Jessica Thom has Tourette’s syndrome. This means she has involuntary physical and vocal tics. She is one of 10% of Tourettes sufferers who say obscene things in her vocal tics (coprolalia, if you want to be fancy about it), but these obscene tics only make up a small part of her daily ticcing. Mostly she says ‘biscuit’ a lot, hence the title of her book. This is a book about a year in her life, taken as extracts from her blog, and it gives a fascinating insight into the life of someone with a condition like this.
I first heard of Jessica Thom because she was on a Stephen Fry BBC program about language – Fry’s Planet Word. It really helps to see a video of Jessica before reading her book. It gives you a real idea of what talking to someone who, amongst other things, says biscuit around 16 times a minute would be like. You also get to see just how her physical tics manifest.
Reading Welcome to Biscuit Land has given me a window into Jessica’s world. Most of us have some awareness of Tourettes syndrome and know the stereotype of a continually swearing youth. I know for me (and probably most UK people above a certain age!) the only thing I knew about Tourettes was from the QED documentary ‘John’s Not Mad‘ from 1989, and honestly, what I took from this was the comedy of swearing all the time without being able to stop it.
I (hopefully obviously) don’t think it’s funny at all any more (I was a child when John’s Not Mad aired), and I didn’t really know about the physical tics, which are much worse, in a way, that the vocal tics. The involuntary movements that Jessica suffers from mean many things including:
- she can’t use anything sharper than a plastic knife. Too dangerous. She hits herself in the face a lot, and does it with whatever is in her hand.
- one of her ticks is her knees buckling and her falling to the floor. This makes it hard for her to get around and stairs are very dangerous for her.
- she beats her chest a lot and causes bruising (this is why she wears gloves to protect her hand)
- She struggles with medical examinations that require you to be still, for example, going to the dentist, or for a smear test.
- and on, and on…
As well as this constant physical discomfort, she also has the vocal tics, which can be very funny, but also mean she is almost constantly explaining to people that she has Tourettes. She also receives a lot of abuse from people in public who just don’t understand her condition, even after she has tried to explain it. It all adds up to a life that is difficult, constantly challenging, and bloody hard work!
Despite this, Jessica manages to work with children, and their take on her condition will bring a smile to your face. She has embraced her condition and her positive outlook is phenomenal.
The structure of Welcome to Biscuit Land is lots of short, disjointed stories. The chapters are each a month in her year. I found this structure a bit jarring, and it’s clear that the stories are taken from a diary or blog. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and feel like I’ve learnt a lot from it, as well as seeing the comical side to Jessica’s vocal tics (It’s OK – this is encouraged! ). The ones linking a Shakespeare quote with an obscenity are my favourites.
Here is a link to her TEDtalk to get a better idea of Jessica and her life: