Until I read Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem's novel about a detective suffering from Tourette's, most of my familiarity with Gilles de la Tourette syndrome involved jokes about people who uncontrollably shout profanity.
But Tourette's is far more complex and really not funny. The nervous disorder can cause involuntary tics, rapid blinking, grunting, humming, shouting, and other movements and sounds. According to a fascinating story in today's Washington Post, Tourette's is "most commonly compared to a really, really bad itch. You don't want to scratch it, but the longer you wait to scratch, the more it itches, and the more you can't stop thinking about it, until you can't think about anything else."
Most people suffering from Tourette's understandably avoid the spotlight, but lately the syndrome is showing up more in pop culture beyond punchlines. For more on Tourette's and its connection to creativity,
Tourette's is four times more likely to affect men than women and often shows up during childhood. Despite the jokes, the inability to resist the urge to spew curse words is pretty uncommon. What may be common, however, is an incidence of Tourette's among creative types.
The Washington Post story speculates that Mozart, Samuel Johnson, and Thelonious Monk may have had Tourette's, and sufferers often find that when they concentrate on something creative, it eases their tics. Cartoonist Jeff Koterba, a Tourette's sufferer with a Twitter feed he calls Latest Twitch, learned about this potential connection the day he was diagnosed. As he writes in his illustrated memoir, Inklings, "Dr. M explains that many, if not all, of those suffering from this syndrome are musicians, artists, photographers, writers."
Perhaps it's no coincidence that we're seeing more representations of Tourette's in pop culture. On this season's American Idol, contestant David Pittman talked about his Tourette's, and the show aired a segment exploring his struggle. The detective with Tourette's novel, Motherless Brooklyn, could soon be a movie. At least it promises to be more sensitive to Tourette's sufferers than Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. Have you known anyone with Tourette's?
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