Gabor Maté: the most interesting voice on the human mind since Sigmund Freud

The central idea in Dr Gabor Maté’s book The Myth Of Normal is how to heal a toxic culture    (')
The central idea in Dr Gabor Maté’s book The Myth Of Normal is how to heal a toxic culture (')

It’s 10 o’clock in the morning, and Gabor Maté is anxious. “I gave a talk last night at Troxy to two thousand people,” he says nervously. “I beat myself up afterward. I didn’t give them enough.”

Maté is in town to talk about his new book, The Myth Of Normal, a 562-page behemoth on how to heal in a toxic culture. The idea is to transition from a society that penalises illness to one that tackles our trauma. Maté has agreed to meet me to record an episode for my podcast; but really, it’s just a pretext for me to meet one of the most interesting voices on the human mind since Sigmund Freud.

Dr Gabor Maté was born in Budapest in 1944: a child of the Holocaust, his grandparents were killed in Auschwitz. At age one, his mother put him in the care of a stranger for five weeks to save his life. “It made me feel like I wasn’t worthy,” he says. Understanding that emotion – and its long term effects – has been his life’s work.

Maté has, by his own admission, always been desperate to prove himself. “On an unconscious level,” he says, “I work to justify my very being.” He became a workaholic doctor hooked on buying CDs: a rather benign addiction but one that spoke volumes on his pain. Maté, an addiction expert, sees all dependencies as symbols of absence, frequently citing heroin addicts who liken their high to being held by a mother.

Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev interviews Gabor Maté (Evening Standard)
Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev interviews Gabor Maté (Evening Standard)

Having been saved by the Soviet army, Maté left Hungary only seven years after it came under Communist rule. His family emigrated to Canada in 1956, and he’s lived in Vancouver since the 1960s. He has, by most accounts, seen it all, studying in the US during the Vietnam War and working as a physician at the height of the AIDS pandemic.

Opposed to medicine’s tendency to address symptoms without getting to the cause, he’s obsessed with finding out what truly makes us sick. The answer, he believes, is stress, which ravages the body far more than Western medicine lets on. Its leading cause is uncertainty, driven by “lack of information, loss of control and conflict”.

“The more inequality there is in society, the more disease,” Maté notes, pointing to the economic insecurity affecting many in Britain today, with an estimated 14.5 million currently living in poverty. Cancer diagnoses and autoimmune diseases are rising despite the betterment of medicine and ever greater number of licensed pharmaceuticals. Therein lies the paradox which he seeks to untangle.

During our two and a half hours together, we cover all manner of topics, from the impact of tech on our brains to asking whether the English are the most repressed people on the planet. “It took a lot of repression,” Maté says, for “stiff upper lip” Englishmen to “impose their colonial cruelty on aboriginals.” To recognise our trauma, he believes, is to begin tackling the ills and evils of the world.

Unsurprisingly, it is on childhood that he shines the brightest. The trauma that we experience as children stays with us all the way through life. Parents need to hold their children, he tells me, as mammals impart their paternal love through touch. It’s a far cry from what we’re used to here in Britain. “We Brits are cold as fish and that’s how we like it,” said one column in this paper last year. “A mother rat licks her infants as soon as they are born, and the way she licks them impacts how their baby rat brains develop,” Maté says.

To not do so is traumatic. Maté, who yearned for months for his mother’s touch at age one, notes this was one of the points that bonded him to Prince Harry. Their interview together in March 2023 went viral overnight: Maté became an instant celebrity, fêted by some and reviled by many.

“The British press distorted what I said,” he tells me of the reports. The Times claimed that Maté said the Windsors treat children like animals. His response is one for the ages: “I wish they treated children like animals!” Maté had, in fact, suggested that Charles’ failure to show his sons physical affection – like, say, a rat or a tiger – was the root of their harm.

Polite stoicism, the most British of ideals, is for Maté nothing more than an emotionless hellscape. When Princess Diana died, he recounts, the future King came into Harry’s room and said: “There’s been a terrible accident, your mother didn’t make it.” He then touched Harry on the knee and left the room.

Maté has long called for us to recognise the impact of generational trauma, which happens when stress and anxiety are unwittingly passed down from parent to child. “When he was five years old,” he says of King Charles, “his mother, the late Queen, went on a royal tour for several months. When she returned she greeted him by shaking his hand.”

Maté thinks we can change, and in his book sets out a blueprint to break out of trauma loops. It is a powerful and necessary work: despite countless studies to support it, the idea of generational trauma remains controversial. Western medicine is hindered by conservatism, Maté says; in many ways, it always has been.

The story of Dr Semmelweis, masterfully adapted for the West End stage last year with Mark Rylance in the lead role, provides an apt comparison. A Hungarian physician like him, he was hounded for his radical ideas. His work prevailed against the establishment (urging doctors to wash their hands before delivering babies) and transformed health outcomes for patients (drastically reducing the risk of maternal mortalities).

Could Maté do for trauma what Semmelweis did for childbirth? I’m sure he likes to think so. Yet despite the medical impact of trauma being “uncontroversial from a research point of view”, his opponents are still numerous. The headlines that followed his interview with the Duke of Sussex were deliberately misleading, calling him a “toxic trauma expert” to make it sound like it was he, not the trauma, that was the problem. Others called him a “trauma cult leader”.

