No Jobs for Smart Girls so the Nuthouse Loomed Ahead

When I was still a toddler it was already clear that I was musically gifted. By the time I was five I had learned to read and write and could do some basic arithmetic. Prior to the start of the school term, in the summer of 1963 my mother told me she was taking me to see my new school, called Franklin School. I repeated the name of my school back to her over and over excitedly. We walked together down our street, then up a big hill, and then, around a corner and up another hill. There, I set eyes on the old, two-story brick structure that I would soon know all too well as the place where I spent a good part of my life for the next six years. I was thrilled to see playing fields out back of all types, along with swing-sets, slides, and painted-in areas to play hopscotch. My mother told me we were only going to see the principal right now. I didn’t know why.

On the outside of the building on the bottom floor I saw a yellow and black sign with triangles and large lettering. I pointed. “Mommy, what’s that? What is a fallout shelter?” My mother told me she would explain later. For now, we had to talk to the principal, Mrs. Beers. My mother took my hand and we hurried into the building.

For many years I would recall the distinctive smell of my first school. I was reminded of an old library filled with wonderful books that had been borrowed so many times that even the librarians had lost count. Every book was loved and cherished. That was exactly the smell.

Mrs. Beers was a buxom woman with white hair and white skin. She sat behind a large desk. I would learn that this was a “teacher’s desk.” These desks were made of metal, weighed more than my mother and father put together (so I thought), and almost always were topped with a paper ink blotter. Mrs. Beers must be important indeed!

For what seemed like ten hours I sat with Mrs. Beers while she gave me tests to see if I could enter first grade. I recall very little of these tests because they weren’t much different from any other aptitude tests I later had to take in school. Afterward, I waited outside, playing with toys while my mother and Mrs. Beers spoke privately for a few minutes.

Years later, after I ended up a mental patient, my parents revealed to me that their feelings had been mixed over sending me to school early. My mother had been especially concerned because although I was intellectually advanced, my maturity level did not match up to that of my peers. My parents were also concerned about my size. I was not uncommonly short, but being younger invariably made me the shortest kid in the class. They told me they had often feared I would be teased. My mother told me that she felt guilty, that perhaps their decision had caused my dilemma. I wish she were alive now and I could assure her that certainly they did the right thing. While indeed I was teased, I weathered the situation well. This did not cause “mental illness.” I know now that psychiatry itself caused my diagnoses. Had it not been for psychiatry, I would not have lived so many years seen as a disabled and incapable person.

As expected, during my entire childhood I excelled in school, especially math. In second grade, for Hanukkah, instead of a Barbie set, I asked my parents if they would give me a typewriter. This was a tall request indeed. We turned to the Sears Catalogue and there we found a typewriter just for children.

When I returned to school after winter vacation I told my teacher, Miss MacDonald, that I had my own typewriter. I was surprised at her response. She reprimanded me, telling me I should not become too engaged with the typewriter because “You will write too much and that will take you away from your lessons.”

When my father gave me a slide rule and taught me to use it I now had the power of more intricate math and problem-solving at my quick disposal. I spent hours playing with it, trying out different “functions” and seeing what would happen.

By far, though, my favorite thing to do didn’t take place till late at night when my little brothers were slumped in front of the TV and my parents were absorbed in the Boston Evening Globe. My mother kept all the lights out (saying something about “ecology”) so that meant I had to sneak into our darkened living room and turn on our special light that illuminated our three-quarters grand piano. The bench was covered with soft, woven blue fabric. Sitting there (on top of a few telephone books) I felt like everything before me was just as it should be.

But first, I ran to put on one of our LP records. My mother had a mono record player that she had used for her dance classes. This we had in our living room before my parents gave in and purchased a fancy stereo system. Her record player could play in 33rpm, 45, or 75 if we wanted. I knew how to adjust it and how to carefully flip the needle around. My father said the needles were real diamonds! No one had to know what I was up to, did they?

