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Review of "Passing for Normal"

By Amy S. Wilensky
Broadway Books, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Mar 13th 2001
Passing for NormalAmy Wilensky's memoir is about her experience of obsessive compulsive disorder and Tourette's syndrome. She was born in 1969, so she is still starting her career--she went to Vassar College and also graduated from Columbia University's M.F.A. writing program. She is married and lives in New York City. I heard her recently on National Public Radio, reporting on a cheese expert, I seem to recall. So this is not the kind of memoir where we learn of the author's suicide attempts and multiple hospitalizations, and the great achievement of her life is simply to simply to have lived to tell the tale. On the other hand, it's clear that living with OCD and Tourette's is no picnic either.

Wilensky grew up knowing that she is different from other people, but it wasn't until she was in college that she even suspected that there was a name for her condition. She grew up with the fear that she was crazy, and she made a great deal of effort to cover up her compulsions and tics, and avoided situations where they would be exposed. She managed to have friends, to do well in school, and even to have a romantic life in college, partly by surrounding herself with people who were tolerant and didn't comment on her weird movements or strange habits. She hates to have people point out her strange behavior, because it makes her feel especially self-conscious. I wonder how ambivalent she feels drawing so much attention to herself by writing this memoir.

Maybe the most interesting aspect of Wilensky's book is the connection between OCD and Tourette's. Both conditions have their own mythologies and stereotypes. Recently Anne Heche played a character with Tourette's on Ally McBeal, and there was a well-known character on LA Law who had Tourette's also. Jack Nicholson played a lovable rogue with OCD in the movie As Good As It Gets where is wasn't clear to what extent his eloquent nastiness to others was a symptom or a compensation for his compulsive habits and his fear of rejection. For most of us non-experts, we learn as much about these disorders from their depiction in TV and movies as we do from popular psychology books and memoirs. It is easy to become confused about what really is and is not part of OCD, for instance. Wilensky's memoir confirms that to some extent different cases of OCD manifest quite differently, and there's a continuum of symptoms that overlap between OCD and Tourette's.

It's clear from Wilensky's account that it was a great relief to her that she had a diagnosis, and that there was an explanation of her behavior other than that she is crazy. Still, she also makes it clear that receiving a diagnosis is not the end of the story: there is no magic cure for either OCD or Tourette's, even when she is on large doses of medication and has gone through behavioral therapy. She warmly recommends patient groups and the different association devoted to working as advocates for people with these two conditions, but nevertheless, it is clearly unnerving for her to attend her first local meeting of the Tourette Syndrome Association. She recounts the episode with bittersweet humor. Meeting fellow sufferers doesn't provide an automatic support network.

The best written and most illuminating part of the book, for this reviewer at least, is the last chapter, where she explains how she eventually came to realize that her father also had OCD and that his mother also had it. It is amazing that even after she has received her own diagnosis, she failed to connect it with her father's rigid habits. She had spent so many years feeling judged by him about her tics, and had been relieved to be able to tell him that they were the result of a neurological disease. When finally he also received a diagnosis, she was able to be less judgmental towards him. She does not discuss her thoughts about having children and the worry that she would pass on Tourette's or OCD onto her offspring, but surely it is a topic she has pondered.

But for the most part Wilensky's memoir is frank and competently written. Other sufferers of these conditions will find it interesting and useful to compare their own lives to hers. Relatives and friends of people with OCD or Tourette's will also learn much through reading this book. Anyone can identify with the emotions of shame and self-consciousness and the hope that that self-understanding can provide to people who are odd in some way.

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