Where Genius Belongs: A Review of GIFTED
The finale of Girls stole the pop culture show this week. Although I never watched Girls, I enjoyed reading good writers discuss it because passion for a television show tends to bring out the full force of empathy. Unlike film, TV characters live alongside their audiences for years at a time. They’ve been mentally consulted on issues of great importance and are woven into memory as touchstones. Emily Nussbaum’s “Goodbye ‘Girls’” in the New Yorker laid out just such a personal relationship to Hannah Horvath. Nussbaum recalled a poignant moment from the finale when Hannah’s mother tough-loves her daughter with the wisdom that “everyone on earth feels pain and that hers is nothing special.” When a right-sounding theory is later proven wrong, I’m prone to recalling every instance when I heard it expressed incorrectly. This sentence came to mind as I left the theater after seeing Gifted.
In an age when there is dire need for problem solvers, it’s baffling that a film like Gifted is reviewed by scores of professional writers without any discussion of how the world should relate to gifted people, let alone integrate them into society. There are no touchstones in this film for the majority of audience members. The story serves to humanize the problems of the gifted, but it left me feeling itchy for progress. As I write this, American scientists and citizens are marching in protest of public policies that deny evidence, fact and logic. If ever there was a time to examine society’s relationship to giftedness, it’s now.
Positive and negative reviews alike complained of Gifted’s cuteness and numbly defaulted to plot recaps that focus on the plight of Mary (McKenna Grace), the 7-year-old gifted child who lives in the care of her Uncle Frank (Chris Evans.) In fact, the film is about two gifted adults, Frank and his mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), as they navigate the treacherous waters of prodigy. Their relationship is a long-ago casualty of genius that neither one is interested in reviving. Evelyn gave up mathematics for marriage and a family, then lived out her ambition through her daughter, resulting in the latter’s extraordinary achievement and suicide at 22. Frank’s giftedness is unexplored in the film, with mere hints of his potential when he peppers his speech with linguistic clues, or pauses to think deeply in measured beats. The biggest tipoff is when his mother coldly suggests that he’s “lazy.” While his life as a boat repairman may appear to be an abdication of his gifts, any gifted person watching the film knows better and it’s time the rest of society got up to speed. Prodigious talent is isolating, sometimes to the point of lethality. The silent character in the movie, Mary’s mother, solved a foundational math problem, then killed herself. Frank is alive and out of his mother’s grasp, but the price is his wasted mind. His life is devoid of intellectual stimulation with true peers. The harsh reality for gifted people is that they must choose between extremes, and if they choose to forsake their gifts then it’s often necessary to hide in plain sight in order to survive.*
The savviest person in Mary’s life is her middle-aged babysitter and best friend, Roberta (Octavia Spencer). Roberta is very much in the world and knows how it works. At the outset of the film, she announces her fear of what will happen when Mary attends a public school for the first time. As it turns out, she’s right on the money, but Frank rejects her advice and does what any gifted philosopher would do; he postulates. He experiments. Frank attempts to walk an unconventional path by shielding his niece from above-normal expectations while teaching her the ropes of hiding her gifts. On day one of sending Mary to a public school, he’s thwarted. This is a daily experience for gifted adults when they interact with the world. As Gifted shows, things rarely go well for this 1%.
Setting aside the argument for why people should educate themselves on giftedness, it’s easier instead to begin with where. Asynchronicity is the key to understanding the internal world of a gifted person. Linda Kreugman Silverman’s “The Universal Experience of Being Out-of-Sync” is an excellent overview of the best studies on gifted traits. She describes the experience thus:
Giftedness creates a different organization of the Self. Cognitive complexity, emotional sensitivity, heightened imagination, and magnified sensations combine to create “a different quality of experiencing: vivid, absorbing, penetrating, encompassing, complex, commanding — a way of being quiveringly alive” (Piechowski, 1992, p. 181). An unusual mind coupled with unusual emotions leads to unusual life experiences throughout the life cycle. Gifted children and adults feel cut off from the rest of society — out of sync. A gifted mind is a relentless idea generator that creates more things to do than there are hours in the day…And the gifted set standards well beyond those of others. They’re never satisfied doing a “good enough” job; they want to do everything to the best of their ability. Giftedness creates a different worldview. Impossible dreams are realized, unrealistic goals achieved, insurmountable obstacles surmounted, by people whose vision is a more powerful reality than the limitations that most of the world accepts as “real.”
Central to the experience of being gifted is a profound longing for an unusual form of acceptance, coupled with a visionary’s patience that waxes and wanes with frustration as the gifted person adheres to a fundamental logic which no societal construct can touch. If you know the sky is not really blue, that blue is the color our eyes perceive, while everyone around you points to the sky as proof positive that you’re irrefutably wrong and crazy, how do you proceed? Straying from your logic means betraying your core knowledge, but living by your logic means you are extremely out of sync with the world. The longing is for your logic to be wholly embraced by society, thereby accepting you, the gifted person, along with it.