I had my favorites. I loved Brahms and Tchaikovsky. I had a penchant for early music as well. As a budding trumpet player I had a large collection of classical trumpet recordings, including many duplicates of the same pieces played by different famous players, all male of course. I never thought about that. I listened carefully, and while my beloved records played, I wrote down every note I heard.

This task is called, specifically, music dictation. I was a whiz kid at it. Nowadays it can done by a computer. For me, to ensure that the task would be less wieldy, I reduced the scores to piano two or four hands, though usually what I wrote required far more piano proficiency (and hands) than I possessed. Back then this was a valued skill but not for any practical purpose. Eventually I accumulated many stacks of penciled-in music notebooks. Usually a person who possessed such a skill was considered to have an “ear.”

My favorite record was one given to me in my childhood, Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, with narration by Bob Keeshan, Captain Kangaroo. Even as a teen I played that recording many times and studied it carefully. To this day I cry when I hear the ending, when we again hear the plaintive cry of the oboe, symbolizing the duck, who had been eaten by the wolf. We are reminded that she is still there, still inside, alive.

Most of all, I loved to compose my own music. Why did this feel so forbidden, almost like that apple Eve was not supposed to eat, but did? Composing music was the realm of the likes of Bach and Mozart (and occasionally Bartok and Stravinsky), certainly not me! No Smart Girls allowed. Only Dead White Guys.

I had a better “ear” than I realized. It wasn’t until I arrived at college years later that I discovered that others were either unable to take dictation at all, or struggled with it and had to undergo “ear training.” The fact that I didn’t have perfect pitch meant that as a child I wasn’t noticed as much as those children who did. However, I was told at music school at UMass/Amherst that I didn’t need to attend the ear training classes. I could skip out of them and would be given full credit for five semesters’ worth — as a freshman.

As a smart girl I had some embarrassing flaws that sometimes go hand-in-hand with being brainy. I indeed excelled at some things, yet at certain other things, I fell flat. I couldn’t hit a ball with a bat. This became a crucial issue during the summer of 1969 when our Red Sox played in the World Series. I made it my goal to hit a home run (and therefore, I thought, be a hero), an achievement I have yet to accomplish. I’m still hoping.

I also appeared clumsy, and no one could figure out why. Was it my Coke-bottle bottom eyeglasses? One of my friends said I was “naïve” or perhaps “gullible.” My worst flaw, however, was that I was a sore loser. I sometimes had tantrums if I wasn’t “good enough” at something. Embarrassing as it is, I’m still a sore loser.

I was around fifteen when I was walking on Marrett Road alone during an afternoon, not thinking about much at all. Suddenly I heard a sound I’d never heard before directed at me from a passing car. A man I didn’t know leaned out of the car and let out a loud whistle.

I applied for a job working at Brigham’s. I tried very hard at it since I knew I was earning a real paycheck with real taxes taken out. After five weeks, I was fired during the afternoon shift.

When my mother came to pick me up I broke the news to her. Typical of their generation, my parents rarely revealed their inner feelings to us kids. Now, however, my mother couldn’t help but show her feelings. She almost wept. “Why didn’t your boss give you a chance?” she said. She drove past Trapelo Road where I knew there were some old hospitals, one called McLean that I’d heard of. We were silent. Then, as we came up Waltham Street toward our home, she said, “Don’t worry,” she said, “You were meant for better jobs.”

Mom was right. There were jobs for girls out there. I could find another waitress job. Or become a nurse, or a teacher, or an airline stewardess or actress or housekeeper.

Where were the jobs for Smart Girls? What could I be when I grew up? Where was the place for me, a place where I would be valued for who I was, where I wouldn’t have to act pretty nor make up my face for a boss, nor swing my hips nor show some skin on command? Was there a place for intellect, or did becoming a woman mean I couldn’t be smart anymore?

As soon as I arrived at college I buried myself in academia. I loved to study because I was good at it. I didn’t care for socializing much, though I tried. As summer approached I felt that dread in the pit of my stomach: What job will be out there for a smart girl like me? I washed dishes for the summer for a boss who repeatedly demanded sex from me, lest I lose my job. By the end of the summer, both he and the assistant manager had both raped me. So that was what I was worth. I was now measured by my cup size.

