It wasn’t until the twentieth century that normality became a broad cultural phenomenon, when a new group of professionals picked up the idea of normal, preloaded with all the aforementioned ambiguity, tautology, and conflation with the average, and doubled down on trying to find the normal person in the world. Instead, they invented the normal, in all its glory, that is still with us today.

So who were these people seeking out the normal in human form? Sex scientists. Didn’t see that one coming, right? Now, don’t get your hopes up. The sex researchers who took normal to new heights were self-described sexual hygienists (try that for pillow talk) and wrote books such as Rational Sex Ethics: A Physiological and Psychological Study of the Sex Lives of Normal Men and Women, with Suggestions for a Rational Sex Hygiene with Reference to Actual Case Histories. Fifty Shades of Grey this is not. But people started paying attention to these sex scientists, because, no matter what, sex sells.

According to Cryle and Stephens, along with these researchers studying sex, psychologists, psychiatrists, sexologists, psychoanalysts, public health officials, and marital advice writers led a broad and popular movement in the twentieth century to find the normal and tell us all about it. The informal leader of this whole crew, of course, was Sigmund Freud. Yes, the man with a cocaine habit that would have killed a small farm animal was one of the most important thinkers in the history of normality. I’ll skip the long dissertation on Freud and spare you the pain of reading his tomes. Bottom line: it’s all about sex. All of it. Everything. One’s whole personality, thoughts, aspirations, hopes in the world, favorite color, food, flavor of ice cream, whatever—all of it comes down to sex.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Freud and others developed theories of normal sexuality, and by default, because sexuality was everything, the normal person. At first, they fell into the old “normal as what is not normal” tautology and focused almost entirely on “deviance.” The first major book on this subject was Psychopathia Sexualis (that’s Latin for freaky sex stuff), written by Richard von Krafft-Ebing. He was a true jerk, and I could disparage him for so many reasons, at the top of the list that he was among the first to declare that people who had encounters with the same sex were sick and deviant and should go to jail. Freud, though, flipped this on its head. He asserted that there wasn’t a clear line between normal and abnormal. Instead, everyone was a little “perverted” and “sick.” This was a big idea that others, beginning in the 1920s, popularized in the marriage and self-help (yes, that kind of self-help) literature of the day as being “nearly normal.”

Nearly normal is an interesting and useful (for some) but ultimately maddening new layer to the hot mess of normality. It was a great business model for shrinks, because if everyone is a little sick, then everyone could use their services. The publishing business loved it, because advice manuals could help the nearly normal get closer to normal. And the exploding mass-market consumer economy and the advertising industry seized on the idea, too, because if you want to sell something to someone, tell them something is wrong with them and you’ve got the thing to fix it.

But what the hell does it mean to be nearly normal? This makes my head spin: there is a normal, but I’m not it. However, I shouldn’t accept this fact, but instead strive for a normality that no one can be. And, oh yeah, here are a bunch of things you can buy, and people you can pay, to help you overcome your near-normality disorder. I can see why Freud needed all that cocaine.

In this way, normal was now not just a thing to be but a thing to become. But wait. I have good news. At the same time the shrinks were pontificating about normality, and our lack thereof, another group was hard at work finding a way to untie this Gordian knot of contradictions. A new generation of “sexual hygiene” researchers—think a cross between a PE and sex ed teacher—took the study of normality to a new level. In 1930, after almost a hundred years of normal slowly creeping into more and more aspects of our lives, the first large-scale study of the normal person occurred: the Grant Study of Normal Young Men at Harvard. What? Is that right? Normal young men at Harvard?

Yes, the first study of normal people ever done was a study of white men at a university that, at the time, admitted no one but white men. The study was directed by Arlie V. Bock, professor of hygiene. The team of researchers collected a broad range of physiological, social, and psychological data and … Forget it. Let’s get to the point. Because I think we all know what they found. The study found—drum roll please—that rich, college-educated white men are normal.

According to the study, the normal person was a “balanced harmonious blending of functions that produce good integration.” Translation: the normal men of this study were normal because they were successful in a system that was dominated by men just like them. You are normal if your behavior, appearance, and background are the dominant culture. You are normal if you fit into this culture and are therefore deemed normal by the school, the church, the town, the doctor, the professor. Normal is what works in society’s norms. This is a whole new tautology—normal is what is called normal by people who are considered normal.

What a mess the twentieth century made out of normal. The sex researchers and Harvard demographers took a perfectly good dichotomy of normal and not normal and muddied it all up, and now the concepts were all over the place. I wish I could say people just threw up their hands in revolt and gave up on the whole idea. But we know that’s not true. This normal became all things, to all people, and so it became, truly, everything.

Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive Outside the Lines