His latest book is crap—in my mind anyway. Jonathan Lethem’s The Arrest takes place in the near future, some years after everything stops. You know, everything: electronics, motors, hydraulics, solar power, indoor plumbing. Amenities, creature comforts. It all stops, but you never learn why. Witchcraft is my guess. As good a reason as anything else.
The cartoon cover should have been my clue, and it almost was. It drew an eye-roll, but then I read the back cover; they called it a dystopian story. I’m a sucker for dystopian. But here’s the thing, they actually portrayed a utopia. An agrarian society, bicycles as transport, homemade wine, bushels of weed, a community library. It all seemed pretty A-OK to me. But of course, there was the stupid car on the cover. And around that stupid car sat a stupid plot. Whatever. I gutted through the book, the whole way wondering why I wasted my time. My answer was tucked inside the back cover, Lethem’s list of previous books. One of them, Motherless Brooklyn, caught my eye.
I do almost nothing on Facebook. When I published my first book, I set up an account. Read anything on the topic of marketing your book, the first thing they say is you gotta be on Facebook. I friended everyone I know, and just as many people that I don’t. And I’ve been unfriending them ever since.
This is how it works: I wake up in the morning to one of those alerts—a little red pool ball sitting on the bell at the top of the page. Today is Martin Smith’s birthday, wish them well. (Facebook was gender neutral when it was still considered bad grammar.) And I say “Why do I care about Martin Smith’s birthday?” And then I unfriend them. This has been going on for years. I give the same birthday gift to everyone: one less friend. I have about forty friends left.
Now my main activity on Facebook is my membership in the group “Only Adults with Tourette Syndrome.” It’s the only place I can talk with others who know what it’s like. What’s it like? Unceasingly annoying. Somewhat embarrassing. A little painful. I squish my eyes together so hard I make a fist with my face. I grunt. Yes, grunt, just like a hog. Or sometimes it’s more of a bark, like a seal. Recently, I stick out my tongue. Or flip it over. Or scrape it against my teeth until it hurts. I get caught doing these things and people act like they don’t notice. Tourettes is awkward. Those people on Facebook understand this.
From time to time, someone in the group mentions Motherless Brooklyn—the movie, not the book. From IMDB: Set against the backdrop of 1950s New York, “Motherless Brooklyn” follows Lionel Essrog, a lonely private detective afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, as he ventures to solve his friend’s murder. Armed only with a few clues and the powerful engine of his obsessive mind, Lionel unravels closely-guarded secrets that hold the fate of the whole city in the balance.
Six point eight stars, rather meh. Although I keep hearing great things about it. Not just from the Only Adults group but critical reviews as well. And when I found out my Arrest author, Jonathan Lethem wrote it, I grabbed a library copy to understand the hype.
Actually, that’s not really true. I grabbed a copy because I wanted to read something empowering and uplifting about this absurd affliction that colors every day of my life. My disorder is on the move. It keeps getting worse. As the pandemic heated up, my tics, those unbidden movements and sounds, increased. When I began to feel depressed, my doctor increased my Bupropion, warning me, correctly, that it might amp up my Tourettes. So I increased my Risperidone to calm down my tics. But the whole reason I take Bupropion in the first place is that Risperidone causes depression. I think I’m in a spiral.
I grabbed Motherless Brooklyn because I thought it might make me feel better about myself. The book, it turns out, is pretty different from the movie. From Goodreads: Lionel Essrog is Brooklyn’s very own self-appointed Human Freakshow, an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart our language in the most startling and original ways. I should have read that blurb before I read the book. I don’t feel any better about myself.
I thought Motherless Brooklyn might portray a protagonist who rises above Tourette Syndrome, proudly wearing his affliction like a badge, winning over everyone with his pluck and courage. Instead I found someone beaten into the ground. Everyone calls Essrog a freak, crazyman, even his one and only friend, his boss. On the rare occasion someone isn’t making fun of him, they simply have no patience for him. He’s viewed with the sort of disdain my wife and kids reserve for the stink bugs that sometimes invade our house. Even his night of love making with what seems to be a nonjudgmental Buddhist woman winds up being sympathy sex. She wants nothing more to do with him ever after.
I’ve made it this far through my life without teasing, without ridicule, at least not to my face. I’m certain people consider me weird, a freak, but fortunately I don’t ever hear about it. Still, it’s hard to read a book like this and not internalize the insults. Motherless Brooklyn was published twenty-one years ago. Understanding and acceptance of mental illness and brain disorders has changed dramatically in that time. I can’t imagine the book being written now. The critics would revolt. Still, based on the stories told by people in my Facebook Group—those people with more disruptive tics than mine: cussing, flailing, punching, screaming—that disdain for the disorder is still rampant. I hear it in my head even though I never hear it out loud.
Motherless Brooklyn is an honest book, and I really hated it. I don’t need that much ugliness in my life. I don’t need Jonathan Lethem, who doesn’t have Tourette Syndrome, telling me I’m a freak. I feel that way every single day.
I appreciate that you read this all the way to the end. If more people understand Tourette Syndrome, acceptance (or least tolerance) will grow. Writing a story like this is the only way I know to help. Please share it with those you think might need it.