From tourettic freak to virtuous detective

By Jemirille Bajala-Tuazon

Dear Mr. Norton,

I am very pleased that you have come to me to ask for help and I am looking forward to making Motherless Brooklyn into a movie. I am a fan of Jonathan Lethem’s masterpiece myself, therefore I think I may have an interesting idea for your project. In my opinion, what makes this story so captivating is the main character, Lionel. As an audience, we easily get attached to him for we know his thoughts and feelings inside out. We sympathize with him so much because, despite his Tourette’s, we know that he is just like us all. Someone who needs love, acceptance and independence.  My suggestion is that we concentrate on his quest for his self-identity, because I believe that it is the main idea  that runs throughout the book. Also, it is a topic that we all can relate to. We have that same mission every single day. At the end of the day, our life is basically our journey to finding who are we meant to be.

From the beginning, it is evident that Lionel suffers from self-identity from the way he was different from the other boys at the orphanage. He simply had no explanation for his random outburst and sudden urges to touch everything within his reach. So, he would hide in the library away from everyone who would mock him. Until the day he met Frank Minna. He was the person that encouraged Lionel to use his Tourette’s to his advantage and embrace it. When he brought him to some business negotiations, he would bring Lionel as an extra pair of ears and eyes but especially for the use of his tics:

“With Minna’s encouragement I freed myself to ape the rhythm of his overhead dialogues, his complaints and endearments, his for-the-sake of arguments. And Minna loved my effect on his clients and associates the way I’d unnerve them, disrupt some schmooze with an utterance, ahead jerk, a husky “Eatmebailey!” I was his special effect, a running joke embodied” (57).

Frank saw Lionel differently than how the others did. He loved his random outburst and how it would agitate the clients pushing them out of their ease. Unlike other people, Frank did not see Lionel’s odd behaviour as a nuisance but more as a benefit for his work. He was actually even amused by it. Even as he is dying in the backseat of the car, Frank wants a laugh:

“Minna smiled. ‘You know what I want out of you, Freakshow?’ Tell me a joke. You got one you been saving, you must. Minna and I had been joke-telling contest since I was thirteen year old, primarily because he liked to see me try to get through without ticking. It was rare that I could” (25).

The joke-telling contest shows the special relationship between Minna and Lionel because it represents the appreciation of his tics. He simply loved putting Lionel up for a challenge because he knew Lionel more than anyone else and that his tics often get the best of him. Even as he calls him Freakshow while giving him a smile, it symbolizes an affectionate nickname towards Lionel, because it is not said in a mocking or insulting tone, but more of a friendly inside joke that is between them.
That is, Lionel allowed himself to give into his tics and soothe that itch. Frank taught Lionel to let his words go and to see it as a natural part of himself. Since then, he primarily identified himself by his Tourette’s, depending on Minna till the day he died.

Following Frank Minna’s death, Lionel’s character changes making him search for a new way to identity himself. When Frank died, in a way, Lionel felt like he lost a part of himself for he made him discover his Tourette’s. Frank  was very important to Lionel and all Minna Men. He taught them all they knew and guided them into growing up as men: “Minna Men stands behind Minna… Minna Men follow instructions. Minna men try to be like Minna, but Minna is dead” (90). They have always looked up to him and even wanted to become like him. They strongly admired him and they were loyal to him till the end of his days. Without Frank, they were lost and had no one to guide them. We can see that they were very dependent of him. They all followed his orders but they were not truly connected with one another. For example, in the office, Lionel and his partner Danny are drifting apart after Minna’s death :

“Danny came out of the back, stubbing a cigarette in the countertop ashtray… He glanced at me and Loomis and pursed his lips but didn’t speak, and I couldn’t really get anything out of his eyes. I felt I didn’t know him with Minna gone” (124).


