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Thursday, October 11, 2012
Review: Welcome to Biscuitland by Jessica Thom
The nation’s attention was turned, as perhaps it never had been before, on the extraordinary and varied talents of disabled people in the Paralympics. Ticket sales hit a record high for these events, and there was a palpable sense that they were every bit as gripping and awe-inspiring as the Olympics. It was also an opportunity for some self-reflection for many of us, on our own attitudes to disability. For my part, I realised how shamefully seldom I consider the issue at all, and how little I really know about the everyday lives of those living with disability. It was a joy and an eye-opener then, to read Jessica Thom’s new book, ‘Welcome to Biscuit Land: A Year in the Life of Touretteshero’.
Thom’s Tourettes, which is unusually more apparent in her adult life than it was in her childhood, means that she exhibits a variety of verbal and physical tics. Most sentences are punctuated repeatedly by the word ‘biscuit’, and she sometimes utters involuntary profanities as well as surreal statements and even entire poems. Added to this, and more debilitating in terms of her mobility and safety, are physical tics that cause her to thump herself in the chest and fall to the floor unexpectedly.
The book is twelve months worth of diary entries, taken from Thom’s popular blog. Touretteshero.com is where Thom publishes the eccentric outbursts generated by her condition and asks people to vote on the most amusing, or to interpret them in artistic ways. It is an innovative way of challenging people’s perceptions of a famously controversial and misunderstood disability.
The book is a manifesto of positivity. Thom says she started it in order to “look for ways to acknowledge and celebrate my tics, rather than ignore them and the increasing impact they were having on my life.” She describes her tics fondly as “rude, funny, shocking, poetic, biscuity and surreal.” By doing this, Jessica bravely forces her condition into a context that she can control, and prevents it from swamping her personality. It is endearing that someone who is frequently laughed at by ignorant members of the public can still laugh at herself, and approach the world with such level-headed optimism.
Although it has an engaging enough subject in itself, as always when a reader is made to view the world from a drastically different perspective, the book is made especially readable because of Jessica’s affable and eloquent writing style, and her open and generous character.
Thom is frank about the negative impact of the condition on her everyday life. Part of this is due to the manifestations of Tourettes itself. The injuries she frequently incurs because of outbursts of physical tics, the lack of sleep caused by unceasing involuntary movement and the mobility difficulties engendered by unpredictable collapses. These experiences are related in a very matter-of-fact way, with a desire to elicit understanding rather than sympathy.
Sadly, one of the other nasty sides to life with Tourettes appears to be the insensitive and sometimes outrageously rude reactions of some members of the public. Thom describes groups of giggling tourists, people taking videos with their phone, and one incredulous woman who boldly states: “I don’t believe in Tourettes.” What is so upsetting and shocking about these encounters is not just the breathtaking ignorance displayed, but also the total lack of empathy. Although largely stoic, Thom is not too proud to admit when these reactions shake and upset her, and these parts of the book are especially powerful and instructive.
Thom claims that “more people are understanding and supportive that are thoughtless and unkind,” and the book is also full of examples of random acts of chivalry and kindness. Added to this is a detailed description of the extensive network of support she receives from friends, family and from the state. In fact, there is an important political element to the book in that it describes government-funded disability support in the context of a real life, rather than as a faceless aspect of political bean counting.
Thom describes the enormous and palpable difference that state-provided support makes to both her work and home life, providing everything from gloves and kneepads to support workers. The threatened cuts to these services is a genuine source or fear and anxiety for people similar to her, who need and appreciate them so acutely, and should be a cause for concern for everyone.
Welcome to Biscuitland: A Year In The Life Of Touretteshero by Jessica Thom is published by Souvenir Press, £10.