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PRODIGIES' ODDITIES
From Chris Wayan's journal 1994/2/2

Most people recognize the psychological differences between a person of IQ 70 and 100. Not just the intellectual gap, but the differences in developmental pace, their joys and frustrations, their trust levels and social experiences. It took many years for child psychologists to acknowledge similar differences between a person of IQ 100 and 140. For the gifted, unlike the mentally disabled, can pass for normal. In fact, God help them if they don't.

Still, the special needs were there, and were eventually recognized, even if they're still given low priority by schools--every study I've seen says the gifted are actually worse off than the disabled in terms of getting their needs met in school. Mostly they just drift through, being taught way below their level, essentially warehoused. The successful ones end up teaching themselves. The bored and angry become disciplinary problems and get blamed--when they're being cheated out of their education and forced to waste their time! Only in the last generation have these patterns come to light, and the special needs of the gifted been given even token consideration, in the more progressive schools.

But the differences between persons of IQ 140 and 190 are just as large! And still unrecognized. It's understandable--we child prodigies were too rare, too scattered to be easily sampled and generalized about, at least till the Net...

But the result is, I've spent my life being mistaken for a strange gifted person. I'm not. Gifted, I mean (strange, sure, I'll cop to that one). I'm something as different from gifted as gifted is from average. I look just as eccentric to the gifted as to normal people.

But are my oddities really personal? When I study the lives of others in the same IQ range, I suddenly look rather normal--in fact, more socialized than most. I'm not in jail, haven't killed myself or died of stress-related illness. That puts me well up on the functional side of the over-180 IQ group right there. Terman's classic long-range study chose two examples for this group and said they'd managed "perhaps the best adjustment that can be made..." Five years after picking these two, a follow-up study found them both dead: cancer and suicide. Suddenly mere allergies and social isolation don't look so bad...

Which of the eccentricities of a genius are neuroses or defenses? Which arise from the biochemical quirks that create extreme giftedness? Which are individual character traits, and which are merely habits of any highly intellligent person? Which are the results of a different maturational process? Which arise from living among people who can't understand you? Unless you have known a reasonably representative sample of geniuses, (and who has?) it's better to ask than assume you know. You probably don't.

For example, I've noticed that the normal and the gifted treat thought and feeling as somehow antagonistic. I see this from the outside, but I don't get it. When I use abstract concepts they aren't defenses against feeling; words and ideas don't push me away from passion. Why should they? Logic and abstractions go back to my infancy. Analysis was part of my everyday flow as a small child, it was part of the feelings. Images too: if I try to express what I feel deeply about, I'm likely to use a dream image, not emotional labels, for such images are realer to me than normal people's language. Traditional Native American speech and rhetoric, using concise, carefully chosen images in place of abstract words, is much more intelligible to me than standard English. About the only white people who use language as I do are small kids... and artists.

Maybe in this culture (with its fading Victorian cult of the child) normal and gifted kids develop the capacity to abstract only after early childhood is over. Developmentalist Jean Piaget thought it was biology not culture. But his famous developmental stages happened at different ages and in scrambled order for me. Biology or culture, I don't care. All I know is, his 'universal' human developmental pattern is NOT universal. Severely retarded children may never reach many stages at all; but the severely gifted scramble through them, not in a neatly compressed or speeded-up childhood, but in a chaotic patchwork of talents and disabilities. At least I did.

An example of pseudo-knowledge about child development that child prodigies can disprove: Freud theorized that the surge of spiritual concerns that usually coincides with puberty was a sublimation of sexual curiosity. And it's true, kids at 100 IQ do hit puberty and the big spiritual questions around the same time. Leta Hollingworth's study "Children above 180 IQ", however, found that kids over 180 IQ got obsessed with big questions at 7 not 12, right on schedule for their mental age... but they went sex-crazy right on schedule for their physical onset of puberty, at 9 or 10. The link between sex and religion was just an artifact of IQ! I wonder if much of the emotional make-up of normal people--which I find so different--consists of these shared associative links, mere coincidences--stages you all reached at the same time purely by chance. Or are they coincidences? The vast majority may mature at this rate because that pattern is optimal. But optimal because it's better or just because it's the pattern others all share? Fascinating theoretically, but what matters for ME is that the associations exist--never mind why. I can see them from outside, but not share them. I never will. I HAVE MY OWN.

When I betray a lack of these shared associations, I make normal people uneasy and psychologists incredulous: they assume I'm hiding my "real" feelings. That's exactly when I'm showing them.

Here are some of the differences I've noticed--prodigies' oddities!

DREAMING

My first memories, from age 2-3, are what other people call a dream; my first recalled body-shape was not human. I was a horse who woke up as a human child! I've never had much trouble recalling dreams, including those from REM states earlier in the night, which in normal people fade out or get overwritten by later cycles in the night. I won't bother listing all the peculiarities of prodigal dreaming that I think exist--after all, I've posted a thousand dreams as examples. In brief, the dream-state for prodigies is clearer and very different from the state described by normal and gifted people, and even may differ physically.

