As I wrote in the previous post, the subject of genius has always been very difficult for me. I don’t feel it gets sympathy to tell people I was ostracized and bullied and rejected for being so smart (well, also for being weird and the new kid and because bullies can smell someone who is weak and scared). I fear people turn away and say to themselves, oh, please…
Also I don’t imagine all this being particularly easy reading. [Editorial note: yeah, after writing it I can say, it’s a pretty meandering chapter. Sorry!] I know I’m capable of good writing and storytelling, but my focus on just getting memories down and not editing yet makes this pretty long sprawling writing. Conversely I’m skipping over details of relationships and incidents and giving the story outline more, which I’m not sure how that reads. All feedback is welcome.
The story of my growing up involved overlapping arcs of feeling rejected/abandoned at home, moving around constantly and increasingly feeling like the herd was persecuting me for not belonging, while also having a growing awareness that intellectually, I was in a class by myself. All of which made me very unhappy, as I wanted so much to fit in, to have peers, to be accepted. Also there is the irony that I had 3 parents — mom, dad, and stepmother — who had PhDs in English, with fairly prestigious careers, who had instilled about zero respect in me due to their horrendous parenting attitudes, and so I developed what I thought was a strong distaste for the concept of an intellectual. Seemed snooty and elite and pretentious to me (which my parents were really not). I would only realize as I got out into the adult world that I was undeniably an intellectual. There’s a lot of internal conflict therefore around my own self-worth.
However as I entered high school, happy to be more invisible in the longer halls and developing some OCD symptoms as I likely was in a dissociated state most of the time at this point, I did not yet really grasp how much an outlier I was in terms of intelligence. Certainly my AP future Ivy League friends were achieving at the same level, some also playing sports and being social in ways I no longer was. You can’t get better grades than all As and I also saw that I was starting to skip school often. Sometimes I’d tell my mom I felt too sick, which wasn’t exactly false, as I tended to wake with very high anxiety and dread going to school t this point.
To be honest, the first year plus of high school is pretty hazy. I remember bullying being much less than at the middle school, but I don’t have any particular memories of anything at all. I think it was in my sophomore year that I made an ill-fated attempt to join the track and field team. I joined at the start of the school year whereas most of the team had been practicing a couple months of the summer already. I remember a couple of 5 mile runs that had me nearly puking after. So I dropped out. I think that was the last time I really hung out with some of the academically achieving friends I had. It was also in my sophomore year that I had my first real girlfriend, K__, and that is a story for another chapter. Probably the most life-changing thing that year was discovering drugs, which is also another story, but dovetails with my plummeting success as a student. I began to have a much richer social life revolving around smoking bowls and drinking in the woods, jamming in basements (I got my first real six string as I entered high school and played a ton), and my delinquency increased.
By my junior year I found that when I was going to class I was sometimes so exhausted I was sleeping on my little chair desk. I remember the history teacher sometimes waking me up to answer questions, which I reliably would answer correctly. I didn’t even care about appearance at all anymore. Didn’t feel I had any peers — the people I hung out with outside school were not in any of my classes. No one at home had paid attention to my grades in ages, that I was aware of. As we headed into the winter that year, I became suicidally depressed for the first time in my life.
I tried to tell my closest friend, Jeremy, that I was feeling suicidal. He shocked me by responding, yeah, he’s not really the best person to talk to about such things, doesn’t deal much with emotions or however he put it. In retrospect looking back as an adult I can see that no one wants to be on the hook for handling such a crisis, and it is easy for people to assume by default that you should be going to the same people they would turn to if they ever found themselves so low — moms and dads and brothers and sisters and so on. That I had no such people was invisible, and from my point of view, none of the shitstorm of my existence was very clear to me. I myself did not fully grok that it was unusual how little support I had that I could turn to, whether it was my being suicidal, a friend committing suicide, or just the normal trials and tribulations of adolescence. To me, it made 100% perfect sense to turn to a close friend. But alas, Jeremy backed away and we really were never friends after this.
In fact it was sophomore year I was suicidal. Yes. Which led to my smoking my first joint and taking acid for the first time. I remember consciously thinking this might do two things. It could make me not so smart, and maybe I’d feel like I fit in more. And whereas actual suicide would mean, I lose, game over, the end; taking drugs felt like a way of destroying myself that the people who were supposed to care about me could watch it happening over time. Whatever the reasoning, I instantly took to drugs, loved them. That’s also for another chapter.
