- Interview by
- Chandler Dandridge
Dr Gabor Maté is a world-renowned author and physician, best known for his work on trauma, addiction, and childhood development. His books bring together science, myth, case studies, and his own personal history — from his beginnings in Nazi-occupied Budapest, to his participation in the radical student movements of the 1960s, to his experience working with drug addiction and mental illness in Vancouver’s most distressed communities. Gabor’s perspective on medicine is dialectical and holistic, emphasizing the social as much as the individual when considering disease and dysfunction.
His latest book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture, is cowritten with his son Daniel Maté, a musical theater playwright based in New York City. In it, the Matés examine the profound physical and psychological harms of “normal” capitalist society, shattering the myths of a system that makes a small minority very well-off while sowing illness and despair on a vast scale.
In this interview, Gabor and Daniel speak with American psychotherapist Chandler Dandridge about their new book, capitalism’s ability to absorb challenges and resist change, the trauma of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 defeat, the genius of Michael Brooks, and finding ways to bridge the gap between the spiritual and the political.
Your book explicitly identifies capitalism as the source of the “toxic culture” referenced in the book’s subtitle. What myths of capitalism contribute to this toxic culture?
Well, first of all, the myth of freedom. People believe they’re living in a free society, but in fact, they have very little actual authority over their lives. Authority is exercised in significant areas by a small elite, which Karl Marx would have called the ruling class. That’s true when it comes to the control of information, and obviously to the economy. The decisions that affect people’s lives are all made not for their own benefit but for the purpose of profit. And they are made by very few people under the guise of what’s called a free society.
The second myth is capitalism’s essential assumption about human nature — that we are fundamentally selfish, individualistic, aggressive, and competitive. It’s false. It goes quite contrary to what we know about human evolution and genuine human needs.
Then there’s the impact of racism, which capitalism has done so much to invent. And I don’t mean a conspiracy here — it happened largely organically. The more you can divide people, the more people see other people as their enemies, the less they can see who’s actually pulling the strings. So for the white American working class to believe about immigrants and blacks, “If only they weren’t so uppity, if they only weren’t so demanding, we wouldn’t be threatened,” it’s a myth. But it’s a very helpful myth from the perspective of diverting people’s attention from the real source of the problems.
The birth of race theory coincides with colonialism and plunder of foreign lands. If you’re the British Empire — or the Dutch or the Spanish or the French — and you want to rationalize and justify a system whose entire mode of operation is to travel the seven seas and pillage, kill, rape, plunder, and extract, it’s helpful to have a view of other people as subordinate to you genetically, spiritually, and morally. So the system invents ideology to underwrite its own chosen commitments and activities, and then it normalizes that ideology.
In addition to what my dad said, I think there are attendant sub-myths of capitalism, including some of the core concepts that are just taken as given in any economics course or New York Times op-ed. “Growth,” “consumption” — think about these words. Growth is the aim. And what does “growth” mean? Growth means a mushrooming proliferation of a certain economic metric called the GDP. And what’s that connected to? Consumption, which is just people buying stuff and then consuming stuff. But consuming is not the same as nourishing or feeding. And ballooning outward growth is not the same thing as developing in a healthy way. These sort of distortions of possibly healthy ideas become the ideological tenets of a system that’s bent on its own perpetuation.
You all mention a couple of times in the book that myths can serve a healthy purpose. What might that look like?
I think we have to understand “myth” in the old sense of the word. The way we use “myth” in the title is the way most people in this society use the word “myth”: to mean fabrication, falsehood, old wives’ tale, or urban legend. But legends and myths have been a bedrock of the human experience and part of the way we’ve made meaning out of a very complicated, chaotic world ever since we arrived on the scene. We’re mythmaking machines, and it has had a very positive effect on many cultures.
If you look at the way this book is trying to encourage people to think about things like health and illness, it is presenting it in a more mythic framework, in that everything has meaning. There’s metaphor in everything. Everything is connected. Everything is for some kind of purpose. Everything is tied to some kind of journey that the soul is on — trying to reunite itself with itself, to come out of illusion into clarity. All these things are mythic archetypes.
And if you look at any of the people in the book whose healing stories are told, they found some mythic connection between them and the natural world, between their earliest wounds and their deepest gifts. You could put any of these in a well-written Hollywood movie or a great novel, and they’d be very compelling. So I think it’s not a coincidence that, toward the end of the book, we remind people that myth has its place.