READING

I have no memory of a preliterate childhood world; in my first memories, I could already read. I associated reading with dreaming, and saw the three states as equally real: waking, dreaming, reading. Literacy isn't intellectual for me. It's like breathing or eating--so early, it feels built in from the ground up.

WALKING

Learning to read and learning to walk were associated for me, I think, since they happened around the same time, and both involve mobility into other worlds. Non-prodigies get anchored in the physical for a few years before the world of ideas opens up to them. Not me.

ADULT SECRETS

Saying no--the Terrible Twos--and learning to read, cracking adult secrets. Once a child can read, adult secrets are never fully safe. This happened, for me, right at the start; I never developed a sense of an adult world of INFORMATION closed off to me. They couldn't spell things or use multisyllabic circumlocutions to slip around my sharp little ears. I often chose to let adults talk over my head, ignore what they obviously wanted to keep private, but it was a choice. Conversely, I couldn't easily tune out material like TV news that was emotionally toxic for a kid my age. Normal and gifted kids seem to me to live in a slowly expanding perceptive bubble, with an ignored adult world around it. The size of the bubble, and its growth rate, vary, but it's always there. Prodigies lack such shelter.

ASTRONOMY

I was obsessed with astronomy even at age 3-4. This isn't a personality quirk: it's been known for at least fifty years that most 180+ IQ kids exhibit VERY early curiosity about their place in the universe, and it's not bound to their body as much as their planet. They want to know the neighborhood--but their concept of "neighborhood" is a lot wider than other kids'. Yet even today, child therapists often mistake this normal aspect of child prodigies for a displaced obsession, covering some other concern. If your small child knows more about the solar system than you do, get the kid IQ tested early and start reading up and take school psychologists' evaluations very skeptically--unless you KNOW they have experience with the severely gifted. Odds are, they won't.

SAFETY

By age 3 or 4 I knew that many adults were ignorant about things I considered basic, like knowing your address in the universe. I must have concluded very early that many people were mentally so alien I'd never share their world. Normal and gifted kids do learn that adults don't know everything, but it comes much later, when the kids have some physical competence, some sense they can take care of themselves when adults fuck up. Picture yourself stuck in a bed on life support run by a team of brain-damaged doctors... and maybe you can see where the prodigy's go-it-alone syndrome comes from!

DISCIPLINE

Toilet training and literacy around the same time meant they got associated. Both involved disciplining my body to sit; I was teaching sphincter and eye-muscles to obey at the same time. It's worth noting that most kids get trained to sit still by adults; for me this training was internal, something I needed in order to go where I wanted--into other worlds. I became very self-willed, and I think it began here.

WRITING

For years I felt I was clumsy and my handwriting was hopeless, as my early teachers complained about my handwriting (forgetting that most kids my age couldn't write at all). It isn't just me--Hollingworth found this pattern was common for child prodigies, right up to teachers forgetting the kid's age! So I grew up "clumsy"... yet confident I could pick up any accent and learn any language in next to no time. Why not? I learned to speak and read (and sing and whistle) years before I could write or draw legibly. I wrote early, but two years after reading--an eternity when you're small. Being a fluent reader but physically unable to write, completely separated two tasks that nearly all adults lump together. It affected my body image--it was my first defeat by the limitations of my own body. Only in recent years have I tested my assumption that I'm clumsy, and found I can draw and sculpt quite well--even do calligraphy.

RELIGION

Freud claimed religion is displaced sexuality; one of his proofs was the common correlation between sexual and religious awakening around puberty. Not child prodigies! Hollingworth found that by age 5-7, prodigies start facing the big spiritual, moral and metaphysical questions that most humans ask later, around puberty. Once you reach a certain intellectual maturity the questions present themselves, and geniuses get hit early--before they necessarily have the emotional resources to handle them.

My parents were idealistic leftists, and I was as vulnerable to my mom's Gandhian pacifism as I would have been to any cult. It made me special, one of the chosen, and satisfied my need for a moral structure. It was deadly, of course, because most adults admire Gandhi in theory, but don't consider pacifism realistic--certainly not for little boys. They expected childish amorality or mature pragmatism. Picture a horse-crazy Catholic girl hitting puberty and suddenly getting very devout, having fantasies of martyrdom... This describes me pretty well by age 6 or 7, and I had much less experience to anchor me than a 12-year-old. Nor did anyone recognize what was happening: small boys just don't have adolescent conversions. And adult reactions aren't the worst problem: other kids simply can't share a prodigy's concerns at this stage. At best, isolation; at worst, victimization.

