The Insanity of Normality

Version 20, am 18.9.2004 10:03

PREFACE to The Insanity of Normality: Realism As Sickness: Toward Understanding Human Destructiveness by Arno Gruen, Translated by Hildegarde Hannum, Hunter Hannum.

Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc; 1st English edition (July 1992) ASIN: 0802111696 Hardcover, 226pp Org. List Price: $33.25 Out of print.

Translation of Der Wahnsinn der Normalität von Arno Gruen Dtv (1989) In print continuously.

With comments & reviews


In the face of the calamities of the twentieth century, the issue of whether humankind is naturally good has never seemed more debatable. Sigmund Freud saw human beings as born with an ineradicable death wish, an innate predisposition toward violent and destructive behaviour. This book was written in the hope that my experiences and observations could help people counter this rationalization of evil with their own truths. This work, therefore, is my reaction to what I will call "the insanity of realism,” which in the name of love produces death and destruction.

It is an act of self-betrayal when children begin to lose consciousness of their own self. This process begins when they no longer perceive the feelings of their fathers and mothers directly but are guided by the way their parents see themselves. Such "adaptation” to the power needs of parents leads to a split in children’s psychic structure, separating their interior world from its interactions with the environment. In this way, the connection and interplay between actions and motivations disappear. In order to be able to share in the power that subjugates them, children substitute obedience and adaptation for responsibility for their own actions. If we lose the connection to our own interior world, then we can relate only to a false self, to an image-oriented self attuned to behaviour and feelings pleasing to our surrounding world. The need and perhaps also the compulsion to preserve this image-orientation take precedence over all one’s own potential perceptions and feelings and empathy. The resulting inability to be rooted in oneself is what en genders destructive and evil behaviour. That is the subject matter of this book.

I am, of course, not the first writer to deal with the subject of human destructiveness. As the Finnish psychoanalyst Martti Siirala, for example, puts it, among all living creatures human beings seem to be the only ones who destroy for destruction’s sake—as an end in itself. Whereas Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm locate human destructiveness either in an a priori death instinct or in necrophilic tendencies stemming from stunted development at the anal or oedipal stage, I believe I have found many indications that destructive and murderous behaviour is rooted in the betrayal human beings commit against themselves in order to share in a hallucinated sense of power. Since there is no "higher fate” involved here but rather individuals who have cooperated more or less consciously in their own submission, a lifelong self-hatred ensues. The sad result is that only destructiveness imparts the feeling of aliveness.

In the first chapter I treat the question of responsibility and contrast it with what generally serves as its measure: the notions of duty and obedience. Proceeding from there, I arrive at a characterization of insanity that deviates from the one advanced by official psychology and psychiatry. The approach taken by these disciplines limits itself to judging human behaviour exclusively according to the degree of a person’s relatedness to reality. Naturally, such a view has validity; however, it prevents us from detecting a more subtle and dangerous form of pathology, one of whose symptoms is concealment: I refer to the type of insanity that disguises itself by hiding behind the mask of mental health. This insanity can easily conceal itself in a world in which deception and trickery are approved methods of adapting to reality.

Whereas people who can no longer bear the absence of human values in the real world are considered "crazy,” those who have severed themselves from their human roots are certified "normal.” And it is members of the latter group to whom we entrust power and whom we allow to determine our lives and our future. We believe they have the correct key to reality and know how best to deal with it. But a person’s "relatedness to reality” is not the only criterion for establishing mental illness or health; we also have to ask to what degree feelings such as despair, perceptions such as empathy, and experiences such as enthusiasm are still possible.

The second chapter treats self-hatred and its origin: the Basic Lie that shrouds in silence the complicity in one’s own submission. If we reject our self because it might endanger our position of power, vengeful feelings begin to determine our life. We insist upon being loved for causing others pain, an action frequently even interpreted as kindliness. (Early on, weren’t we supposed to love our parents for inflicting pain upon us? Didn’t they have our own good at heart?) A dissociated self cannot come to terms with its own submission and collaboration—therefore, parents’ claims that their demands have sprung from love must be accepted and defended. It is in the name of this kind of parental "love” and "solicitude” that power over other people is established. In this connection I adduce examples from the Third Reich because German fascism throws an especially clear light on phenomena existing wherever people are split off from their interior world. The end of the Third Reich by no means did away with the preconditions for such occurrences; the way a person appears is still prized above inner substance, and adaptation is still rewarded above inner independence. Today more than ever, these preconditions assume the appearance of humanitarianism and benevolence. Horrible intentions and acts are concealed more and more frequently behind smiling faces and masquerade as friendliness and seemingly considerate behaviour. This is why it is especially difficult to recognize the actual pathology of our times.

In the third chapter I turn to the obsession with death. This obsession almost necessarily characterizes individuals who have suppressed their empathic ability. I proceed from the assumption that human development can take two basically different directions, one resulting in an inner life that maintains firm connections with the external world and one leading to an outer-directedness accompanied by surrender of one’s interior world. If such an outer-directed development recognizes only obedience and adaptation and no longer acknowledges pain, the "natural” end product is destructive behaviour. The bifurcation between inner- and outer-directed courses of development explains not only the two divergent paths of organization of the self; it also leads to two mutually exclusive realities: that of power and that of love.

