The worst fear of Mensans -- who are supposedly the smartest people in the world -- is that the normal people of the world like making fun of them. Stories about Mensa sometimes begin with a mocking anecdote or snide observation about a recent social gathering, which reinforces the persistent stereotype that the high-IQ society is peopled by geeks. Such stories go something like this:
Here at the elegant VFW Post 2562 in Wheaton, area geniuses arrive for Metropolitan Washington Mensa's annual election party. Thick glasses, bad teeth and unfortunate fashion choices are in abundance. Several adults display the social skills of adolescent squid.
A man with poor posture, which causes him to constantly stare at the floor, clutches a stubby, unopened umbrella that will not leave his grip the entire evening. He spends most of his time glancing at a flamboyant woman in a low-cut blue sequined dress and gold shoes. She looks out of place among the low-key wardrobes, including that of her mate, a gray-haired man clad in jeans and a T-shirt that reads "Brains `R' Us."
Several women sport black T-shirts emblazoned with "Hell's Mensans" and periodically scream "Cheeble!" (That's from the Hell's Mensans slogan "Cry `Cheeble!' and unleash the hamsters of war!")
"You're not writing down that `Cheeble' thing, are you?" asks the woman in the low-cut blue sequined dress and gold shoes. "It's silly!"
Right. Silly. We'll have none of that.
You see, Mensans don't want to be called nerds. (Who would?) They crave image rehab. They hope to recruit younger, more sociable members. And they want, judging by the results of a recent, uncharacteristically fierce campaign for local leadership, a greater public presence. They want to use their super mental powers to contribute to society, bringing their club closer to what they believe to be its lofty founding purpose: solving the world's problems.
Members like Jim Gross endorse this agenda. The attorney has come to the party wearing a dark conservative suit and a tie. In this very VFW hall, he has just been voted the new leader of the local Mensa group, and he ain't crying Cheeble.
Gross knows that Mensans are supposed to be the brightest 2 percent of the population, as judged by IQ tests -- the cerebral champions of the D.C. area. He isn't against happy hours or games nights; like members of any other social organization, Mensans gather to eat, talk, drink and fall in love. But, he asks, shouldn't Mensa have a mission? Shouldn't its minds be used for public service as well as for Scrabble?
Gross also hopes to clear up certain misconceptions. Mensans may be geniuses, but he will be the first to admit that they are not perfect. They make mistakes, just like Densans (Mensa-speak for non-Mensans). For example, the reason we know that Mensans fear mockery is because Gross himself granted The Washington Post access to a secret document called the Insider Press Kit, which is not, as Gross initially thought, a kit for the press, but a kit to help Mensans prepare for media inquiries.
They have been burned before, the kit makes clear, and they don't want it to happen again:
"When media people show up at gatherings, try to notice whether they're concentrating strictly on the frivolities to the point of ignoring the serious stuff. Every now and then, a newspaper story or TV report depicts a Mensa gathering as a collection of people who have come to town for the sole purpose of hugging each other, competing in trivia contests, and throwing paper airplanes around the banquet hall . . .
"Another good reason for keeping an eye on a journalist at a Mensa function is to try to neutralize the occasional oddball who somehow always manages to show up when least expected and often may attempt to unfairly monopolize the reporter's limited time. There seems to be one such person in every local group. Some media people love them, however, especially if it is their intent to make Mensa look bad."
Which would be wrong, of course. But tempting nonetheless. Any self-professed group of geniuses is a sitting target -- especially those whose sole qualification is a score on a test. Our understanding of genius is changing, relying less on IQ scores and other standardized measurements -- thereby questioning the validity of Mensa itself.
For Mensans, though, testing is sacred. It conveys status. In American life, your station is not determined by intelligence: If you're smart you're not necessarily rich, powerful or happy, and you're not necessarily surrounded by equally smart people. But if you join Mensa, the pitch goes, you will never want for clever company.
Mensa is not just a society for highly intelligent people; it is a society for people who want to belong to a society that tells them they are highly intelligent.
'Dating Service for Dorks'
Mensans are professors and doctors and software designers; Mensans are also hairdressers and truck drivers and housewives. There are unemployed Mensans and top-secret government Mensans. American Mensa's national chairman, Dave Remine, is a former construction worker.
The society also has its share of celebs, or semi-celebs. Actress Geena Davis is a Mensan, as are Parade columnist (and Guinness record-holder for highest IQ) Marilyn vos Savant, two-time World Boxing Association cruiserweight champion Bobby Czyz and Playboy Playmate Julie Peterson. American Mensa is also happy to provide a list of fictional characters who claim membership, including the Blue Power Ranger from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
In Latin Mensa means "table," as in "round-table society." To some, Mensa's insignia resembles a Teutonic eagle, or a world-dominating Ubermensch, but in fact, it's just a globe on an M-shaped table.
In considering applications for membership, the society accepts results from more than 200 standardized tests. (For instance, a Scholastic Aptitude Test score of 1300 prior to 1977, or a 1250 between 1977 and 1994, is evidence enough. But Mensa deemed SAT results invalid after changes in '94.)
