Promethea Unbound
November 4, 2017 3:14 PM   Subscribe

A child genius raised in poverty, she wanted to change the world. Then a horrific act of violence nearly destroyed her. This is a story of how family dynamics and outsider obsession can stifle and derail the most brilliant among us, and poses the question of how much can be lost and has been lost to the world. It's one of the saddest stories I've heard.
posted by MovableBookLady (57 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
 
What happened to her is objectively awful but she sounds pretty content and happy to me. It makes me angry how many people in the article (including the author) are trying to get her to fulfill their personal dream of what smart people should do.
posted by value of information at 3:29 PM on November 4 [37 favorites]


To whom much is given, much is expected. But American society expects far too much from Promethea, and indeed every woman in this story.
posted by infinitewindow at 3:32 PM on November 4 [15 favorites]


It's not so much what she "should do" according to someone else's ideas, but what she herself wanted to do and didn't get to do.
posted by MovableBookLady at 3:32 PM on November 4 [18 favorites]


Yeah, there’s a lot there about how scholarships and funding only really exist for people willing and or able to benefit the universities in return immediately. She’s a genius, but no scholarship will allow her to simply take all the classes she wants to take and gain knowledge. She has to be aiming for a degree, a focus, something they can make money off the research or publicity for. That’s...kind of a problem.
posted by corb at 3:51 PM on November 4 [23 favorites]


That was not the story I was expecting but it should have been.

I should know by now that men feel entitled to women.

What a fucking travesty.

She'd be back in school except that her love of a school made some man feel entitled to run her life and now she associates it all together.

Just unreal. And she had a restraining order.

Those things never work, do they?
posted by sio42 at 4:54 PM on November 4 [31 favorites]


she should just get to do whatever she wants for the rest of her life.

i'd say, like, start a patreon or something, i'm sure people would donate. but at this point i wouldn't blame her for saying fuck no to anyone enamored of her intelligence offering her charity.
posted by vogon_poet at 5:10 PM on November 4 [10 favorites]


Wow. That is a very intense story.
posted by latkes at 5:14 PM on November 4 [1 favorite]


"It's not so much what she 'should do' according to someone else's ideas, but what she herself wanted to do and didn't get to do."

What corb said: the problem here isn't that Promethea wants to be academically idle, she doesn't, it's that everyone, including her mother, wants her to achieve her intellectual potential in the conventional way they are familiar with and not what Promethea herself has been aiming toward her entire life. No one is listening to her when she says what she wants.

I feel a powerful kinship with Promethea. She's a hundred times smarter than me, but I've known essentially no one else with a generalist gift and there's no place for it in today's world. And "rage to learn", indeed. There's an essential truth in that insight.

Promethea's gift is its own standard and expectation -- she doesn't need the outside world's goad to achieve, that only gets in her way. She has a sense of destiny. Whether or not it's "real" doesn't matter, she feels it. While she may not know quite what that destiny is, she certainly does know what she wants, what feels right for her to do. She's been telling everyone who might listen. Which, apparently, is no one.

To have some kind of gift is deeply confusing because when the world sees it, the world reinterprets it. But the gift resists this because it simply is what it is. Expressing it is a sublime contentment, its own reward. There's a powerful tension between that and what the world expects.

Promethea is right to be wary because Kyros was just the specific embodiment of the appropriation of her gift for someone else's notion of utility.

Georgia has been heroic and I don't want to disparage her in any way. But I think that she's not done her daughter any favors by seeing this gift as something that requires eventual reification, as if her daughter were a wildly promising start-up that needs sufficient incubation and venture capitalization to achieve a brilliant IPO.

I don't know what achievement really is, or success really is, but I know that Promethea knows what makes her happy, what she wants. I think people should trust her to follow the road of her heart where it will take her.

What's most infuriating is how clearly her experience belies the American fable of meritocracy. She's been comprehensively failed by a society which is notoriously proud of its supposed opportunities.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:16 PM on November 4 [49 favorites]


I wish I could just wrap her in hugs, and then give her a library all to herself and take care of her mother for the rest of her life.

