Book Review: What is normal?

Roz Carroll and Jane Ryan (Eds.)
Confer Books
192 pages

Reviewer:  Kelly Stewart

‘What is Normal?’ takes us on a fascinating journey through a range of lenses to consider the notion of ‘normality’. My sense whilst reading this book is of holding a diamond; each facet shining light on issues of politics, gender, sexuality, race, culture, the mental health system, and much more. Each of the twenty chapters is written by a psychotherapist, ten of whom originally spoke at Confer’s twentieth anniversary conference in 2018, also entitled ‘What is Normal?’. A further ten contributions were written for this edited book, which was published at the beginning of the pandemic. Writers are given freedom to answer the question of normality from whichever position they choose. This means some accounts speak from personal and professional lived experiences, whilst others speak from positions of social constructionism, examining the social structures that construct ‘normal’ and our subjective experiences within them. ‘Normal’ certainly appears to be a slippery concept.

I read and review this book from a position of lockdown, at the end of a very long, tiring, not-normal year: 2020. It has, therefore, been an interesting and not-straightforward experience to examine ‘normal’ when this very notion got left behind a year ago. The book is thus incredibly well-timed. Who would have known in 2018, when these talks were first heard, that ‘normal’ would be so contested as I read this book now? I enjoy the bitesize nature of each chapter, inviting me to dip in and out of people’s stories on individual and societal levels. Naturally, I find that some chapters land more with me than others, and I’ll highlight some of these now.

Let’s begin with one of the most powerfully argued social constructionism chapters (in my humble opinion): ‘The shifting landscape of sexual normality,’ by Dany Nobus. His critical lens questions the rising number of people struggling with mental health. The paradox of World Mental Health Day, for example, birthed in the nineties, telling us it’s okay not to be okay in an attempt to challenge stigma… and now more people aren’t okay. His central challenge to ‘normal’, however, examines the shifting social constructions of ‘sexuality’ over time. Psychiatry created just one category for ‘abnormal’ sex in its first edition of the DSM in 1952: ‘sexual deviation’. Over time, as DSM updates have been published and new categories added, human sexual experiences have been regulated by these western discursive structures. Nobus robustly argues that the realm of human sexuality has been and continues to be the most contested area of normality and mental disorder. Most alarmingly, in the DSM-V, all but one of the eight paraphilic disorders continue to blur “the boundaries between psychiatry and criminology, between ‘mental disorder’ and ‘criminal act’, in short between mad and bad” (p.77). What would happen if all such disorders were removed from the DSM, he wonders? A dramatic reduction in mental health statistics, perhaps. A thought-provoking chapter that calls for a new line of enquiry that contributes to a contemporary understanding of the mental health crisis.

Several authors speak to ‘normal’ on an individual level. Susie Orbach, for example, examines what ‘normal’ means for each client she works with, with a hope to disrupt their normality to bring about change. She talks about the historical and cultural context-dependence of ’normal’. She names, for example, the “confusions about surface and interior, about belonging” that young people bring to therapy as “the despair of contemporary normality” (p.28). Believing the ways they are not this enough or not that enough; how it is somehow ‘their fault’. She talks about complexity as a necessity in psychotherapy. “Psychotherapy is about openings, not closings. It is not about normality. It is about possibilities, risks, stretching” (p.29).

This next chapter made me laugh. I enjoyed de Zulueta’s blunt way of speaking. She begins by questioning if “Trump and dictators” would be considered ‘normal’ (p.57). She notes the potential these “mainly men” once had to “form attachments and empathy for others” (ibid.) and instead have become money-grabbing, power-seeking men who hate others. She continues to say later that, “here, in the UK, we are currently governed mostly by grown-up boarding school boys and girls … cut off from… family attachments” (p.58). Our current normal? She talks about the inevitable need for such children to become adults that learn to numb their vulnerabilities. De Zulueta broadens her inquiry away from our political leaders to an unaddressed public health concern of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). She calls for policies that “heal the deep social and psychological wounds caused by [our] recent austerity programme and the current Covid-19 pandemic” (p.63). Side note, de Zulueta is the only author (other than the editors) to mention coronavirus. I enjoy this author’s style of writing, but my one criticism would be that I found it slightly harder to follow her approach to asking ‘what is normal?’ than with other chapters. De Zulueta’s is a very readable chapter, just harder to hold onto the original question. Which brings me to one or two other things I noticed as I read the collection.

As much as I enjoyed the brevity of the chapters and freedom authors had to choose in responding to the brief, I found it, at times, disorienting. I had to switch gears to view normality through a different lens every few pages, which felt a little choppy. I also noticed that there was repetition between what some authors had to say. This felt a little frustrating, although perhaps inevitable given we had twenty therapists speaking with us here. My final observation was the high proportion of therapists speaking from psychoanalytic backgrounds (although not all). This made me curious about the many other ways of knowing and thinking with ‘normal’ potentially not seen through this book.

Overall, this book is well worth picking up and reading – even at a time of lockdown when ‘normal’ seems especially far away. This review hasn’t had space to acknowledge nearly half of what’s on offer from authors here. I hope it gives you enough of a flavour to accept the invitation to dive in.

Kelly Stewart is a UKCP-accredited psychotherapist, and PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in suicide bereavement. Her research explores the intergenerational trauma of suicide in families. Alongside private practice, she is Practice Manager for a counselling service, and she teaches at the Minster Centre and the University of Edinburgh.
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