The Myth of Normal and the Reality of Healing: An Exploration with Gabor Maté and Jed Diamond


Part 3: Understanding Us and Them

This is the third part in a series of explorations of the work of healer and best-selling author Gabor Maté and my own work over the years exploring the intersection of gender-specific healing and men’s and women’s health. Although Dr. Maté may be best known for his popular book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, I believe his recent explorations in The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture. You can read the introductory chapter, “Traumatic Masculinity and Violence,” part 1 and part 2, but each article stands on its own to offer insights and understandings on how we can heal ourselves, our personal relationships, and our relationship with the community of life on planet Earth.

            We are living in a world where conflict and confusion seem to be everywhere and they overwhelm our desire for greater cooperation and clarity in our lives. If we don’t understand what is going on we tend to look for scapegoats to blame. We saw the conflict in our recent mid-term political races in the U.S. Many believe that if the other side wins, our side is in great danger and some would advocate going to any lengths, even if it means doing away with democracy, to be sure their side is defeated.

            The problems we face are complex and confusing, but I believe they can be simplified and understood as follows:

  • It is human nature to sort ourselves into groups. Once we identify ourselves as a member of a particular group—say Red Sox or Yankee fans—we tend to feel more comfortable with others of our own kind.
  • Problems arise when the other group is seen as the “enemy” who is so different from us, and so malevolent, they must be vanquished.
  • Humanity is transitioning from an old, dysfunctional, system to a new one that is more viable and in balance with the community of life on planet Earth.
  • We divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” when trauma causes us to be afraid and terrified.
  • Understanding, addressing, and healing our trauma can allow us to accept our differences without demonizing the other.  

In his book, Us & Them: The Science of Identity, science writer David Berreby says,

“We all belong to multiple groups at the same time—one might be a woman, a mother, an American, a violinist.”

He explores the reasons we decide which identities matter and why they matter so much, what makes us willing to die for, or ill for, a religion, a nation, or a race.

Accepting the reality of our evolutionary roots in small tribal bands is a first step towards learning to live peacefully with US and Them.

In Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination, Sam Keen says,

“From the unconscious residue of our hostility, we create a target; from our private demons, we conjure a public enemy. And, perhaps, more than anything else, the wars we engage in are compulsive rituals, shadow dramas in which we continually try to kill those parts of ourselves we deny and despise.”

Recognizing our own unconscious fears and hostilities that get projected on to others allows us to heal the internal conflicts and divides within each of us.

We see Us and Them playing out continually in our political debates, but don’t often recognize their evolutionary roots.  In his book, Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide, Dr. Hector A. Garcia, clearly sees our present dilemma.

“A nation’s sinew begins to tear. Triumph in one group is met with fear and bewilderment in another. Old prejudices are reanimated and new ones are invented. The masses succumb to irrational forces, prodded to frenzy by politicians and the media. The nation is poised to devour itself.”

Dr. Garcia goes on to say that to truly understand the turmoil of today we must look to our evolutionary past where men and women struggled for survival in dangerous environments. He quotes talk show host Chris Matthews who once described Republicans as the “Daddy Party” and Democrats as the “Mommy Party.” Though Matthews clearly describes stereotypes of males and females, he touches on our ancient need for two kinds of protection. Writes Matthews:

“Republicans protect us with strong national defense; Democrats nourish us with Social Security and Medicare. Republicans worry about our business affairs; Democrats look after our health, nutrition and welfare. ‘Daddy’ locks the door at night and brings home the bacon. ‘Mommy’ worries when the kids are sick and makes sure each one gets treated fairly.”

Garcia quotes hardline conservative commentator Ann Coulter who boasted on Fox news, “I am more of a man than any liberal.” Garcia concludes saying, “As it happens, these observations are far more empirically accurate than we might have imagined.”

Throughout human history children needed both kinds of protection, what they received from mothers and what they received from fathers. In our modern world, we need the protections that have come from the left and the right. But we have entered a new world where our old systems are going through major upheavals.

As the Czech statesman, playwright, and former dissident, Václav Havel so presciently recognized,

“Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.”

Internationally acclaimed historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat recognized the danger that is present when old systems of domination begin to collapse and new ones based on partnership are trying to arise. Ben-Ghiat is an expert on the “strongman” playbook employed by authoritarian demagogues, from Mussolini to Putin, enabling her to predict with uncanny accuracy the recent experience in the U.S. In her book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, she says,

“For ours is the age of authoritarian rulers: self-proclaimed saviors of the nation who evade accountability while robbing their people of truth, treasure, and the protections of democracy.”

She goes on to say,

“Vladimir Putin’s and Mobutu Sese Seko’s kleptocracies, Augusto Pinochet’s torture sites, Benito Mussolini’s and Muammar Gaddafi’s systems of sexual exploitation, and Silvio Berlusconi’s and Donald Trump’s relentless misinformation: all show how authoritarian rule, far from ensuring stability, is marked by destructive chaos.”

Traumatic Origin of Authoritarian Strongmen

            From my own experience as a psychotherapist working with men I have long recognized the impact of childhood trauma on males and how it impacts the lives of others when they are in positions of power in their families, companies, and countries.

            Prior to the 2016 Presidential election in the United States, I wrote an article on May 7, 2016, long before most people took Donald Trump’s chances of becoming president seriously. The article was titled “The Real Reason Donald Trump Will Be Our Next President.”  I said, among other things,

“When problems become too complex, we long for simple solutions, even if they are wrong. How do we deal with poverty, over-population, global climate change, endless wars? It’s difficult to figure out what to do. We are drawn to someone who seems to know the answer. ‘ISIS? Trust me, I’ll eliminate them in short order,’ says Mr. Trump. Too many people in the world and an economic system that keeps people in poverty? ‘Don’t worry, I’ll build a wall to keep illegal immigrants out,’ says Mr. Trump, ‘and I’ll get Mexico to pay for it.’ People having difficulty with the rise of female power and prestige? White men becoming uncomfortable with the non-white world? He’s got an app for that, too. ‘We’ll ban Muslims from America and ridicule and shame women until they get back in their proper place.’”

            I also pointed out the indicators that I was seeing that suggested Donald Trump had suffered from childhood abuse, neglect, and abandonment, and how many others in the U.S., particularly men, resonated with his rage.

Gabor Maté has written clearly and eloquently about the impact of childhood trauma on our adult lives and ways in which family trauma can impact entire cultures when “Strongmen” come to power. In The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture he says,

“Donald Trump’s cartoonishness, the havoc he wreaked on the U.S. political system, and the cultural tumult around his ascendancy can too easily obscure what a sad, thoroughly wounded person he is. Young Donald had plenty of cause to push reality out of mind and sight; to become grandiose, narcissistic, combative, and utterly opportunistic.”

He quotes Donald’s psychologist niece, Mary Trump, who wrote about Donald’s father, Fred, in her book, Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. In describing Fred, Mary says,

“Deep down I have no problem describing him as a sociopath. He had no real human feeling and he treated his children with contempt.”

            Although abused, neglected, and abandoned males who ascend to positions of power are very dangerous, they are able to attain power because there are millions of other adult-children who have had abusive or absent fathers, or suffered from other trauma, and share a similar kind of wounding. The long term-healing requires that we recognize our collective trauma and begin to seriously address these issues.

            One program that we have started is focused on healing men. It is called our Moonshot for Mankind. You can learn more about it here. I hope you find these articles helpful. If you’d like to subscribe to our free newsletter, you can do so here.

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