A clinical psychologist who specialises in adult development, Doctor Meg Jay has drawn on her considerable experience and insight given her by her work in her new book Supernormal, a detailed and often upsetting exploration of “childhood adversity and the untold story of resilience,” in the words of the subtitle, though inevitably before any healing process can begin the wounds must be probed and cleaned.
Drawing equally upon the lived experience of her own patients and many studies and metastudies detailed in the copious bibliography, Doctor Jay presents her findings as a work of “narrative non-fiction” in the hope this will be an easily digestible format for the many for whom there are “financial, logistical or cultural barriers” to therapy, and her emphasis throughout is on the positive outcomes for these individuals as she recounts the stories of those whom she classes as “supernormal.”
Quoting Victor Goertzel, that “the ‘normal man’ is not a likely candidate for the Hall of Fame,” Doctor Jay proposes that the “supernormal” are marked by their resilience, their ability to withstand adversity and channel their drive to overcome what holds them back, seeing those who have done so as heroic in their own way whether their deeds and achievements have been public or personal.
Through chapters detailing a catalogue of all-too-common factors which can impact on childhood, divorce, the death of a parent, poverty, sibling abuse, alcoholism, many tied together and exacerbating each other, it is grim reading supported by depressing statistics which indicate that the problems described are not isolated or uncommon but are in fact endemic, a global health crisis.
Paralleling this, Doctor Jay considers the classic superheroes who reflect these stories, for example Superman, an orphan with a traumatic childhood who was fortunate to have the love and support of a surrogate family in the Kents, who is obliged as an adult to live a dual life where he maintains a secret identity in order to function, who is determined to do good in the world but who can be brought crashing down by the manifestation of his past in the form of fragments of Kryptonite.
While the future can be changed or shaped to an extent, the past is fixed, and it is hardwired into us to focus on bad memories more than good as a learning mechanism: “our brains are wired to keep us alive, not happy,” so fright, anxiety, shame and pain stay with us to teach us to learn from these experiences even if as children we had no control over them.
Where the book could be more circumspect is in the origin stories of her “supernormal” individuals, twisting the knife in old wounds in graphic detail when sensitivity would be more appropriate, chronicles of pain, humiliation and degradation so intimate they are almost a violation in themselves, dredged up with little consideration of what echoes they might trigger in the reader with no promise of a salve at the end of it, no hint that she has plans to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
The imagery of the superhero providing an empowering fantasy of power and escape, while a celebration of the profound achievements of those who have undoubtedly suffered and been driven to great things in order to escape and never go back, there is too little comfort or advice offered to the many who may not have been able to overcome the obstacles in their paths.
Did they not try hard enough or were they fundamentally not good enough? Even though Doctor Jay cautions against comparing with others for no two sets of circumstances are ever identical, her parade of paragons invites it, and it is likely that many who read the book will conclude that they come up short even though it may be through no fault of their own.
Despite the tiresome permeating assumption of heteronormativity, Supernormal makes efforts to be encompassing and for that reason is marginally less infuriating than The Velvet Rage where the subjects were a subset of a subset of rich white American men but ultimately offers the same, a great deal of diagnosis and too little remediation with only the final brief chapter suggesting that love and happiness are still possible even for those who see themselves as damaged, a platitude equally unhelpful and unlikely for those still mired in the struggle of living.