Written by renowned clinical psychologist Meg Jay, Supernormal is a profound look at the human condition, a stunning take on how childhood adversity can lead to remarkable and resilient people. Jay uses example case studies and stories from her own experience and clinical background to illustrate her point – that adversity is much more common than we think, but so is resilience.
Supernormal discusses the stories of individuals who have overcome great adversity in their younger years to become successful and well-functioning adults. In each of these cases there is something more to learn about the strength children can find in the darkest of places, and the remarkable things they can achieve. These chapters are emotional and raw, so sympathetically drawn in Jay’s narrative that the heart reaches out to help those who are suffering. Children all over the world face adversity to various extents from the loss of a parent, poverty, neglect, abuse, alcoholism and bullying to name a few. Considered individually, these experiences may not sum up to a large percentage of the population, but combined, the figures demonstrate how sadly common it truly is to experience hardship in your formative years.
Eager to demonstrate the universality of childhood difficulty, Jay intersperses her clients’ accounts with comparisons to well-known celebrity figures of history and today. Jay-Z’s tremendous cultural impact is felt more keenly, his work often seen as a product of his difficult childhood in the Brooklyn projects. Maya Angelou’s beautiful words become more piercing when read against the context of horrific experiences at a tender age. Writer, Jay upholds her arguments by including countless references to scientific studies, intuitively listing the references at the end to ensure the narrative reads fluidly.
It’s hard to read a book and not search for the deeper takeaway message. What, perhaps worryingly, shines through in the first few chapters of Supernormal is an assurance that those resilient people who have experienced notable adversity, i.e. ‘supernormals’, will be alright. It tells us that adversity doesn’t have to lead to notable damage and that it can even bring about some benefits. At first, this appeared a dangerous message to convey. When it seems a hard enough task at the moment to reach out for help when facing hardship, the attitude we least need to hear is one that downplays adversity rather than combatting it. This, however, is not Jay’s point, and further reading of the painful yet inspiring stories caused a shift. In each client’s story, I was reading a little of myself, and the message became one of: ‘I will be alright, I will not be damaged forever, and I will be better for it’. In this way, the book is actually a deeply therapeutic and healing volume.
Supernormal is a lot to digest, and on a personal note has provided a valuable lifeline to me over the last couple of weeks. I’ve often thought it remarkable that the words you need to hear always seem to find you. I have cried numerous times, as the stories from this book took me back to a past I mostly try to forget. I empathised with the story of Emily, who didn’t have the vocabulary at the young age of six to recognise her father’s alcoholism – but understood enough of shame and anger to help him hide it from his wife, and in turn, hide her pain and confusion from herself and from the world. Responsibility, maturity and resilience are words I often had spoken over me, and I felt burdened with them. This book has gone a long way in helping me accept them and move forward to embracing such qualities as assets.
Supernormal is a stunning perspective on how difficulty in childhood can lead to individuals living remarkable lives as a product of resilience through hardship. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone, specifically our generation, who often lack the validation and understanding it can offer to those who struggle accepting their experience of adversity.
Supernormal: Childhood Adversity and the Untold Story of Resilience by Meg Jay.