Addiction, Schizophrenia, Dyslexia: All in the Family

Professor Jason Tougaw seated in front of a whiteProfessor Jason Tougaw (GC/Queens, English and Liberal Studies) is a master of blending the findings of neuroscience with the storytelling techniques of the novel. He is the author of Strange Cases: The Medical Case History and the British Novel (Routledge, 2006) and the editor, with Nancy K. Miller, of Extremities: Trauma, Testimony, and Community (University of Illinois Press, 2002).
Book Cover of "The One You Get"His most recent book, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (Dzanc Books, 2017), won the Dzanc 2017 Nonfiction Prize and was called “brilliant and beautiful” by the Los Angeles Times. A memoir of his childhood in 1970s Southern California, it tells the stories of Tougaw’s counterculture parents and explores, with in-depth passages on neuroscience, his family’s experiences with addiction and schizophrenia, along with his own dyslexia.
Tougaw will be appearing on a Graduate Center panel on March 2 with Siri Hustvedt, novelist and lecturer in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, and neuroscientist Joseph E. LeDoux of New York University’s Center for Neural Science. Tougaw recently spoke to the Graduate Center about his latest book, his interest in the science of consciousness, and his work in progress.
GC: You were raised on “tall tales,” believing that “science was the enemy.” How and when did your perspective change?

Tougaw: I’ve wondered about this, and I don’t think there’s any single explanation for how I ended up getting interested in science. Partly it was because I was fascinated by consciousness — particularly with how writers like Jane Austen, Henry James, Ralph Ellison, and Christopher Isherwood experimented with representing it in literature. Because of that, I wanted to find out something about the science of consciousness, both historically and in contemporary terms. The more I read, the more fascinated I became. The science of consciousness has been wrestling with how to develop methods that can encompass the subjective experience of actual people. That brings up a huge range of intellectual questions and debates, many of which touch our lives every day. 
Another version of the story is about my family. There’s a lot of mental illness and addiction in my family, and our family lore — those tall tales — is sort of a pseudo-scientific story about a problem with our blood or genes. The irony is that genuine medical science has a really hard time grappling with both mental illness and addiction. Again, it comes back to subjectivity. Every person is a little different. Every brain is a little different. We are still quite far from understanding the multifarious relations between physiology and identity. If you add the cultural or social to that picture, then things get really bewildering. So the science brought me back to the bewilderment my family’s lore had always celebrated. 
GC: Have you studied science formally? If not, how did you do the research for the book?

Tougaw: I haven’t studied science formally, but I’ve read a lot on my own. I’ve befriended some neuroscientists and talked with them. I work with scholars in interdisciplinary groups like the Memory Network, based in the U.K., and the Neurocultures and Neuroaesthetics research group at the University of Amsterdam. I also had an amazing semester on Mellon Fellowship in Science Studies at the Graduate Center. That was a huge help in developing my thinking, along with other CUNY faculty. 
GC: You  describe being diagnosed with dyslexia. Could you explain what you see as the link between becoming a writer and professor of literature, and your “brain's atypical relationship to black and white marks on a page”?

Jason Tougaw as a young child, hands clasped at his chest

Jason Tougaw as a young boy

Tougaw: Like most forms of neurological difference, dyslexia can’t be defined very precisely. The term means, roughly, “language problem.” Most forms of dyslexia involve a range of perceptual peculiarities. My feeling is that it’s about the shapes of letters and spatial relations. Reading involves making sense of shapes on a page — in space. When it comes to my own history of reading, I think it was important that I never took the meanings of those shapes for granted. They always seemed malleable. That meant they were open to interpretation. I could do things with them. I could experiment. I could make something new happen. These qualities turn out to be useful for a writer and literary critic. 
GC: There’s a scene in the book where you describe an operation you endured as an infant, without anesthesia. Is it still considered true that infants don't feel pain? 

Tougaw: I think there’s still a common cultural belief that babies don’t feel pain. Of course, it’s hard to know what a baby feels. But the American Academy of Pediatrics is quite clear these days: Babies feel pain. The problem is what to do about it, when it comes to something like surgery. Pain medications are dangerous for infants, so they’re only used when absolutely necessary. 
GC: What are you working on now, or planning to work on next?

Tougaw: I have a scholarly book coming out in April: The Elusive Brain: Literary Experiments in the Age of Neuroscience [Yale]. I’m more or less finished with a novel that deals with some questions about science, art, consciousness, and identity. It’s been fun to explore these topics in various genres and see how each form allows me to think or what questions it opens up. 

Submitted on: FEB 28, 2018

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