on the one you get

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.

9 thoughts on “on the one you get

  1. This memoir reminds me of the plot synopsis for a novel called The Summer of Naked Swim Parties by Jessica Anya Blau, who claimed her childhood inspired the novel. I wonder what Tougaw’s family thinks about him not only publishing work about them, but interpreting their lives through a scientific lens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting! Reading the PW review of the novel, I can see what you mean. The author of this, frustrated with his parents, also sought a normal life in a surrogate family for a time. I have the sense that his family didn’t mind, just because they come across as such open people, but it must have been a strange experience for them to read this.


  2. I like the idea of a “collage of stories” but I often find myself frustrated when a memoir comes off less cohesive and connected than it could’ve been. Anything dealing with the intersection of neuroscience and narrative sounds fascinating though, and I love family stories. I might check this one out but good to know what my expectations should be. Incredible review as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I understand that frustration: it often comes across as sloppy writing and leaves me wishing that more work had been put into the book. I guess I didn’t mind it here because it felt like the author was trying to tell the story of all his family rather than just his own coming-of-age tale. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts should you ever read this!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Very much so! Reading it, I felt like the author almost had mashed together two books: one about his parents’ generation and one about his own.


  3. Great review Michael! I do wonder if the neuroscience is intertwined with the narrative well, because I feel like in the hands of a not-so-skilled writer the neuroscience (especially if it’s straight up neuroscience research) may distract from the memoir writing. Also I noticed on Goodreads you didn’t give this one a formal star rating – any reason for that? Hope you’re well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Thomas! I felt like the author’s use of neuroscience and psychology was mostly effective. He reflects on his childhood and family through (cognitive) psych concepts, but he does so in a way that feels accessible and open ended, especially as the book goes on.

      I’m not really sure what rating I would give this. It was the winner of an annual contest hosted by a small press, so the writing’s not as polished as it might’ve been had the author been agented. But the book’s unlike any other coming-of-age memoir I’ve read, and there were parts of it that I really liked.


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