Feelings that actually are not feelings are the subject of the fourth chapter, which addresses the problems associated with identification, a process that more often than we realize does not lead to an identity of one’s own but to its avoidance.

I develop this question further in the fifth chapter, specifically with a view toward understanding the character of rebellion and conformity and their relationship to violence. I propose the thesis that many correspondences exist between the developments of conformity and of rebellion and that these can be traced back to the individual’s relationship to the "bad” mother. Whereas conformists defend the bad mother as the "good” mother, rebels seek out the good mother, although their actions stem from the influence of the bad mother.

How this influences the way the powerful exercise their power is shown in the sixth chapter. There I examine the American presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan and their foreign policies in this context.

In the seventh chapter I attempt to give a more accurate description of the psychopath, a type who represents for me the extreme opposite of the schizophrenic and who illustrates to the highest degree the insanity of apparent normality. Many readers will perhaps find it surprising yet extremely revealing to find this type personified by Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a figure from literature.

Finally, in the eighth chapter, I distinguish between the two opposite forms of insanity, insanity as a way of life and insanity as a protest against forms of social life and interpersonal relations felt to be unbearable. In our civilization the former is considered to be "realism” and only the latter an illness.

Some of the questions dealt with here have previously been touched upon in my book The Betrayal of the Self. I return to them here not simply to repeat them but to explore them in greater depth.

It may strike the reader that I quite often refer to literature. In my opinion, literary works are closer to human reality than is, for instance, psychological research, which is much too strongly oriented toward the myth of realism and the power structures resulting from it. The artist, however, has not lost a connection to human needs and motives. Not the least of writers’ reasons for writing is their desire to pit their creative powers against the deceptions of "prevailing opinion.” They speak in a language that takes the totality of human experience into consideration.

On the other hand, the sciences, as Michael Polanyi has aptly described, attempt "to eliminate our human perspective from our picture of the world.” For this reason, the witness of writers to the totality as well as to the schizoid nature of human experience is of great importance to me. Their work often affords concrete examples of that insanity which, concealed behind the mask of health, is increasingly on the verge of delivering humankind over to self-destruction.

In order to illustrate my views with empirical cases, I sometimes turn to examples that may seem to represent extremes of human behaviour. Perhaps some people will not find these examples significant, because their internal structure will not allow them to see the continuum running through the great diversity of human behaviour. Such an attitude, however, simply mirrors the widespread denial of the ties that link us all together. It is essentially a logical manoeuvre intended to divert us from the continuum. The logic behind such splitting of human nature into categories and compartments merely serves to strengthen doubts about our totality and to make us insecure. The foundation of our wholeness lies in what our feelings and our heart tell us.

The language of the heart proceeds from our deep-seated needs for love and warmth, which we would like to give as well as receive. Our civilization, however, has made us anxious and ashamed if we feel vulnerable. The language of "reality” promises us relief from the "burden” of our needs, making us ready to stop trusting our own perceptions. This is why the language of the heart is our only salvation. Our fragmentation must be overcome not by acquiescing in the logic of an alleged "reality” but by insisting on our own ability to feel compassion, to experience sorrow and joy. That is one of the reasons I have written this book.

I would like to thank four friends for what they have contributed to this work, for the stimulation of their ideas as well as for the enrichment that knowing them has brought me. Two are extraordinary psychiatrists and psychoanalysts: Walter H. Lechler and Martti Siirala. The third, Aarne Siirala, is a theologian and philosopher. The deep empathic sensitivity of the fourth, Hans Krieger, has helped me a great deal in developing my ideas. Conversations with him also have helped me to clarify and express more precisely some of my trains of thought. I owe very much to the totality of thought and life of these friends. The same is true for Gaetano Benedetti, whose profound humaneness has opened up the way for our understanding of the schizophrenic and whose generosity has been a great support to me. Likewise, I owe a debt of gratitude to Ulrike Buergel Goodwin, the editor of the original German edition of this work, whose enthusiasm and understanding were a great help to me in communicating my concerns.

They could beat a person to death, and they were absolutely normal while they were doing it—that I can’t understand.

A former Polish concentration camp inmate

Good and evil are not determined by the intercourse of people with one another, but entirely by a man’s relations with himself.

Jakob Wassermann

Comment & Reviews

From the Publisher According to Sigmund Freud, man is born with an innate tendency to destruction and violence; in The Insanity of Normality, the psychoanalyst Arno Gruen challenges that assumption, arguing instead that at the root of evil lies self-hatred, a rage originating in a self-betrayal that begins in childhood, when autonomy is surrendered in exchange for the "love" of those who wield power over us. To share in that subjugating power, we create a false self, an image of ourselves that springs from a powerful and deep-seated sense of fear. Gruen traces this pattern of adaptation and smoldering rebellion through a number of case studies, sociological phenomena--from Nazism to Reaganomics--and literary worlds. The insanity this attitude produces, unfortunately, goes widely unrecognized precisely because it has become the "realism" that modern society inculcates into its members. Gruen warns, however, that escape from this pattern lies not simply in rebellion, for the rebel remains emotionally tied to the object of his rebellion, but in the development of a personal autonomy. His elegant and far-reaching conclusion is that while autonomy is not easily attained, its absence proves catastrophic to both individual and society.