But so it was as we headed into the winter break in my junior year that I decided to drop out of high school. With straight As. In fact, my Latin teacher, in whose class I had a curve-busting 110 average, actually chewed me out with great drama right in the main entrance hallway of the high school between periods, with students wandering everywhere, for the fact that I was dropping out. I never really did understand her attitude here, it was completely hostile the way she yelled at me. As a sort of absurd irony, I had made my first ever appointment with the guidance counselor a couple weeks earlier, and before he could meet with me he died of a heart attack. It was as if the universe were mocking me for wanting… guidance. From anyone.
The drama of my dropping out prompted a rare occurrence in my life, which was seeing my mother and father in the same place. My dad came out from Worcester — about an hour away — and was in our little Needham bungalow with mom and me, they were talking to each other about me in front of me. I became catatonic for the first time in my life that day. I was lying on the couch and found I could not move, could not speak, and could not consciously do anything to even indicate I was present and listening.
The catatonia freaked them out as much as the dropping out. They began talking about my future, would I have to go work at McDonald’s now? I remember it was this that made me fight to get my will power back, gradually sliding off the couch, gradually finding words again.
Somewhere in this time it was decided to try to find an alternate school for me.
I visited one alternative place that was pretty scary to me. At first glance it seemed like I might like it — it was housed on a sprawling farmland, and the kids all looked like freaks and hippies, with really long hair and wearing beads and tassles and shit. The school did not have classes per se, but if a handful of students were interested in a subject, they could petition it and seek one of the teachers to volunteer to teach it. I vaguely remember some kid offering me a joint on the grounds during my tour. Even I was pretty much taken aback by how insane this “school” came across. So, no thank you.
Instead we found the Palfrey St. School, a small private school in Watertown, MA, founded by child developmental psychologists and education people (and hippies for sure), it catered to kids who for a variety of reasons were not doing well in the public system. Some were disciplinary problems. Some were brilliant. Some were artists and hippies and punks. The school had classes, which were not divided by age but by academic progress in subjects, much like I had had in grades 3-5 in Pennsylvania. And they did not give letter grades but instead you got a full page report of progress from your teacher in every class, each semester. I liked this. It conveyed much more information about you as a person, but was designed to discourage grade competition and comparison to other students in general. It was an approach that required more attention from teacher to student. The school was small, I think when I entered the total 9-12 student population was 76 students, and class sizes tended to be 5-8 students.
Palfrey was housed in an old Victorian house with detached carriage house on a residential street about 10 minute walk from Watertown center, which was a half hour drive from Needham. I had bought a cheap used car with money I earned from working my first real job, at a local tennis club, and so was now driving myself to school on the Mass Turnpike. I also drove my friend D__, who had dropped out of Needham High around the same time and also began attending Palfrey. (D__ lives about 15 minutes from me now, in Colorado, though I have not actually seen her in 29 years now).
A huge change and important note in my life story is that my father decided to lease a house in Needham so that I could move in with him. I think the consensus was that things were getting too volatile with my living with my mother, though I wasn’t privy to any discussions around it. I just learned about this change, and that winter I moved a mile away to be with my dad for the first time in my life, while leaving the Needham High School, the town where my most evil and insidious bullying had occurred. It was a major shift in my existence and in many ways an improvement.
Life with my mom in my teens involved a LOT of yelling and crying. I was very angry at her, and would ask her why she had threatened suicide when I was younger, why we had to move constantly, why she needed to make such a high income instead of being available as a mom. She would tell me how I was an asshole, how we had to move because it wasn’t cheap raising a kid, how we left Bob and his kids because he couldn’t stand me. One time in a fight I told her she looked like her mother, and in response she picked up my Casio mini-keyboard and hit me over the head with it. She had slapped me some times over the years but pretty rarely was she physically abusive to me. Meanwhile in non-fighting days, she and I would hang out, watch TV and movies together. She was an excellent cook, always experimenting with new recipes and providing rich salads and veggies with every meal. But it was very unstable.
