Confronting Illusions Can Help Heal Trauma

Physician and author Gabor Maté is known for his insights into the imprints that trauma leaves on the mind and body—and for his compassionate guidance on healing. In a series of best-selling books, he has argued that childhood adversities and other stressors may underlie addictions, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions. In Maté’s most recent work, The Myth of Normal, written with his son, Daniel Maté, he postulates that trauma—by which he means “wound,” as in the original Greek—is woven into the fabric of Western society. It is so pervasive that it is the norm—as difficult for most people to perceive as water is to a fish. Maté writes in his book that “once we resolve to see clearly how things are, the process of healing—a word that, at its root, means ‘returning to wholeness’—can begin.”

Scientific American spoke with Maté, a Holocaust survivor, last November about how his lifelong exploration of trauma informs his understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict and about what healing means in this fraught time.

[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]

You’ve delved deeply into trauma, in terms of experiencing it, investigating it and helping people with it. How does this exploration help you understand what is happening now?

As I wrote in The Myth of Normal, I was born a Jewish infant in Hungary in 1944, two months before the Nazis occupied Hungary. Until then, the Jewish population there was mostly spared the genocide. But when the Nazis arrived there, Adolf Eichmann, the SS leader who was the architect of the genocide, said the operation went like a dream. Within three months, they killed half a million Hungarian Jews and mostly shipped the others to Auschwitz, including my grandparents and my aunt—and almost my mother and me. It was serendipity that my mother and I weren’t on the same transport to Auschwitz. But I spent my first year of life under the Nazi occupation. When I was 11 months of age, my mother gave me to a complete stranger, a Christian woman in the street, to save my life. And I didn’t see my mom for six weeks.

This stamped me with a sense of not being loved—because why else would I have been given away?—and with a sense of suffering for which I felt responsible. Children are narcissistic. I don’t mean that in a negative way—I mean that they take everything personally. My mother’s stress and unhappiness are a reflection of me as a person, or so a child believes. This early experience left deep traumatic imprints that played out later in my life: in my marriage and in my heart, as a parent to my kids and even as the workaholic doctor that I became to validate my existence (because if you’re not lovable, then go to medical school—now they’re gonna want you all the time!).

In terms of Jewishness—not just because of what happened during the war, of which I have no conscious memory, of course, but also because of the antisemitism in Hungary after the war—I developed what psychologist Ken Hardy calls an assaulted sense of self. It means that you take on the view of yourself that the racialist or oppressor has of you. I became ashamed of being Jewish. I was bullied for being Jewish. And one kid came to my defense, saying, “Oh, leave him alone. It’s not his fault that he’s Jewish!” Nice defense, thank you very much! It’s a “fault.” So I grew up knowing that I was Jewish but to some degree being ashamed of it.

When I was 11 years of age, I took a book off a shelf of my parents. They had kept it up on top so I wouldn’t reach it, but I used a chair. It was called The Scourge of the Swastika by [Edward] Russell. This man had been an army officer and one of the lawyers at Nuremberg. I read about the horrors of this genocide—it was the first time I found out the details. From 11 years of age—from when I read that book—for years, my head would spin every day with, “How is this possible?” Understanding how this is possible and the injustice that life can deliver has been a dominant theme in my development.

Then when I was a late teenager, I discovered Zionism. And oh, boy, that was a liberation! All of a sudden, Jews don’t have to be ashamed of who they are! They don’t have to be defenseless; they can have their own state! Instead of the barbed wire of the concentration camps, they’ve got the boundaries of a free state. And instead of the fallen heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto, you’ve got this proud army of Israel. A place where we can be ourselves.

It’s a beautiful dream. I bought into it; I signed up for it. I’m grateful for that phase in my life because it gave me a completely different sense of being Jewish. And then I began to find out in my late teens and early 20s that this beautiful dream, which was such a salve to my soul, was accomplished at the expense of imposing a total nightmare on the Palestinians. Despite the slogan used by some early Zionists, “a land without a people for a people without a land,” there wasn’t a land without a people.

That was my trajectory—of being traumatized, even to the point of being ashamed of my origins, and then having a real pride and a resurgence, and then finding out that that pride and that resurgence came at a horrific cost to another people—at which point I let go of my Zionism. I didn’t let go of my pride in Judaism or Jewishness. But I did let go of the Zionist solution because it came at the expense of somebody else.

In your book, you write that trauma makes people inflexible. How is it that you had the flexibility to embrace this new point of view?

In that book, I also talk about the virtues of disillusionment. And my first disillusionment came when I was 13. I grew up believing in a communist system, the ideals of it—equality and freedom and the brotherhood, the sisterhood of humankind. And then, on October 23, 1956, there was the Hungarian Revolution against the communist dictatorship. All of a sudden I realized I believed in a lie. The scales fell from my eyes. Then I came to North America, and I believed in freedom and democracy in the U.S. and in the free world. A few years later the Vietnam War happened. And I saw that, in the name of a pack of lies, three million people were killed by the leaders of this democratic, freedom-loving society called the U.S.—another disillusionment.

