In Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Lionel welcomes us with open arms into his world of Tourette’s. Mr. Norton, I would like to present to you my own version of Lionel, a version that brings out his uniqueness and his two distinguishable worlds: one being on the outside, and the second living inside of him. Lionel, the crazy man, the detective who would not last a day in today’s world, the man who lives in two universes. Now, that’s something worth noticing. When you think of it though, we all live in two worlds. We all have something going on in our heads that nobody knows about. Individuals are not psychic, they see us the way we portray ourselves, that image of ourselves we work so hard on to display in public. This brings me back to Lionel, and the show he puts on in the eyes of the other characters. In order to truly understand Lionel, we need to have a look at both his outside behaviour and interior world.
Only Lionel and the reader, who have access to Lionel’s mind, understand that Tourette Syndrome is its own world, its own name, and its own invisible person. From the very beginning of the novel we are introduced to Lionel’s disease: Tourette’s. Unable to grasp the severity and impact of this disease, Lionel explains that Tourette’s “is [his] whole life” (2). According to Lionel, this disorder defines him, it is his only identity. This makes readers feel bad for Lionel and evokes feelings of pity as it is hard to imagine one aspect of yourself defining it as a whole. We know about the identity issues Lionel struggles with, but the other character’s do not. As Julia flees the city, Lionel unwillingly engages in a conversation alone with an insensitive detective on the murder case:
“Tourette Is the Shitman!”
“He’s the shitman, huh?” The detective apparently thought we
were exchanging up-to-the-minute street jargon.
“Can you take me to him?” (110)
He’s just a crazy man, it’s almost funny! That is basically how the detective is reacting to Lionel’s outburst. Lionel blurts out this thought giving Tourette’s “Shitman” (110) as a name. This introduces some humour into the novel, we probably should not laugh though. Although Lionel has no control over the words that are chosen, this name “Shitman” cannot help but make us giggle. However, we know the severity of the situation which can stop the reader’s mocking attitude. On the other hand, the detective replies by jokingly asking Lionel to take him to this man, this “Shitman”, as if Tourette was a real person. In one way, Tourette was a person in itself, a mind of its own. However, the detective would not understand what is meant by that, so might as well make a joke. In unusual situations, it is human nature to laugh at was is different even though we do not mean any harm. Is Lionel subconsciously trying to make a joke out of his disease with these comically selected words? To the detective, the answer would probably be yes. To the reader, we know that Lionel has no control. Earlier on, Lionel begins to describe a boy who also has Tourette’s, a disease they both share. He concludes his story by explaining that “A Touretter can also be The Invisible Man” (46). Along with the boy he was describing, Lionel feels invisible. More precisely, “Touretter” (46) is invisible. Lionel’s disease has its own mind which would be known as his inside world that hides from the outside. Others cannot know what is not visible to them, and for this reason nobody else can understand what is truly going on in Lionel’s mind. Only the Touretter and fellow Touretters themselves can. The reader wants Lionel to be visible, and we want others to understand him like we do. Having the inside view of Lionel’s world, the reader is able to feel contrasting emotions from the way Tourette’s impacts Lionel’s outside world.
Unable to perceive life through Lionel’s mind, Kimmery, Tony, and the detective react insensitively in response Lionel’s actions. After Lionel meets Kimmery, he develops strong feelings for her. The result of this love: rejection. After Lionel called one too many times, Kimmery complains about Lionel’s obsession towards her: “Just stop calling now. It’s way too much like some really bad things that have happened to me, can you understand?” (260). Kimmery does not realize the impact of her words on Lionel. Lionel has always felt he was not good enough, and this rejection made this feeling grow deeper. Finally, Lionel has found a source of love which is something he has been seeking his entire lonely life and with ease, Kimmery shuts him down. Kimmery’s response proves that she underestimates and does not understand part of Lionel’s inner conflict: his need for love. It is ironic when Kimmery asks if Lionel understood her, as if she understood anything about Lionel’s life. In addition to Kimmery’s frustration for Lionel’s obsession, her response is insensitive and aggressive because she does know what Lionel is truly feeling. She also does not know that Lionel cannot control how many times he calls. Tony, Lionel’s coworker, is yet another character who disrespects him. Throughout the novel’s duration, Lionel dedicated his life to finding Frank Minna’s killer. Lionel wishes to discuss the crime with Tony and gently asks if he could have been responsible for his death. Tony responded aggressively: “The problem with you, Lionel, is you don’t know anything about how the world really works” (184). Doesn’t he though? Lionel has had Tourette’s his entire life and is able to distinguish the outside world’s reality from the inside of his Tourettic mind. The issue is that Tony cannot make that distinction which often leads to Lionel seeming clueless and stupid. Through Tony’s eyes, Lionel is solving the crime as if it were some game, which explains how Tony views him: a child. Another character who does not take Lionel seriously is the detective questioning him after Julia fled. Speaking to this detective made Lionel nervous: an emotion that triggered his tics. Throughout their conversation he was shouting out words such as “Skursvshe” (114) and “fuckmeblackcop” (114). The detective took these outbursts to heart and shouts, “’Enough with the double-talk,’…‘What’s the game?‘” (114). The cop refers to Lionel’s tics as “double-talk” (114) and believes that Lionel is playing some sort of game to avoid revelling true information about the crime. Unable to understand Lionel’s inside world, and its uncontrollable words, the cop is frustrated and left to believe that Lionel is simply childish. The characters react selfishly and inconsiderately towards Lionel because they do not understand his inside world.
Being misunderstood by the other characters in the novel leads Lionel to questioning his self-worth and place in society in relation to his Tourettes. The characters in the novel react to Lionel as though they do not know the impact they leave on him. Kimmery rejects Lionel, and both Tony and the detective see him as a child playing games. He is stupid in their eyes, he is a joke. Lionel feels as though he has been “Plucked up by the outside world and seated in the dark” (38). Lionel is alone in the dark as he only shares his world with himself. The outside world leaves him in the dark, unnoticed, and irrelevant. He explains that Tourette’s has taught him how society works, and how this outside world selects those who work their right way. Tourette’s has taught Lionel that the outside worlds sees him as “the intolerable, the incongruous, and disruptive” (43). The thing is that society is not even aware of what they are doing to Lionel. The outside world is selfish and will not care for things they do not know. They do not understand Lionel, and they never will unless of course they read this book. An inside view of the outside world is crucial to understanding who Lionel is an individual.
Mr. Norton, do you ever think to yourself: “They just don’t get me”? Well, Lionel does every day. Unfortunately, nobody will ever truly understand him. I say we give this movie a shot and finally give those suffering from Tourette’s an opportunity to show their interior world to those on the outside.
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. New York: Doubleday, 1999. Print.