As we grow up, we place a lot of emphasis on fitting in. Some people argue that as we reach adulthood, such pressures fade, but they really don’t. Everyone wants to be part of a group, the group – no one really wants to be an outsider. Unless it’s an outsider amongst outsiders.
I suspect we all have had moments of doubts, when we look at ourselves and wonder, “Am I normal? Is there something wrong with me? Why can’t I be like this, or why can’t I think like that? I must be weird. I must be crazy.” And though we’ve heard it time and time again, that there is no such thing as ‘normal’, that being an individual is the best thing you can be, I think we all spend our lives secretly searching for our own versions of normal.
It’s not easy to accept yourself the way you are, let alone have others accept you. But it’s important to remember that if you find yourself struggling to be ‘normal’, you might be trying to fit the wrong definition of ‘normal’ for you.
The Curious Savage, a play written and first staged in 1950, tells the story of a woman in search of her own normal. Ethel P. Savage’s husband has just passed away, leaving the older lady over ten million dollars. Her stepchildren, all celebrities in their own way, panic when they find she wishes to use the money to pursue a career in acting and give to several charitable causes. Claiming that her behavior is ‘unbalanced’, they have her committed to a sanatorium in an attempt to get the inheritance for themselves. While there, Mrs. Savage makes friends with the other patients in the sanatorium: Jeff, a former fighter pilot who survived a deadly crash and now believes himself to be horribly disfigured, even though his appearance is unchanged, Mrs. Paddy, a woman whose husband one day told her to ‘shut up’ and who hasn’t spoken since, except to rattle off a list of all the things she hates, Florence Williams, whose beloved son is actually a doll she carries around, Fairy May, who believes herself to be stunningly beautiful while being actually incredibly unkempt, and Hannibal, a statistician who was obsoleted by a calculator and now devotes his time to playing the violin; horribly.
Throughout the play we come to know the patients and Mrs. Savage quite well, even hearing the story of her stepchildren, each with a life more sordid and pointless than the last. Despite being in positions of fame and power, it is clear that the residents of The Cloisters Sanatorium are the happier, more balanced group. They may live in a world of their own, but they like it that way, and accept themselves the way they are, while Savage’s stepchildren are constantly scrambling from one personal disaster to the next trying desperately to be what society perceives them to be. Eventually the stepchildren are forced to except that for themselves and Mrs. Savage leaves the sanatorium, bidding the patients the best of times in their ‘egg shell world’.
I’m not arguing that people should embrace mental illness as a normal state of being here; and I don’t think the play is either. The parallels it draws between the two groups, the stepchildren and the patients, just highlights the fact that both are aberrant in their own ways, as much as they are, to themselves and the ‘society’ in which they live, relatively normal. Quite a useless word, ‘normal’. If we each spent more time trying to be consistent and true to ourselves, rather than fitting some abstract definition imposed upon us by the society in which we live, perhaps we would all be a little happier and a little more forgiving; of ourselves and others.
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