January 26, 2021: The New York Times

Does It Make Sense to Call Anyone ʻNormalʼ?

By Virginia Hughes

After treating several thousand troubled American pilots during World War II, the psychiatrist Roy Richard Grinker made a profound observation: that under such horrific stress, “a hair divides the normal from the neurotic.”The doctor had witnessed how war could turn a man into a quivering child, unable to put words to his experiences. And he had seen how treatment — a combination of talk therapy and sodium pentothal, or “truth serum” — could spur recovery. His reports from the front lines, according to a 1944 article in this newspaper, “finally exploded as a myth” the notion of mental illness as a scourge of the weak.But that myth never went away, as powerfully chronicled in a new book by the psychiatrist’s grandson, an anthropologist also named Roy Richard Grinker. A rich history woven with insights from four generations of the Grinker family’s research, “Nobody’s Normal” shows how a society’s needs and prejudices shape how it deals with mental illness, from the regrettable asylums and lobotomies of past centuries to the recent corporate trend of recruiting employees with autism. Grinker makes an edgier point, too: that cultural circumstances — whether in combat or on a college campus — can influence how someone expresses psychological pain.

The book sings with the empathetic and authoritative voice of Grinker, whose studies have investigated how autism is perceived across the world. His grandfather, before treating Air Force pilots, was one of Sigmund Freud’s last patients — and left his grandson vivid stories of the famous analyst’s methods, paranoia and smelly Vienna waiting room. Grinker’s great-grandfather was also a scholar of the mind, a Chicago neurologist who believed that insanity was caused by “that hallucination called love” and a woman’s penchant for shopping.

February 12, 2021: The Washington Post

How colonialism and capitalism helped place a stigma on mental illness.

By Balaji Ravichandran

Roy Richard Grinker is keen to assure us that none of us is normal. Indeed, he is at pains to suggest that what is normal might not even be desirable. In 1945, he tells us, when the physician Robert Latou Dickinson and the artist Abram Belskie surveyed 15,000 men and women across the United States — all White and all young — and used the statistical averages to create sculptures of a “normal” man and a “normal” woman, the results were far from appealing. Yet our obsession with what is normal, and therefore acceptable, goes to the heart of how we think and speak about mental health and illness. It is also, Grinker argues, the source of much of the stigma, which is the subject of his latest book, “Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness.”

Grinker is an anthropologist by training and an expert on cultural perceptions of autism. He is an engaging writer, and an able and authoritative guide to the social history of mental illness. His writing is also often informed by his personal experiences, be it through his daughter, whose diagnosis of autism inspired his previous book on the subject, or his upbringing in a family of neurologists and psychiatrists.

In many ways, the autobiographical elements provide the book with a narrative structure, as they mirror larger trends in the history of American psychiatry. Grinker’s great-grandfather Julius was a neurologist — and by all accounts an unpleasant man — who did not think much of psychiatry. His son, Roy Sr., rebelled against his father and, in a fitting irony, trained in psychoanalysis under Sigmund Freud himself. He would become an important figure in the evolution of psychiatry during and after World War II. Today, it is the grandson who has rebelled against the family, by becoming an anthropologist. But he seems to have atoned for it by marrying a psychiatrist and by spending much of his time grappling with the cultural dynamics of mental illness.

So where, according to Grinker, does the stigma around mental illness come from? What is its history, and why does it remain so deeply entrenched?

The answers he provides are for the most part familiar, though no less disturbing for that. He argues, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault did before him, that the birth of stigma is inseparable from the birth of capitalism, of colonialism, of industrialization and of the slave trade. Stigma, in other words, consists of the act of branding, which, in the case of enslavement, could be literal. In creating labels such as “mad,” “pauper,” “savage” or “queer,” the intent was to brand and isolate people whom the powerful and the privileged would rather not see, and from whose labor they could not profit. Indeed, when the first asylums were created, the poor and the mad were locked up together with the rest of society’s outcasts. It is horrifying to think that, even today, for many people in America suffering a mental health crisis, their first port of call is the police — and that they are just as likely to end up in a prison as in a hospital. It is no coincidence therefore that the burden of stigma fell above all on the marginalized and the oppressed. Idleness in the poor became neurasthenia in the rich. Hysteria in women, another excuse to suppress their sexuality, became shell-shock for men. In each case, the one label was stigmatized, the other accepted. To this day, the two most stigmatizing diagnoses in psychiatry — borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia — are reserved disproportionately for women and for people of color.

