Here we are at the end of series 7 trying to dissect what the interpretation of normal is after hearing Martin describe the situation they’ve been in as “unusual” (another word for abnormal), then hearing Louisa tell Martin “it’s all unusual, isn’t it?,” and then having Louisa follow that with “I think I’m a little bit obsessed with everyone having to be normal, and people aren’t, are they?” When Martin agrees that people aren’t normal, Louisa asserts that he’s not; he’s unusual. Once again Martin concurs.
After this conversation, during which the adjectives “unusual” and “normal” are placed in opposition, it is hard not to wonder what to make of how these terms are bandied about. Louisa’s confession that she has been obsessed with everyone having to be normal has never been obvious to us before. In fact, time and time again she has been the one to observe that some people are different and that’s fine and something we love about them. When watching Martin force vodka down Tommy’s throat while calling him a selfish pig, Louisa tells Martin that “People make mistakes, people make a mess of things. It’s called being human, Martin!” Rather than characterizing Louisa as being obsessed with people being normal, throughout the show we have been led to believe that part of the reason she has been attracted to Martin is due to his differences.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the subject of what we consider normal has been discussed by psychologists and sociologists since those disciplines were founded. Indeed it was Émile Durkheim, the father of sociology, who suggested some relatively radical ideas about societal norms, and they converge with what we might call acceptance of aberrant behavior. Durkheim actually viewed crime and delinquent behavior as a normal and necessary occurrence in the social system. He proposed that crime led to reactions from society about the crime. These shared reactions were used to create a common consensus of what individuals felt were moral and ethical norms by which to abide. Thereafter, these commonly held norms and values led to boundaries and rules for the society.
In traditional societies, the collective consciousness ruled, social norms were strong, and social behavior was well regulated. In modern societies, common consciousness was less obvious and the regulation of social behavior was less punitive and more restitutive, aiming to restore normal activity to society.
Durkheim is also associated with the term anomie, which is a “condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals.” It is the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community. When solidarity is organic, anomie is impossible. (The way I understand this idea is that when an individual has the autonomy to determine how to behave, there is no likelihood of feeling over regulated. Over regimentation causes a sense of anomie because there is likely to be resistance to rigidity. In other words, people need to believe that there is some fluidity or flexibility to rules.) Norms need to adapt naturally. As used by Émile Durkheim and later theorists, anomie is a reaction against or a retreat from the regulatory social controls of society.
In psychology there are two famous names associated with the study of normality, Freud and Jung. Freud’s understanding of pathology was based on intra-psychic processes rather than the transgression of social norms. Freud viewed a normal person as someone for whom the preconscious and the unconscious were not in conflict or who was “free from neurosis.” Neurosis for Freud is a psychological state characterized by excessive anxiety or insecurity, often compensated for by various defense mechanisms.
Jung, a man whose work we have applied when looking at the Myers-Briggs personality test (MBTI), stated “the normal man is a fiction” because there is no individual who is identical to the collective norms, i.e. that “every individual is an exception to the rule.” Normality is not a particular psychic state but an overall pattern that encompasses a wide range of emerging psychic states, including peculiar ones.
Thus, when Dr. Timoney responds to Louisa’s question about whether struggling is a normal part of the process of therapy by saying “Well, normal is a very loaded word,” she’s being quite acute. Sadness, guilt, rage, disappointment, confusion, doubt, anxiety and other similar experiences and states are all expected and normal, given the nature and demands of life.
In this context Louisa uses “normal” as related to regular, common, typical. I’d propose that rather than use the word “normal,” which is a protean term, or “usual/unusual,” which are too vague, we ought to use typical and atypical. If we conceptualize behavior as typical for a certain setting, time, occasion, it puts us in the mindset of considering it representative, and even paradigmatic. Martin’s been atypical his whole life even though he thinks of his childhood as healthy and expresses a certainty that he was typical of most boys in his early years.
The mutable nature of the word “normal” is apparent when Louisa uses that term upon her return to Portwenn in S4. When she meets the new headmaster, she notices that he has odd mannerisms and tells Martin that he’s not normal. Martin responds with a different meaning of normal — what’s not normal to him is that Louisa hasn’t told him about the pregnancy. Ultimately, it turns out that what’s really abnormal about the headmaster is that he has porphyria, which is abnormally high levels of porphyrins.
In S7 we are introduced to the notion that normal refers to conforming to social standards of behavior. Louisa says her parents are “normal as you like,” which to her means they were acting in fairly typical ways for parents to act. In Portwenn, and in the larger society, broken marriages and dysfunctional families may have become “normal.” We don’t see many happy marriages in Portwenn so perhaps Louisa is right that her parents are “normal.” However, abandoning one’s daughter when she’s 12 years old seems atypical and out of the ordinary, and having a father who goes to jail is also irregular. We have all come to accept that Portwenn is populated by a lot of quirky people, or is it really just like any town, anywhere? Everyone is atypical and an exception to the rule. And if this is so, then Martin is no more atypical than anyone else. Indeed, by S7, he’s reached a status of being much respected in Portwenn. Annie Winton makes clear that his medical expertise is held in such high regard that she does not trust anyone else’s opinion. Martin does not disappoint her either. He’s saved so many lives in Portwenn, and with great modesty, that his demeanor no longer bothers anyone.
If Louisa was determined to have Martin conform to social norms, she only had to look around her to realize that Portwenn society had already embraced his aberrations.
Portwenn is both similar to and the opposite of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegone, “the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve.” The town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
The history of Lake Wobegone includes the motto of the town seal that says Sumus Quod Sumus, or “We Are What We Are.” That this phrase becomes the final sentiment of Doc Martin seems particularly striking in that a small town in northern Minnesota has arrived at the exact same summation about psychic norms as a small town in Cornwall.
What’s normal? We can make a case that just about anything can be.
Originally posted 2016-01-12 21:30:36.