He's a monster. He's in his position now of being an elder statesman, who no longer has any responsibility whatsoever. Sometimes, the worst people die peacefully in bed at 95.
DM: It's not a coincidence that these [kinds] of people go into politics, but by definition, the ones we're talking about have succeeded spectacularly. Why is that? Well, politics is a personality game. As much as anything, you have to have the kind of personality and temperament to do the things, which requires often cold heartedness to the point of psychopathy, ruthlessness, moral flexibility, i.e., not having an integral moral core. The most traumatized people develop the most rigid masks and coping mechanisms that get them through that trauma.
You look at the traits that make Trump such a monster to many of us. They make him a hero to so many. The same thing with Clinton, Obama and Trudeau, I’m not calling them all equal levels of monster, but the charm, the smarm, the likability, the tenacity, all of the things people admire [about] them. Many of these strong suits are themselves the very scars of the trauma they went through, they turn into personality traits and winning qualities.
Some of these coping mechanisms, what you term “stupid friends” in the book actually begin in early childhood as a way to survive.
GM: Exactly. Sometimes they really work but look at the result in the culture. If you had a friend who was like the average politician, who says one thing and does the opposite the next day, how long would you stay friends with them?
The culture actually rewards some pretty appalling traits in people. Nobody expects politicians to tell the truth. And it's almost surprising when they do. And yet we reward them for this time and time again.
DM: But it's not completely irrational because politicians are giving us something. They're soothing our pain. They're soothing our anxieties.
GM: But mostly what they do is that they absolve us of the responsibility of making decisions in a very complex world. Because we've abdicated that responsibility and we are trained and obligated by the way we were brought up.
On Vancouver and Canada’s Own Toxic Legacy
In Vancouver, the Downtown Eastside is on the verge of imploding. The same issues that people were talking about decades ago, just got worse.
GM: Twenty years ago, I was still working in the Downtown Eastside and the Globe and Mail organized this conference on how to solve the problem of the DTES. It was the wrong question. There is no problem with the Downtown Eastside. There is the problem of Canada that fomented the Downtown Eastside and capitalism in general. I'm talking about the whole system. Where did all these people come from? They came from this country. Why did they come from this country? Because they were traumatized and hurt and ostracized and oppressed.
But that question was never asked. The unwillingness to look at systemic causes. So 20 years later, it's worse than it ever was. It's more hostile, hurtful and dangerous.
DM: We have such a capacity to adapt and normalize. I think that's a pretty newfangled verb. I don't think normalize existed before. It speaks to our astonishing capacity to forget that things were ever otherwise.
Do you think that human beings are capable of rising to the challenge of not just dealing with our own internal issues, but dealing with the larger, more systemic problems? Ultimately, how much faith do you have in humanity?
GM: So many people are living in survival mode or they don't think of the larger picture. For example, climate change, the impacts are in evidence every day, look at the heat dome in B.C. last year and the floods at the same time. But then people have jobs. Within the system it’s a zero-sum game, so if we cut back on, say, the use of fossil fuels, somebody's going to lose a job. And nothing in the system protects them or gives them support.
At the same time, that same system inevitably creates crises, which at some point wakes people up. That's the first thing. The second thing is that most people, despite all the trauma and stress that's around, not only are good, they want to be good. They want to be decent. They want to be kind.
This is not some sort of esoteric, spiritual or mythologized ideology, it’s built into our very nature. Human beings do a lot of things that are inimical to our health, but that doesn't change our fundamental orientation, which is towards openness and commonality and connection. We're just wired that way. I have a lot of faith in our actual nature, not as some abstract entity, but as evolution dictated it should be.
Both on a personal level and on a social level. I fully believe that transformation is not only possible, but it's more than possible. It's almost inevitable.
Gabor Maté will be discussing 'The Myth of Normal' at the Vancouver Writers Fest on Oct. 23 at the Waterfront Theatre.