By Marcela Seminahin
“identity continues to serve as the ground from which to work for change and to which to retreat for a sense of safety and belonging.”
During my years at the University I have read many books, as each semester I took Literature courses. The books that captured me the most are those ones where the main character is “different” from those around. One of my favourite novels is “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte, as the main character is a loner and has quite a complex personality. From back then comes my “hobby” for analyzing people, why people react in a certain way in certain situations. What does control our actions, interaction with people? How do we know that we have to follow out instincts?
Lionel Essrog, is the main character in Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, who suffers from Tourette syndrome. All over the novel we, readers, follow Lionel’s inner changes, and his way towards self-acceptance and self-awareness. Lionel identifies himself through his syndrome, Tourette is the only identity he recognizes, that is why the way he identifies himself influences the way he sees the world and perceives what happens around him. It takes Lionel the entire book to realize how kind and thoughtful he is, fact that we understood from the first chapters of the book.
At the beginning of the novel we see a lonely Lionel, hiding behind the back of his co-workers, and his boss as if he was still in the library of St. Vincent’s Home for boys: “Until rescued by Frank Minna I lived, as I said, in the library” (37). All those years, before knowing Frank Minna, Lionel lives inside his world, absorbed by his self-fulfilling prophecy and negative self-talk. Frank helped Lionel to step into the world, and confront the world around him, but mostly to challenge himself living outside the library.
Frank is the only person in Lionel’s life that accepts him the way he is, and Lionel does not have to act as someone he is not. Frank makes him feel not that lonely, and makes him believe that there is hope: “I’d begun discovering myself upon Minna’s jerking me out of the library and into the world … My symptoms loved him” (85). This is major, because Tourette’s is the main way Lionel defines and identifies him, and Lionel loved Frank with all his being.
Frank even tried to make Lionel accept himself, and not to be that critical about his personality: “Minna and I had been in a joke-telling contest since I was thirteen years old, primarily because he liked to see me try to get through without ticcing” (25). In addition, Frank is the one who made Lionel realize that his disorder is a psychological condition, a syndrome, and is not his fault for having it: “I picked it up. Understanding Tourette’s syndrome was the title, first time I’d seen the word” (81). This probably is the first step for Lionel to discover himself, and understand and accept his identity. Besides, knowing that he is not the only one affected by the syndrome helps Lionel maintain a sense of belonging and acceptance.
The way Lionel sees himself impacts not only his self-image, but also the way he communicates with people, as he identifies himself by his syndrome, and he believes that people around him do the same. Lionel has internalized a negative self-concept, and when people around him show signs of affection it is hard for him to accept them, and he prefers to hold to his negative self-image. Accordingly, he feels awkward and clumsy around people he does not know, and mostly around women.
Lionel does not have too much experience with women, and this makes him an easy victim of women’s traps. The scene in the novel that describes the conversation between Lionel and Julia is a good example of that. Julia uses this weakness of Lionel’s to obtain what she wants from him, even if Lionel realizes that she is playing with him, his manly instincts are stronger that rationality: ”I tried not to think of how she’d toyed with me, and how little I knew it meant” (118). He desperately tries to hold on to those rarely signs of attention from women.
On the contrary, in the final scene that narrates the conversation between Lionel and Julia we see a stronger and more confident Lionel. Julia cannot manipulate him, she even fears him: “Don’t hurt me Lionel” (302). Julia realizes now that Lionel is much stronger and confident, and that people rush to create an opinion about him based on his disorder. Moreover, Lionel’s feelings towards Julia change, if at the beginning of the novel he was begging for her attention, towards the end he pities her: “She [Julia] was the hardest-boiled because she was the unhappiest. She was may be the unhappiest person I’d ever met” (303). Here we, readers, begin to see the change in Lionel, it takes self-acceptance to realize that there are unhappier people, and the lack or presence of tics is not what defines happiness.
When Kimmery appeared in Lionel’s life I was somehow released that finally he found someone that understands him. Their conversations were so at ease, and Lionel even started to feel comfortable about his tics when he was with Kimmery, they would even disappear at a certain time. The fact that his tics are not that evident is a sign of the calmness of his Tourettic brain:
“’You do everything I do, ‘she whispered into my mouth.
‘I do not really need to, ‘I said again. ‘Not if we are this close.’ It was the truth.
I was never less ticcish that this” (220).
Nevertheless, Lionel scares her with his hesitations, and insecurities. He cannot stop calling her and looking for signs of affection from Kimmery, facts that make her take precautions and break their relationship: “Just stop calling now. It’s way too much like really bad things happened to me, can you understand? It’s not romantic” (260). Lionel is so excited about their relationship, and he finds difficult not to express what he feels. It is the first time when he gets attention from a woman: “And I’d never kissed a woman who hadn’t had a few [drinks] herself” (220). He does not know how to react, and how to deal with the load of feelings and emotions.
Nevertheless, I think this is a moment when Lionel realizes that he cannot control his tics, and he has to learn to live in harmony with his tics, as they are a part of him: “I was my syndrome’s dupe once again” (260). He starts to acknowledge that his tics and he is a whole, and they cannot exist separately.
An interesting fact about Lionel’s tics is that they intensify when he is nervous, but alleviate when he is calm and relaxed. The life he is having under Frank Minna is stressful, and makes him nervous and live in an uptight condition. While when he is with Kimmery, or eats, his tics are milder or disappear: “Food really mellows me down” (2). Lionel realizes this by the end of the novel, because he tries as much as possible to clear out his life from the past, and everything that connects him to that life: “You also distance yourself from cruelty, if you have any brains. I was developing a few” (303). This is the moment Lionel realize how blind he was, and did not realize that the world he was living in makes him unhappy, and once he leaves that life behind he will be able to begin a new life.
I think that if ever a movie will be done on this novel it should focus on Lionel personality, because he is such a complex character that worth to be analyzed. At a certain point I was reading the novel, and I realized that what was keeping me captivated was his way of being, and I started to suffer with him and hope for the best with him. Lionel managed to make a big step towards a different life, and change his perception, and once we, humans, learn to accept ourselves it is easier to build relationships and self-confidence.
Keating , A. L., (2008). Feminist Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1/2, The Chicana Studies Issue,
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.