The interview now exists behind a paywall, for contractual reasons Maté had not foreseen. “Most people didn’t see the actual conversation,” he says, calling the press reports “hostile”. “The Daily Mail wrote that I have some kind of self-help empire,” he says. “Don’t trust a man with too many rings,” he recalls another column saying.

Media pile-ons are never pleasant (by no means a stranger to them myself), but for Maté it brought old trauma home to roost. “I’m 79, I can handle public criticism,” he says. However, seeing his worth called into question (he calls it a “fear of not being seen”) was more than he had bargained for. “As children we’re so dependent on the opinion of other people, you know? We never quite grow out of that."

Much of the criticism also hinged on Prince Harry’s privilege: a man of fame and fortune who, some say, has found in trauma a vehicle for narcissism. One look at Maté’s career, though, dispels the idea that he’s a guru to the one per cent. Alongside the Duke, he’s worked with convicts and with the abused. In his twelve years at the Portland Hotel, a non-profit organisation in Vancouver, he “didn’t have a single female patient who had not been sexually abused as a child”.

“Most people who commit violent crimes are deeply traumatised themselves,” Maté claims. What if, he asks, we lived in a “trauma-informed society where the healthy development of the human personality was held at the highest value?” You have to wonder, he continues, “what is the goal of the justice system? Is it to punish, or is it to protect society?”

There must be some people, I quip, who are beyond repair. “I wouldn’t say anybody is,” he replies, while quick to recognise exceptional cases like Hitler and Stalin. “I doubt very much that anything could have been done there,” he says.

It would be remiss not to mention Russell Brand, a friend of Maté’s who’s often quoted trauma as the root of his addiction – first to drugs, then to drink, and finally to sex. Yet, a darker side to his prurience has emerged, accused by one woman of rape and several others of sexual assault. Brand denied the allegations and insisted all of his relationships have been consensual.

It’s easy to see the trauma narrative as a cop out, an excuse to blame it all on illness and to deflect responsibility. Maté doesn’t fall for that trap. “I have warm feelings towards Russell, but despite my long-standing friendship with him, I believe the women,” he says. He notes, though, that we often say “responsibility” when we really mean “guilt”, and stands firm on his beliefs. “I gain agency when I begin to understand the sources of my behaviour,” he says.

Change should begin in schools. “Teachers should be educated in brain development,” Maté says. The classroom should be a place “not just for the conveyance of information” but for “emotional development”. It all sounds slightly woo-woo but the toxic culture that Maté is challenging is no joke. “Millions of kids are being diagnosed with ADD, depression, anxiety,” he says. “Self-cutting is rising among children, and childhood suicide too.”

The word toxic gets thrown around a lot but Maté is, at his core, a physician. He uses the term with scientific precision. “If you were a laboratory scientist growing organisms in a petri dish, you’d call that a culture,” he says. “If the organisms in that culture are thriving and proliferating, you’d say it is healthy culture, but if large numbers are dying off, you’d say it is toxic.”

Large numbers are. “Chronic illnesses are on the rise in the United States,” he says. “70 per cent of adults are on at least one medication, and 50 per cent are on two.” The solution, Maté believes, lies in cultures beyond our own.

“Indigenous people tend to parent far less coercively, far more naturally and far more lovingly than in so-called civilised societies,” he says. More so than Freud, it’s in French essayist Montaigne that he finds his philosophical forebear. A sixteenth-century aristocrat, Montaigne was the first to challenge the establishment on their views of the New World and subvert what they saw as barbaric by pointing out the pitfalls in European society.

“The British pilgrims were appalled at how Indigenous people were raising their children, who were totally free to run around,” Maté says. In the indigenous plant known as ayahuasca, he’s also found a key to unlocking his subconscious. The psychedelic renaissance, he says, speaks volumes on the “impoverishment” of psychiatry in the West. While not a panacea, psychedelics can help us open up, touch us deep, and observe ourselves anew.

Far from suggesting we should all be starting the day with magic mushrooms or walking barefoot in the grass, Maté rallies around a more universal cry for companionship. “Human beings are not isolated organisms,” he says. “Physiology is directly affected by relationships.” Learning this as children is key to future happiness, he says. “Being lonely is as much of a risk factor for illness and early death as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.”

For some, things are tougher than others. It is notably more challenging for single or working class parents to be present for their children whenever they need. “We need to look at the pressures put on families,” Maté says, “to raise children under highly stressed circumstances. What can we give them so that they spend more time with their children?” As per his comments on the King and the Duke of Sussex, the child brain needs contact, attention, and – quite simply – love.

With as many Instagram followers as Kate Moss, Maté has become something of a spiritual leader, a voice for those who feel broken or misunderstood. Still, he’s cautious of flying too close to the sun. “I’m a diagnostician,” he reminds me, not a political figurehead.

There is, I’ll admit, something distinctly North American about his unqualified trust in The Crown, which he quotes as a source whenever we return to the Windsors. Still, he makes some valid points the way only an outsider could. “It’s quite okay to enjoy gossip about the Royal Family,” he says. “Who sleeps with who, the divorces, the dysfunctions.” But we are not allowed, he says, “to look at the pain of it”.

There are countless reasons why our culture is toxic – trauma is just one of them. Recognising that would be a good start.

Evgeny Lebedev is the proprietor of the Evening Standard. Listen to the first two episodes of his new podcast Brave New World which features the fascinating interview with Gabor Maté.