Passing for Normal: A Memoir of Compulsion


I am crazy. But maybe I am not.  For most of her life, these thoughts plagued Amy Wilensky as her mind lurched and veered in ways she didn't understand and her body did things she couldn't control. While she excelled in school and led an otherwise "normal" life, she worried that beneath the surface she was a freak, that there was something irrevocably wrong with her.  Passing for Normal is Wilensky's emotionally charged account of her lifelong struggle with the often misunderstood disorders ...

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Passing for Normal: A Memoir of Compulsion

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I am crazy. But maybe I am not.  For most of her life, these thoughts plagued Amy Wilensky as her mind lurched and veered in ways she didn't understand and her body did things she couldn't control. While she excelled in school and led an otherwise "normal" life, she worried that beneath the surface she was a freak, that there was something irrevocably wrong with her.  Passing for Normal is Wilensky's emotionally charged account of her lifelong struggle with the often misunderstood disorders Tourette's syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder.  A powerful witness to her own dysfunction, Wilensky describes the strain it bore on her relationships with the people she thought she knew best: her family, her friends, and herself.  Confronting the labels we apply to ourselves and others—compulsive, crazy, out of control—Amy describes her symptoms, diagnosis, and her treatment with courage and a healthy dose of humor, gradually coming to terms with the absurdities of a life beset by irrational behavior.  This compelling narrative, by turns tragic and comic, broadly extends our understanding of the won-drously complex human mind, and, with subtlety and grace, challenges our notion of what it is to be "normal."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A harrowing and wryly humorous story of a woman's lifelong battle with tics and obsessions and her gradual acceptance of treatment."
Village Voice

"Wilensky's emotional honesty and surprising humor make this memoir not only an informative account of diagnosis and treatment, but an exceptionally wise exploration of larger themes of difference and the need to belong."
Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Growing up is difficult enough without the added stress of an unattractive and little-understood neurological condition that causes one to twitch, pick at one's skin, hoard rotten food or step six times on each stair and manhole cover one passes. No wonder Wilensky, who didn't realize she had Tourette's syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder until she was in college, tried so hard to pass for normal. A graduate of Columbia's M.F.A. writing program, she insightfully and intimately describes the symptoms that emerged during her early school years and soon dominated her life. These tics infuriated her father, who accused her of looking "crazy" and insisted she stop. Increasingly confused, fearing for her sanity and sometimes bullied by her classmates, Wilensky managed to negotiate her way through adolescence. But when, as a Vassar student, she was plagued by insistent compulsions to harm herself, she finally sought psychiatric help. Her diagnosis was both a relief and a challenge, for it forced her to confront her own ambivalence about otherness. "If the tics and rituals were as much a part of me as the mole on the back of my neck," she muses as she considers taking medication, "then eliminating them with a pop of a pill was an eradication of my very soul." Wilensky's emotional honesty and surprising humor make this memoir not only an informative account of diagnosis and treatment, but an exceptionally wise exploration of larger themes of difference and the need to belong. Agent, Amanda Urban, ICM. Author tour. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This book concerns a frequently misunderstood psychological illness, Tourette's syndrome, which currently afflicts over 200,000 Americans. Contrary to popular belief, not all sufferers exhibit coprolalia (the involuntary utterance of offensive language); common symptoms consist of bizarre vocal and physical tics. Wilensky, a New York writer, has both Tourette's syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She describes, in intimate detail, how her life has been circumscribed by her debilitating condition. Transforming the reader into a confidante, she opens the reader's mind and heart to the plight of all Tourettic victims. Her tale is a testament to human courage, hope, and perseverance as well as a heartfelt search for personal identity that redefines the concept of "normalcy." Recommended for all public and academic libraries.--Yan Toma & Jessica Wolff, Queens Borough P.L., Flushing, NY Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A compulsive telling of what it is like to have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) combined with the vocal and muscular tics that are characteristic of Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder that runs in families. Wilensky was eight when she first developed the involuntary head and body jerks that would plague her from then on. Not long after, she found that counting up to 60 or repeating actions in multiples of six had an anxiety-relieving effect. The OCD symptoms grew to compulsions to write the alphabet repeatedly, make lists of little words from big words, to avoid (actually hate) odd numbers, to get up or move only at even times, to an ever-expanding repertoire of rites and rituals, most of which she tried to hide (now, in revealing all, the writing itself becomes excessive, elaborate, self-preoccupied). The family was convinced her problem was "psychological," and her father in particular was devastating in his criticism. (Readers will clue in early to the fact that he actually had OCD himself—of the excessive tidy-fit variety.) Because she was very bright, the endless hours in obedience to Tourette's and OCD didn't prevent her achieving well enough to go from prep school to Vassar to Columbia's graduate program in creative writing. Along the way, she managed to pass from fear and loathing at being touched to love and marriage. She was in her mid-20s when she realized she had OCD and got a referral from the family doctor. This led to the full diagnosis of Tourette's with OCD and medication—haloperidol for tics and Prozac and behavioral therapy for OCD. The new knowledge also led to Dad's diagnosis and treatment. That the diagnosis should come so late and that anintelligent family and friends should be so uninformed suggests the need for books like Wilensky's. That it has helped the author in her own journey to self-revelation is abundantly clear.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767901864
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 516,494
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Amy S. Wilensky is a graduate of Vassar College and Columbia University's M.F.A. writing program. A native of suburban Boston, she lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt


