Before Your Very Eyes: Illness, Agency, and the Management of Tourette Syndrome

Abstract

In this article, I examine the ways that people with Tourette Syndrome (TS) manage the motor and vocal tics characteristic of this neurological disorder. To mitigate the powerful stigmas associated with TS, individuals must either remove tics from public view or strive to recast the way that they are perceived. Drawing on ethnographic research with TS sufferers in Indiana, I elaborate three strategies by which this is done, strategies referred to here as displacement, misattribution, and contextualization. These processes strongly affect both the symptoms themselves and the subjective experience of the illness. They also affect the perception of TS in the larger culture, associating the disease with florid symptoms like cursing—symptoms that, although not at all typical of TS, are the ones most resistant to these kinds of management. These patterns highlight how individual agency may actively shape the cultural construction of illness.