Am I Normal? The 200-Year Search for Normal People (and Why They Don’t Exist) by Sarah Chaney - review by Michael Bywater

Michael Bywater

War on Averages

Am I Normal? The 200-Year Search for Normal People (and Why They Don’t Exist)


Profile/Wellcome Collection 336pp £16.99

The first thing to strike the reader of Am I Normal? is, as it should be, the cover. It shows an ornate hand mirror, beautifully rendered. But look into its silvered surface and… nothing. There is no reflection, just a nondescript cloudy greyness.

The mirror confronts us with the set of questions we all live with here in the fragmenting Age of the Self. Are we as others are? What is normal? Who decides? Sarah Chaney, who has spent much of her professional life studying the history of emotions at Queen Mary University of London, is at loggerheads with the word ‘normal’, a favourite of moral imperativists wherever they gather. The chapter scheme of her engaging book, with titles ranging from ‘Is My Sex Life Normal?’ to ‘Are My Kids Normal?’, makes no bones about her purpose. She lets her readers into the labyrinth in the first chapter. It’s always endearing to read an author’s confessions. ‘Is my body a normal shape or size?’ she asks herself. ‘Is it normal to cry in front of others? To let my dog lick my face? To have heavy periods? To have sex with strangers? To feel anxious on public transport? To feel bloated after eating?’ To which my answers are: depends, yes, yes, don’t know, can’t remember, no, and yes – before, during and after.

The word ‘normal’ signifies to me various sorts of drab, faded Dad jeans, ironic tattoos and desires beneath your station. But it also forms part of an interesting lexicon. If you are lucky enough to visit the island of Samos, the sculpture of Pythagoras will act as a guide.

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