Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies by Ann Hulbert (Borzoi/Knopf, 2018)
A Review by Pam Munter
“Genius is an abnormality, and can signal other abnormalities,” writes one Juilliard teacher, “such as ADD or OCD or Asperger’s.” Children without accompanying psychiatric diagnoses are in short supply in this impressive, thorough and well-written book by Ann Hulbert. Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies is often distressing to read, if only because of the aberrant parenting styles that seem melded to their genius children. Hulbert raises the obvious question, “What’s the price of honing youthful potential ever earlier and more avidly?”
Hulbert has one previous book about parenting styles on her resume, along with several others, and she is currently the literary editor of The Atlantic. She has carefully documented the lives of 15 child prodigies and their parents throughout the life cycle. Hulbert speculates that these kids are channeled early and miss the developmental steps that are a crucial part of becoming a healthy adult. Since the kids are anomalies, they know little of the world outside the mastering and exercising their narrow gift. They are focused and driven, and too often under the fierce and malevolent control of their parents. Many kids retreat from social contact; others act out. They exhibit a lack of social awareness, empathy and are frequently quick-tempered. Citing one example, she describes a young boy who would cover his ears in kindergarten when he was bored, and was “odd and unapproachable.” As an adolescent, he continued to be an outsider. “Under suspicion now of being mentally unbalanced, he was prey to continued press hounding.” Because of their unique nature, most prodigies grow up under a withering media spotlight. Depression and anxiety seem inevitable companions throughout their lifespan.
Among the other cases she explores are Norbert Weiner (the father of cybernetics), Henry Cowell (a musician and composer), Nathalia Crane (a poet), and Bobby Fischer (a chess master). Some are more interesting than others but their pathways toward adulthood become painfully familiar as the book wears on.
The most nuanced is her story of child star Shirley Temple, who was constitutionally cheerful, and enjoyed her career in the movies. She is an example of how grooming and study can augment natural gifts. At the tender age of three, she was enrolled in a professional school for Hollywood-bound children. But it wasn’t until she met Bill Bojangles Robinson that she learned how to tap dance well enough to star in all those Twentieth Century Fox musicals. Her stardom was propitiously timed, coming as it did in the middle of the Great Depression, when an adorable dimpled child with a pseudo adult demeanor was a welcome distraction. Shirley possessed a common characteristic of many of these kids: grit. Hulbert says, “She wasn’t fazed by much,” working long hours, memorizing pages of dialogue, “sparkling” on cue. She was tough and could always deliver. With fame, however, she grew full of herself. One afternoon, her father entreated her to rehearse her lines when she was tired. She responded, “Look, I earn all the money in this family. Don’t tell me what to do.” An atypical parental decision, however, was her mother’s wisdom in pulling Shirley away from the limelight as she reached adolescence, enrolling her in a private school with normal kids. It took Shirley a while to catch up with her social and emotional immaturity. She married an abusive alcoholic at 17 but divorced him four years later. She went on to become a politician and a diplomat.
The other notorious child prodigy in show business (a generation ahead of Temple) was pianist-composer and notorious self-deprecating wit Oscar Levant who, in contrast with many described here, was productive and famous from his earliest years until his death at 66. He made his psychiatric diagnoses a humorous part of his public image and would have made a fascinating addition to her roster. He quipped, “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”
Those who successfully survive their intense childhoods possessed supportive, less needy parents. It would seem that being the parents of a prodigy is a full-time job. One wonders what happens to the other children in the family, who are likely normal. Perhaps that’s another study.
Do child prodigies have a childhood? She hedges. “It depends on what you mean by a childhood.” Many of the kids are home schooled, further isolating them from their peers. In the Epilogue, she muses about the role peers play in the process of growing up but leaves this thorny issue largely unexplored. Prodigies seldom have a same-age best friend; they don’t go to camp; instead, they are encased in a figurative glass bubble, spending hours with mentors or teachers while other kids are outside playing. Few of them forge long-term successful marriages or develop the skills of emotional intimacy.
Hulbert’s stated goal in writing the book is to explore how research about kids “off the charts” might “help and expand the cultural map of human potential and achievement.” But even with this test-tube mentality, she asks, “Why the hurry, starting so early, to nurture future-oriented consistency and promote narrow proficiency in children?”
Her portrayals of the 15 subjects—even the most irascible—are done with sympathy and understanding. Any pointed fingers are aimed toward the parents, themselves consumed by the outsized talent, to the exclusion of attending to the child within. It is commonly understood that some parents are tempted to act out their own thwarted desires through the lives of their children. Adults with boundary issues cannot separate out their own needs from those of a growing child. They may only feel successful as parents if their children reflect well on them. Referencing these case studies over time, she advocates providing as much of a “normal” childhood as possible, especially those “off the charts” with respect to talent or intelligence.
Off the Charts can be clinical at times, but it’s a fascinating survey of the costs of genius in our culture. It’s a cautionary tale for ambitious parents, too.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986) and is a contributor to many others. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in more than 100 publications. Her play Life Without was produced by S2S2S, and nominated four times by the Desert Theatre League, including the Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing and Outstanding Play (staged reading). She’s a Pushcart nominee and has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be, was published by Adelaide Books in 2018.