In the book, you write about Gabor’s medical training, which insisted on viewing illness as a strictly individual phenomenon. What would medical training look like under a new, more collective social system?
First of all, it would teach the science, which is not even vaguely controversial, in regard to mind-body unity. It would stop separating people’s emotional lives from their physiology. And teach that emotional life and physiology are affected by external circumstances, such that it’s futile and foolish to speak of the individual organism as an isolated entity. In other words, imagine if we actually followed the science for a change rather than just following prejudice or entrenched habit or —
Or ideology. The second thing it would do is actually train doctors to take care of their own traumas and stresses rather than to ignore them, rather than to suck it up and keep going in order to get ahead in the system. And then, of course, there’d be trauma education to the extent that the science demands it, which is a high degree of necessity. We would teach doctors about trauma. Not that they all need to be trauma specialists, but they should all be aware of it.
And then, of course, the question becomes: How do we organize health care? Do we organize it on a piecework basis so that every patient is like a widget that you turn out in as short a time as possible? Is that the kind of medical system we want? Any medical system predicated on profit is going to demand a certain kind of practice from its participants, from the people that serve it. Any research system that is largely fueled by the profits of the pharmaceutical companies will churn out certain kinds of information and ignore other subjects. A new system would require a vast change in approach. Not to mention, there’d be far more attention paid to the sense of agency and participation of the patient themselves, and far more listening to their experience.
All kinds of luminaries throughout the years have made observations, whether intuitively or based on evidence and observation and some hard research, that point to the mind-body unity, the link between emotions and health, the link between biography and biology. These figures include William Osler in Canada in the nineteenth century; Soma Weiss, who was a Harvard researcher in the early twentieth century. But it all just went down the medical memory hole.
How would [Noam] Chomsky explain that? Well, there’s an ideological apparatus that filters out certain kinds of evidence that don’t fit the system. And so the antidote, as Chomsky recommended — you can tell I’m excited to be speaking to Jacobin — is a course of intellectual self-defense.
I think what this book in some ways is advocating is for patients to marshal their own resources and go into the system knowing what the system’s good for and what the system’s not so good for. Insist as much as you can on having that agency. Be aware that your doctor may not know to ask certain questions. Be hip to the tricks of a system that actually has been concertedly, assiduously, and at this point almost deliberately ignoring very solid evidence that points in a more mind-body, holistic direction for a long time.
That makes me think of the bit in the book where you talk about healing as a return to wholeness — a kind of self-retrieval, not self-improvement. I’m wondering what that looks like in a personal context, but also a political one.
You know, a lot of Aboriginal peoples talk about soul retrieval. It’s like we lose our souls at some point, and we have to try to get them back. Well, that’s what I see as the journey toward wholeness. In a personal sense, it means being in touch with one’s body and one’s feelings, and not ignoring them for the sake of being accepted or approved of by others.
In a social sense, we have really lost the way. There are certain human needs that are not negotiable. We can’t negotiate them away. We can give up on them, but then we suffer when we do. When they’re not met, there’s going to be suffering and ill health in every sense of the word. They include having a purpose in life, having agency and authority in one’s own life, and being connected to other people. Meeting all of these needs is required for full health, full wholeness. On a social level, that means that all the institutions and political structures and ideologies that undermine those qualities need to be either jettisoned or transformed.
Alongside that, there’s the need to be woke in the original and, I think, more useful sense of the word, as in aware of the ways that those systems will present simulacra of those needs in place of the real ones and sell them to us. Name any human need that’s genuine and nourishing — agency, connection, contact, fulfillment, happiness, aliveness — and the system we’re living under has a Soylent Green version of it.
If you actually look around the culture at people acting out in various ways, everyone’s just coping. Everyone’s just trying to find some sense of agency, pride, belonging, tribe — these things that, in a sane society, in a healthy world, we would actually all have access to in a sustainable way that doesn’t pit us against one another.
Soul retrieval is a collective process. One aspect would be to look around and see how hungry everyone is for it and to get with the program. As we say in the book, healing naturally wants to happen. Human beings are naturally trying to get back to some kind of spiritual homeostasis, and a physical one, too. We just have to recognize the signs and recognize the opportunities when they come.
