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Am I normal?

The 200-Year Search for Normal People (and Why They Don't Exist) By Sarah Chaney

  • Date: 28 September 2022

Welcome Collection, paperback, £16.99, 2022

Review by Dr Greg Dollman, Insight editor

I KNEW this book was going to be different – even before I opened it. Perhaps because of its provocative title:

Am I normal?

But there's more to the title than that.

The 200-year search for normal people

That's an interesting concept, I thought. But there’s even more.

(And why they don't exist)

You can almost hear the relieved sighs of prospective readers.

Or perhaps I was intrigued by the book’s cover. You know what they say – don’t judge a book by its cover. This is a book that is the antithesis of judging a book by its cover.

The hand mirror on the cover hints at the self-reflection ahead. In holding the book, you are presumably holding a mirror to yourself and to the world. What do you see? Where do you fit in (if at all)?

This book encourages an exploration of self against our own reality of the world, as well as the standards we and others have created.

Sarah Chaney is a research fellow at the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions. She explores how the "small but powerful word" normal came to be used to describe humans and human behaviour.

Chaney chronicles her own experience of normal in her body, mind and feelings, while exploring how the ‘benchmarks’ were set in chapters like "Do I have a normal body?", "Do I have a normal mind?" and "Is this a normal way to feel?"

She investigates the hypocrisy and prejudice, and potential malice, of those usually white, affluent or middle-class European men who ‘decided’ what was normal.

And her tongue is firmly in cheek at times. In the chapter "Is my sex life normal?" she writes: "After all, when sex still takes place largely behind closed doors, how can we ever really know if our sex lives are normal?"

The book looks at diverse concepts like IQ, and ‘the bell curve’, the growth of the pharmaceutical industry (she quotes the words of a patient prescribed antipsychotics: "it's not just the case that you take a drug and everything is normal"), advertising, labels and class (she describes how a diagnosis of ADHD was initially almost considered a status symbol).

After a detailed review of the individual, Chaney concludes her book with a chapter titled "Is society normal?” She includes a section on the coronavirus pandemic, recognising that we became used to the "new normal of Covid" – until it became ordinary. "What this suggests is that none of these things were ever quite as straightforward or as normal as we were led to believe. The structures of our society – our laws, our customs, and our expectations – are just as historically constructed as our ideas about a normal body or mind."

Am I normal? explores when the definitions of normal began, and how these have changed. Is something now not normal because it is not common? Or is something not normal because it is not healthy? Would life be easier if I were more normal? Am I normal?

While attempting to answer these and other questions, Chaney (importantly) wonders whether these are the correct questions we should be asking. Perhaps you will find your own questions (and answers) as you gaze at the contents of this book – or even its cover.

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