Gabor Maté, the trauma expert interviewing Prince Harry this weekend about his memoir Spare, is a Hungarian-Canadian retired physician with expertise in childhood trauma and addiction.
Those topics have been the focus of his extensive public writing in books and newspapers, and his advocacy on behalf of people with addictions. Later this year, he is expected to publish Hello Again: A Fresh Start for Parents and Their Adult Children, which is likely to be topical for Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, both of whom are estranged from their fathers.
Maté, 79, served for many years as staff physician at the Portland Hotel on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which aims, as he has written, “to provide a system of safety and caring to marginalized and stigmatized people — the ones who are ‘the insulted and the injured,’ to borrow from Dostoevsky. The (Portland Hotel Society) attempts to rescue such people from what a local poet has called the ‘streets of displacement and the buildings of exclusion.’”
The Portland is the site of North America’s first supervised injection site, still a controversial issue but greatly advanced as a harm reduction policy since Maté started advocating for it. More than a decade ago, when former Health Minister Tony Clement went on the attack against this novel idea of supervised injection, calling it a “slippery slope” that is “not medicine (because) it does not heal the person addicted to drugs,” it was Maté who became the public face of rebuttal, defending both users and doctors. He told The Canadian Press about Clement: “The repugnant aspect is his attack on the morality and ethics of human beings who are trying to work with a very difficult population. I mean where does he come off?”
In 2011, Maté was sternly warned by Health Canada against using the Amazonian psychedelic plant ayahuasca in treatments, and today remains a prominent advocate of ayahuasca’s applications in mental health care. A few years later, he wrote: “The plant is not a drug in the Western sense of a compound that attacks pathogens, such as bacteria, or obliterates pathological tissue, such as malignancy. Nor is it a chemical that one takes chronically to alter the biology of a diseased nervous system, as do, say, anti-depressants. And it is far from being a recreational psychedelic ingested for escapist purposes.”
That image of a renegade addiction expert, at once authoritative and counter-cultural, has helped Maté become a prominent voice in magazines and newspapers, books and podcasts, and all manner of public talks focused on recovery and healing as much as on the horrors of addiction.
His citation as a member of the Order of Canada last year notes his emphasis on the connection between body and mind, and describes him as “a passionate advocate for social change in the prevention and treatment of addiction” whose “professionalism and compassion have helped to restore dignity and health among people with addictions.”
He is known for emphasizing the role of childhood trauma in adult addictions, and has spoken of his own personal turmoil that he says originated in a period in his infancy. Maté was born in Budapest, Hungary, near the end of the Second World War. His mother’s parents died at Auschwitz, and his father suffered forced labour. His parents immigrated to Canada in 1956. He has often written and spoken about a time when he was not even a year old, and his mother left him in the care of strangers for his safety. This traumatic experience of abandonment and rage coloured the rest of his life, and informed his professional view that addiction typically arises from trauma.