Back at college I delved harder into my work. Here I was valued for something other than being used for my body. The next summer there were no jobs in the Five College area. I finally found a position at McDonald’s in Hadley. I asked the assistant manager why the boys worked the grill and the girls worked the registers (for lower pay). I was fired.

I transferred to Bennington College in 1978 because I didn’t want to be a minority smart girl among Dead White Guys. I spent two years studying part-time and working as a nanny before returning to full-time study. At Bennington, original compositions were valued, and not only that, student compositions were played live in concert. One of the high points of my student career came when a composition for full orchestra I had written and orchestrated was played live for a large audience. My entire family attended the performance that night. It was 1979. I was 21 years old.

Certainly, they pampered us Bennington kids. The faculty made us work hard, too. We weren’t compared to Dead White Guys at Bennington. In fact, to do so was almost taboo. Students took part in weekly faculty meetings, helped plan curricula and also participated in the hiring of new faculty. We were required to take an active role in designing our own individual educational plan, and implementing that plan. I was highly self-motivated and excelled every step of the way. Since I had taken time off and had earned so much extra credit with the transfer and part-time study, I was now older and somewhat more mature than my peers.

One day, my composition instructor, Jeffrey Levine, admitted to me that he put much stake in my academic performance. He told me, “You’re my star student composer. You realize that, don’t you?”

I must have blushed. I always do that, even now, when I feel embarrassed and don’t know how to respond. I loved being valued for my brains, but I knew that in a short time I wouldn’t have the college to support me anymore. I’d be a working girl, nothing but a body. I’d be called Tits and Ass. There was nothing I could do to stop it.

Smart Girls are invariably snuffed out. Burned at the stake. Pushed into some other role where we don’t fit.

I left Bennington one semester prior to graduation. I promised Jeff I would return. He told me the day I left that he knew I was frightened about what lay ahead after graduation. I was ashamed.

Is it even possible to be a Smart Girl in this world? Is that allowed? Or will someone take me aside, some invisible Miss MacDonald, to tell me that being smart will distract me from my real role in life as Cup Size?

Therapy was supposed to answer everything, but didn’t. It sure had no answers for my eating disorder. Instead, therapy turned me into a disease I never had. They should have known.

I excelled at the groups. I was the Smart Girl at day treatment, the compliant one, the therapists’ favorite, the pet. I found this embarrassing, and eventually, demeaning. Somehow, though, playing my new role as female nutcase meant I didn’t have to be someone’s plaything at a future workplace. There would be no workplace now.

Female intellect is not a psychiatric illness. We Smart Girls defy societal demands, inciting envy and rage. We’ve been beheaded, hung, burned alive, or put into towers and left there to let down our long braids.

The smartest have died. Jacqueline du Pré passed away at 42, but her cello was silenced by multiple sclerosis when she was only 27. She ended all public performing. For du Pré this meant not only loss of career, but loss of who she was. Those who knew her said her personality changed. Why should this come as a surprise?

They kept me in therapy, and eventually, psychiatry, only because I was good at it. They kept me around because I was the compliant patient, the one who showed up on time. I was self-motivated, a role model for other patients. However, eventually I found the pats on the back over my performance at bingo and other childish games to be demeaning. You can’t do that to a Smart Girl.

I recall when I was a child I captured wild baby bird. I thought the baby bird needed me. I thought that without my help it would not survive. I tried to feed it and keep it warm. My parents told me that this should not be done. The baby bird belonged in nature, my mother said. We set the bird free.

Please stop capturing Smart Girls. In captivity we fail to thrive. We wither and die.

Today, if you drive by castles such as McLean Hospital, a place very close to my childhood home, you can hear Smart Girls like me crying out, captured girls whose intellect was called a psychiatric disease. If you listen carefully, you can hear their plaintive cries, still alive inside the bellies of those dark halls.

Jacquelne du Pré (Photo: Getty)