What’s Normal? Narratives of Mental & Emotional Disorders

By: Carol Donley & Sheryl Buckley (Editors)

Reviewed By: Jon Henshaw, M.A.

What's Normal? Narratives of Mental & Emotional Disorders
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When I was in college, one of my favorite courses was Abnormal Psychology. The most important thing I learned in that class was that normal is defined by the culture. Our ideas of normal are not global, they're local; they’re confined to the subjectively created folkways and mores of our society.

What's Normal? examines the issues of "abnormalities" in mental health, intelligence, and sexual behavior, deviations that place individuals outside the norm. What's Normal? is divided into two parts: one, a wide-ranging collection of essays and articles written by renowned clinicians who address clinical, ethical, and social issues related to mental illness and disorders; and two, a section of fiction, poetry, and drama portraying mental and behavioral abnormalities, sometimes from "inside" the perspective of the deviant and sometimes from the experiences of family, friends, and other engaged observers. The clinical and bioethical essays address issues and principle (such as autonomy, beneficence, and justice) as they apply to cases of the mentally ill or disabled. The second part of the anthology gets inside the experiences of particular people in the often messy contexts of their lives. Excerpts that examine the treatment of mental health, intelligence, and sexual conduct are cited from such literary works as Equus, Of Mice and Men, Like Water for Chocolate, and Sula.

I found the first part of the book to be informative and relevant, but too short. As a counselor/clinician, I found myself longing for more academic essays about the experience of normality. Instead, the editors decided to only dedicate a small portion of the book to academics, and left the rest of the book to creative non-fiction and fictional depictions of real-life mental afflictions. Regardless, the first part did provide ample set up and explanation to the dilemma of what's normal. I would consider it a crash course in abnormal deviance for the casual observer. It's also a good primer for the stories that follow in the second section.

Readers will find the second section familiar and engaging. The editors weave the reader through narrative works that cover a multitude of topics: Children and Adolescents with Mental Disorders, Mental Disability (Retardation), Women's Experiences with Mental Disorders, Men's Experiences with War Trauma, Including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Men and Mental Disorders, and Alzheimer's and Dementia.

What's Normal? is designed for both the clinician and the casual reader. Both should appreciate the practical academic introduction coupled with the relevant and engaging narratives. Even though the bulk of the book (the narratives) cover various topics, I do think that the book is worth getting, even if only one topic captures your interest. The first (academic) part coupled with any one (narrative) topic is worth the purchase alone.

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