Editorial Reviews


According to Freud, man is born with an innate tendency to destruction and violence. Psychoanalyst Gruen challenges that assumption, arguing instead that at the root of evil lies self-hatred, a rage originating in a self-betrayal that begins in childhood, when autonomy is surrendered for the "love" of those who wield power over us. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

From Kirkus Reviews

A psychological treatise of some originality and depth that shoots itself in the foot through the absurdity of its applications. Gruen (The Betrayal of the Self, 1988), a German psychoanalyst practicing in Switzerland, sets out to overhaul the Freudian understanding of violence as an innate human drive. He maintains instead that destructiveness is the product of self-hatred, which invariably can be traced to childhood anger over the exercise of parental authority--or, more precisely, over parents' tacit demand that their authority be recognized as absolute. The immediate result is a confusion of identity, through which the child tries to take on parents' desires and expectations and deny its own. The underlying resentment that builds up, and that tries to tear down the false self that has been erected, is often interpreted as a form of self-destruction. Gruen maintains that it is in fact a form of self-assertion, one that can be thwarted only at great psychic cost. On a theoretical level, his case holds together, but it is hardly backed up by the examples that he offers, which amount to little more than a catalogue of left-wing paranoias. The origin of Gruen's thesis seems to be connected with the spectacle of German fascism--which forced the author and his family to flee Europe in the 1930's--but he never really tries to identify what social conditions in Germany at that time fostered psychological deformity on such a titanic scale. It also stretches credibility to have Richard Nixon held up as an exemplar of the same schizophrenia that produced the Nazis (Every one of Nixon's actions throughout his political career was characterized by contempt for humanity). A chapter on Peer Gynt puts Gruen on more reliable ground, letting him illustrate his points with less ideological distraction- -probably the most persuasive section of a generally unconvincing effort. A private and highly idiosyncratic meditation on the nature of evil, masquerading as clinical psychology. – Copyright ©1992, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Customer Reviews (From

(1)Arno Gruen, June 6, 2001 Reviewer: A reader from Phila. P.A.

There is an incredible ammount to be learned from Arno Gruen. It is just about the most important and powerful book I've read. All readers I bet, can find areas of this book that make them uncomfortable. We recognize ourselves in these pages. We live in a society that makes us ill. It's the same old idea: the persons in the asylum are more sane than those outside. Read up America and all Western peoples! This and his other book : the betrayal of the self, are jewels for the mind. There is no time to waste.

(2)Arno Gruen's work not bound to politics, April 28, 1999 Reviewer: An Customer

The Kirkus reviewer complains that Gruen "never really tries to identify what social conditions in Germany at that time fostered psychological deformity on such a titanic scale." Perhaps, but the reviewer never really tries to identify why those social conditions should be explored by a book focused, as this one is, on a psychological phenomenon – the origin of destructive behavior in the loss of autonomy at an individual level. Surely a book may be permitted to explore the psychology of Nazism while leaving room for another book to explore its sociology.

The reviewer also picks at Gruen's comparison of Richard Nixon to the Nazis, citing contemptuously the sentence, "Every one of Nixon's actions throughout his political career was characterized by contempt for humanity." Sorry, this doesn't seem like a self-evidently absurd statement to me. The reviewer must be aware that a litany of supporting examples could be produced, yet for some reason not even one counter-example is proposed.

And why does the reviewer ignore Gruen's strong indictment of the violent left? Or does he/she consider condemnation of the Italian Red Brigades to grow from a "left-wing paranoia." Too absurd for words.

Today, a week and a day after the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, Arno Gruen still has a lot to teach us.

(3)Excellent!, December 23, 1998 Reviewer: A reader

Excellent! Although, a little bit repetitive

(4)This book changed how I see life, September 14, 1998 Reviewer: A reader from New York City

Nothing I have ever read makes more sense than this book. Its issues are at the crux of virtually every human problem. The Kirkus review is blather from someone revealing his or her own hostility.

From (Sample only - prices change all the time.)

Org. List Price: $33.25 US: Used $74.95 (In and out of print in '92!) UK: Used £68.89 (Ships from U.S.A.) Germany: EUR 84,95 (English edition) DER WAHNSINN DER NORMALITÄT: (German edit. - Since '89) *EUR 9,00-4,00


Neue Seiten im Kontext

Dienstag, 23. Mrz 2004

englische Übersetzung der Seite "Arno Gruen"

Mittwoch, 11. Juli 2001

Neues Buch eingebaut. 20.5.2006 Buchvorstellung in Heidelberg