I say to people, would you rather be illusioned or disillusioned? I’d rather believe in reality.

This is a crude question, but how is it that trauma can turn some people into monsters and other people into compassionate human beings?

Yes, it can work both ways.

I think we all have those two sides. The question is: Which side wins out? Now trauma that is worked through and understood can be a great teacher. Trauma that is repressed can distort your personality to the point of psychopathy. And the people who go one way or the other—it probably depends on to what degree they had some nurturing connection with human beings. The ones that completely act out their traumas in a personal sense, such as the real psychopaths, the serial killers—these people received no empathy ever in their life. So the trauma made them full of rage, and it made them seek power and made them seek dominance at whatever cost. You can find lots of those examples in politics as well.

In your book, you talk about the normalization of trauma. What role does politics play in perpetuating and maybe even expanding trauma?

Take the politics of neoliberalism, [bestowed by] its patron saints of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and continued under different governments of all sorts: under neoliberalism, you’ve had more social isolation, elimination of social programs, insecurity and loneliness. And each of these factors contributes to illness, not just that of minority populations but of the general population.

Look at the declining life expectancy of white male Americans who are not college-educated. These deaths happen because people have lost their sense of belonging and sense of meaning and sense of accomplishment—which leads to despair, which leads to addictive behaviors and to suicides. They’ve very accurately been called “deaths of despair.” In the U.S. last year [nearly] twice as many people died of drug overdoses than Americans who died in the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars put together—in one year. This is strictly a result of social and economic factors. Politics has a lot to do with traumatizing people.

And the other way [politics spreads trauma], which is a bit more subtle, is that very often we elect traumatized people to be our leaders, who then implement traumatizing policies.

And why are such people sometimes popular with voters?

Very often in our political leaders, we look for surrogate parents who will take care of us. We look for people who exude toughness and strength. We go for these people as surrogate parents because it’s so hard to be an adult in this world. Being an adult means the capacity to be genuinely disillusioned in a healthy way.

What does it mean to be “disillusioned in a healthy way”?

Is it controversial to say that you’d rather be in touch with reality than to believe in some phony dream? The great [writer] James Baldwin said, “We live in a country in which words are mostly used to cover the sleeper, not to wake him up.” If you hold a national discussion on the genuine rights and wrongs and history and different perspectives on what’s happening in the Middle East right now, which would draw a larger audience, that or the Super Bowl? So much of the culture is designed to put us to sleep. It’s all about an escape from reality. Life is so difficult. It’s very difficult to look life in the face.

Do you see a link between the Holocaust and what is happening in the Middle East?

The events of October 7, the brutal atrocities committed against Jews in southern Israel—for most of my fellow Jews, who don’t know the history of who the Palestinians are and what has happened to them, this is a terrible attack on Jews, the largest catastrophe that has befallen us since the Holocaust. So one trauma is reminiscent of and feeds into the other.

But the analogy [between the two traumas] is a false one. Four years ago a poll in Canada showed that most Canadians knew nothing or little about residential schools: [in the late 19th to late 20th centuries,] Indigenous kids were tortured physically, sexually, and emotionally and were beaten or had pins stuck in their tongue for speaking their language. Most Canadians said they knew nothing or little about this. Most Jews and Israelis are similarly attached to their own narrative, which excludes the experience of [Palestinians].

Hundreds of Jewish people have been arrested while protesting the bombing of Gaza and saying, “Not in our name.”

I’ve been very public on this issue for a long time now, and it hasn’t made me popular in some circles. I get all kinds of e-mails, some of which tell me I’m a self-hating Jew and betraying my people. But I recently got two e-mails from fellow Jews—very famous people. One of them writes, “I’m reaching out to you in the midst of this horrible war…. Thank you for speaking out. You’ve been my voice.” Another one says: “Your words are healing the world as they’ve always healed me.”

When I saw those demonstrations on television, I wept. I was so moved. I was just so moved. And so that’s just how it goes. I’m not blaming people on the other side; I understand their experience. I used to believe what they believe. But, thank God, I became disillusioned.

Does disillusionment, as you call it, represent healing?

It’s the first part of healing because until we’re in touch with reality and in touch with the actual source of our suffering, we can’t heal ourselves. Buddhism, for example, teaches that once you recognize the source of your suffering, that’s a big step toward healing. I am considered a healer, and I do what I can. A lot of people say to me, “I have an addiction, but I was a happy child.” Then we have a conversation of three minutes. They realize that, yes, they had happiness in their childhood, but they repressed all the pain that they’d experienced. Once people realize that they were traumatized, they see there’s nothing wrong with them fundamentally. They’re not flawed, they’re not damaged goods, but something happened that made them behave in ways that were self-harming or harmful to others.

I hurt my children—I didn’t mean to, but I did—because of the unresolved trauma I was still carrying when I was a young parent. I engaged in addictive behaviors not because I was morally corrupt but because I was trying to escape from some pain I hadn’t even realized I had. Once you realize this, once you get disillusioned, once you realize that stuff happened that hurt you, now you can begin to heal—not so that you can consider yourself a victim but so that you can actually take responsibility.