January 12, 2021: Psychology Today

How the Stigma of Mental Illness Has Evolved Over Time
Anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker explores the roots of stigma in his new book.

By Abigail Fagan

Though progress has been made in recent years, mental illness remains highly stigmatized—the mentally ill are often victims of shame, marginalization, or outright mistreatment. In his upcoming book Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness, George Washington University anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker explores the roots of mental illness stigma around the world and highlights the cultural changes that have, he argues, brought us to the cusp of reimagining our relationship with neurodiversity and mental illness.

How does culture create stigma?

Evolutionary biologists would say that it’s natural for us to be afraid of some people. But what we are afraid of varies from society to society.

Most of the world doesn’t blame the individual for their suffering. Most of the world blames the family at large, God, a malevolent spirit, karma, or the stress of war, poverty, or an abusive relationship. It’s culture that teaches us how to seek blame, and how to explain differences. And if we explain differences in this very American way, that the individual is responsible for everything they succeed and fail in, it’s no surprise that people don’t want to seek care for certain conditions, especially conditions that threaten the ideals of being independent and achieving—the ideal American.

January/February, 2021: Psychotherapy Networker

Beyond Normal.
Our Evolving Attitudes Towards Mental Illness.

By Diane Cole

The very title of anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker’s new book, Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness, made me eager to read it. It brought back in full force the indelible childhood memory of my mother’s choked explanation of why we so seldom saw her beloved younger sister, my Aunt Anne. She was not well, my mother told me in a pained, hushed voice. She suffered from a type of illness that affected the way her mind worked, and as a result, she had to stay at a special kind of hospital. And, she added in even fainter tones, because not everyon eunderstood this type of illness, it was best not to share this secret with anyone else.

I nodded solemnly, mirroring my mother’s tone of equal parts compassionand worry, but I was left both troubled and mystifi ed by this mixed message of love, clouded by some vague fear of—what?Now, with the help of Grinker’s thoughtful volume, I’m able to reframe this conversation as my personal introduction to the way the stigma of mental illness gets inside our heads.
It’s a process,deftly explainedby Grinker, by which a given culture’s underlying beliefs, assumptions, and moral judgments teach us how to perceive and respond to mental illness. From this perspective, mine was a textbook case of how, starting in childhood, we absorb and internalize our milieu’s criteria for labeling and stigmatizing those who aren’t “like us.”

February 15, 2021: Bookist

Advanced Review

By Colleen Mondor

Anthropologist Grinker accomplishes a nifty literary trick with this thoughtful study of the history of stigmatizing mental illness. As the direct descendant of three generations of psychiatrists and as someone who studies mental health, he writes, accordingly, with expected pathos and intelligence on the subject. The surprise is the degree to which this thoroughly researched narrative is so engrossing and, indeed, even enthralling as Grinker shares both the history of treating the mentally ill (the word hysteria comes up) and his own personal travels around the world witnessing the societal acceptance or estrangement of those afflicted by mental disorders. By occasionally injecting stories of his forebears into his account, he grounds his story in the personal, but there is so much more here (his coverage of the Kellogg brothers alone is startling), including how economics, military prowess, gender bias, and racism became embedded in medical treatment decisions. The author’s dedication to his subject is clear, and his smartly crafted prose sings as he writes of dark and disturbing medical choices. A superb and important work of nonfiction.