Life with dad was a different reality. We did not fight or even argue. I can only recall two fights with my father in my entire life. One was when I was pissed off he shrunk a sweater of mine in the laundry. The second was the final conversation we ever had, in 2005. But in high school, mostly it was like a chance to spend more time with this guy I had seen on summer vacations, but while I was actually living my life. We would have intellectual discussions hovering in the kitchen. About music — my dad was a deep expert on classical music as well as into experimental, avant garde, new age, jazz type stuff. About literature — he was a college professor with a penchant for 20th century and short stories. About TV. We watched Miami Vice and Twin Peaks and Thirtysomething together. The house was kept stocked with groceries — I can’t recall my dad or Anne ever making a single meal, but I could rummage from good stuff and fridge was always full. (I recall in those couple years, my breakfast typically consisted of: 6 strips of bacon, 3 eggs, a bagel with cream cheese, orange juice, and a couple of cokes. I was a skinny little guy too.)
At Palfrey I discovered a newfound appreciation of school. The subjects were both more challenging and more expansive to allow any student to pursue things they were interested in. All my interests could be given something to do. Academically I studied calculus and analysis and creative writing, and when the school ran out of math and science for me, my teachers encouraged me to look into Harvard Extension, which was basically non-matriculated night school at Harvard. So a few nights a week I would take the bus down to Cambridge after school and I took physics, psychology, and creative writing at Harvard. About half the students were enrolled Harvard students whose schedules just worked better at night. I loved hanging out in Harvard Sq (which my dad had first taken me there as a child about age 5, and is the epicenter of my universe even as I now live a thousand miles away). Get a slice of pizza at Cafe A, buy some comics, peruse the Harvard Bookstore, or back in those days, Wordsworth’s, and watch some street musicians play, then on to class, learning about quantum mechanics and general and special relativity. The psychology class was taught by a guy who had been a colleague of B.F. Skinner, who I learned around that time, had tried to pick up my mom back when she was in graduate school, or hit on her or something.
Palfrey also had a music class — not choir, not band, not orchestra, but a music class. I often brought my electric guitar and amp to school with me and would plug in in the parking lot and jam with other musicians. In my senior year the music teacher let me lead the music class for a month or so, which was awesome. He was one who encouraged me to pursue conservatory or Berklee college of music. Alas, my parents who had never been at all interested in my academic life, emphatically said they would not support my pursuing music in school.
I had had a dabbling interest in computers as a teen. I believe my first computer was an Apple ][e which I had in 8th grade. I’d learned some BASIC programming earlier, maybe 6th grade, back in Philly, where we had computer labs at school. It I think age 14 and 15? I did two summers of computer camp at Babson college, learning to program in Assembly and LISP, as well as trading pirated floppy disks of games. I’d loved video games since 1980 with the Atari 2600, the rise of the arcade in the early 80s… you know the history. In high school era was the Super Nintendo. At age 16, I believe the last summer I would spend in Georgia, my dad dropped me off to kill time at the UGA computer labs, so I started writing a text-based adventure game with a natural language parser in LISP, and as fate would have it, was discovered there by a professor whose focus was AI. He was so impressed he had me give a little talk to his graduate students, showing the game I was making.
But by the time I was 17, my biggest interest was guitar. I played for hours a day. That’s another topic.
I also met the first love of my life, S___ at 17. She was a transplant who moved to Needham after I had dropped out of NHS. She was also an only child, and was athletic, brilliant, artistic, and beautiful. We dated for 2 years and she changed the course of my life, for better and for worse.
And so it came to be that in my final year of high school, having had this lifetime of upheaval and bullying as the new kid, alone with my emotionally unstable mother, I found that I had a great girlfriend, a nice calm home, friends I still hung out with a set of friends I’d known a few years in one town, a second set of friends I went to school with in another town, and another set of friends I was taking Harvard classes with. I played music on the weekends with music friends, and also delivered pizza for Mom & Pop’s pizza, where I managed to clear about $2000/mo working no more than 20 hours per week. When Palfrey was discussing student leadership one day in a school assembly, I was nominated by a few students and seconded by teachers to be the student body president, which I immediately declined. Somehow I was someone who was friends with just about everyone in the school, in every different clique, and yet, I was extremely aloof, did not really associate with many people outside of school. But I felt like a person. I had a network. I had all these different roles. I was being allowed to study advanced subjects and no one was mocking me for being a nerd or a brain.
