The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family
I can still remember that kid in the back row in grade three --- the one who seemed to be always moving, even when sitting still. We weren’t allowed to turn around when he uttered odd sounds or banged his hands and feet on the furniture; that would be considered rude. The teacher said he had something that sounded like “turkey sandman” and he couldn’t help it. That was good enough for us. As suburban 1950s Canadian school kids, we were a pretty obedient and accepting bunch; we played with him at recess and he with us. He was just a bit “different,” that’s all.
Years later, I learned that our classmate’s mysterious vocal and physical affliction is properly called Tourette’s (or Tourette) Syndrome, so named after French neurologist Georges de la Tourette (1859-1904), who in 1885 formally identified this perplexing condition whose cause and cure remain a mystery.
"I just can’t thank Josh Hanagarne enough for an outstanding literary experience that rates no less than 10 stars out of five."
I realized with retroactive admiration that the kid in the back of our class was bravely trying to live with the myriad physical, mental and emotional stresses that Tourette’s also imposed on Josh Hanagarne’s life as he grew up in a devout Mormon family in rural Utah. And while I never knew what became of my classmate (who moved away the next year), I can only hope he is alive somewhere and will encounter Hanagarne’s uniquely astonishing and empowering memoir, THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN.
Sheer curiosity about the possible weird connections among librarians, strength-training and Tourette’s Syndrome first drew me to this book, but from the opening words of the Introduction, I knew I was jumping aboard the most unusual autobiographical journey I’ve ever experienced. Hanagarne doesn’t start at the beginning; he meets you on the page in the here and now, in the Salt Lake City Public Library, which, despite its award-winning design, isn’t always the most appealing place in which to earn a living: “Today the library was hot, humid, and smelly. It was like working inside a giant pair of glass underpants without any leg holes to escape through.” With an opening like that, how could you not continue reading?!
Throughout this remarkable, grueling, hopeful, despairing and often transcendent account of a lifelong quest to conquer the incessant guerilla attacks of Tourette’s, Hanagarne often jump-cuts back to vignettes from the unpredictable, eclectic and sometimes dangerous daily life of a tall inner-city librarian. Each episode stands as an affirmation that he is not bound by his condition. He has a vocation, a profession, a skill set, a rich life as husband and father, all of which defy whatever Tourette’s invents in its campaign to exhaust or demean victims into giving up. Nevertheless, it took a long time for him to “arrive” as a fully functional person.
Even among the loosely defined typical spectrum of Tourette’s sufferers, early in life, Hanagarne had to face the maddening reality that he was destined to be among the minority whose condition remains constant, or even worsens, with age. For many children, their uncontrolled tics (vocalizing and muscle spasms) subside as they mature, but for young Josh and his supportive but bewildered family, it often seemed that the opposite was happening.
After many years of incomplete studies in many universities, a number of failed jobs, lost and found relationships, and crises of the soul, Hanagarne gradually discovered places where his malicious foe was vulnerable. Intense exercise “distracted” the daily onslaught of tics, so he set to work relentlessly fighting back with every strength-training technique he could master to keep “Misty” (a wry nickname for Tourette’s) at bay. Through online research and the help of some odd but beneficial mentors with problems of their own, he also learned about advanced breathing techniques, similar to Yogic practice --- a discipline that seemed to reverse the apparent muscular oxygen starvation that some believe causes frequent bouts of tics, or results from them.
Although THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN has a happy ending at the place where it stops --- his triumphant winning experience as a first-time Highland Games competitor --- Hanagarne’s story is far from over. It continues to inspire and develop through his speaking engagements, blogging and website. Did I mention that he’s also one helluva fine writer? I just can’t thank Josh Hanagarne enough for an outstanding literary experience that rates no less than 10 stars out of five.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on June 7, 2013