What Does It Take to Overcome Adversity?
The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience
By Meg Jay, Ph.D.
387 pp. Twelve Books, $28
One of the many disputes currently roiling American culture is just how psychologically strong we mortals are. Can we muster the wherewithal to master the difficulties that life typically tosses at us, sometimes at an early age, or are we sitting ducks apt to crumble with every disagreeable word that blows, especially across a college campus near you? Into this combat zone steps the psychologist Meg Jay with her second book, “Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience.”
With much passion, her earlier book, “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them,” revealed the private quandaries of millennials seeking her out for psychotherapy and exposing a very different side of themselves than their public posts on Facebook. To “Supernormal,” Jay again brings her skill at telling the stories of her patients.
There’s Sam, who was 9 when his father walked out on the family; Emily, the child of an alcoholic father; Paul, a nuclear engineer who was bullied as a kid; Jessie, who was dominated by her sister; the doctor-lawyer Elizabeth, whose parents focused on her special-needs brother; Nadia, orphaned in college when her parents were murdered; Martha, emotionally harassed by a mother who constantly criticized her appearance; Michelle, sexually abused by her polo coach; Vera, a daughter of neglect; Jennifer, born into a household marked by domestic violence; and others.
Many are the ways that lives can get distressed. Unfortunately, we rarely learn exactly what turns misfortune into resilience. From the story of Emily, whose success at swimming was her ticket out of town, and that of Mara, the daughter of a bipolar mother, we learn that separating from one’s surroundings, in reality or fantasy, is a crucial act of self-preservation — a necessary, but hardly sufficient, first step in overcoming adversity.
Throughout, the brain’s amygdala stars as the central player. The amygdala alerts us to threatening situations and kicks off the stress response, but invoking it, as Jay does, serves as kind of a diversionary tactic: It does not explain anything about how particular people wring adaptation out of distress, the real mental work it takes to transcend hardship. Jay never dissects the “impulse to fight for one’s own survival and to better one’s circumstances.” The upshot is scant insight into the mechanics of resilience.
Of equal concern is the book’s title, “Supernormal.” Were this merely a case of alighting on a single, spectacular word to both signal the subject matter within and kindle the curiosity to explore it, it would merit little comment. The title, however, encodes the book’s deep muddle.