by Susan Rosenthal
BOOK REVIEW: In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Maté, MD (2008).
Gabor Maté’s latest book effectively demolishes the belief that addictions arise from chemical imbalances, genetics, or bad choices.
As in his two previous books, Scattered Minds: A New Look at the Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder (1999) and When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress (2003), Maté situates human suffering in a social context, inviting a political discussion of how social relations affect human health.
Scattered Minds locates symptoms of ADD in the social neglect of children’s needs and concludes,
What begins as a problem of society and human development has become almost exclusively defined as a medical ailment.
When the Body Says No indicts “industrialized society along the capitalist model” as a source of toxic stress that “escalates as the sense of control diminishes” and causes physical and mental breakdown.
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts condemns society for depriving human beings of what they need to thrive and then persecuting and punishing them for using drugs to relieve their pain.
All three books are well-written, engaging and brilliantly expose the fake science that pushes a pill for every ill.
While Maté situates human distress in the social realm, he seeks solutions in the personal realm.
When the Body Says No ignores industrial pollution as a cause of cancer, as well as the impact of social class on one’s exposure to carcinogenic compounds. Instead, the author promotes the myth of “the cancer personality” – people who are more likely to get cancer because they repress their emotions, ignore their needs and put others first. He writes,
In numerous studies of cancer, the most consistent identified risk factor is the inability to express emotion, particularly the feelings associated with anger. (p.99)
Repressing emotions and ignoring one’s needs can contribute to health problems. However, these are behaviors that society demands of all women and that employers demand of all workers.
The myth of the “cancer personality” is junk science that puts the cart before the horse.
As long as the majority is exploited and oppressed, most people will feel angry most of the time, and rightfully so. Efforts to release or eliminate anger, without removing the social conditions that make people angry, is just another form of social control.
Hungry Ghosts devotes considerable space to questioning why the war on drugs and drug addicts continues despite its total ineffectiveness and considerable harm. In fact, this “war” is not about drugs; it is the means by which the ruling class effectively justifies its repressive military-prison system at home and abroad.
All three of Maté’s books devote ample space to questioning why policy-makers ignore the solid research linking childhood trauma and deprivation with medical and social problems.
The author cannot answer this question because he does not acknowledge the impact of class conflict on human health. In fact, the ruling class can accumulate capital only by robbing the working class of its health and vitality.
Maté’s books are commercially successful because they tap into popular awareness of social problems while avoiding the uncomfortable conclusion that social revolution is required to solve them.
The result is a liberal version of blaming the victim – society cannot be changed, so the individual must change. This regressive message is more insidious because it is hidden beneath a caring and progressive cover.
For an alternate analysis, read SICK and SICKER: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care.