January 26, 2021: Spectrum News

‘Nobody’s Normal’ chronicles the intertwined history of mental illness and stigma

By Claudia Wallis

Few scholars are better positioned to tackle the history of mental illness and the stigma we attach to it than Roy Richard Grinker. A cultural anthropologist and autism expert at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Grinker studies how societies around the world view mental health and illness.

Grinker is also the scion of three generations of eminent psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, giving him a personal vantage point on more than a century of psychiatric thinking. And, as the father of a daughter with autism, he has observed close-up how the modern neurodiversity movement has loosened the grip of stigma.

In the introduction to his vividly told, richly researched new book “Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness,” released today, Grinker recalls how his grandfather would regale him with stories about his experience as one of Sigmund Freud’s last patients. It was Freud’s wish, the older Grinker told his namesake grandson, that someday psychiatric conditions would be viewed “like the common cold, something everyone gets from time to time,” and that people “might eventually feel no shame in seeking psychological care for their problems.”

That same hope underlies Grinker’s book, which reveals how our very definitions of mental illnesses and our notions of ‘normality’ reek of cultural biases that stop many from seeking help.

“An agile history…anecdotally rich…a highly readable, thoughtful study of how we perceive and talk about mental illness—with luck, ever more respectfully.”

A broad-ranging history of psychiatry, examining trends in how mental diseases are increasingly less stigmatized as we acknowledge that so often “the sufferer is innocent.”

Even today, English offers a rich lexicon of stigmatizing terms in the semantic domain of mental illness—one bit of evidence, writes cultural anthropologist Grinker, that “stigma isn’t in our biology; it’s in our culture.” Given its cultural locus, we can alter our behavior to use less alienating language, and, as the author illustrates, in some instances we have, especially regarding other illnesses. As we learned about HIV/AIDS, for example, “the fear and secretiveness…began to decrease,” even as obituaries now acknowledge the once-whispered term cancer and even suicide. Grinker, a professor of anthropology and international affairs, comes from a long line of psychiatrists and was brought up to believe that everyone suffers from some sort of mental illness at some point in life. Given its universality, the “discredited identity” that often accompanies mental illness is misplaced. The author offers an agile history of mental health and efforts to control it. For example, the Puritans of New England “believed that anyone without reason” needed to be controlled as if an animal, a category that included not just the mentally ill, but also babies. It was not until the 19th century that the realization became widespread that the mentally ill could be treated rather than merely punished. Interestingly, Grinker observes in his anecdotally rich narrative, many advances in psychiatric treatment came by way of military medicine, with so many soldiers shattered by the horrors of conflict. Indeed, it was the U.S. Army’s medical manual for mental disorders that formed the basis of the first DSM in 1952, a volume that represented “a marriage of military experience and psychoanalytical theory.”

A highly readable, thoughtful study of how we perceive and talk about mental illness—with luck, ever more respectfully.

– Kirkus Reviews

“Impactful…enlightening….this book will fascinate anyone drawn to the subjects mental illness, psychology, and psychiatry.”

Grinker (Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism), an anthropology professor at George Washington University, examines modern ideas around mental illness in this impactful book. He proposes that “mental illness and stigma were born together” of capitalism, under which the mentally ill were understood in opposition to the “ideal modern worker.” As a result, up until WWI, the insane were considered unfit for society; the war, however, exposed the general population to the idea that even brave men could be diagnosed with problems such as shell shock or neurasthenia. Grinker then looks at the development of medical means for treating mental illness over the 20th century, resulting in both effective and ineffective measures, such as, respectively, electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomies. He also includes some family history—his grandfather was psychoanalyzed by Freud and later became a famous psychoanalyst himself. Readers sympathetic to Grinker’s concern for the mentally ill will find an enlightening brief for the positions that “both normality and abnormality are fictional lands” and that the idea of a mental health spectrum leads to more humane care than strictly drawn divisions between the mentally healthy and unhealthy.

This book will fascinate anyone drawn to the subjects of mental illness, psychology, and psychiatry. (Jan.)

– Publisher’s Weekly

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