It’s as if they were all knotted together thanks to Minna, for he was one of the few things that the boys had in common. Other than the jobs they were assigned to do, they never really bonded together. So, it was difficult for Lionel to trust any of them. As a result, he decides to find the killer on his own without relying on the rest of the group. He wants to prove that he is capable of taking the situation in hand despite his condition. He was always been looked down on for not being weak and not more assertive or independent. By acting like Frank Minna,  he felt as maybe he had the chance to be admired and to be respected just like Frank. So, he played the part trying to be like Frank by wearing his watch and beeper but especially trying to act like him: “‘Tony, it’s me,’ I said. ‘Essrog’. That was the way how Minna always started a phone call: Lionel, it’s Minna. You’re the first name, I’m the last. In other words: You’re the jerk and I’m the jerk’s boss” (153). It is evident here that Lionel wants to be powerful one by acting as the leader. He wants to replace Frank, to fill in the missing puzzle piece in his identity, but this only leads Lionel to being on the search to find his true self-identity.

Acting like Frank Minna pushes Lionel to be more bold and courageous which made him step out of his comfort zone. However, the more he tried to become like Frank, the more he realized that he couldn’t be him: ” See me now, at one in the morning…collar up against the cold like Minna, unshaven like Minna… That’s who I was supposed to be..Here’s who I was instead: that same coloring-book outline of a man, but crayoned by the hand of a mad or carefree or retard child, wild shalshes of idiot color…” (226). It is clear to him that being exactly like Minna isn’t who he is, even if he wanted to. He saw himself as an inconsistent and crazy mess. The wild colors representing his different unpredictable and uncontrollable tics and his childish ways. However, his difference with Minna is what makes him interesting. It all depends on the perpective. For Kimmery, his tics were something that excite her during their intimate time: ” I like, um, I like it when you talk. When you makes sounds” (222).


She had a different approach to his unusual behaviour and had a grown a genuine appreciation to it. Moreover, Lionel could not possibly be Minna when the Minna he looked up to was based on lies. Frank was not truly as admirable, powerful and sincere as he carried himself. In the Zendo, Gerard reveals the true side of Frank: “My brother taught you only what he knew, and not even all of that. He kept you charmed and flattered but also in the dark, so your sense of even his small world was diminished, two-dimensional” (231). Frank obviously raised the Minna Men only to use them to his advantage for his business. He was a thief and somehow he was no different from Matricardi and Rockaforte. He was using others for their benefit just like them. He kept Lionel in the dark, unaware of anything, making him only see what he wanted him to see. Lionel was so gullible and ignorant, so he saw only the good in Frank. Finally slowly seeing Minna’s flaws, all the Minna Men chose to become a better person than he was: ” L&L was a detective agency, a clean one for the first time. So clean we didn’t have any clients” (306). They decided to continue the business without any scheming and by being genuine. This allowed the Minna Men to be their true selves around each other, bringing them closer than they ever were. We can see the ease within the group as they play poker together: We sat together in the L&L storefront at two in the morning, playing poker, on the counter, listening to Boyz 2 Men, courtesy of Danny. Now that Frank and Tony were Gone, Danny could play the sort of music he liked” (304-305).


We learn here a very interesting fact on Danny and his taste of music that have we never expected of him. It shows his romantic and sensitive side. Danny is finally comfortable in just being himself around the others and this represents the friendship that has developed. They’re not simple just partners anymore. They’ve became friends. Lionel has found a place where he is accepted as he is. It seems that at the end of the day, he didn’t really need to change at all. He simply had to believe in himself for others to do so too. He was not meant to be the leader. He had his own role in the group, being the “Freakshow” and he was just as important as every one of them.

The moral of the story is  that we all wonder who are we truly or who are we meant to be, but we simply need to trust in ourselves and to be true. There is no true good in trying to be anyone else, because those who truly care will accept you as you are. As Oscar Wilde says : “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”


Work cited 

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




One thought on “From tourettic freak to virtuous detective

  1. This is an excellent essay. Really, really good. You do a really nice job of showing us the journey that Lionel undergoes in this novel. What stands out to me is how well-structured this piece is. It moves very logically from one point to the next. Because of it’s excellent structure, the arguments you make are really convincing. In addition to this, you use excellent evidence from the novel. The citations you use are pregnant with meaning, and you do a great job of unpacking this meaning. You make terrific connections between different parts of the novel. Your writing is polished, professional, clean, and engaging. You’re a very good writer. You handle the mechanical elements, such as integrating citations, very well. On the whole, this essay demonstrates a thorough engagement with the novel, and a lot of hard work. It’s really first rate. You should be quite proud of what you’ve accomplished here. Congratulations.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s