Academia is a fucked place, anyway. Many many people would like to be generalists, even the slightly-above-average intelligence people who populate this world are interested in all kinds of things, and want to be able to pursue them without feeling guilty. My own advisor took Hindi during her PhD program, not telling her advisor about it until he found out when he talked to the Hindi professor at a dinner. We're all told, though, that the best thing for us to do is specialize hard and become the absolute expert in one tiny tiny thing. (I know more about treehopper metamorphosis than anyone else alive. But... so?) Don't get distracted by other things.

She seemed to want to be able to learn a lot about many different fields and tie them together. I have no doubt she could do it. My heart aches for her just because there's this unfulfilled yearning she has of being able to have a unified theory of it all. But it also aches for her because of the violence and terror that was caused by some asshole man being too fascinated by her.

I guess I wish I could be her friend. But I definitely agree with everyone else that she needs to just be left alone.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 5:39 PM on November 4 [39 favorites]


As we live in a capitalist age, it is very hard for us to value gifts that do not lead to careers, and thus money. My fear for her and her mom is not that she will not continue to develop, which she is clearly capable of, but that she and her mom will be taken down by poverty. Hunger and exposure and untreated illness will beat genius in the end, and without a career, she is vulnerable, and I think that's what triggers a lot of us reading her story.

In a world where we simply fed, housed, and provided care for everyone because we had decided we should, I would not worry about either of them living whatever life they chose. But in that world, they wouldn't have spent their lives living in poverty or homeless, either.
posted by emjaybee at 6:12 PM on November 4 [18 favorites]


Did I understand it correctly that she got an undergrad degree in math, then one in physics, and had begun one in CS when this happened?

I don't think that math or physics suits her at this point, anyway. Her genius in math would have best expressed itself right about now, with sufficient education. I think if she was "meant" to go that way, she'd have felt the need to continue with math at 13. Likewise, she seems like she'd be most inclined to theoretical physics and I think she would have rushed ahead to an insight commensurate with her genius if that was waiting for her.

Given her generalist bent and yen for synthesis, I think she'd be happiest in a field that is both at the intersection of several others and which is fertile ground for the creative insight of a prodigious genius.

She mentions information theory and I think it holds a lot of promise for her. She's clearly already thinking about both physics and biology in those terms. The math she has is fundamental and a beginning; the physics and CS are experience with how some of her intuitions about information theory manifest. Computational biology might be just the thing.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:25 PM on November 4 [4 favorites]


Yeah, and there are places for generalists. I've always been that kind of person myself, and my omnivorousness has been beneficial in finding interesting niches others couldn't occupy. But I'm just one of those people, and she's clearly on another plane entirely. And all the while, everything about her life has been so difficult. Her story makes me think of Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. I want someone to anonymously just give her all the money and access to knowledge she could ever need with no strings attached so she can feel free to do whatever it is she's meant to do. Everyone should have that, but I wish it all the more for someone like her, who has the potential to make connections that bring to light the kinds of things that no one else ever would.
posted by limeonaire at 6:36 PM on November 4 [5 favorites]


Fuck "potential". I am a generalist (and someone a PhD in Romantic Literature from St. Catherine', Oxford as described as one of the best read people he has known), and according to the admittedly flawed Stanford-Benet, well above average. And all I have heard my whole life is crap like "You need to live up to your potential!" or "If (that Down's sufferer) had YOUR potential..."

You know, I don't feel all that gifted, and I am doing what I can with what I have to work with, and all your people with your "potential" can just fuck RIGHT off while I am over here trying to be happy for a change.