History is littered with stories of gifted people who were persecuted during their lives and widely embraced posthumously. Galileo, Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing, Lenny Bruce…sadly we can’t even start to talk about women because no one really knows what they’ve been up to until recently. The closest we get are vicarious stories such as Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love, the biography of Émilie, the Marquise du Châtelet, a brilliant math mind who happened to share her worldview and bed with Voltaire. We only know about her because of her liaison. Beyond the few men and women who ploughed forth and left their mark, there are thousands we’ll never know about who might have contributed to societal advancement but instead hid their intellect out of self-preservation.*
Does society learn from these fables? Not often. The world continues to telegraph that gifted people are difficult, illogical, crazy, and worst of all dangerous. The pain of this rejection is magnified by the gift, as gifted people understand the intricacies of why they’re alienated yet they’re powerless to lead a resistant majority to a different conclusion. Everyone experiences a form of this dynamic in life, of being misunderstood, but gifted people live with heightened sensitivity and are frequently not offered compassion for their loneliness and rejection. In fact, their intelligence is questioned in the face of their suffering: If these a-holes are so smart, why can’t they figure out how to help themselves?
From one important angle, it doesn’t matter where Mary ends up. Whether she lives with her uncle or her grandmother, she still lives in a society which marginalizes gifted people and throws away potential with both hands.* Ian Welsh’s blog post on “The Intolerance of Genius” summarizes this perfectly when he states:
In the old days, geniuses were tolerated, even coddled. If it was necessary for GE to hire a secretary to act as interface between a genius and the rest of the world, that was done. Geniuses were surrounded with other geniuses, their eccentricities tolerated, and allowed to run. Today it’s “if you don’t play well with others, even if you can do things they can’t, you’re out.” This is the symptom of a society that doesn’t really care about progress. We live in a courtier’s society, where ability is secondary to social skills…because your job isn’t to actually solve problems or get things done, it’s to manage your superiors and get along with your peers.
This is a bleak outlook that counters the message of this film, but it’s an important truth that shouldn’t be overlooked. For all of our marketing slogans and slick technological hardware, the fantastical story of our advancement is merely a useful fiction that sells stuff. Today, the mechanics of our basic systems, from government and corporations, to schools and public services, are demonstrably broken. There are people out there who have the vision to see a way forward, to solve these problems and invent new paths, but implementing those solutions entails trusting a handful of outliers who flatly state the sky is not blue. The majority of people won’t willingly put their faith in a bunch of weirdos (although they will put it in an unseen, unknowable God?) This is why Silicon Valley is now a fortress filled with geeks who will never willingly cede control of technology to an illogical populace. This is how the most powerful country in the world elects a compulsive, uninformed liar who tells people what they want to hear but has no intention of being accountable to them. These are the outcomes of marginalizing giftedness. They are disastrous.
Meanwhile, as an entire country buckles under the weight of an untenable social order, gifted people live with the profound stress of knowing where to dig for better information or how to fix injustices; of knowing that most pain, disease and suffering in the world is unnecessary, and that they have the intellectual wherewithal but not the means to end it. Global suffering is horrifying evidence of a gifted person’s failure to communicate, failure to make the right case, failure to connect... Everything for a gifted person is potential, living with the knowledge of what they might contribute or what they could discover. The obligation is excruciating because those discoveries have no path into society without the help and effort of others who grasp the import, if not the mechanics. The integral role for non-gifted people is to offer a conduit for those discoveries, yet few people possess the humility or confidence to do it.
The best a gifted person can hope for in the present context is to locate other gifted people and agree or disagree intelligently over what they’re seeing. That, or close themselves off to the outside world (in Frank’s case by repairing boats in Florida.) Telling gifted people to “find each other” is easier said than done. It’s another unexplored dynamic in the film — that perhaps Frank is sending his niece to school not because she needs to go, but because he fears his need for her companionship is isolating or burdening her. Similarly, perhaps Evelyn takes an interest in educating her granddaughter not because Mary is capable of producing great theory, but because Evelyn craves a relationship with a likeminded soul. In real life, I find people tend to dismiss the torment of loneliness, but Gifted is a fictional testament to the powerful despair that would drive a woman to justify walking her granddaughter down the exact path that killed her daughter. The emotional needs of gifted people are complicated. In the absence of guidance in how to meet those needs, the gifted are capable of making terrible, sometimes life-ending, decisions.
The other day, a guy bagged my groceries at breakneck speed with mathematical precision. While he worked, he looked at me with bright, sad eyes and said “Teach me something interesting. Please.” It’s striking how little compassion gifted people get from society. Millions of people tune in to television shows and empathize with fictional characters on a weekly basis, devoting time to pondering “what will happen to these characters in 10 years,” but somehow the gifted humans down the hall or bagging groceries two feet away don’t get a second thought because their experiences, their happinesses, their pains, are so special they’re unrelatable. It turns out people empathize with others only when there’s the potential for mutuality. “We’re both mothers.” “We both grew up in Chicago.” “We both love to run.” When the aches and pains of giftedness rear their heads, people turn away, scapegoat, or worse. In an age when we need visionary solutions to so many problems, it bears asking: Where do the gifted belong, and how can we help them get there?
*Interestingly, nearly every non-gifted person I know refuses to believe this is true.
Written to “The Ballad of Me and My Brain” :) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyIv5JgMOvE