Founded in England, the organization today boasts more than 100,000 members worldwide, about half of them in North America. The Washington society, the fourth-largest U.S. chapter after San Francisco, New York and Chicago, claims more than 1,400 members.
Of course, because Mensa is supposed to represent the top 2 percent, more than 5 million Americans (and 80,000 or so Washingtonians) should be eligible. That's a lot of geniuses. Since you are reading a long article in a reputable newspaper, there's a good chance you're eligible.
(Full disclosure: I'm eligible. Years ago I took a Mensa qualification test and was accepted, like my father before me. I never joined; perhaps, as for many, the validation provided by the scores was all I wanted.)
The Smart Set
A Mensa chapter doesn't have a president; it has a LocSec, or local secretary (British, apparently, for "president"). Soft-spoken and clean-cut, Gross is a 49-year-old divorce lawyer, twice divorced himself and newly engaged (all of his loves have been non-Mensans). He joined Mensa 18 years ago but has been active only for two, making him something of an outsider among local Mensans.
A few months ago, frustrated with what he calls the "introverted isolationism" of Mensa, Gross decided to run for the local post. "I'd like to emphasize the exchange of ideas rather than the exchange of jokes," he says. "We're not doing the fundamental things we should be doing."
Currently Mensa provides scholarships, supports research into intelligence, helps restock disaster-damaged libraries and encourages young talent through a program for gifted children. (Cameron Phillips of Falls Church is already a Mensan at age 6, having aced the McCarthy Scales of Children's Ability.)
Gross, though, thinks Mensa can do more. When D.C. schools were forced to open late this year, Mensa could have provided tutors. Mensans employed in the computer industry could volunteer to teach the elderly to use the Internet, and Mensa's CPAs, auditors and lawyers could wade into D.C.'s financial morass.
His opponent in the annual election, incumbent Rosemary Kooiman, a retired safety engineer from Lanham, had no such agenda. Their personalities are entirely different. She is brassy, affectionate, festive and a little daffy, in a good way. On election night, she wore silver pants, a cowboy hat and a shirt festooned with buttons. She calls you "honey" and likes to grab your hand.
Kooiman sees nothing wrong with community outreach, but believes, as Thomas Paine did, that the government that governs best governs least. "Mensa is run from the bottom up," she is fond of saying. "The board should not be dictating to our members; it is up to the people who are interested in [volunteering] to get together and do it."
Kooiman is also a witch -- a practicing Wiccan -- with a sanctuary in her basement, complete with bones, candles, powders and swords, for observing full moons and other pagan rites.
Her religion may have played a role in the outcome of the election -- which Gross won by a slim margin, 87 to 83. On advice from his friend Ed Black, a former campaign consultant to ex-D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, Gross ran an aggressive campaign that included soliciting a story in the Washington City Paper that cast the election as a battle between a witch and a lawyer. Gross also got fired up about "Potgate," a joint-smoking incident that took place after a Mensa committee meeting. (Some Mensans, Gross notes, were afraid of losing their high-level government clearance if marijuana became associated with the group.)
Gross used his outsider status to his advantage and sent postcards to the "silent majority" of local Mensans who pay their $45 annual dues but take no part in official functions. He also compiled a database of Mensa demographics to find out who might support him. "If somebody's a lawyer, they'll have an affinity with me; if somebody's a witch they'll have an affinity with my opponent," he said before the election. He represented himself as the future, and Kooiman as the past.
Some disliked his tactics and his message; in a remarkable display of hyperbole, he was compared by fellow Mensans to both Hitler and Timothy McVeigh. Kooiman, 68, who's been active in the group for decades, said Gross "doesn't understand the makeup of Mensa," and suggested that he hoped to use his Mensa position to bolster his legal practice.
Despite the bitter campaign, the two profess to be friends, and next month, at "Intelligence Returns to D.C.," a regional gathering of area chapters, Gross and Kooiman will be giving dance lessons together. Their repertoire includes the jitterbug and the hustle.
In the Beginning
Mensans, Mensan literature, Vanity Fair -- all are under the impression that Mensa was formed to harness intelligence and use it for the good of humanity. A Mensa brochure from the 1960s says, "In a world which must increasingly make intelligent use of intelligent people, we feel that our potential is very great. . . . Should intelligent people accept more responsibility than those less endowed?"
The brochure also says, "The idea of a panel composed only of people of high intelligence was first suggested in 1945 by a broadcast talk over the BBC by Professor Sir Cyril Burt." Burt later became Mensa's president, and this speech is widely regarded to have inspired Mensa's founders.
"It had nothing to do with Sir Cyril Burt," says L.L. Ware, one of Mensa's founders and perhaps the most thoroughly British man alive. "It was a group of people together who had no particular ambitions."
Ware, 82, lives outside London and is difficult to understand, partly because he's old but mainly because he's British. The origin of Mensa, according to him, is a simple tale that could be titled "Strangers on a Train." From interviewing him, and reading Victor Serebriakoff's published Mensa history, we were able to deduce this much:
It was August 1945, and England was entering its postwar period, because there had been a war, and it was over.