For a lot of us, the Bernie Sanders campaign, especially the last one, held out a vision of a future where these needs are actually provided for — or at least not actively frustrated by the system. What happened happened, and there are plenty of ways to analyze that. But it was amazing to just look around and see how hungry everybody is for it, and see what it would be like to not contribute to the further division and polarization that just pits us against one another to the system’s profit.
I want to stay with the Bernie campaign for a minute. Was Bernie’s 2020 campaign defeat traumatic? And how should the Left internalize that trauma to heal from it?
Nothing in itself is traumatic. It depends on who it happens to and how they process it. So for some people, the demise of the Bernie effort in 2020 could have left them more despairing and constricted, with less sense of agency and possibility — in which case you might say that’s a sort of political trauma. For others, it could have just been instructive about what works and what doesn’t work, and how to move forward by absorbing some of the lessons of that particular setback. Whether it was traumatic or not depends on who’s experiencing it and how they process it.
As someone who is much more plugged in to the terminally online left than my dad is, what I have observed is that functionally, collectively, it has been extremely traumatic — and I’m not just talking about individuals but to the sense of a cohesive, emergent, democratic socialist left with a positive vision. And it happened almost immediately. When it all collapsed, there was a moment of grief, and then everyone scrambled for their corners. And you see it in the fracturing of alliances between various media figures, podcasters, YouTube hosts. I mean, in a sense it’s so silly and superficial, but it’s become very rancorous.
People don’t speak to each other anymore. Everyone has now re-siloed themselves in various corners, and everyone has their own brand. That sense of a unifying, organizing thread and a vision that everyone could coalesce around has receded. Which doesn’t mean it can never come back, but I do think it’s fractured. The defeat exposed the existing fault lines and exacerbated them. So what’s going to be needed is for some kind of healing to happen, and people to get off it and get back to something positive, because it’s just sad to see how much energy goes into smearing, slandering, and smashing “like” buttons.
As for me personally, it wasn’t traumatic, because it was only what I expected. I don’t expect capitalism to allow anybody to vote it out of existence. Nor did Bernie Sanders even come close to threatening to do so. But he was enough of a threat that it was inevitable that, within the structures of what are called democratic politics — not just Democratic in a big-D sense, but in a broader sense — he was going to be marginalized. He was not going to win. I mean, that’s just obvious. And anybody who was disappointed simply was living in a dream world, as far as I’m concerned.
The folly of youth?
He did tell me so. He did tell me so.
You cite Greta Thunberg as a source of inspiration in the book. Do you think the politics of the younger generation, growing up in the chaotic first two decades of this century, offer some hope for the future?
Look, when I was a student radical in the ’60s, the older progressives were saying that we were the hope for the future. There’s always a tendency to look at the younger generation as somehow the ones who are going to do it. It’s not that simple. You don’t hear much about Greta Thunberg anymore, you know?
No, you don’t.
You don’t. And Greta Thunberg was not the first. I quote, in the book, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, whose name you probably don’t even know. But she made a speech in the 1992 UN climate conference in South America. She was twelve years old — bright, articulate, hyperarticulate, very emotionally present, but also very passionate. And she spoke almost exactly in the same words that Greta speaks in now about climate change. And she made a big international sensation, as young, attractive, and articulate women will always do. Where’s that today? Nowhere.
This system has the capacity to absorb and to withstand these challenges. So, no, I don’t think it’s a matter of generations. I think it’s a matter of social transformation on a broad scale, a process in which the younger generation will play a role. But I don’t think we can do this willfully. You don’t transform the system just because you decide to. Systemic transformations happen. They’re a historical movement of their own. The challenge is: At whatever stage we are at, what are we going to do? Are we going to act, and are we going to persist? We cannot by ourselves turn the wheel of history. That’s beyond the will of any particular generation or any particular group. We can contribute. And what I’m hoping people will get from the book is the awareness that it’s not only possible to contribute, but it’s also the best thing anybody can do. The rest of it is not necessarily in our hands.
I might add two things. Number one, one of the facets of the toxicity of our culture is the way generations are split and alienated from one another. No healthy culture would have such generation gaps, where one generation can’t speak the language of the next one, and where we’re presumed to have nothing to learn from one another in either direction. Elders used to be the key wisdom transmission and cultural transmission device. Now we don’t have elders, we have the elderly. Pushing against intergenerational alienation is a key part of bringing the world back together. You see it in healthy political movements. The old guard and the new guard have something to say to one another.
