She was brilliant. Everyone involved in the case agree about that.
She was unattractive. Everyone agreed about that, too.
She was overweight, whiny, argumentative, unkempt - the list goes on - sloppy, hypercritical, unpopular.
The life of Charlotte Horowitz - whose dismissal from a Missouri medical school became a Supreme Court case last week - has become painfully public. A description of rejection.
From all reports, she interacted with the world like a fingernail on a blackboard. She was punished for the crime of being socially unacceptable.
Charlotte Horowitz was older than most of the other students when she was admitted to the University of Missouri - Kansas City Medical School in 1972. She was also brighter, a misfit from New York who won her place despite the admissions officer's report that read, "The candidate's personal appearance is against her. . . ."
By the school's "merit system," she was tops in her medical school class. As her adviser wrote: "Her past record is the best in the school. her examination scores are at the very top of the school. She was functioned at a high level and has had no problems with a patient at any time."
Yet, she was dismissed by the dean on the verge of her graduation. The grounds were tardiness, bad grooming and an abrasive personal style.
Of course, the case in front of the Supreme Court won't be judged on those grounds. It will deal with the issue of due process: whether she was given proper notice and a fair hearing; whether universities and professional schools have to extend certin legal rights to their students.
But the theme of this difficult, emotional story is prejudice. The most deep-rooted way in which we prejudge each other. The sort of discrimination that is universal, almost unrootable. Prejudice toward apperance. Discrimination against what we "see".
The most unattractive children in the classrooms of our youth had their lives and personalities warped by that fact. Their painful experiences of rejection nurtured in them an expectation of rejection. That expectation, like some paranoia, was almost always fulfilled.
It is a mystery why some "unattractive people" wear it in their souls and others don't. Why one becomes Barbra Streisand and another a reject.
But often, along the way, some people give up trying to be accepted and become defensively non-conformist. They stop letting themselves care. They become "unkempt, argumentative, abrasive." And the list goes on.
Everyone's self-image is formed in some measure by the way he is seen, the way he sees himself being seen. As his image deteriotes, his personality often shatters along with it. At that point, the rest of us smugly avoid him, stamping him "unacceptable," not because of his "looks" but because of his behavior.
It happens all the time.
There is no law that can protect children from this sort of discrimination. We are all, in that sense, the products as well as the survivors of our childhoods.
But the cumulative, spiraling effect of appearance on personality is worse for women than for men. If Charlotte Horowitz had been a man, surely her brains would have alleviated her physical unattractiveness. But as a woman, her unattractiveness was further handicapped by brains.
As Dr. Estelle Ramey, a professor at George Washington for Women in Science, said: "If the bad fairy ends up the last one at your crib, you'll be cursed as a brilliant unattractive woman."
But this case isn't a question of the curse, the birth penalty, the "life-isn't-fair" sort of discrimination. It's a story of a university so "blinded" that its officials felt they had the right to throw away a life and a mind because it was housed in a person who was "overweight, sloppy, hypercritical."
"What's been lost in all this," says Ramey, "is the contribution a brilliant human being might have made in a field which needs all the fine minds we have."
You see, Charlotte Horowitz was brilliant. Everyone involved in the case could, at least, see that.