Don’t let your struggle become your identity.

By Chelsea Silva-Martin


As a student studying psychology, and focusing on neurological disorders, Motherless Brooklyn was a particularly interesting read for me. It is evident that Jonathan Lethem took the time to properly research Tourette’s syndrome, as he reached a level of depth that demonstrates not only what it’s like to have the disorder, but what it’s like to have to interact with the world differently because of it. This enabled him to integrate Lionel, an orphan, with realistic character traits, whilst accurately depicting a character with Tourette’s syndrome. Lionel overcomes a series of obstacles while interacting with others with his unique and resoundingly optimistic attitude, his own coping mechanism that works for him, with a twist of comical absurdity. Lionel’s identity in the novel is shaped by his Tourette’s syndrome, which was used expertly by Lethem to demonstrate how individuals with disorders are hyper aware of their surroundings and social interactions as they are constantly having to fit into a social order that is not designed for them.

Lionel could not have said it any better: “context is everything” (1). He tries desperately to act the way the other Minna Men would want him to be by composing himself in a way that he believes he ought to. His disorder is out of his control, yet only a few have shown him the time of day and accepted him for the way he is. It is fundamental to recognize that it is possible to have many different reactions to the same situation, in Lionel’s case his replies are unpredictable. According to an online source;

“cognitive theory states that human responses are governed by emotions, which actually cloud our logic (cognition). Humans have a certain range of motions:  laughing, crying, anger etc, and how we display these emotions is known as our response. Our responses to different situations depend on several things. It depends upon the situation at hand, which is known in psychological terms as the stimulus” (Carol Roach).

The most compelling aspect of Lionel’s identity, is his ability to be hyper-aware. His involuntary responses to situations may be influenced by his disorder, his experiences growing up in an orphanage, or by his involvements working for L&L, Frank Minna’s limo service detective agency. During one of the Minna Men stakeouts, Coney directs Lionel to keep his eyes up: “Eyes up? I said. Eyes out. Chin up. Correcting him was an involuntary response to stress” (14).  He knows himself better than anybody, constantly acknowledging how his actions are impacting the people around him. Lionel explains, “my tics and obsessions kept the other Minna Men amused, but also wore them out, made them weirdly compliant and complicit” (5). It’s difficult to address these kinds of moments in a movie, when Lionel’s feelings and thoughts have such a critical impact on the story, rather than just how he acts around other characters. From a reader’s perspective, we can tell that sometimes Lionel lashes out, or feels his tics taking control but try’s everything he can to keep them under the radar. This is often an involuntary response to stress (14).

After Minna’s death, Lionel goes to his apartment to tell his wife Julia the news. There’s a strong sense of Minna’s presence in the apartment, even in Julia. He fears that if he lets her leave, then the feeling of Franks presence would vanish as well: “this was an uncomfortable feature of Tourette’s – my brain would throw up ugly fantasies, glimpses of pain, disasters narrowly averted. After failing Minna I wanted to protect someone, and Julia would do” (100). Feeling responsible for Minna’s death, and his own pain, and has the desire to protect others from the same sensation. Lionel takes Minnas death to heart and struggles in the beginning to accept the pain it brings him.

While walking with the homicide detective, the pressure of Lionel’s urges was bubbling towards his breaking point, “I tried to silence myself, walk quickly toward the sandwich shop, and keep my eyes down, so that the detective would be out of range of my shoulder-scope. No good, I was juggling too much, and when I reticced, it came out a bellow: “Tourette Is The Shitman!” (110) He continues to burden himself by trying to be accepted in a society that discourages anybody who is “different”. Altruistically however, he eventually realizes that he will live a higher quality of life once he learns to accept himself.

Being hyper-aware adds depth and meaning to the novel because we sympathize with Lionel, since we are allowed to see how he reacts to his own reactions and objections. As the story goes on, Lethem is constantly providing the audience with perspective into Lionel’s mind. To my understanding, patients with neurological disorders are more prone to have intensified sexual impulses. They crave the attention they’re sometimes neglected, therefore taking it to the extreme at times, latching onto anything or anybody that will give them the time of day. To complicate this concept a little more, Lionel’s an orphan who was rejected before anybody got the chance to see who he would become. Making his drive to attain love and affection all the more powerful. Both his disorder and being abandoned at such a young age contributes to his persistent search for validity from a female source. Luckily for Lionel, “sexual excitement stills [his] Tourette’s brain” (103). However, it may also cause him to act spontaneously before processing his intentions. Lionel is in touch with his intuition:

“I like you, too, Julia. There’s nothing – Screwtony! Nertscrony! Screwtsony! Tootscrewny! – sorry. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“I want you to like me, Lionel.”

“You’re – you’re not saying there could actually be something between us? “I turned and slapped the doorframe six times, feeling my face curdle with shame, regretting the question instantly – wishing, for once, that I’d ticked instead” (105).

 This clearly resulted in Lionel feeling embarrassed, and vulnerable, and the audience is immediately able to feel his raw emotions.  When he says he regrets his reaction instantly, he knows the others think he’s odd and unusual. However, he continues to seek acceptance despite people have unattainably high standards for how he should act, and only a few treat him with respect by accepting him for who he truly is. The more he tries to mimic the social standards of the majority, the more we can feel the tension in him rise. So much so that the reader can’t help but feel a sense of relief for Lionel when he releases his pent up tics. In other words, when he tries to act like everybody else, he has a difficult time, and feels terrible, yet when he is fully himself and releases his tics, it can be very therapeutic in a sense. Holding them in sometimes causes more damage, than good. “Eat shit, Bailey! My tics were always worse when I was nervous, stress kindling my Tourette’s” (11). Here Lionel admits that stress is the root to his Tourette tic outbursts, as pressure builds up until he can’t help but let loose his tics.

Lionel is very conscience of how others observe him, which makes him less confident than the others when it comes to women. This would be a perfect opportunity to show Lionel’s sensitive side, while still keeping the tone of the film light and humorous. Kimmery is the other woman in the novel, the one that boosts Lionel’s confidence, and gives him hope that there’s somebody out there that could really truly love him for who he is, rather than being defined by his Tourette’s. “I felt a thrill at being taken so seriously” (143). Sacrificing it all with Kimmery, in order to pursue his only other priority. “In the city on the other side of the door a giant killer lurched around unafraid, and it was my job to find him” (Lethem, 217). This adds dimension to the novel because he would rather sacrifice his own love affair to avenge the death of his beloved mentor.

In conclusion, when asked who I thought would be suitable to play the role of Lionel in a film, I thought to myself that you, Ed Norton would be impeccable. Being clearly passionate about this project, a filmmaker, and an actor with an abundance of experience, it seems as thought you were meant for this opportunity. Incorporating Lionel and his hyper-awareness, his need for approval, and his need for female companionship are all significant elements in the novel, it wouldn’t be the same story without using those elements as your foundation for the film.

Works Cited

Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. New York: Doubleday, 1999. Print.

Roach, Carol. “Why People React Differently to the Very Same Situations.” All Articles RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. <;.



One thought on “Don’t let your struggle become your identity.

  1. I really like how you’ve incorporate your program of study and your prior knowledge into this essay. It makes for a unique perspective on Lionel’s character. You offer a solid psychological portrait of some of the struggles that Lionel goes through in this novel. Focusing on his hyper-sensitivity was an effective choice. Nicely done.


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