Literature Annotations


Donley, C. & Buckley, S., eds.
The Tyranny of the Normal


Genre Anthology (Mixed Genres) (384 pp.)
KeywordsBody Self-Image, Chronic Illness/Chronic Disease, Cross-Cultural Issues, Depression, Disability, Eating Disorder, Family Relationships, Human Worth, Loneliness, Medical Ethics, Obesity, Power Relations, Psycho-social Medicine, Society, Suffering, Women's Health
Summary

This thought-provoking book is a collection of readings which the editors have found to be particularly useful for a course they teach, "What’s Normal?" It is their intent to facilitate consideration of how the world is experienced by those who are socially marginalized because of their physical appearance. The title of the anthology derives from an article written by the literary critic, Leslie Fiedler, and reproduced as the lead-off essay. Fiedler argues that the propensity of cultures throughout history to define the normal and to make political decisions about physical "abnormality" has reached a point where the rich will perpetuate the cult of normalcy (by paying for medical treatments that ensure it) while "the poor . . . will be our sole remaining Freaks."

The anthology is divided into several sections: Part I contains nonfiction articles, essays, and excerpts from books. Part II reproduces fiction, poetry, and drama and is further subdivided into "Abnormal Weight and Eating Disorders"; "Abnormal Height-Dwarfism"; and "Deformity and Disability." Many of the pieces have been annotated individually for this database (e.g. Fat by Raymond Carver, annotated by Carol Donley and also by Felice Aull and Irene Chen; Skanks by Rennie Sparks; The Fat Girl by Andre Dubus; Weight Bearing by Patricia Goedicke; Dwarf House by Ann Beattie; The Song the Dwarf Sings by Rainer Maria Rilke; The Dwarf by Ray Bradbury; The President by Donald Barthelme; The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne; The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance and others).

Commentary

This anthology is a valuable resource for the health care professions, and for any educator or reader interested in cultural history and societal attitudes. The question, "what is normal?" has important psychosocial and ethical implications (e.g. regarding genetic engineering). One can consider also that medical dogma revolves around statistical norms and has been notoriously inadequate when faced with individual outliers, or with groups which have been excluded from statistical consideration.

The anthology focuses on physical appearance, but the scope is broad. Thus, Leslie Fiedler considers "our basic uncertainty about the limits of our bodies and our egos." (excerpt from Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self) His contention that "each sex feels itself forever defined as freakish in relation to the other" is amplified from a feminist perspective by social psychologist Carol Tavris (excerpt from The Mismeasure of Woman) and discussed in the context of (predominantly) female eating disorders by philosopher-ethicist Mary Briody Mahowald ("To Be or Not Be a Woman: Anorexia Nervosa, Normative Gender Roles, and Feminism).

The thoughtful introduction to The Tyranny of the Normal reminds us once again of the importance of language and the implication of the words used to describe those who are uncommon (ABnormal, MALformed, DISabled). Carried further, people are categorized, labeled. "Quasimodo Complex," derived from the deformed character Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (an excerpt is included in this anthology) was first coined by two physicians in 1967 to describe a personality disorder "produced by emotional reaction to physical deformity" (see Frances Cooke Macgregor’s commentary).

Theologian-ethicist Jonathan Carey highlights the deep suffering which may be experienced by the deformed as a consequence of being different--"the self-perception . . . engendered from the implicit and explicit reactions of others." ("The Quasimodo Complex: Deformity Reconsidered") Readings in this anthology could be considered together with Susan Sontag’s essays on the metaphorical meaning of illness (Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, both annotated in this database).

PublisherKent State Univ. Press
Edition1996
EditorsCarol Donley & Sheryl Buckley
Place PublishedKent, Ohio
Annotated by Aull, Felice
Date of Entry 06/13/96
Last Revised 01/14/10