Normal may be safe, but it is neither desireable nor ideal.

by John McManamy


ACCORDING TO Nassir Ghaemi in his A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, "normal" leaves a lot to be desired, in the first place. Dr Ghaemi's starting point is a study from about 50 years ago by one of Freud's last disciples, Roy Grinker.

Dr Grinker screened a group of 343 college-age men, out of which he selected 65 he deemed to be in the middle of the mentally healthy range. Based on subsequent interviews, Grinker came up with a detailed list of mental health attributes for these "upright young men."

There was, however, a major catch. These paragons of mental health suffered a severe case of "average-itis." They had slightly above average IQs, their grades were average, and they were not leaders on the team sports they had played in high school.

In effect, their main positive attribute was they played well with others. Dr Grinker came up with the term "homoclite" to describe these drearily normal individuals - "those who follow a common rule." Their goals were to fit in, do good, and be liked. Apparently they would grow up to become part of the "great silent majority" that Nixon infamously pandered to.

As Dr Ghaemi points out in his book, Dr Grinker's homoclites represented the norm (a statistical average) and normal (an absence of illness), but hardly an ideal.

Which brings us to the $64,000 question ($523,412.54, adjusting for inflation): When the chips are down, would you truly want one of Grinker's homoclites as your President or Prime Minister?

Or would you would feel more comfortable with someone who had been temporarily expelled from school, such as JFK?

Basically, Dr Ghaemi is validating what many of us have felt all our lives, namely: those of us who are not normal have no desire to become normal. True, we don't want to be severely depressed or manic, either, or for that matter overly anxious or cognitively impaired or just plain feel miserable inside our own skins. We want to be better, to be ourselves.

But normal? No way, normal sucks.

Elsewhere on this site, I describe a knock-me-over-with-a-feather moment from a grand rounds I delivered in 2008 to a psychiatric facility in Princeton, NJ, which bears retelling and reinterpretation here. Obviously, the individuals I was addressing were considerably smarter than your average homoclite. Nevertheless, we are living in a homoclite culture that apotheosizes normal. Just about everyone is in on the act. Just about everyone believes in the myth.



So here I was, trying to get through to a bunch of what I now know to be accomplished homoclites.

"Keep in mind," I said, "a lot of us view the world through the eyes of artists and poets and visionaries and mystics. Not to mention through the eyes of highly successful professionals and entrepreneurs. We don't want to be like you."

It was as if I had let rip a roof-rattler and everyone was too polite to laugh. Then I blurted out: "To me, you all have flat affect."

Kelvin grade frozen stony cold silence.

Suffice to say, my talk was a disaster.

I naturally assumed that I had been wasting my time trying to get through to people heavily invested in the myth of normal. But, after reading Ghaemi's book, maybe something else was going on, as well. Maybe these individuals suffered basic deficits in the empathy department.




There is a biological component to empathy, but a lot of it has to do with getting blindsided out of nowhere by whatever life has decided to throw at you. Picking up from Ghaemi's account:

Franklin Roosevelt had a glorious future ahead as a homoclite golden boy. Mind you, FDR was no dullard. Quite the opposite. According to Ghaemi, FDR was an "omnivore and an innovator," with certain manic tendencies consistent with a "hyperthymic" temperament. But, "until 1921, Franklin Roosevelt had led a charmed life."

Everything changed at age 39, when he was felled with polio. He returned to public life three years later a different man. According to longtime friend and political associate, Frances Perkins, recounted by Ghaemi, "an untried flippant young man" underwent "a spiritual transformation," emerging "with humility of spirit and with a deeper philosophy."

Years later, Eleanor Roosevelt would remark: "He certainly would have been President, but a different President."

So here I was, in Princeton, talking to a bunch of mental health professionals who couldn't see the merit in even "a little bit" crazy, who could not even relate to the possibility that a good many of us do not want to be like them. That, to people like us, normal sucks.

Naturally, I could understand why they wouldn't want to be like me. But could they not, at least, validate my creativity and other traits the way I value their stability? Could they not acknowledge that maybe they, too, could benefit from a little bit of what I have?

Introspection, enthusiasm ... empathy?

I have devoted the better part of 12 years to urging my fellow bipolars and depressives to acknowledge the strange gifts that our conditions confer. In fact, crazy often leaves normal for dead. If you have trouble with this proposition, try imagining what the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel would have looked like with someone chronically normal up there on the scaffolding.

My guess is two coats of beige.

Mind you, normal looks pretty good when our illness has the upper hand. But over the long haul, trial by ordeal has a way of imbuing us with the kind of strengths that those the pathetically normal cannot even begin to comprehend.

Fine, I hear you say. A little bit crazy may be fine for artists and eccentric capitalists, but for high political office? With the world on the brink of economic collapse?

Can our past at least tell us something about what is going on? Funny you should ask. Dr Ghaemi serves up Lincoln and Churchill - two well-documented depressives, the latter slightly bonkers - who admirably rose to the occasion in times of crisis. Likewise, JFK and FDR leaned more toward the abnormal than we tend to acknowledge.

But that is only half the story, according to Ghaemi. Hitler, it turns out, was far more normal than we give him credit for, at least until 1937 when his physician put him on a mind-altering meds cocktail (don't get me started on meds compliance). Meanwhile, beneath the whacko exteriors of Nixon and George W Bush lurked temperaments bordering on the pathologically sane.



In 2005, at the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting in Atlanta, I heard Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel explain how his exposure as a boy in Vienna to the brutalities of Nazism got him started in psychiatry. Psychoanalysis, which passed for psychiatry back then, offered "perhaps the only approach to understanding the mind, including the irrational nature of motivation and unconscious and conscious memory."

"How," Dr Kandel asked in his Nobel autobiography, "could a highly educated and cultured society, a society that at one historical moment nourished the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, in the next historical moment sink into barbarism?"

Could normal be part of the problem? suggests Ghaemi in his own way. Can so-called normal individuals and whole populations even, in times of uncertainty and hardship and crisis, subscribe to crazy beliefs, make irrational decisions, and sanction unspeakable acts?

What is the antidote to Obama, who comes across as pathologically normal? At the time of writing this (Oct 4, 2011), we have a crop of Republican Presidential candidates - declared and undeclared - who are not even trying to pretend to be "compassionate conservatives." Is Republicanism the new crazy?

Do you see in our future the end of the world brought to you by Fox News, with Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly congratulating themselves on saving us from the evils of big government?

Strange world we live in.

Reviewed July 12, 2016


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