The other thing I’d add is that, even though I agree with my dad that some romantic notion that the young will save us is misguided, I do think that each generation born in a particular time has certain gifts they can bring. They have certain unique challenges, too. But this generation? I mean, I’m Gen X; I thought we were jaded. This generation coming of age now is under no illusions that somehow they’re going to inherit a world that’s more prosperous than that of their parents. And that disillusionment as a default posture could also be a superpower. They could use their lived experience to hone a kind of jaundiced view of propaganda and supposed normalcy, which could help them build. However, there’s also the risk of paralysis, nihilism, despair, resignation, and hedonism, and all of the escapes from the pain of that. There are gifts and opportunities in every moment, and also real dangers. I don’t think the dangers have ever been greater.
I was thrilled to see you quote the late, great left-wing commentator and regular Jacobin contributor Michael Brooks in the book while writing about bridging the spiritual with the political. Could you talk about what Michael meant to you?
I met Michael Brooks at a Harvard event, and he was so warm and friendly. Watching his show, you really got a sense of heart purpose. There’s a lot of YouTube shows of people being smart or being funny or being right about stuff. But with Michael, there was a kind of heart emanation in terms of why he was doing what he was doing.
He was not a pie-in-the-sky guy. He could break down the toxicities in the system like no one else. He had a great analytical mind. But there was a positive energy to him that I think exemplified what in the Jewish tradition is called tikkun olam, to repair the world, as a kind of calling, a reason to do politics or political media.
When he died, I really felt it. So many of us really felt it. Like a real bright light had gone out, because the default is to be jaded and to not be openhearted like that. And so when I heard Lisha, his sister, quote him, I just was like, well, that’s what it’s all about. The fact that it came from a political media guy — I mean, it could have come from Thich Nhat Hanh. Michael Brooks was someone who I think showed us that those two spheres are best intimately overlapped, not kept separate. The inner and the outer.
As a psychotherapist, I am deeply interested in reconciling the self with the social. Gabor, you write very personally about your own healing in this book. How has your own healing enhanced your political life? Is this dialectic important?
On the Left, it’s very important. My political views really haven’t changed much since I was a student radical in the ’60s. I’ve become more sophisticated and nuanced, perhaps, but the old broad outlines of how I see the system haven’t changed. What I didn’t like then, I don’t like now — the Vietnam War being the previous iteration of Afghanistan or Iraq or Gaza or any number of atrocities. But the emotional fervor I put into it, which I always thought was justified by the cause, in fact came from unresolved rage in myself that had nothing to do with politics. It had to do with unresolved trauma. And to the extent that this rage and hostility infused my speaking, it made my speaking all the less effective when it came to trying to convince anybody who didn’t already see my way.
Both the Left and the Right have got these traumatic imprints that they enact. The Right very often consists of abused people who identify with power so they’ll never be hurt again. That’s basically it. You know, like a [Donald] Trump. Big Daddy will protect me so that I’ll never be hurt again, like I was hurt by my real daddy. And they hate vulnerability. They attack vulnerable people because they hate their own vulnerability. So that’s the thumbnail traumatic imprint of people on the Right very often.
People on the Left, on the other hand, also suffered in their childhoods, and they take that anger that’s not resolved in them and they project it into the politics, which makes them not very tolerant and much less effective. When they talk to people who just don’t see it their way, who are not aware or maybe more ignorant, or not in touch with the real issues, there’s a tendency to speak in a very hostile and very demeaning way. That’s unresolved trauma on the part of the people coming from the Left, as it was in my case. Self work, particularly for people who want to make a difference, is really important. To the degree that people don’t do it, they might attract some followers with a certain degree of charisma, but they will not convince anybody that doesn’t already see it their way.
And let’s not let the center off the hook, because they’re damaged as hell, too. They’re the kids who just want mommy and daddy to get along. Don’t rock the boat. There’s a whole layer of trauma that you can see in so-called centrism these days that can be very blind to the genuine complaints and grievances of either side.
I don’t know what the hell “center” means anymore, but the fact is, a lot of people are in denial of reality. And the propensity to deny reality comes from painful experience.