What's Normal? Narratives of Mental and Emotional Disorders

By Carol Donley; Sheryl Buckley | Go to book overview

The Meaning of Normal

PHILLIP V. DAVIS & JOHN G. BRADLEY

EVERYONE KNOWS what "normal" is. Imbedded in nearly every judgment that we make, every comparison, and every weighing of possibilities is a firmly developed concept of what's "normal." And, while the definition varies with the referent, it generally describes some commonly held understanding, a culturally accepted belief about what is typical, usual, and natural. The "normal price of goods," for example, describes the typical cost of items when discounts and sales are ignored. "Normal body temperature" refers to the usual temperature measured in a healthy person. "Normal behavior" describes natural, expected actions. We depend, in fact, on having a common understanding of "normal" in order to make a number of judgments. In medicine, particularly, beliefs about what is normal are central in making judgments about disease.

In a classic article entitled "The Normal, and the Perils of the Sylleptic Argument," Edmund Murphy posits a number of different uses of the word normal that illustrate just how complicated this common understanding can be.1Normal, Murphy suggests, means "typical" when appealingto a commonly accepted practice. It means "average" when describing what is most representative of a class or group. When used to give assurance in a clinical setting, normal means "innocuous" or "harmless." In genetics, it defines what is "most suited" for survival. When used in statistics, Murphy suggests that the meaning is technically specific. Finally, Murphy notes that when we make judgments about absolute goals, when we talk about what is desirable, we sometimes use the word normal as a synonym for "perfection."

Murphy's observations suggest two potential dangers in the belief that we genuinely understand what normal means. The first is the hazard of assuming that we understand the intended use of the word normal in any given context (as in what the word normal means in the phrase "normal sexual relations"). The second is that the contextual meaning of the word may be revised and thereby change our understanding of the phenomenon it describes. "Normal highway speed," for instance, is often more dependent on the speed of surrounding traffic than on the posted speed limits. In the same way, the concept of "normal social behavior" changes. For example, Daniel Moynihan suggests

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What's Normal? Narratives of Mental and Emotional Disorders
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Literature and Medicine ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • Editors'' Commentary on Narrative xiii
  • Part One - Clinical & Bioethical Perspectives 1
  • The Meaning of Normal 7
  • From Madness, Heresy, and the Rumor of Angels- The Revolt against the Mental Health System 17
  • From the Flamingo''s Smile- Reflections in Natural History 30
  • From Rewriting the Soul 39
  • From "On Being Sane in Insane Places" 54
  • From Love''s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy 61
  • Three Stories from Cases in Bioethics 68
  • Part Two - Narrative Perspectives 85
  • Section One - Children & Adolescents with Mental Disorders 93
  • Silent Snow, Secret Snow 95
  • The End of the Party 110
  • From Girl, Interrupted 117
  • From Equus 125
  • Section Two - Mental Disability (Retardation) 135
  • Two Stick Drawings 137
  • From Joe Egg 139
  • The Life You Save May Be Your Own 146
  • From of Mice and Men 156
  • Average Waves in Unprotected Waters 165
  • Lily Daw and the Three Ladies 173
  • Section Three - Women''s Experiences with Mental Disorders 183
  • Three Poems 185
  • From like Water for Chocolate 187
  • From Faces in the Water 189
  • The Yellow Wallpaper 201
  • The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window 215
  • The Avalanche 218
  • "No Name Woman," from the Woman Warrior 219
  • Three Poems 229
  • Section Four - Mens Experiences with War Trauma, Including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder 233
  • "1919" from Sula 235
  • Night March 241
  • Mental Cases 249
  • From Ceremony 250
  • From Mrs. Dalloway 257
  • Section Five - Men … Mental Disorders 269
  • Panic 271
  • King of the Bingo Game 273
  • "Cash" from as I Lay Dying 281
  • Gogol''s Wife 285
  • The Tell-Taie Heart 295
  • From the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge 299
  • Section Six - Alzheimer''s & Dementia 301
  • To You My Mother Lost in Time 303
  • From My Journey into Alzheimer''s Disease 305
  • From in a Tangled Wood- An Alzheimer''s Journey 325
  • Two Poems 340
  • A Wonderland Party 343
  • Notes on Contributors 345
  • Permissions Acknowledgments 350
  • Index 354
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