BOOK REVIEW: Gabor Maté (2008). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.
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: 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” to cause physical and mental breakdown.
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts condemns society for depriving human beings of what they need to thrive and then prosecuting 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” – that people are more likely to get cancer when 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)
The myth of the “cancer personality” is junk science that puts the cart before the horse. Repressing emotions and ignoring one’s needs are behaviors that society demands of all women and that employers demand of all workers.
As long as the majority are 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, are another form of social control.
All three of Maté’s books question why policy-makers ignore the solid research linking childhood trauma and deprivation with medical and social problems, and Hungry Ghosts questions why the war on drug users continues, despite its ineffectiveness and considerable harm. However, the author does not answer these questions.
Like most authors, Maté ignores the fact that the ruling class can accumulate capital only by robbing workers of their health and vitality. The people in power refuse to acknowledge this fact and move to bury any research that holds them responsible. The ‘war on drugs’ is not really about drugs; it is a way to justify an expanding military-prison system at home and abroad.
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.
For an alternate analysis, read Rebel Minds: Class War, Mass Suffering, and the Urgent Need for Socialism