As I stood outside the imposing front doors of New York City's Hospital for Joint Diseases, I bounced up and down on the balls of my feet in a halfhearted attempt to keep warm. My eyes were watering from the wind, and I could feel ice crystals forming on my eyelashes and the ends of my still shower-damp hair. For ten minutes I'd been trying intermittently—and desperately—to convince Bryant that we should not, after all, go in.

"Is it for diseases of the joints," I asked, trying my hardest to make the question sound provocative, "or for people who've got two diseases, like leukemia and, say, diabetes?" Bryant rolled his eyes.

"Five past," he said.

Now we were late.

A man swallowed by his enormous overcoat walked by us and into the lobby, and I scanned his profile as he passed. Was he with the Tourette Syndrome Association, I wondered? Was he in fact a regular at the monthly meeting that had seemed like a much better idea back in the relative warmth and familiarity of my apartment uptown? Was I minutes away from learning his preference—even numbers or odd?—and bearing witness as he blinked or sniffed or jerked his limbs akimbo in ways that I would maybe know all too well? Impossible to tell. He looked normal, what I could make of him under that coat, but then again, so did we.

I could see my breath—it was that cold—and Bryant, for some incomprehensible reason, was lacking in hat and in scarf. He wouldn't last much longer. It was time for the big pitch. "What do you say we just go out to dinner? My treat."

For the first time all evening, Bryant looked mildly intrigued. I imagined us splurging on a bottle of red wine at the Union Square Cafe's welcoming bar and laughing conspiratorially about our lucky escape. A nice cabernet or the loony bin: It seemed as simple as that to me then, in spite of the hours I'd spent imagining all the fascinating people I'd meet in the group who also just happened to have Tourette's, people who with wit, eloquence, and engrossing personal histories would dispel my deepest fears and serve as living proof of the theory I'd been touting in public for a while, since I'd perused a book on the subject at Barnes and Noble, that many great artists—Van Gogh, for one, and Sylvia Plath—had suffered from what the world called "madness" but what was really just a blessed surplus of creativity.

My reverie came to an unceremonious halt when Bryant swilled the dregs of his soda, deposited the can in the garbage can on the sidewalk, and turned and walked inside without a backward glance, leaving me alone in front of the hospital. I watched through the glass, shivering, as he exchanged words with the receptionist at the long front desk and headed over to an elevator bank. When he pressed the button to go up, I buckled. "I'm with him," I told the woman he'd spoken with as I rushed by her, wincing each time my heavy bag smacked into my semifrozen hip. I wasn't suddenly, miraculously, ready to face the unknown quantity of the meeting, but the thought of standing there alone slowly freezing from the outside-in was by far the worse of two evils; it seemed urgent suddenly, a matter of life and death somehow, not to let Bryant out of my sight.

