Am I Normal? by Sarah Chaney – Review

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By Clare Jenkins

Qatar’s World Cup ambassador recently caused a media storm by describing homosexuality as “damage in the mind”. It was, said Khalid Salman, a former footballer himself, haram – forbidden. There was an inevitable outcry, but the Arab kingdom isn’t alone is banning gay sex. Nearly 70 countries – some Arab, many others in Africa – criminalise such behaviour, just as England did until 1967.

Today, of course, homosexuality is legal throughout the UK. But there are ongoing debates over LGBTQ+ issues, not least trans rights. In her absorbing, informative and wide-ranging book, Sarah Chaney tells one story of two “young ladies” arrested at London’s Strand Theatre in 1870 for inappropriate behaviour. Their giggling, flirting and smoking was seen by other audience members as more befitting of prostitutes. The police were called, and the young ladies unmasked as the cross-dressing Frederick William Park and Ernest Boulton – “Mollies or Mary-Annes” as they saw themselves. What we today might call trans, gay or queer.

“To put it simply,” writes Chaney, “before the Boulton and Park trial there was – medically and legally at any rate – no such thing as a homosexual, only homosexual acts.”

Such acts were regarded as outside the norm and, therefore, to be condemned. Those who indulged in them could be incarcerated either in prison or in lunatic asylums. But did their acts indicate a damaged mind? Where did this idea of abnormality come from? And why did it take until 1990 for homosexuality to be taken off the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases?

These are just some of the questions Sarah Chaney, a research fellow at the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions at UCL, sets out to answer. It’s a topic that’s interested her since childhood, when she was herself shy and awkward, growing into a teenage misfit nicknamed ‘Creepy Phoebe’ by her classmates. She didn’t like the music they liked, didn’t watch the same TV programmes, didn’t wear make-up, didn’t socialise. “I was,” she writes, “probably approaching thirty before I really questioned what I meant by ‘being normal’.”

So how normal are you? How normal is your partner? Your sex life? Your child? How normal is your home, lifestyle, body, working life? Do you dress to please yourself, or to belong to a tribe? And have you ever wondered, about yourself or about a loved one, “Why can’t you just be normal?”

Chaney’s then boyfriend asked her that when, aged 21, she began dancing and singing at a bus stop. Since when, she’s thought a lot about concepts of ‘normality’. “Before 1800,” she writes, “the word ‘normal’ was not even associated with human behaviour at all. Normal was a mathematical term, referring to a right angle.”

“Signs of madness”

am i normal sarah chaney book review coverIt began to be applied to human beings when statistics started becoming popular, bringing with them the need to establish an ‘average’. One major drawback, of course, was that the ‘average’ was defined by Western standards. “The scientists, doctors and scholars who attempted to measure and standardise humanity were overwhelmingly white, wealthy, Western men, who were exclusively heterosexual (at least in public).” So their norms were not necessarily those shared by other cultures or other strata of Western society. But such attitudes did help justify things like colonialism, not to mention demonising and persecuting certain groups (Black people, Jews, gays) for being ‘abnormal’ or ‘other’. “The story of the normal is also a story of exclusion,” she writes. And of hierarchies and social control. After all, normality has been used to justify all sorts of practices and prejudices – pressuring working mothers to stay at home, putting people with different bodies into ‘freak’ shows, locking up ‘idiot children’…

Chaney traces the development of normality and of the instruments used to measure it – bell curves, samples, censuses, polygraphs – by scientists, anthropologists, psychiatrists, geneticists. She looks at the history of beauty myths around the world, not least the desire for fair skin. Skin-whitening creams are widely available throughout countries like South Korea and India, where a ‘wheaten complexion’ is regularly mentioned as a plus in matrimonial ads. She examines notions of ‘ideal’ body weight and sizes (weighing scales started becoming popular at the end of the 19th Century – are there now any houses without one?). People who didn’t conform to certain norms might find themselves paraded at fairground shows, sometimes in cages with orangutans. These included ‘the bearded lady’, the ‘armless wonder’ and the so-called Hottentot Venus, the large buttocked South African woman whose figure is now copied by the Kim Kardashian tribe.

She investigates attitudes towards mental health, showing how people have been confined to asylums and mental hospitals for a whole range of behaviour that, in different cultures, different times, would not be deemed signs of madness. The Bride of Frankenstein actress Elsa Lanchester’s heiress mother, for instance, was declared insane after telling her father she planned to move in with her working-class lover. Another woman who refused to wear a hat outdoors in 1898 London was diagnosed mentally ill as a result. In America, meanwhile, the novelist Charlotte Perkins Gilman was diagnosed with hysteria and prescribed a rest cure. Her brilliant book The Yellow Wallpaper draws on this experience.

Also in America, slaves could be diagnosed with ‘drapetomania’, a “disease of the mind”, if they ran away from cruel employers, and locked up. So – in both the States and the UK – could unmarried mothers, political dissidents, conscientious objectors, gay men (lesbianism was never banned) and the homeless. People, in other words, whose only ‘crime’ was to operate outside of societal conventions.

Masturbation, frigidity and promiscuity, broken hearts and stiff upper lips, religious ecstasies and eugenics, child development and delinquency, obesity epidemics and other moral panics – they’re all here as Chaney explores the history of The Normal. In previous eras, death certificates might state the cause of death as grief or ‘disappointment in love’. Up to Victorian times, judges could weep openly in court without being seen as odd or over-emotional. But by the 20th Century, “To cry in public would be like taking off my clothes,” as a woman told Mass Observation social researchers in 1950.

Chaney concludes by addressing the monumental impact of Covid upon our ideas of normality. After March 2020, “Society changed beyond all recognition.” So much that we had taken for granted – restaurants, pubs, café, schools, places of work, even parks – closed. “The things many people assumed to be the natural order are no longer so certain. The nine-to-five office day. Job security. Universal education. Consumerism. Healthcare. Individual freedom. Once upon a time all these things seemed quite normal. Then, one day, these certainties were suddenly and unexpectedly snatched away.”

Or, to quote Hugh Bonneville in the spoof W1A Zoom meeting recorded by the BBC just a couple of months after lockdown: “Try to imagine what the new normal will look like… What we know, of course, is that it won’t look anything like the old normal. Or, as I think we can safely call it now, the past.”

‘Am I Normal?’ by Sarah Chaney is published by Profile Books


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