All of this would come crashing to the ground, as the ripple effects of graduating high school impacted me.
This is a pretty long post but I’d rather get to a finishing point on the stated topic than have to write a part 3. So I’ll keep going.
One triggering event for me was that despite being adamant that I could not apply to schools for music and expect any help from my parents, as I approached graduation neither of my parents showed any interest in my graduating. They never asked when the graduation ceremony was. It never came up. As a result I did not attend my own graduation, out of shame of being the only one there with no family in attendance, and I also didn’t bother applying to colleges. I told my parents, probably correctly, that I didn’t see the point of going to college with no particular thing I was pursuing, and that I worried I’d become an alcoholic pothead in college.
I think also my father began disappearing for stretches around time I graduated. Since I was a little kid, he had taught English at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts while his wife, my stepmother, taught English at the University of Georgia. They would spend 1/3 of the year in MA, 1/3 in GA, and 1/3 apart from each other. Now that I had finished high school, it seemed my father felt his job was done, so he headed to Georgia for periods. I was left living alone in a house, having finished high school but not gone to college. That summer I began to smoke pot again after perhaps a year or more not doing this, and began to spend time at my mother’s house. This in turn made me emotionally volatile and sullen, which, I believe, was what prompted S___ to cheat on me with B__.
She kissed him one night on their sunporch while I was off at some keg party, and I showed up at her place drunk that night and saw them together. I don’t know if they did more than kiss, but it was devastating to me. She apologized profusely, said she never meant to hurt me, and we stayed together another month or two but began to fight and I expressed my anger at the cheating, and we broke up.
So now I found that my Watertown and Cambridge friends, who I had been so aloof with and only socialized at school (or with our liberal open campus policy, roaming around Harvard Sq.) were all gone, as school was over, forever. My more intelligent friends in Needham took off in the Fall for college. S__ who was still in high school was no longer my constant companion. My dad was leaving town for periods leaving me in an empty house, and hanging around near my mom caused a lot of emotional instability for me. I knew some people who had not gone to college, who were drinking and drugging a lot which I was trying to stay away from. The only identity that remained was that I was a pizza delivery guy. I’d scored 1390 on the SATs, was a Merit Scholar before dropping out at NHS, was top of my class graduating, but apparently I now had to figure out the world on my own.
This was really the recurring trauma of my life, was being too in over my head with almost no support or guidance. My father had talked music, art, and culture with me while we lived together, which was a welcome addition to my life, but he never asked me about my pursuits, my grades, my future goals. He never seemed particularly interested in who I was or where I was going. And now, done with high school, he simply left.
And so I became suicidally depressed, as I had been a few years earlier. I had no one to talk to. On Easter day, 1991, I really felt like I was going to hurt myself for the first time in my life. So I called the few friends I knew who had not left to go to college — no one home, or they were sleeping (or, in retrospect, with families for Easter?). I called mental hospitals and told them I was feeling suicidal. They asked me “are you emergent?” and I said I wasn’t but that I needed help, needed someone to talk to. They said they could not admit me if I was not in an emergency. I called my mom, and she didn’t want to hear about my being depressed, she barked at me to get over to her house as she was having an Easter party. I didn’t want to be around her and had no interest in her church lady friends either, told her I was not coming.
My father and Anne were at this moment traveling in Italy — no contact info given to me, just, Italy. Never asked me if I might like to see Europe, just, you can use the car Jason, and we’ll be back in 2 weeks.
Finally I called my ex-gf S___. We had broken up 9 or 10 months earlier, and I’d been done with high school almost a full year. I told her how depressed I was, and that there was no one I could talk to, that I’d tried everyone I could think of. She replied “This isn’t going to work. You’re not getting me back.” I protested that I wasn’t trying to get her back, I just needed to talk to someone. She angrily said “goodbye” and hung up on me.
And so I had exhausted anyone on Earth that I might tell that I really needed help. I did what people love to pay lip service to with depression and suicidality: make sure you ask for help!!! People love preaching this idea. But no one, no friend, no parent, not my ex, not even the professional mental health people, were responding to my pleas for help. So I gave up.
