It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to have Tourette’s syndrome, to be unable to contain tics and often harsh-sounding vocalizations in public. There are only so many words to explain an urge, an involuntary reaction — and there are limits to what can be imagined by someone who isn’t afflicted. In “The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of the Family,” Josh Hanagarne does an impressive job. Hanagarne, a librarian in Salt Lake City, talks about his experiences growing up with the disorder — and tells quite a memorable story along the way.
Hanagarne was a very tall, very awkward boy in a Mormon family in rural Utah and other parts of the Southwest. Raised by parents who were both very much jokers but also, when the situation called for it, no-nonsense, Hanagarne was inculcated with an offbeat sense of humor, a deeply skeptical, questioning nature, and an intense love of books. All three shine through in his memoir, which traces his winding path from childhood to his current, stable life — a path that weaves through varying degrees of belief in Mormonism, the early, scary days of his Tourette’s diagnosis, and unlikely adult interests in weight lifting and library science.
In his unique and engaging memoir, Hanagarne explains what it’s like to live with his Tourette’s, which early on proved resilient to all manner of treatment: “When I have a tic,” he explains, “whether it’s a noise or a movement, it’s similar to the urge to sneeze. There’s a pressure that builds up in my eyes if I want to blink, in my forehead if I want to wrinkle it, in my shoulders if I want to jerk them up toward my ears. . . . Wherever it is, sooner or later, I have to let it out. But the relief doesn’t last long. The pressure might fade, rebuild, and jump out again in a few seconds, a few minutes, or longer.”
It’s fascinating to get this inside view — to see it in writing without seeing the tics themselves. He names his Tourette’s Misty — “Ms. T” — and views her as an unwelcome intruder who will barge in at inopportune moments. Misty does have weaknesses, however, and Hanagarne has spent a lot of time searching for them. Over the years he’s found certain forms of focused tasks can help keep her under control, which is part of why he developed an interest in weight lifting. “Misty spoke her own language,” he explains, “but used my mouth to do it.”
There’s something appealingly nimble about Hanagarne’s narrative style — his storytelling rarely gets bogged down and is characterized by a confident, humorous liveliness, even when he’s dealing with heartbreaking subjects.
Here and there, however, “The World’s Strongest Librarian” would have benefited from a bit more detail.
But even when details are lacking, Hanagarne’s theme of resilience helps propel the story forward. And it’s not a mawkish, sappy resilience. Rather, it’s a resilience born of struggle, of copious introspection and hard work, and, as Hanagarne openly admits, protracted periods of lying on a couch, felled by the difficulty of it all.
So whether he is recounting his visit to a mystically minded chiropractor who insisted that he could cure himself by imagining himself in a “perfect, perfect circle” for a full 17 seconds, or the repeated heartbreaks he and his wife encountered in their early attempts to have a child, there’s real humanity and humility to this memoir.
Hanagarne doesn’t sidestep difficult issues of faith, disability, or family life, and he has a very interesting story to tell.
Jesse Singal, a contributing writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast and a graduate student at Princeton University, can be reached at email@example.com.