Nobody's Normal

January 2021: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.

A compassionate and eye-opening examination of evolving attitudes toward mental illness throughout history and the fight to end the stigma.

For centuries, scientists and society cast moral judgments on anyone deemed mentally ill, confining many to asylums. In Nobody’s Normal, anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker chronicles the progress and setbacks in the struggle against mental-illness stigma―from the eighteenth century, through America’s major wars, and into today’s high-tech economy.

Grinker infuses the book with the personal history of his family’s four generations of involvement in psychiatry, including his grandfather’s analysis with Sigmund Freud, his own daughter’s experience with autism, and culminating in his research on neurodiversity. Drawing on cutting-edge science, historical archives, and cross-cultural research in Africa and Asia, Nobody’s Normal explains how we are transforming mental illness and offers a path to end the shadow of stigma. The preeminent historian of medicine, Sander Gilman, calls Nobody’s Normal “the most important work on stigma in more than half a century.

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The Road Out of Bedlam

The concept of the normal is properly a variant of the concept of the good.
It is that which society has approved.

– Ruth Benedict (1934)

When I was six years old, my grandfather gave me a copy of his newest publication, a book about how to diagnose borderline personality disorder. He signed it: “To my grandson, who will carry on.” I didn’t know how to read full sentences, so he told me what it meant: I would be a psychiatrist, just like him—the fourth generation of psychiatrists named Grinker.

I am not a psychiatrist.

My family was deeply disappointed, of course, but I eventually earned some redemption by marrying a psychiatrist and by becoming an anthropologist who studies mental health. And inasmuch as this book is about both psychiatry and my family, I do “carry on” their legacy. The lives and work of those generations infuse the pages below—from my great-grandfather, Julius, a late-nineteenth-century neurologist and psychoanalyst who believed people with mental illnesses were biologically inferior, to my own cross-cultural research on autism in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia that rejects such antiquated views.

From time immemorial, we have averted our eyes rather face the cold hard facts of the impact of war on the human psyche. With the wide-ranging eye and objectivity of a brilliant anthropologist, Grinker has written a “must read” book for those seeking to understand, prevent and treat the wounds of war to the heart, mind and soul.

Pete Geren, Former United States Secretary of the Army and U.S. Congressman

Nobody’s Normal is an unusually engaging history of mental illness and the stigma attached to it.  Dr. Grinker threads together the attitudes of society toward psychiatric illness with the lives and work of his ancestors, and his daughter’s experience of autism. The result is an informative and thoughtful book about mental illness: common, painful, usually treatable, and profoundly tied to the human condition.

Kay Redfield Jamison, Author of An Unquiet Mind, and Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire (Pulitzer Prize Finalist)

Nobody’s Normal is a breath-taking tour de force. With lively illustrations across the centuries and spanning United States, England, Namibia, South Korea, and Nepal, Grinker shows how our shifting models of mental illness can only be fully appreciated by using different frames of reference. This fascinating book weaves together stories of mental illness during war, his grandfather’s psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud, and a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder and autism. The net result is a compelling global panorama. An invaluable book.   

Sir Graham Thornicroft, Professor of Community Psychiatry, King’s College, London

Roy Richard Grinker’s Nobody’s Normal is the most important work on stigma in more than half a century. It tells two intertwined stories – a meticulous, comparative history of mental illness from the Enlightenment to the present, highlighting the centrality of military medicine in times of war, and the story of his own family. As a distinguished anthropologist, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of noteworthy psychiatrists, and the father of a daughter with autism, Grinker brilliantly unravels the tension between deviance and vulnerability by shaping the relationship between multiple generations.

Sander L. Gilman, Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences; Professor of Psychiatry, Emory University, Author of Seeing the Insane

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