Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What's normal?

I had lunch with an artist friend last week. We caught each other up on what our holidays had been like - hers having included her first husband (for the children's sake) as well as her second - and then we got to the deeper stuff: our obsessive making of art, our frustration when we couldn't find the right way into a painting or a story.

She said, "I'm afraid that, if I let myself go in my paintings, everyone will know how crazy I am."

This is not a crazy woman. She's more kind than I am, more generous to her first husband's current wife than I would be, more level-headed.

So I've been thinking this week about how and why, without a psychiatric diagnosis, so many of us define ourselves as crazy. We must be measuring ourselves against a baseline that either we or the DSM have labeled normal, and gauging where we fall on the sanity continuum.

But measurement of and establishing a norm for the nonphysical is tricky.

Several decades ago I was asked to give the keynote address at a women's retreat. A shocking request, for the topic was sex. What could I, whose sexual past was so far from what I considered normal, possibly say? I began my research by contacting groups that worked with survivors of child abuse and those who worked with rape victims. At that time, no one had aggregated the statistics for both groups of women but, even allowing for some overlap, the numbers were shocking. The vast majority of women in this country had experienced sex as violence, with the concomitant feelings of powerlessness and guilt.

Which meant that all the psychological tests that had been developed, and the norms for female sexual behavior and attitudes that had been established, had to have been based primarily on research subjects who had been victimized.

So what's normal?    

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