From Psychosis to 'Genius': MacArthur Names 24 Grantees

By Ruth McCann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

During her seventh week at Yale Law School, Elyn Saks had a very public psychotic breakdown on a rooftop outside the law library. She was singing, and her classmates were clustered around nervously.

"I thought there were beings in the sky controlling my brain," recalls Saks, now 53.

After her first major schizophrenic episode at age 18, Saks was told she'd never be able to work and live on her own. But thanks to psychotherapy, medication, friends, family and a great deal of personal resolve, she became a mental health lawyer and a dean at the University of Southern California Law School.

And now she is one of this year's 24-person crop of MacArthur Fellows, each of whom will receive $500,000 over the next five years, to be used at their discretion. The recipients of the coveted "genius grants" are being announced Tuesday by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

When the foundation notified Saks last week, she got permission to tell her husband (a former USC librarian), who simply wrapped his arms around her.

Since 1981, the MacArthur Foundation has annually awarded fellowships to "creative" U.S. citizens and residents. This year's fellows -- many of them professors -- include Jill Seaman, an infectious-disease physician who splits her time between Alaska and the Sudan; Mark Bradford, a Los Angeles-based collage artist who works with everything from curling papers to bits of string; Esther Duflo, a poverty-battling microeconomist and MIT professor; and Timothy Barrett, who runs the papermaking program at the Iowa Center for the Book.

Newly minted fellow Deborah Eisenberg, 63, remembers that her writing career began in New York in the 1970s when she was waiting tables and had recently ceased to be a "very, very, very heavy smoker." Once she'd chucked her Gauloises, Eisenberg turned to her typewriter and began crafting short stories.

A three-time O. Henry Award winner, Eisenberg has been teaching in the fall at the University of Virginia and writing the rest of the year in New York. She says she'd been thinking about teaching full time in order to support herself.

"The question was becoming more and more urgent and terrifying to me -- how was I going to get the time to write? So I still don't really quite believe it, but I can feel it sinking in, and it's like a slow IV drip of relief," says Eisenberg, who treated herself to a root-beer float last week after receiving a hush-hush call from the foundation.

The MacArthur Foundation famously keeps its selection process very much under wraps, and the fellows aren't aware they've been nominated until they receive out-of-the-blue phone calls informing them of their windfall. The candidates are nominated confidentially by prominent individuals from a wide variety of fields.

Robert Gallucci, the foundation's president, emphasized that the fellowships are intended to benefit people who aren't already rolling in funding. "And in harder economic times, this is going to be all the more important," he said.

The funding will allow investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell to, among other things, get a new car. A writer for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., he has investigated a number of unresolved murders, including those of three civil rights activists who were killed in 1964 by members of the Ku Klux Klan, none of whom served prison time. Mitchell began his quest after seeing the 1988 film "Mississippi Burning" (based on the 1964 murders) in the company of two FBI agents. His work resulted in the imprisonment of Edgar Ray Killen, who in 2005 received a 60-year sentence.

"I'm working on the 'Mississippi Burning' case still," says Mitchell, 50, who is currently poring through a 40,000-page FBI file. "There are four suspects still alive in that case."

Mary Tinetti, 58, a new MacArthur Fellow who teaches at the Yale School of Medicine and directs the Yale Program on Aging, has devoted a great deal of her energy to studying what happens when older people fall down.

"We found that falling wasn't just inevitable," says Tinetti, "but that it was due to really recognizable causes that could be identified and prevented." Tinetti plans to use her grant to hire staff to help her research decision-making processes for geriatric patients with multiple diseases.

This year's fellows join a pool of 781 previous recipients who include writer Susan Sontag, choreographer Merce Cunningham, novelist David Foster Wallace and several members of the Obama administration, including Surgeon General-designate Regina Benjamin and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Celia Muñoz.

Other recipients of this year's fellowships include:

Photojournalist Lynsey Addario, who's based in Istanbul.

Computer vision technologist Maneesh Agrawala of Berkeley, Calif.

Haitian-born novelist Edwidge Danticat of Miami.

U.K.-born painter and essayist Rackstraw Downes of New York.

Molecular biologist Lin He of Berkeley, Calif.

Climate scientist Peter Huybers of Cambridge, Mass.

Filmmaker James Longley of Seattle.

Indian-born applied mathematician Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan of Cambridge, Mass.

Poet and translator Heather McHugh of Seattle.

Public health activist Rebecca Onie of Boston.

Ornithologist Richard Prum of New Haven, Conn.

Physicist John Rogers of Urbana, Ill.

Evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro of University Park, Pa.

Biogeochemist Daniel Sigman of Princeton, N.J.

Digital artist Camille Utterback of San Francisco.

Bridge engineer Theodore Zoli of New York.

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