Marc Elliot, AB ’08, is one of the most sought-after young public speakers in the country. Preaching the theme of tolerance, he travels to high schools and colleges talking about his struggles with Tourette syndrome, a condition he was diagnosed with at age 9 while growing up just outside St. Louis.
But his health problems started much earlier than that. Born with an intestinal disease, he spent his first six months in the hospital. Doctors performed one operation after another, extracting his large intestine and leaving him with only about four feet of small intestine.
Elliot believes his Tourette’s came about because of the turmoil in his intestines. Though the disorder manifests itself differently for everyone, it caused him a plethora of verbal and physical tics, including blinking, slamming his jaw shut and, most embarrassingly, blurting out slurs. According to Elliot, he’s long had a habit of saying the most inappropriate thing imaginable in any given situation. For example, he would often use homosexual slurs in the presence of his brother, who is gay. On a bus ride home from a camp in Indianapolis when he was 16, Elliot was kicked off for using the n-word in the presence of African Americans. He had to find his own ride home.
His childhood was filled with these types of experiences, he says, but his time at Washington University (where he studied biology) was extremely inspiring. “The Washington University community could not have been more understanding and accommodating of my challenges,” Elliot says. “They gave me the opportunity to be a young adult, to let me really flourish.” His professors allowed him to announce his Tourette syndrome to his classes, for example.
But the wider world wasn’t always so understanding: A woman at a Wendy’s once called him “retarded,” and he’d stuff a washcloth in his mouth when he attended movies and plays, to muffle the noise.
And so, upon graduation, Elliot shifted his focus away from getting into medical school. Instead, he decided to spread the word about his condition. In the process, he stumbled upon a career in public speaking, which he continues today. “I use my story about living with Tourette syndrome to illustrate how little we know about each other’s lives,” he says.
Elliot has given some 300 inspirational talks in 40 states, and in 2011 Campus Activitiesmagazine named him their “College Speaker & Diversity Artist of the Year.” His colloquial, humor-filled presentations offer a “live and let live” message, and he says his youth — he’s 26 — allows him to communicate with students on their level.
Now based in Manhattan, Elliot recently had a major breakthrough in his struggle with Tourette’s. After “ticcing” by his own estimation more than 20 million times in his life, he’s learned how to largely control his symptoms after taking courses on human potential and joy this past year. “I learned how to have real compassion for myself,” he explains. “As I learned how to embrace the Tourette’s, my symptoms began to decrease.” Whereas Elliot once displayed his symptoms regularly at his speaking engagements, now he shows videos of how he used to act.
He also recently released a book, What Makes You Tic? Part memoir, part plea for tolerance, it’s “a story of overcoming adversity” that mirrors the themes of his lectures, Elliot says. The work is self-published, and Elliot’s round-the-clock touring schedule offers an excellent platform from which to sell it.
Besides maintaining his hectic schedule, his future plans include starting an agency to represent other young speakers like himself who travel to schools around the nation. “I also hope to develop programs for youth around tolerance and compassion,” he adds.
It all ties into a quote he paraphrases from Plato, which he calls his motto: “Be kinder than necessary. Everyone is fighting his or her own battles, which you know nothing about.” Indeed, for Elliot, it’s clear that his own struggles have made it easier for him to relate to everyone else.
To learn more about Elliot and his message of tolerance, visit marcelliot.com.
Ben Westhoff, AB ’99, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.