Tic’s in a film


Dear. Jonathan Lethem I overhear you have been contemplating on making Motherless Brooklyn into a film. I strongly agree with you. This novel has so many great features to be made into a film. Let me just give you a suggestion about what aspects you should focus on. Lionel’s tics are the most important part of this novel but I would try and make the film about his tics being seen as a secondary character.

Lionel sees his tics as a secondary character most of the time. He doesn’t think that his tics are a clear representation of himself. He believes that his tourettic brain isn’t his entire self. Near the end of the novel he is remembering Minna and he beings to speak about vengeance. “I had wanted to think vengeance wasn’t me, wasn’t my Tourettic and Essroggian at all. Like the subway, say” (310). I find it compelling how he makes his tourettes seem like a different part of him. He has accepted his tourettes but he referrers to it as its own thing, I feel he considers it a separate person at certain times.  Ever since the beginning of the novel, we knew that his tourettes was a big problem for him. Though he accepts it it is still hard to feel like he fits in. When Lionel is having lunch and begins to count how many he is sandwiches he is eating, he describes his condition as“ Tourettes is just one big lifetime tag, really”(5). Tag? What is the definition of a tag? There is not a specific definition but we can consider it to be an example of labeling.

When Lionel considered himself labelled with something, it makes him think that he isn’t a person but something that people can consider “a thing”. He feels that he isn’t being accepted by anyone because of his tics, what would happen if he didn’t have them? Would people accept him? Would they still find him weird? No one will ever know. When Lionel is thinking about his tics and how they’re about to burst out, he speaks in a different tone. A part he wishes no one else would see. The opening scene of the novel is all about the build-up for the 2 words “Eat me!”(2).My thoughts when I first read this scene was confusion. His tourettes sounded like an actual character not just a thought in Lionel’s mind. The way his mind thinks makes it seem as its own character just taking over Lionel. Yes it does give the novel most of its humor but that’s where I think we can consider it dark humor. His tics are part of his dark humor. We can recognize his tics as a secondary dark side of Lionel, this is where the dark humor comes from.  After Minna’s death, when Lionel is speaking about his encounters with other people who have this syndrome he refers to having tourettes as “..The invisible Man”(44). This comparison tells us a lot about how his tourettes can be a secondary character. Not all characters in novels are visible. Some characters have an alternate part of them, some have thoughts in their minds that they consider a second character. Lionel’s tourettes can be a bad part of him, even though having a syndrome does not make you less of a person, it is an obstacle you must deal with, which makes it a bad part of him. It restricts him a little bit from having certain things.

If you consider his tics as a secondary character it can reveal a lot about the way other characters view him and ultimately how he views himself.

Lastly, his tics make the secondary characters act a certain way towards Lionel. On his own the tics make up most of this novel, but the way other characters view his tics are also of great importance. There are many secondary characters in this novel, but the interactions that I find are most important are the ones he has with Loomis and Kimmery. When Lionel and Loomis interact I find its important for many different reasons. Firstly, Loomis can’t grasp the idea of tourettes, he thinks Lionel is playing a game with him. ” Jesus Lionel, you crack me up. You never quit that routine” (pg123). Loomis always referrers Lionel’s tics to a routine. He would assume that Lionel only did this to make other people laugh, when in reality this is what his syndrome looks and sounds like. I find this interaction significant because it gives light into a real world problem; how people view mental disorders. Back in the days, mental disorders weren’t something most people thought about or even spoke about. They were not educated on mental illness or its effects and symptoms. I find putting this in a film would show people that even with a disorder or syndrome , that you are capable of doing anything you wish or desire. In the novel we know that Lionel doesn’t get along with Loomis because he finds he is irritating. Their interaction is weird because Loomis doesn’t seem to hate Lionel, he finds him funny because of his tics. Normally secondary characters and Lionel won’t click because they find Lionel’s tics odd. In the case of Loomis it makes their friendship even stronger because he thinks of Lionel’s secondary character ( His tourettes) as a joke.

Lionel’s interactions with Kimmery. These two have a few interactions but the ones that are the most important are the following.  Firstly, when Lionel is at Kimmery’s apartment, his tics seem to be much less noticeable.  When Lionel goes on his little outburst Kimmery simple responses with ” what do those words mean?”(pg217). This interaction I find is important because we get to finally understand if these words do have any meaning to Lionel. Kimmery and Lionel get very intimate in this part of the novel and once he is intimate with Kimmery, we see that his tics have finally calmed down. Even if his syndrome is seen as a secondary character, he can still control it somehow. This also referrers back to the point I was making about Loomis. We see that just because he has a syndrome doesn’t mean he can’t have interactions with or close bonds/ relationships with other people.  While at first we think Kimmery is okay with Lionels tourettes , as the novel continues we see that she begins to have issues with his tics. The scene I am refereeing to is when Lionel continuously calls Kimmery from his car. “Yeah, mmmm- but I don’t want anything, you know, crazy in my life right now”(pg258). The word crazy seems to effect Lionel in a certain way. He felt a bond with Kimmery and I feel that as soon as she referred him as ” crazy” he began to think she was just like everyone else. Kimmery was the one person who could calm down his tics, which greatly emphasises my point of his tourettes being a secondary character. When someone else can change the way you feel and the way your view things, it means that it is a person. His tourettes calms down around Kimmery which means she has this effect on them. You can consider them their own person because other people influence them in different ways. Loomis makes him upset which increases his tics and Kimmery makes him feel calm and relaxed which decreases his tics.

If you were ever to make this novel into a film, I’d mainly focus on his tics. On their own they have so much to offer and can be seen as a character of their own. Lionel’s tics are seen throughout this novel and add so much detail to the way he interacts with people and the way he views himself.




Work cited

Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.


Siobhan McDonagh


One thought on “Tic’s in a film

  1. It’s an interesting idea to consider Lionel’s tics as a secondary character. You point to some interesting dynamics in the novel.

    One note: Do you not know what tag is? Did you not play that as a kid? “You’re it!” No?


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