Wonderful, but tragic, story. Glad to see she's apparently found where SHE needs to be.
posted by Samizdata at 6:53 PM on November 4 [47 favorites]


*claps at Samizdata because YES*

If I had a dollar for every "you're not living up to your potential"-style conversation...
posted by bitter-girl.com at 7:10 PM on November 4 [12 favorites]


We should start a club.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:13 PM on November 4 [6 favorites]


who has the potential to make connections that bring to light the kinds of things that no one else ever would

Fuck "potential"

OK, before we derail too far about this—'cause ah man, I know what it is to be and to be right next to the person everyone wants to realize their potential or whatever—how about I reword?
who has the potential who previously had and may still have a deep desire to make connections that bring to light the kinds of things that no one else ever would
See previously. I do get that. It's obviously up to her. But I still wish someone would give her all the resources she has ever wanted and then some, so it's then entirely up to her, not circumstance, what she does from here.
posted by limeonaire at 7:22 PM on November 4 [8 favorites]


One thing that struck me - how family patterns replicate themselves even if you're smart. I was struck by how what her mother had endured as a child shaped her mother's life, and how those patterns seemed to echo in Promethea's - marginalization, brilliance that isn't directed to conventional ends and doesn't plug into larger systems or lead to a career (I mean, her mother is obviously pretty smart), hardscrabble and precarious employment, vulnerability to bad men. We have the idea that if you're smart enough, you're sort of a tabula rasa and nothing except mere access keeps you from becoming, eg, a tenured professor at an R1, when actually family patterns and experiences are extremely powerful and tend to be replicated.

(Or at least, that is true in my family, which is where my cathexis comes in - we're all very smart, and it all comes to naught for reasons that are not about intellectual ability.)
posted by Frowner at 7:23 PM on November 4 [53 favorites]


Admiration of "Geniuses" is affection for a fiction. "Intelligence" is not necessarily productive. I suspect that brilliance is more likely to make you suspicious of conventional achievement. Take what I say with a grain of salt; I was a prodigy and it took me well into adulthood to figure out how to function, let alone live up to my so-called potential. (Which I'm still not doing, despite having achieved some odd and startling things.) People who succeed and people who create don't do so because of intelligence. They do it because they turn their minds toward doing something, or else because they are in the right place at the right time. And while those who have some outside interests or cross-pollinating expertise are more likely to see things creatively, having too much general knowledge, without the interest in achieving, just makes you a wide-ranging conversationalist.

Also, from what I know of kids, genius, and school, I suspect the story as told is kind of one-sided. Math is cumulative and it's possible to do well at it at an early age; many other disciplines require a depth and breadth of understanding and skill and the ability to negotiate not only multiple viewpoints but the understanding of human nature that prodigies tend not to do well at.
posted by Peach at 7:29 PM on November 4 [26 favorites]


I don't give a shit about her potential, and she doesn't owe us anything, but I bet she'd be happier if she weren't dealing with severe PTSD from watching some asshole shoot her mother. What's tragic about this story is not her wasted potential.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:43 PM on November 4 [47 favorites]


What corb said: the problem here isn't that Promethea wants to be academically idle, she doesn't, it's that everyone, including her mother, wants her to achieve her intellectual potential in the conventional way they are familiar with and not what Promethea herself has been aiming toward her entire life. No one is listening to her when she says what she wants.

Yep. She should run away and become an applied ecologist. It's fun. You get to dabble in everything and actually do stuff. I basically strive to know as much as possible about systems- how things organize, interact and how they will interact in different states over time and what will likely happen within given bounds. There is a lot of modeling obvs, but there is a very high value placed on people who can look at a complex system and understand it without a computer too. It's a small field but we are definitely her people- everything she said resonated with me so much. Maybe public health or epidemiology is another applied field that is similar in the health sciences and information technology I would imagine though I don't know much about it (but who do you work for when you're so smart in that field, eh? Not the angels I'm guessing).

Academia and research is one way to do science, it's not the only way. Living out in the country an observing is too. She will find her way to her insights I think on her own time, I hope she is able to share them.
posted by fshgrl at 7:54 PM on November 4 [5 favorites]


Yeah, there's a lot going on in this story, and a lot going on outside of the story that we don't know but is suggested by the bits we read. Clearly, this person is at the very extreme of human potential for cognition and learning, which is amazing. When someone has a gift so marked, it's hard not to feel invested in wishing she would do something with it. In our current context, that something would be a career and academic achievement, but even in a different cultural context, I think the world would want someone like her to use those mighty powers.

