What's Normal? Narratives of Mental and Emotional Disorders

What's Normal? Narratives of Mental and Emotional Disorders

What's Normal? Narratives of Mental and Emotional Disorders

What's Normal? Narratives of Mental and Emotional Disorders


What’s Normal?, examines the issues of “abnormalities” in mental health, intelligence, and sexual behavior.

The first section of What’s Normal? presents a wide-ranging collection of essays and articles written by renowned clinicians who address clinical, ethical, and social issues related to mental illness and disorders. The second section uses fiction, poetry, and drama to portray mental and behavioral abnormalities, sometimes from “inside” the perspective of the deviant and sometimes from the experiences of family, friends, and other engaged observers. Excerpts that examine the treatment of mental health, intelligence, and sexual conduct are cited from such literary works as Equus, Of Mice and Men, Like Water for Chocolate, and Sula.


"WHAT'S NORMAL?" is the title of a course in literature and medicine that we have team-taught annually in the weekend college at Hiram College for more than ten years. Growing out of our experiences with that course and with the stimulating contributions of our students have come two anthologies: The Tyranny of the Normal (Kent State University Press, 1996), in which we focused on physical abnormalities, and this volume, What's Normal? with its focus on mental and behavioral deviations from the norm.

People with marked physical abnormalities provoke at least three reactions from society: one is an assumption that these "Others" should get fixed so they look more like us (the obese should lose weight; the disfigured should have plastic surgery); another is a long tradition of using them for entertainments, exhibiting them in freak shows or, as in the case of the Elephant Man, in hospitals; a third is the common tendency to shut them out because they make us normal people feel so uncomfortable. Until very recently, physically challenged people had little access to public buildings, effectively keeping them out of sight. Some cities even had "ugly laws" to keep the disfigured off the streets so they could not disturb the rest of us.

Leslie Fiedler, whose powerful essay gave the title to The Tyranny of the Normal, shows how cultural norms pressure people to conform, to fit in with acceptable ranges for appearance. In America, the idealized norms of thinness and youth, for example, drive many people to try diets, exercise programs, cosmetics, plastic surgery, hormone treatments—all in an effort to bring one's appearance in line with the images on magazine covers and TV advertisements. The many who cannot make their physical appearance conform to cultural norms are often degraded and alienated, enduring what Jonathan Carey calls the Quasimodo Complex. These "abnormals"—whether they be obese or disfigured from disease or injury—understand the severity of their alienation, not by looking in the mirror, but by reading the reactions of fear and disgust in people who meet them. Like Quasimodo, they learn how deeply alienated they are by watching how their appearance repulses even kind and thoughtful people.

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