Genius As Possible Disability: “Far from the Tree”

In an essay Andrew Solomon adapted from his book Far from the Tree for the New York Times, he notes that prodigiousness is most often seen in the areas of athletics, mathematics, chess, and music. Considering that we marvel at such gifted kids, why is being gifted with genius sometimes seen as a disability?

These children have differences so evident as to resemble a birth defect, and it was in that context that I came to investigate them. Having spent 10 years researching a book about children whose experiences differ radically from those of their parents and the world around them, I found that stigmatized differences — having Down syndrome, autism or deafness; being a dwarf or being transgender — are often clouds with silver linings. Families grappling with these apparent problems may find profound meaning, even beauty, in them. Prodigiousness, conversely, looks from a distance like silver, but it comes with banks of clouds; genius can be as bewildering and hazardous as a disability…

In pointing out how prodigies are still indeed children after all and not the adult-like creatures they may sometimes seem, Solomon offers this striking example: “One prodigy I interviewed switched from the violin to the piano when she was 7. She offered to tell me why if I didn’t tell her mother. ‘I wanted to sit down,’ she said.”

About the parenting of those considered to have genius, Solomon draws this conclusion from his research:

Half the prodigies I studied seemed to be under pressure to be even more astonishing than they naturally were, and the other half, to be more ordinary than their talents. Studying their families, I gradually recognized that all parenting is guesswork, and that difference of any kind, positive or negative, makes the guessing harder. That insight has largely shaped me as a father. I don’t think I would love my children more if they could play Rachmaninoff’s Third, and I hope I wouldn’t love them less for having that consuming skill, any more than I would if they were affected with a chronic illness. But I am frankly relieved that so far, they show no such uncanny aptitude.

Additional Selected Quotes

Prodigies are able to function at an advanced adult level in some domain before age 12. “Prodigy” derives from the Latin “prodigium,” a monster that violates the natural order. These children have differences so evident as to resemble a birth defect…

Despite the past century’s breakthroughs in psychology and neuroscience, prodigiousness and genius are as little understood as autism. “Genius is an abnormality, and can signal other abnormalities,” says Veda Kaplinsky of Juilliard, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent teacher of young pianists. “Many gifted kids have A.D.D. or O.C.D. or Asperger’s. When the parents are confronted with two sides of a kid, they’re so quick to acknowledge the positive, the talented, the exceptional; they are often in denial over everything else.”

If genius springs from genetics, a meritocracy is hardly more just than the divine right of kings; it, too, mythologizes inherent superiority. If genius results from labor, then brilliant people deserve the kudos and wealth they reap. The communist perspective is that everyone can be a genius if he will only work at it; the fascist perspective is that born geniuses are a different species from the rest of humanity. Many people fall short of their potential through lack of discipline, but a visit to a coal mine will amply demonstrate that hard work on its own neither constitutes genius nor guarantees riches. The history of high intelligence is no less political than the history of intellectual disability or of mental illness.

Nico Muhly, from Far from the Tree:

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