But I have this sense that for many people with extreme 'intelligence' (to use a very simplistic word of disputed meaning): that gift is also a disability. I can think of many anecdotal examples of people for whom extreme intelligence is accompanied by a lack of motivation, or social isolation, or an extreme lack of emotional intelligence, or other traits that make life very hard for those around them or for themselves or both.

Agreed that she and her mother seem to share a lot in terms of their modes in the world. Having been a single parent, I resonated, and not in an especially pleasant way, with the story. Reading about their dynamic felt a little disturbing to me. At times I've been too close to my kid, also a person of extremes, although nothing like this level of extreme. And I know that has not always aided her development or mine.

My kid goes to a STEM school with some very bright kids. She is extremely smart but she is not near the top at her school. Some of those kids are in the major outlier category - although again - nothing like Promethia. I guess just like any trait - height or eye color or arm span or whatever, you're going to have extremes and once-in-a-generation examples. It seems like a terribly alienating experience.

Very thought provoking.
posted by latkes at 8:08 PM on November 4 [2 favorites]


I did cry after reading the shooting part. It's so upsetting. I can only imagine how deep the resulting trauma goes.
posted by limeonaire at 8:17 PM on November 4 [3 favorites]


When you have a talent for something, I think you know it (assuming you've ever had the opportunity to express it). Everyone else seeing "potential" is superfluous with regard to the talent -- the only thing people could mean when pointing out potential is not to tell the talented what they already know about themselves, but to tell them how others expect them to behave. And to set them apart. In that sense, it's a millstone around the neck.

Like many of us, I rejected the ripe grandiosity of "achieving my potential". Life is so much greater than a prescribed achievement, no matter how lofty. And, anyway, my own experience is that nothing external will ever satisfy the way that simply expressing the talent itself can, for its own sake.

And that, all by itself, is burden enough, because it's a kind of compulsion. It has its private demands and obligations. On its own terms, it can alienate and isolate. While this is true for all of us, the best thing we can do for someone set apart from others, like this or in so many other ways, is to simply let them be themselves.

In our culture, there's something particularly pernicious about how we disproportionately value talent expressed as something we call "intelligence". Especially with regard to this in service to science, it's become a secular version of the expectation of prophetic deliverance. It is an unjust burden to be so anointed.

Furthermore, as Peach days, "intelligence is not necessarily productive". Talent itself, with regard to achievement, is wildly insufficient and it's a terribly distorting social myth that it is otherwise.

Others may have been offended by the writer's comparison of giftedness with disability. But speaking as someone who was a gifted child and is a disabled adult, I think this is true, and in ways the writer probably did not intend.

I think that, properly understood, disability is socially constructed, not inherent. Likewise, giftedness. (And "intelligence"). The alienation is not inevitable, because we can organize our society in ways more, or less, inclusively. There is a possible world where Promethea was never set apart and yet has always been fully herself. My point is that pretty much everything that is onerous about her brilliance is an external imposition. Kyros was an extreme version of this.

Having had to survive Kyros, the world should just let Promethea do what she wants and be who she wants. Not only does no one else have the right to determine what path is best for her, no one else could know what that is.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:19 PM on November 4 [16 favorites]


In our culture, there's something particularly pernicious about how we disproportionately value talent expressed as something we call "intelligence".

Well said.
posted by latkes at 8:23 PM on November 4 [2 favorites]


People have been saying, sympathetically, that Promethea should be allowed to experience her peace and happiness in her own way, and that we should not impose upon her an obligation to use her intelligence productively.

It is not up to us to allow or to impose. Our discussions (most likely) have zero impact on her; they merely reflect our own processing of her situation.