I was very dissociated at this point. I will write about dissociation in future, and about my suicide attempt. But I was dissociated, like in a dream, when I ate a bottle of sleeping pills — maybe 50 tablets. It was blind luck that saved me from dying alone in that house that day. S__ told her mother that I was harassing her and mentioned my saying I wanted to kill myself. Her mom called 911. The police came and found me playing guitar through a Marshall stack in my living room (Love Me Two Times, curiously), and the police took me to the ER where I had my stomach pumped and cleaned out with charcoal as I began hallucinating bright blinking colored lights everywhere.
I remember my mom came into the ER and was screaming at me “You’re ruining Easter!!” and the police had to physically haul her out of the ER. Then an ambulance ride — the moon was full that night. Then I woke up on April 1, 1991 inside McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA. The same unit Susanna Keysen wrote about in Girl, Interrupted actually.
I was in the hospital for two months. My dad visited after a week or two when he returned from Italy. We walked around the wooded grounds and there’s a story there. He didn’t ask about my attempt nor did he ask what I planned to do next. While I was in the hospital he gave up the lease on the house in Needham and moved to Georgia, without mentioning this to my mother or me. The doctors meanwhile refused to discharge me into the care of my mother, as they said that it seemed like a not healthy living environment. She actually stalked the psychiatrist to his home at one point, banging on his front door demanding I don’t know what. No one ever gave me the details. They would not let her visit me.
I was so depressed. I had gone from feeling like a bright prospect a year earlier to feeling homeless and imprisoned FOR BEING DEPRESSED. I was being told I had no future. Literally:
When I was trying to get day passes so I could visit potential colleges, now realizing I had to try to go to college or I was seeing how dead end my life was, the doctor refused. He told my mother, who promptly told me, that Jason has no future in adult society and college would be a wasted investment. He told her to start looking at permanent institutionalization for me.
Meanwhile he told me that through their testing — I had been tested extensively by every methodology under the sun for the two months I was in there — that my IQ was so far above 200, they could not put an exact number on it. His exact words. He said as a result of this, I would never have real peers, and would never be able to be close enough to anyone to form the bonds needed to work through extreme emotional issues. As for the emotional issues, I don’t recall them telling me a diagnosis, but they did seem to correctly understand I had no real place of support they could release me to.
Now, incredulous reader — I need to comment on this doctor’s assessment. Firstly, his assertion that my IQ was well over 200 would mean, if true, that I was 6 standard deviations above normal, and in a statistical bell curve that would place me in the actual highest possible category, called “unmeasurable genius”, occurring in the population around 1 in 100 million people. Way above Marilyn Monroe, just extremely rare. A freak. Also if true this would mean I was nearly twice as intelligent as my testers. He told me I was in extremely above average test performance on many different categories of intelligence as well.
Also if this guy was correct, I was doomed to feel alone my entire life, which had been the reason I was so suicidal in the first place. Not for being smart, but for being alone and abandoned.
He lost all my respect for what he told me a week later.
He pulled me into session one day and said, Jason, you are coming up on your 60 day review with the insurance company. Now, they are very likely to say that there is no reason for you to stay longer, and that means we won’t be able to keep you here. (I met multiple teens on the unit who had been there as long as 5 years; this was before massive insurance reform made it hard to stay in hospitals rather than hard to get out of them.) So, what he proposed was to put me on Haldol, a rather old-school anti-psychotic. He said, this will *induce* symptoms that the insurance company will see as reasons for further treatment, and okay my staying.
I said, verbatim: fuck you. I refused the Haldol and was reviewed and as expected kicked out by the insurance company.
I applied and was accepted to Brandeis University for the coming Fall.
And that was the end of my childhood.
Thanks so much for readers staying with me in this story. I can promise that while it’s a very hard story, it gets increasingly interesting over the years. I want to keep writing as I *need* to find some validation from humanity. I need help overcoming so much, and this story I lived with in private shame for decades, I need to share in order to do that. So it means so so much to have you read this, and I appreciate greatly all comments, including just saying hello, including feedback, including positive AND negative judgments on me. I promise to write about my wrongs and failings (including those before age 18; this story is not all chronological). I am trying to find who I am, why I was not given guidance, why I had so much bullying and shaming on me. I’m trying to tell a true story.
“Young and Old”, pen and ink, 1993