On a train between Waterloo and Guildford, two upper-crust chaps with the deliciously British names of Lancelot Lionel Ware and Roland Berrill sat comfortably and very British-like in the first-class compartment. Today, even riffraff travels first-class. But not then.
Chaps in those days didn't talk to strangers on trains very much, preferring instead the privacy of some scones and their own superiority. Yet as the slender Ware perused the latest edition of Hansard, the parliamentary journal, the heavy-set, bearded Berrill asked him, "Is that Hansard you're reading, young man?"
"Obviously," said Ware, a bit perturbed. "You can see it from the label."
Despite this faux pas, the pair hit it off and became lifelong friends, or at least until the eccentric Berrill passed away a few years later. Ware, 30 at the time, was a former medical researcher who was studying the art of government at Oxford. Berrill, a barrister of 49 interested in astrology and phrenology, was the second son in a family that wanted a daughter, just like former prime minister Ted Heath. Berrill's older brother had had everything Roland would have liked to have, including an Oxford education.
This still bothered Berrill, so the next spring he asked Ware if he could come and take a look-see 'round the campus. Ware invited him to stay at his digs, and there Ware used a Cattell Intelligence Test to measure Berrill's IQ. (Apparently this is how Ware spent his free time.) Together they hatched a revolutionary plan to unite the best minds of their countrymen . . . for a chat, and possibly some more scones.
"I had the idea, and the other chap had the money," Ware says.
And Mensa was born.
In other words, Mensa was not founded out of a passion to serve the Mother Country, but of a desire to unite like minds for some pleasant company. (Granted, some historians credit Mensa's founding solely to Berrill, the first secretary, who may have been influenced by Burt's speech.) The first new member was Ware's sister Elaine, and then the group expanded to include Berrill and Ware's circle of intelligent friends. They did not prevent the Cold War, find a cure for cancer or even launch the career of Canadian power-rock trio Rush.
"A lot of Mensans join because they were misfits in the world outside," admits Lori Doria, 38, the Mensan in the blue sequined dress. She and several others are sipping drinks, leaning against the freezers in the back of the VFW post. A Hell's Mensan discusses the origin of "Cheeble" (a meaningless term created after an overdose of chocolate) and two young lovers reminisce about a recent Mensa tubing trip down the Shenandoah River.
Amid the revelers, Jim Cope stands out. A survey researcher from Landover, he has been a Mensan for 20 years and is one of the society's few African Americans. ("Our black member," somebody called him earlier.) "Some have construed, by the paucity of blacks, that blacks are not qualified," Cope says. "But most college-educated blacks already have their own social groups."
Many people who join Mensa lack these social groups, and some lack social graces as well. "Mensans need Mensa," Doria says.
The Metropolitan Washington Mensa Member's Handbook serves as a guide not only to Mensa, but to dealing with society in general. It says that Mensa contains both "introverts who never adapted well socially" and "extroverts who learned to be `chameleons' to fit into the mainstream world"; in other words, Mensans who are socially comfortable are assumed to be masquerading or adapting their true selves. Interacting in the non-Mensan world is known as "mainstreaming."
Doria authored an essay in the handbook called "Suggestions for Hosting a Party" that details precise instructions for a Mensa bash, down to the number of rolls of toilet paper to have (six) and how to end the festivities:
"Practice this aloud till you know it by heart: `Well -- ' (this is just an attention-getting sound, so be loud) `I want to thank everybody for making this such a great party. I hope you've all had as much fun as I've had.' If this doesn't get them up on their feet, add, `Unfortunately, I'm really beat. I'm afraid I have to throw you all out and go to bed.' Then stand by the door and hold it open, saying `I'm looking forward to seeing you all at the next event.' "
But in other circles the arguments are vociferous. Intelligence itself is a poorly understood and oft-debated subject, and some of these tests have been controversial for their allegedly misleading and biased questions -- or for measuring only a certain type of intelligence (namely, the ability to score well on standardized tests).
"It's total BS -- slightly better than palmistry," says Robert Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, a national testing watchdog group in Cambridge, Mass. "Given the coachability of these exams -- really, so what? Mensa is a society for people who think scores on these exams are important. They deserve one another."
Howard Gardner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has defined at least eight different types of intelligence, only two of which, linguistic and logical, are measured by standardized tests, he says.
"Clearly, if intelligence tests had been designed by artists, politicians, salespeople or entrepreneurs, they would be very different from those designed by `school people,' " he says. "And they would yield a very different group of high scorers and Mensa would be a very different -- and, to my mind, a much more interesting organization."
Gross is the first to admit that he joined Mensa out of ego. "It's an association of geniuses," he says. "If you can get in, why not do it?"
Mensans love to have it both ways. They are geniuses, they say, but really they're just like everybody else. Some geniuses are Nobel Prize winners, inventors and artists; some excel at logic puzzles, sentence completions and puns. Some practice divorce law in Chevy Chase.
In Gross's campaign platform statement, he spelled "speech" as "speach." Twice.
Comferting, isn't it?
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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