I cannot help but think that it would be good for her to come to a first-rate academic institution. Not because of any obligation to use her talents, but because she might be less lonely there. Maybe. I was no prodigy like her, but I was sufficiently advanced that I simply never felt like I fit in, until my life's random trajectory brought me to Bramble University -- and suddenly I felt like I had "found my people".

Promethea learned so much by reading books -- but it is entirely a different thing to have meaningful conversations with the people who wrote those books. If she is like I was, she doesn't imagine that she could be there having that dialog, as if it's a different world. But the world is here, and I wish she would find it.

Not that it would necessarily be right for her. But it might be.
posted by brambleboy at 8:49 PM on November 4 [8 favorites]


As somebody not nearly as bright as Promethia, but who ended up on a magnet-school track, flamed out, and had to figure life out from there, can I just say: that woman does not owe us, or anyone, anything.

It is terrible that she lived in poverty, because nobody should live in poverty. And it is incredibly horrific that a man became obsessed with her and attempted to murder her mother in front of her.

But if she decides to live out her life simply and contentedly—working a job, staying warm in the winters, hiking in the summers, and watching her mother paint large canvasses—that is fantastic.

If she wants to engage in academic pursuits, that's great. If she wants to spend time with her mom and live a quiet life, that is equally wonderful.

Screw anyone who would prioritize humanity's quest for knowledge over the wellness of a human being.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 8:51 PM on November 4 [16 favorites]


When someone has a gift so marked, it's hard not to feel invested in wishing she would do something with it.

The way academia is set up too is that you often have to spend years doing experiments or whatever to "prove" something that you already know is true. Sometimes it seems like an enormous waste of time even to me and I'm not a super genius. I imagine it's more frustrating if you are.

There is a balance in science of people who think and innovate and form new synapses in the group brain, then move on and people who grind out those innovations into usable and reproduceable form. If I have a gift its to be able to predict outcomes from very complex inputs but it's a black box in my head as to how. The thought of trying to write papers on it or quantify it gives me a headache. I get asked to a lot but it's a real grind. That's why I always have and always will work as part of a small team. Most real sustained breakthroughs come from a small group: the idea person, the mathematician (now programmer or statistician usually), the skeptical checker (runs trials etc) , the engineer (figures out how to make it) and the teacher/ advocate (spreads the word, is in the government etc). An you need money too.

This lady needs to find her people and I hope she will as we need more cross-disciplinarians. There are major breakthroughs on the brink in a lot of fields. But she very reasonably has trust issues with outsiders and people who are too interested in her for her intellect only that she is not in a good environment to overcome.

I will say that farm communities are just chock full of innovation and tinkering and true interest in and appreciation of that kind of work. If she's a true inventor she may have found more sympatico people there than in academia.
posted by fshgrl at 8:54 PM on November 4 [11 favorites]


The way academia is set up too is that you often have to spend years doing experiments or whatever to "prove" something that you already know is true. Sometimes it seems like an enormous waste of time even to me and I'm not a super genius. I imagine it's more frustrating if you are.

A little simplistic, I think. I "know" that you are wrong. But what about all the other MeFis? At some point, I have going to have to provide proof to them that my claim of your incorrectness is a physical fact, and not just a feeling.

(Not an attack. Just an example for illustration.)
posted by Samizdata at 9:34 PM on November 4


They were always scanning for threats and vulnerabilities, planning ahead to avoid worst-case scenarios. [...] To observers, Promethea and Georgia appeared to be battening the hatches for a storm that existed only in their imaginations.
So sad it's only after the violent assault that she got a diagnosis and the mere possibility opening to the necessary level of care (it isn't implied that she got it). I'm no mental health professional, but I think those PTSD early symptoms are unmistakable. Who the heck wouldn't develop layers of vulnerabilities after being subjected to prolonged trauma of poverty, isolation, loss, abuse after abuse after abuse, and bullying.

Unfortunately, perpetrators are consciously or unconsciously sensitive to vulnerable people, and re-victimize them.

