Marianne Szegedy-Maszak is a senior editor in the Washington bureau of Mother Jones and the author of “I Kiss Your Hand Many Times: Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary.”
We have all seen stories about them, children barely out of kindergarten propped up on piano stools playing Rachmaninoff, or writing complex proofs with pencils they can barely hold, or checkmating in 20 moves grand masters who are old enough to be their parents. Chronologically and physically they are prepubescent children, but intellectually they tower over most adults — blurring generally understood boundaries between intelligence and maturity, between mere precocity and genius.
Child prodigies have always been fascinating both for what their remarkable talents may suggest about the mysteries of human potential and for the unique challenges they face in navigating the difficult passage to adulthood. The wunderkind often grows into a has-been. Today, their lives resonate with special force because, as Ann Hulbert puts it in her compelling new book, “Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies,” these fast starters “expose very recognizable confusions behind a zeal for early prowess that by now has gone mainstream — fueling hopes of success, and no end of stress.”
“Not the least, prodigies offer reminders writ large that children, in the end, flout our best and worst intentions.” And that flouting of expectations is often as “off the charts” as are the children.
Hulbert introduces us to two mathematical geniuses, 15-year-old Norbert Wiener and 11-year-old William Sidis, both sons of highly accomplished Russian Jews, who were admitted to Harvard (where else?) in the early 20th century. Wiener arrived as a graduate student in zoology in 1909, having already completed his BA in math at Tufts. He managed to survive his prodigious youth to become a pioneer in cybernetics. Sidis came to study math and soon delivered a lecture on the fourth dimension to Harvard’s math club. Much breathless news coverage accompanied their arrival, not only because they were two exceptional boys but because they were vivid symbols of an age obsessed with liberating human potential. And both had immigrant fathers who showed no mercy.
After being driven to greater and greater intellectual feats, deprived of a modicum of praise, much less gentle affection, both boys suffered agonizing emotional breakdowns. Of the two, Sidis was the more severely damaged and became an utterly maladjusted, socially obtuse, mathematical-genius recluse. Rediscovered by James Thurber in 1937, he was the subject of a “cruelly patronizing New Yorker profile in the magazine’s ‘Where are They Now?’ series.” Wiener recovered, married, worked at MIT and wrote an autobiography, “Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth,” empathetically mined by Hulbert for one of the few adult reflections on a distorted childhood.
These two stories provide the basic themes of prodigy that Hulbert explores through the 20th and 21st centuries, with an exhausting cast of characters in disciplines ranging from math and science to music and tennis to computer coding and poetry. (A curious omission is the visual arts.) The major theme is childhood brilliance, of course, but equally compelling are the minor ones: alienation, wonder, preternatural focus and discipline, misunderstandings, rebellions, often-tragic adulthoods, and, inevitably, the minefield of parenting.
“Off the Charts” is divided into four parts, with the narratives following those who survived their childhoods and became functional adults, and those who didn’t. Wiener and Sidis are the set pieces for the “Nature vs. Nurture” section, which also includes American composer Henry Cowell, whose California laissez faire parents were the polar opposites of their compulsive Russian counterparts in Massachusetts. Nathalia Crane, who published two books of poems by the time she was 12, introduces the “Daughters and Dreams” section, which also features “America’s Sweetheart” Shirley Temple. Chess prodigy Bobby Fischer shares the third part of the book, “Rebels With Causes,” with other bad boys Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, leading artificial-intelligence and virtual-reality researcher Joseph Bates, computer programmer and IntraNet founder Jonathan Edwards, and a large group of computer geeks whose oft-told, overlapping stories of breakthroughs, social ostracism and the creation of our digital world Hulbert heroically keeps straight.
There is another rebel, however, Yoky Matsuoka, a Japanese tennis and math prodigy. She shines for more reasons than her exceptional athleticism in this gallery of socially awkward male nerds. “The mantle of math brilliance — with its aura of innate giftedness, its elitist spirit, its presumption of single-minded focus and foreordained career direction — didn’t fit right,” Hulbert writes. “She had always known one thing she didn’t want: to be anybody’s idea of just the good girl on a predictable, adult-approved path.” The result? A MacArthur “genius” grant, a career as “a pioneer in neurobotics” and a family with three kids.
The final section explores “Miracles and Strivers.” The miracles begin with the “Mystery of Savant Syndrome” and a sensitive exploration of the autism spectrum through the stories of Matt Savage, known as the “Mozart of jazz,” and Jacob Barnett, whose gifts were manifest in the fields of math, science and astronomy. Jay Greenberg, a classical composer, represents those who are considered savants.
The book culminates with “Tiger Parents, Super Children,” the strivers who are the talented products of super-driven parents, embodied in Amy Chua’s controversial manifesto, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Here we learn about concert pianist Lang Lang and 10-year-old piano prodigy Marc Yu. “The approach violated just about everything psychologists were beginning to think might help motivate children to stick with the hard work of honing a talent — and, ideally, go on to become creative adults,” Hulbert writes. Thus, we have made a full circle, returning to Sidis’s father a century before, who “not so subtly implied that those who didn’t match the Sideses’ pedagogical success (which was everybody) were mere slackers.”
In many ways, “Off the Charts” completes a story that Hulbert began in her previous book, “Raising America,” where she examined the onslaught of child-rearing wisdom from some of the early experts from the turn of the 20th century through Dr. Spock, including a host of psychologists, educators, pediatricians, psychiatrists, evangelicals, behaviorists, and successful moms and dads. Exploiting the fundamental insecurities of parenthood, experts offered guidance in creating a brand-new generation of well-adjusted, high-performing, competitive, musical, mathematically confident, athletically adept, academically outstanding, well-rounded offspring who also demonstrated superior emotional intelligence and grit. Could genius be far away? Well, as we see in this book, yes.
In this wide-ranging survey, Hulbert includes some fascinating details such as the appearance, in 1972, of federal support for research into these singular childhood brains, and the development of a “superacheiver culture” at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, at which Edwards and Bates studied. But all the earnest and exhaustive research Hulbert delivers sometimes has the feel of requisite boxes being checked, a conscientious compendium of necessary information where some omissions might have better served the narrative.
“Off the Charts” is as much an exploration of the mystery of parenting in “practice, rather than theory,” as Hulbert writes, as it is a look at these remarkable children. For some, the implication is clear: Genius is replicable, if only as a reflection of their genius in child-rearing. (Younger siblings often disabuse parents of this conceit, even if many Tiger Mothers refuse to acknowledge it.) Given our highly competitive times, doesn’t every parent secretly long to have off-the-charts offspring? If you subscribe to such an illusion, get Hulbert’s book. It will probably serve as a bracing antidote.
By Ann Hulbert
Knopf. 372 pp. $27.95