PRETEEN CYNICISM

I was angry at my parents too, for not giving me a coherent philosophy. My father was a scientific pragmatist, a Bertrand Russell type. My mother's radical idealism had all the force of a religion. Their political ideals were reconcilable, and I still share most of them, but the means, the daily application, I had trouble with. Still do. This happens to a lot of adolescents, and that's usually attribute to hormone hurricanes; but I was digging at my folks by age four and quite convinced they were hypocrites by age 8, well before puberty, though that did come early too (9 or so; prodigies typically develop a couple of years early, though the body lags behind the brain).

TESTING PARENTS' PHILOSOPHY

I resorted to heavyhanded sarcasm sometimes and amnesia most of the time. I'd play cowboys and war and other violent games partly just to have fun but partly to annoy my mom. I'd refuse to compete or to fight for real, though, partly because I really believed those things were wrong and partly to poke at my father who thought I was a mama's boy. I had to blank out these motives, which were understandable but broke the rule "Don't hurt anyone." I wanted to hurt them enough so they'd wake up and get their act together and tell me which set of values they really believed in, really lived by...

HIDING

At age 9-10, I learned to hide who I was, or get beaten up. Even though I was in my first gifted class (our district's first gifted class, in fact) I still had to hide my full intellect. When do normal kids learn they must hide their real selves, and that even if they show themselves, others will see them filtered through racist and sexist prejudices? For me, this was linked deeply to sex, because the issues came up in the same year. I learned to shut up about sex and brains at the same time, in the same way...


These are the early mileposts of development that I KNOW had different timing and therefore different associations for me. There are more, of course: I wrote this list off the top of my head, focusing on skills and body image.

If it seems from the above like I have a fantasy of some uniform "normal kid", so be it. God knows normal and gifted people have one about geniuses. At least I've tried to read up a bit on you all. Do the same about us before you complain.

So much for maturation. What's it like as an ADULT prodigy, dealing with the wide range of intelligences I encounter? Well... strange, mostly.

THE GIFTED

Professionals, from doctors to astrophysicists to linguists, find me confusing--I'm not one of them, not IN their field, yet I know too much about their field for an amateur, so they often assume I must be OBSESSED with their field, must be a sort of hobbyist. And they often assume I must share their values, just because I know the jargon; they're shocked if I bring up, say, engineering to a psychic, or ESP to an engineer... Mistaking my idle curiosity for obsession, just because I casually learned their specialty, is one of the few consistent reactions of gifted specialists to a prodigy. It's hard for me to talk about the gifted as a class, since I differentiate a lot between the brightest of them and the more normally gifted--sharp distinctions between those only 20 IQ points apart. They're closest to me, and I was of course lumped in with them all my life, in school, so I react strongly to their individual characters and may almost be blind to their intelligence (water to a fish?) unless they're near-geniuses.

NORMAL PEOPLE

This must sound strange, but I can barely distinguish between a mildly gifted person, a normal person, and a mildly retarded one. They're all so distant from my way of thinking that even quite a large IQ spread doesn't mean a thing to me.

In some ways, I get along better with nongifted people, since we're SO different we don't threaten each other much. By giving up all attempts to understand each other, we can just LIKE each other--rather like dogs and humans--and frankly, I'm more like the dog in this analogy. After all, this civilization was built for normal people; there are large areas of it that mean nothing to me at all, and never will (starting with spectator sports).

In contrast, the gifted see me as more troubling--just as ape habits upset people because they're too close to home, I'm like them, but not right somehow. If they do figure it out, they may...

RACE AND INTELLIGENCE

I've said nothing here about IQ and race for the simple reason that a gap between blacks and whites of 7 or 8 points (which is all it is, now) is nothing. What I want to know is how to raise everyone's IQ fifty points or more so I can stop being bored to death. To any whites out there who still feel smug about this trivial test-score difference, I'll merely ask: if IQ is genetic, then how about African-Americans living seven years less on average than whites, is THAT genetic? Now there's a gap that counts! The IQ gap has the same causes: shitty healthcare, malnutrition (if you're pregnant, take folic acid and lecithin and C. Your kids will be smarter--and healthier!) and especially lead poisoning. Fix those first, before you even open your mouth on the subject of race and genetics, okay?
(And by the way, if you live in an older house, get your water tested and GET A WATER FILTER if it shows ANY lead. The hazard is MUCH higher than government standards acknowledge. It costs money, but sick and retarded kids cost way more than a lead test. This is not a luxury any more than a lock on your door is. And if you live or work in a city or on a busy street, when you go home, take your shoes off and wear socks or slippers indoors, Turkish style. Your shoes track lead-dust in--and it's slow poison, especially for kids. Take megadoses of vitamin C, it helps scrubs lead out. Do it. All this sounds extreme, but it won't in five years, when current research becomes popular wisdom.)

Sorry. No literary punch line today, folks. I'm exhausted from writing all this.

Coming out of the closet like this is a strain. It's been fun, but I'm going back in now.

Bye.



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