Sometimes, I can't help but think that we humans are a pest. The rational part of me rejects this terrible view, but.
posted by runcifex at 11:14 PM on November 4 [4 favorites]


A little simplistic, I think. I "know" that you are wrong. But what about all the other MeFis? At some point, I have going to have to provide proof to them that my claim of your incorrectness is a physical fact, and not just a feeling.

I actually don't. I can just start implementing my ideas and see how it goes. Like Elon Musk or NASA. I am a big fan of the scientific method and actually do take the time (years and fucking years usually) to go back and "prove" what we do works but academia is after all and by definition a bunch of people criticizing each other's work. It's not for everyone. I would never do it full time, we need it but it's not for me.
posted by fshgrl at 11:54 PM on November 4 [3 favorites]


Others may have been offended by the writer's comparison of giftedness with disability. But speaking as someone who was a gifted child and is a disabled adult, I think this is true, and in ways the writer probably did not intend.

I think that, properly understood, disability is socially constructed, not inherent. Likewise, giftedness. (And "intelligence"). The alienation is not inevitable, because we can organize our society in ways more, or less, inclusively.


I think you might be selling the writer short here, as the comparison of giftedness with disability essentially hinges on the social construction - the writer even points out that it sounds absurd if the only lens you use is inherent - that is, if you see disability as primarily about an affliction.

I definitely felt for Promethea - I wasn't quite as brilliant, but I could certainly leave gifted classmates in the dust - and while I agree to an extent that Promethea is entitled to live her life however she wants, her choice of name implies her ambitions. (It might not be fair to hold 26-year-old Promethea to the excited dreams of a much younger girl, though.) Mostly what I wish for her is that she has the opportunity to feed that vast need to understand.
posted by Merus at 11:58 PM on November 4 [4 favorites]


I actually don't. I can just start implementing my ideas and see how it goes. Like Elon Musk or NASA. I am a big fan of the scientific method and actually do take the time (years and fucking years usually) to go back and "prove" what we do works but academia is after all and by definition a bunch of people criticizing each other's work. It's not for everyone. I would never do it full time, we need it but it's not for me.

Not the biggest fan of academia myself. A lot of unneeded formality, pomp, and circumstance for my tastes.
posted by Samizdata at 1:51 AM on November 5 [1 favorite]


She's a hundred times smarter than me, but I've known essentially no one else with a generalist gift and there's no place for it in today's world.

The article feeds into something I've believed for a long time - that our education system is geared, and has been gearing towards, specialization, and exclusion of subjects deemed "unneccessary" to such an extent for so many years now, that the actual goal of education as I see it has been diluted to the point where people it serves as a blunt instrument used to bang people's minds down a single path, rather than as tool meant to teach the student how to use one's mind to explore many paths, even if those paths and subjects don't appear to directly apply to "real life" and/or are related. This intense insistence upon specialization affects everyone who is part of this educational system, no matter what their intelligence level. Yes, I understand that there are arguments in favor of specialization in education, but in my opinion, it limits the capacity of people to achieve. I truly believe this is why I have known some incredibly dense doctors. They know their specialty, but nothing else, and moreover have been trained to reduce their awareness of the person in front of them to a gallbladder, a knee, a heart, etc. And they may be brilliant but still I believe this is why some of them miss the obvious, something they might cure or find a solution for by making connections among variables in a manner that they are not now encouraged to do in Western medicine. Just using doctors as an example, not to pick on them, I believe that this applies to all the professions in one way or another. For Promethea specifically, the demand towards specialization actually subverts what I see as Promethea's extraordinary gift - to make connections among disciplines that most people nowadays would consider unrelated. And since they consider them to be unrelated, they limit themselves from being able to understand when someone else, in this case an absolutely brilliant person, relies on those unorthodox connections to posit views and ideas that otherwise would never see the light of day.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 1:04 AM on November 5 [7 favorites]


Thanks for posting this (sad) article. I wonder what Promethia and Georgia think of it and being back in the (internet) spotlight again.

