By Amanda Ripley
OFF THE CHARTS
The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies
By Ann Hulbert
Illustrated. 372 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95.
At age 3, before she could write by hand, Barbara Newhall Follett was banging out words on her parents’ Corona. Her first book, a lyrical romp about a child runaway, came out in 1927 when she was 12. The Saturday Review of Literature called it “almost unbearably beautiful,” and this newspaper deemed it “wonderful.” A second book, based on her adventures at sea, earned more accolades just a little over a year later.
But at age 15, Follett was arrested in San Francisco after fleeing the suffocating plans of her mother. “I felt I had to have my freedom,” she told a reporter. A decade later, Follett walked out of the apartment she was sharing with her husband in Brookline, Mass., evidently seeking freedom once more, this time from her marriage. She was never heard from again.
Child prodigies are exotic creatures, each unique and inexplicable. But they have a couple of things in common, as Ann Hulbert’s meticulous new book, “Off the Charts,” makes clear: First, most wunderkinds eventually experience some kind of schism with a devoted and sometimes domineering parent. “After all, no matter how richly collaborative a bond children forge with grown-up guides, some version of divorce is inevitable,” Hulbert writes. “It’s what modern experts would call developmentally appropriate.” Second, most prodigies grow up to be thoroughly unremarkable on paper. They do not, by and large, sustain their genius into adulthood.
What happens to alter the trajectory of shooting stars like Follett? In “Off the Charts,” Hulbert attempts to capture the complicated lives of child prodigies without descending into voyeurism or caricature. She has tried to “listen hard for the prodigies’ side of the story,” to her great credit.
This is an arduous task, and it sometimes shows in the writing, which can be stilted in its reliance on quotes and documentation. But Hulbert’s diligence results in a surprising payoff: The best advice for managing a child prodigy may be a wise strategy for parenting any child, including the many, many nonbrilliant ones.
Hulbert, The Atlantic’s literary editor, wrote her last book, “Raising America,” about the tortured history of parenting advice. So she is appropriately wary of preachy morality tales. “My goal isn’t to pile on the stark cautionary fare. Nor am I aiming to crack some ‘talent code,’” she writes in the prologue for “Off the Charts,” to our great relief.
Instead, she tries to place each of the boys and girls featured in the book in a specific time and place; their celebrity reveals much about their particular moment in American history. For example, Bobby Fischer’s chess prowess might not have been impressive enough for adults to overlook his breathtaking egotism — but for the launching of Sputnik and America’s anxiety about creeping Soviet domination in education and science. One era’s prodigy is another’s anonymous misfit.
The book begins with the story of two gifted boys who attended Harvard at the same time, in the early 1900s. Norbert Wiener, a budding philosopher and mathematician, was 14, and William Sidis, a star in linguistics and mathematics, was only 11. They were not friends, which was a shame. Both suffered under the weight of their elders’ intellectual expectations, combined with the impossibility of fitting in as boys among men. They were told they were superior, but then punished if they acted like it. Their identities depended on superhuman smarts, which made any academic failure feel like a knife to the heart.
Wiener would struggle with depression for the rest of his life, but he did manage to eventually find professional fulfillment at M.I.T., where he helped invent the field of cybernetics. Sidis was not so successful; after fleeing a criminal charge related to a political protest, he did low-level accounting work in New York. He continued to alienate others with his stubborn arrogance before dying at 46 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
What would have helped these boys and the other struggling prodigies in this book? Maybe nothing. But after poring over their words and stories, Hulbert has concluded that they might all offer parents similar advice: Accept who they are.
That doesn’t mean protecting them from failure or stress; quite the opposite. “What they want, and need, is the chance to obsess on their own idiosyncratic terms — to sweat and swerve, lose their balance, get their bearings, battle loneliness, discover resilience,” Hulbert writes. Interestingly, this is the same advice contemporary psychologists tend to give to all parents, not just the parents of prodigies. Parents must hold children accountable and help them thrive, which is easier said than done; but if they try to re-engineer the fundamentals of their offspring, they will fail spectacularly, sooner or later. And this lesson is particularly obvious in the extremes.
“Extraordinary achievement, though adults have rarely cared to admit it, takes a toll,” Hulbert writes. “It demands an intensity that rarely makes kids conventionally popular or socially comfortable. But if they get to claim that struggle for mastery as theirs, in all its unwieldiness, they just might sustain the energy and curiosity that ideally fuels such a quest.”
The special challenge for prodigies is that they are exceptional in more ways than one. “Genius is an abnormality, and abnormalities do not come one at a time,” explains Veda Kaplinsky, a longtime teacher of gifted students, in Andrew Solomon’s “Far From the Tree,” a book that is cited by Hulbert. “Many gifted kids have A.D.D. or O.C.D. or Asperger’s. When the parents are confronted with two sides of a kid, they’re so quick to acknowledge the positive, the talented, the exceptional; they are often in denial over everything else.”
The very traits that make prodigies so successful in one arena — their obsessiveness, a stubborn refusal to conform, a blistering drive to win — can make them pariahs in the rest of life. Whatever else they may say, most teachers do not in fact appreciate creativity and critical thinking in their own students. “Off the Charts” is jammed with stories of small geniuses being kicked out of places of learning. Matt Savage spent two days in a Boston-area Montessori preschool before being expelled. Thanks to parents who had the financial and emotional resources to help him find his way, he is now, at age 25, a renowned jazz musician.
Interestingly, some prodigies may actually do better when their eccentricities are seen by loving adults as disabilities first — and talents second. Hulbert tells the story of Jacob Barnett, born in 1998, who withdrew into autism as a toddler in Indiana. His parents tried every form of therapy they could find, before finally discovering that he could be drawn out through his captivation with astronomy. His mother, Kristine, took him to astronomy classes at the local university — not to jump-start his genius but to help coax him back to life. “If I had stopped and let myself bask in the awe of Jake’s amazing abilities — if I had stopped to ponder how unusual he really is — I don’t think I could have been a good mother to him,” she explained.
The most vivid section of the book comes at the end, when Hulbert reunites with the musical prodigy Marc Yu, a decade after first interviewing him at age 6. With his mother’s support, Yu had tried to ease up on his musical career and live a more normal life, an approach that had worked for other prodigies, including the child actress Shirley Temple. But Yu found that the strategies that worked at the keyboard were useless in high school, where no amount of discipline and focus could make him cool. The adorable, joke-cracking boy she’d remembered had grown into a lonely teenager. “I always expected things to go my way,” Yu told Hulbert. “If I wanted it, I worked hard enough, I got it, and people loved me. That’s no longer true, and I feel I exist in the shadow of popular kids.”
Yu’s story reinforces one of Hulbert’s central, if unsatisfying, findings: Children’s needs change. If you think you’ve got a child figured out, you will be proved wrong momentarily. As Hulbert writes: “Prodigies offer reminders writ large that children, in the end, flout our best and worst intentions.” And adults always overestimate their own influence.