By Cecilia Gigliotti
Josh Hanagarne, standing six-feet-seven and usually weighing between 260 and 270 pounds, is the world’s strongest librarian. Seriously.
He says he can tear a full deck of cards into pieces and lift 500 pounds on one finger.
He could easily hoist any of us apprentices over his head – although, upon walking in, he put the idea out of our minds “for liability reasons.” He’s smart, too.
He is also one of the most extraordinary human beings I’ve ever met.
“We’re all the product of … some really deep training,” he said. And he’s been trained deeper than anyone I know. At 35, he is the product of Navajo ancestry – he has relatives living on reservations – a Mormon upbringing, a crisis of faith, and a constant battle with Tourette Syndrome.
Hanagarne recalled a time when his bibliophile fifth-grade self picked up the largest book he could find, a thick volume by Stephen King called The Tommyknockers, and got hooked.
When his mom caught him reading Misery, she banned King’s books from the house. This only excited him to smuggling.
The day he visited us, Hanagarne that while he is “not a real star-struck person,” he was looking forward to lunch with King, an experience he thought “could be really cool.”
And tonight he’ll be working security at the Bushnell for King’s conversation with Colin McEnroe – so we’d all better keep in line.
Raised Mormon, a religion in which all 19-year-old males go on a two-year mission, Hanagarne was sent to Washington, D.C., where attempted to convert people.
His true challenge, however, was only beginning.
Hanagarne’s first memory of Tourette’s is from a Thanksgiving school play. At age six, playing a tree on stage, he began to blink, rapidly and involuntarily. No one thought much of it, at the time or for several years thereafter – until seventh grade, when the tics started becoming vocal and gave rise to bullying.
Things worsened steadily through ninth grade, when he joined the basketball team and discovered an athletic talent. At a game against their biggest rival, the win came down to Hanagarne’s free throw.
Fans in the stands from the opposing side had lost all sense of sportsmanship and respect and were shouting, “Twitch! Twitch!”
His tear-stained face contorted in concentration, Hanagarne made the basket, won the game for his team, and promptly flipped off the crowd, causing quite an uproar. That was the night he realized he had to find out what was wrong with him.
On the Mormon mission in Washington, Hanagarne could name and explain his condition, but that didn’t soften its toll.
During his mission, his worst tic to date flared up: he would hit himself sharply in the face. His outbursts of screaming became as frequent as every two or three seconds. By the end of one day, he returned to his hotel with three self-inflicted gashes down his face.
My blood was running cold as Josh described this. He left D.C. a year early, he said, because the tics interfered with his life and mission. He could not go out in public and his convulsions were so intense they gave him hernias.
To curb his screaming tic, doctors gave him Botox injections in his vocal cords, which stopped his voice entirely. He did not speak again for two years.
The sensation of a Tourette’s tic, he said, is “like the worst you’ve ever had to sneeze.” It obviously doesn’t feel good, even if you can suppress the urge, and it’s how he felt all the time.
He experienced a crisis of faith. What was his purpose in life? How could he come to terms with the fact that he no longer believed what he had been raised to believe? His break with the Mormon faith was becoming scarily real.
The problem, he said, was that according to what his family believed, “I would be in a different part of Heaven than they would be.”
His mother’s favorite thing was gathering the family together and having a good laugh. If he broke from the faith, the rest of the family would be in heaven – gathered and having a laugh – and Josh would be separated from them.
It broke his mother’s heart, he said, but she determined “not to let the small picture destroy the big picture.”
He knows that his family’s love and support is unconditional.
Today, Hanagarne is physically worse than ever, and it doesn’t necessarily involve hitting himself in the face. It must be terrifying to never know how one’s body is going to act from one minute to the next, but this is his life.
His tics are relatively under control, thanks to Adam T. Glass, a specially gifted friend.
Glass, an Air Force officer who suffered a brain crushing injury, has an extrasensory understanding of people’s movements, Hanagarne said, and can take one look at someone and instantly identify their physical ailments and the motions that can fix them.
He went along with it.
“Pain makes you stupid,” admitted Hanagarne. “You will try anything.”
But Glass’s exercises really do seem to have magical healing powers. And maybe that is one reason Hanagarne is mentally better than ever.
He is probably the only person I’ve met to truly live in the moment, “from tic to tic.” He chose to be a librarian because a library forces him to ask questions of himself, just as “a library should force everyone who walks in to ask questions.”
He was confronted with himself, with the sources behind his tics.
He loves his job dearly – hardly a surprise, given his appetite for books. “I don’t sleep much,” he said, and he wasn’t kidding: three hours a night.
“I read a book every day,” he said.
His favorite book is John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which he reads annually. “It becomes a new book every year.”
Eventually he was inspired to write his own story. At a friend’s suggestion, Josh began a blog called “The World’s Strongest Librarian.” One morning, a couple months and many online conversations into the blog, he woke up to an offer from a literary agent.
Before he knew it, he had a book, The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.
“You learn a lot about yourself,” he said, when writing a memoir. In writing about himself, he said, he found flaws in his reasoning.
He said he felt “so horribly exposed, so fast.”
But it’s helped improve him day by day.
“It’s hard not to feel confident if you’re always getting better at something, and if you can prove it.”
He believes success is measurable, and better is something he is relentlessly striving for.
And there is plenty in his life to help him along the way. He laughed as he told us the self-proclaimed “lame” story of how he met his wife, Janette: “My mom came home from church and said, ‘I found the perfect girl for you!’ And she was right.”
They met during one of his most difficult periods, the two silent years. He said she didn’t hear his full speaking voice until eight months into their marriage; until then, he could do no more than whisper.
He tried to talk her out of the wedding just two weeks before they married.
“You haven’t seen how bad it is,” he insisted. She turned to him and said, “Not being with you is so much harder than being with you when it’s bad.”
If that is not the truest love on earth, I don’t know what is.
That true love, along with the love of his family, sustains him.
The couple have a five-year-old son named Max. While she is still Mormon, he’s an agnostic. They’ve deliberated how to raise Max from different religious viewpoints.
He’s not concerned as long as he gives his son the foundation to decide his beliefs for himself.
“I am confident that I taught Max how to think,” he told us.
With a dad as incredible as Josh Hanagarne, and a mother who must be just as outstanding, Max has a dazzlingly bright future ahead.
As someone who has fought and overcome, but still has to live with, a disability, I was deeply moved by Hanagarne’s story.
The homepage of the National Tourette Syndrome Association website says, “I have Tourette’s, but Tourette’s doesn’t have me.”
It is possible not to let an illness define you. Kudos to him.
I wish him, and everyone else on this planet struggling against an adversary bigger than themselves, all the blessings they deserve.