Addiction, Schizophrenia, Dyslexia: All in the Family
Professor Jason Tougaw is a master of blending the findings of neuroscience with the storytelling techniques of the novel.
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, a professor at Queens College and The Graduate Center, CUNY, spoke to the GC about his book and his interest in the science of consciousness.
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.
Explore This Work
The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism
Dzank Books, 2017
Jason Tougaw (Professor, Liberal Studies) | Profile
Addiction, Schizophrenia, Dyslexia: All in the Family (GC News)