What is Normal?

Blue/Orange (2000)
by Joe Penhall (b. 1967-)

Le Monde Est Bleu Comme Une Orange.
(The world is as Blue as an Orange)
— Paul Eluard
French poet and surrealist

If poets and painters can have their oranges whatever color and shape they want perhaps the rest of us might question whether our take on reality is a bit rigid and unimaginative. Poets like Paul Éluard and painters like Salvador Dali and other Surrealists expanded the definition of reality. They were exploring the worlds of sexuality, desire and violence stressing the subconscious or nonrational significance of imagery. There was at least a suggestion in their work that we are trusting too much in our intellect and the input of our senses to define reality; that perhaps all is not what it might seem.

Sanity is very rare; every man almost and
every woman, has a dash of madness.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

The character Robert in Joe Penhall’s play Blue/Orange experiences confusion and doubt concerning the nature of reality. “We spend our lives asking whether or not this or that person is to be judged a ‘Normal’ person, a ‘Human,’ and we blithely assume that we know what ‘Normal’ and what ‘Human’ is.”[i]  The surrealists were obviously onto something.

It is our contention that within the worldview of P-B virtually everyone is out of touch with reality and that the “normal” human is behaving in a way that is self-destructive, behavior which can be included in a definition of insanity. Can being out of touch with reality be the same as the “disease” of insanity; and if not, how are they different. There is no way to explore questions related to the distinction between reality and illusion or sanity and insanity without stepping on some toes.

Mental health problems do not affect three or four
of every five persons, but one out of one.
William Menninger
The Menninger Foundation

What William Menninger was saying is that the false self in a P-B context is universal, that no one escapes this experience. The profession of psychiatry obviously has a much narrower definition of mental illness than we do in Simple Reality. Let us make our case as we join Emerson and Menninger in diagnosing virtually all of the inhabitants of the global village as having a borderline personality disorder  (BPD).

“Sometimes people with BPD view themselves as bad or worthless; they may feel misunderstood, mistreated, bored, empty and have little idea of who they are.”[ii]  In the context of P-B there is little or no awareness of our True-self identity, our only authentic “real” identity, hence we have “little idea of who we are.” Since we often choose a false-self reaction to what’s happening in our life, for example, by pursuing plenty, pleasure and power, we find ourselves behaving as if we were “crazed” animals.

To make matters worse, not only are we largely unaware of the implications of our worldview and the resulting identity influencing our behavior, but our mental health professionals have also not proven astute in diagnosing the causes or treatment of our self-destructive behavior. Dr. Dick Warner, medical director of the Boulder County Mental Health Center expresses the dilemma: “After all, how does one define Normal?”[iii]

We need a more profound narrative than the one our much-vaunted intellect has been able to create. Anthony Powell who directed the 2003 production of Blue/Orange for the Denver Center Theatre Company commented on using drugs to treat Robert’s syndrome. “Is it the medicines that make him crazy?”[iv]  We have yet to identify the underlying causes of false-self driven self-destructive behavior so we should not be surprised that our current diagnoses of and prescriptions for mental illness are wrong-headed and ineffective.

Where has our reliance on our intellectual analysis and the models of Freud, Jung and Adler et al. taken us? Currently the mental health experts say that the most effective treatments of the myriad “diseases” of the mind are a combination of talk therapy and psychopharmacology.  Dr. Warner has his doubts: “These shrinks have all the verbiage, all the benefits of an education, so they can put you in a box and go, ‘You’re schizophrenic,’ ‘you’re this,’ ‘you’re that,’ he said. ‘The jargon just spills out, and ultimately it’s this poor guy whose life hangs in the balance.’”[v]

How effective are current treatment strategies for the mentally ill? In the global mental health community we are spending less and less money as psychiatric hospitals over the past several decades have emptied their clientele onto the streets and many of those soon end up in a different institution.  For example, in Colorado the percentage of prison inmates with serious mental illness has risen by 400 percent (2003).

Director Powell learned the sad reality by searching for facts to add realism to the staging of Orange/Blue. “All that’s at stake is his freedom—and, Powell said, ‘his soul.’ If he is a BPD, he’s back on the street. If he is delusional schizophrenic, he may never see the street again.”[vi]

A compelling play is often centered on conflict. You should watch your toes at this point and keep them strategically out of the way for what you are about to hear is stompin’ your way. In life and in the theatre there is ever only one conflict and that is the struggle involving the choice of reality or illusion, response or reaction. In Blue/Orange Joe Penhall is challenging his audience to choose either compassion for all of unconscious (and “insane”) humanity, or condemnation of those suffering from an imagined mental illness and sentencing them to either institutions for the criminally condemned or banish them to the mean streets of a callous American society. In either case the innocent are punished, that is to say, condemned to suffering.

Making the wrong choice in dealing with the madness inherent in the old narrative can have catastrophic consequences. For example, the state of Colorado and recent decisions related to mental-health care. “State budget cuts mean as many as 18,000 Coloradans will lose their mental-health treatment in the next year [2004].”[vii]

Playwrights like Joe Penhall help focus our attention on the reality vs. the illusion of the context we call the global village. “The play is sort of an indictment of how unscientific and lacking in solidity is the diagnostic process in psychiatry.”[viii]  Before we design treatment strategies for those that our psychiatrists deem to be mentally ill we each need to look at our own behavior and ask ourselves: What is normal?

What is Normal?

[i]     Inside/Out. “Blue/Orange” Denver Center Theatre Company, September 2003, page 1.

[ii]     Ibid., page 5.

[iii]    Moore, John. “‘Blue/Orange’ play explores gray areas of mental illness.” The Denver Post. October 21, 2003, page 1F.

[iv]    Ibid., page 10F.

[v]     Ibid.

[vi]    Ibid.

[vii]   Ibid., page 1F.

[viii]   Ibid.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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