Jason Tougaw’s memoir The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism is a compelling look at what it means to be a part of an eccentric family.
The book charts the history of Tougaw’s unruly family. The author begins by describing how his Portuguese grandfather’s career as a jockey launched his family to fame, before he moves on to stories from his childhood about his hippie parents’ slow descent into poverty and addiction during the seventies. Focusing on his own coming out journey, he later pivots to tales about how he and his cousins enmeshed themselves in the new wave subculture as teens in the eighties.
Tougaw is talented at painting vivid portraits of troubled but sympathetic personalities. The author’s family mantra is that something in their Portuguese blood makes them restless and erratic, and chapters consist of interlocked, fast-paced anecdotes that illustrate who these people are and how they relate to each other. In simple but clear prose, Tougaw brings to life the quirks and self-destructive tendencies of his family members, from his great-grandfather’s penchant for public nudity to his mom’s frequent intoxicated breakdowns.
The author is less successful in stringing all these interesting stories together into a cohesive work. Chapters begin and end on memorable notes, but much of what happens between those points feels scattered and associative. Although loosely chronological, the memoir also isn’t clear about the exact timeline of events, and, perhaps most glaringly, the end feels rushed. Tougaw jolts ahead several years, from 1994 to 2007, and he doesn’t give himself enough time to tie up all loose ends. The memoir is still engaging, but its meandering structure is a bit distracting.
Interestingly, neuroscience peppers the family history, without feeling gimmicky. Tougaw, a professor of literature at City University of New York, has a deep professional interest in the intersection of neuroscience and narrative. He has published two nonfiction books on the subject, and he often views the events he recollects in his memoir through the lens of medical and psychological concepts. Across chapters the author discusses the Mozart effect, field memory, habituation, sensitization, developmental theories, and much more. The references do more than simply testify to Tougaw’s knowledge: they offer fresh ways of thinking about his memories.
A collage of stories about living an unconventional life, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism is an inventive and lively debut memoir from a writer who shows great promise.