"Floor thirteen," I heard the receptionist call out, as the elevator doors slid shut, but Bryant had already pushed it. In the elevator, the number glowed ominously on the panel, and it occurred to me that I've always heard most buildings don't have a floor thirteen because people are "too superstitious." The irony was almost funny. I knew what floor we were supposed to go to anyway; I'd practically memorized the instructions the group's facilitator had left on my answering machine in a too-warm tone that fell just short of its desired effect: to make me think I was being invited to an exclusive party, a ceremonious event of some prestige. Great—now she knows, I couldn't help but think of the receptionist. A hospital is just the kind of place in which I like to "pass." In my experience, most people feel relief, not compassion, most intensely in a hospital; it's certainly true for me, and even when I am seeking treatment of some kind myself and not just visiting, I always experience inevitable self-congratulatory pangs at my own generally good health. I thought about asking Bryant his opinion on the appropriation of "passing" as related to Tourette's, but when I looked over it was clear that panic had rendered him incapable of semantic debate. His eyes were blinking worse than I'd ever seen, forcefully and rapid-fire, and his sniffing was worse than the blinks. On most days, his signature tics are taken for allergy symptoms; no allergy could have provoked these movements. My sinuses veritably ached for him; sniffing that intensely and rapidly results in piercing pain leading directly to disorienting light-headedness. It was also true that group therapy, as a concept, was even more alien to Bryant than to me; I would have bet my savings account he didn't know a single person in his Alabama hometown who'd ever been to see a shrink one-on-one, let alone with a bunch of other would-be wackos. When the bell dinged, signifying our arrival, I set all thoughts of Bryant's certain culture shock aside, however; on the thirteenth floor, there would be no passing for either one of us.

AT SIX, BRYANT had shown up at my place and made polite conversation with Ben and Nicole, my then fiance and our roommate, both of whose interest in our intended destination had become a little too prurient for my liking over the course of the preceding week. Alone on the sidewalk I breathed a sigh of relief, free at last from the specimen tray. Bryant, whatever his faults or neuroses, was guaranteed not to ask me idiotic questions about group therapy in general and this group therapy in particular, questions like: How are you going to talk to each other if you're all ticcing at the same time? And, more annoying, Will you try to remember the good tics so you can do them for us later?

Generally, I am good about jokes. Sometimes I even encourage them, as a simultaneous means of diffusing tension and appearing well adjusted. Ben and Nicole, and Caroline and Alison, my oldest friend and sister, respectively, take it for granted that my tics are open territory and accuse me of princess-posturing at the slightest complaint. As much as I hate to admit it, they've each developed and fine-tuned an ability to distinguish between manipulative self-pity and genuine despair. But I'd stopped asking them to help with my behavioral therapy because they clearly derived an excess of pleasure in serving as the human equivalents of rubber bands on my wrist. I gritted my teeth when they provided frequent "helpful" status reports and unsolicited constructive reminders—"It's pretty bad tonight (Thanks so much, I wasn't aware of it), did you take your medication?"—or called me Twitchy or Sniffy as if it were the cleverest thing they'd ever thought up. I mustered up a reasonable facsimile of a smile when they held contests to determine who was best able to imitate particular tics, scrunching up their faces and thrashing their heads and hands around in what I considered a travesty of an impression at best. But somehow they hadn't seemed to realize this was different. Different from talking about Tourette's with them or our other close friends, different from discussing it as subject matter in a writing workshop, different even from writing about it, guardedly, in a national magazine, different from anything I'd ever experienced.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 4
1 Shades of Groucho 9
2 Bodies in Motion Stay in Motion 40
3 Passing for Normal 64
4 The Body/Mind Connection, or Lack Thereof 74
5 The Worse Before the Better 101
6 Seismic Shifts 116
7 And Then There Were Two 145
8 Coming to Terms 170
9 The Gift that Keeps on Giving 188
Afterword 208
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2005


    Real funny stuff. This is the kind of memoir anyone can enjoy. I read it in two days and talked about it for five. Good luck to the author!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2000

    Wow someone like me!

    I read this book, and it made me cry. To see someone bring out the emotion and sadness of this disease. I thank-you for making me feel not so alone. K.D Townsend author

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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