For humanity to escape the progress trap of oil and climate that capitalism has built for us, we need insight. And the dumbest cruelest solvable societal problems are suppressing it.
posted by anthill at 2:24 AM on November 5


Interdisciplinarity is very common in academia these days. She might be happy working in information theory, systems biology, or ecosystem ecology. If she wants to.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:55 AM on November 5


Promethea is still only 26. She has time to figure out a way to do what she enjoys with her life (in any given year, and keeping in mind that may change multiple times), on her own terms. (The cultural pressure for high achieving youth to pursue some culturally designated high achieving adult career overlaps a bunch with the cultural pressure to "be" one specific profession "when you grow up" here.) The structure of the US economy, and the lack of social safety net there sure throws up some huge obstacles though.

Both she and her mother sound like they'd be fascinating and cool people to meet and talk to.
posted by eviemath at 5:07 AM on November 5 [5 favorites]


Above everything else, I hope she eventually learns that pursuing her intellectual dreams - whatever they are - does not need to cost her so very much as it already has.
posted by Dashy at 7:26 AM on November 5 [2 favorites]


I’m smart enough to have had many of the same school experiences as Promethea. My parents decided not to let me skip a grade or two, and looking back, I was resentful I’d not been taught at my level. I was so intellectually frustrated and bored.

I’ve met people much smarter (in the IQ sense) than myself and only rarely have they seemed comfortable with people and in the world. As if being so smart has made them lonely or mistrustful or come at the expense of social intelligence.

I used to tell myself that I was glad I wasn’t as smart as them, because it’s let me live a happier life.

But after reading this I wonder if I would have been smarter, and lonelier, had my parents set me on a more aggressive academic path.
posted by zippy at 9:18 AM on November 5


They aren't gifts, they are purchases.
posted by kingv at 9:28 AM on November 5 [1 favorite]


The discussion in here of "living up to potential" is reminding me of this piece from The Onion. I've read it through about five times and I still am completely unable to make up my mind whether it's tragic or comforting.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:34 AM on November 5 [5 favorites]


If this is genuine, I hope that she will hop onto the internet (does her internet access work ok?), join Metafilter, find someone to dialog with who'll challenge her and hone her thinking, and find a problem that needs someone with her skills and knowledge to tackle it. Maybe even a small problem to start with, to dip her toe in that pool and see if she's suited to it. Then take on the big ones and save the world.

She's an infomaniac, which is cool, but even better if she can find the niche where it's needed. (And best of all if she's in league with someone who has given some cautionary thought to how it might get misused.)

Do we have any longtime Metafilter-ites in Bozeman who could reach out to her?
posted by Baeria at 11:45 AM on November 5 [1 favorite]


This is someone who was pretty badly burned by having random strangers reach out to her. I don't know that anyone should be doing that.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 12:10 PM on November 5 [24 favorites]


1) I think the last thing a young perdon stuck in her life needs, is a bunch of solicitous strangers making unsolicited suggestions about what kind of career might be best for her.
2) Her mom seems well attuned to her and is a better judge than we are of whether she is living the life she wants or is letting something hold her back. If her mom thinks there is something amiss, then I‘m inclined to believe her.
3) However, I don‘t think outside intervention to jump start a depressed and traumatised woman into making more of herself is necessarily a feasible idea. I think she‘s a young person and she‘s had bad experiences and now she‘s in a limbo of not knowing what to do with her life. And that happens a lot and many people get past that stage. I‘m confident that with her intelligence, if she makes up her mind to research her career options, she‘ll research the shit out of them and she‘ll find her own way.
4) I hope she gets therapy.
5) The best part of the story is the deep bond with her mother. These are people who build each other up and have each others backs and do the best for each other, always. I‘m so glad Promethea has that.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:53 PM on November 5 [6 favorites]


I was skipped. It sucked. It never stopped sucking. I am of the opinion that in most circumstances it's a better idea to home-school kids who are that gifted.
posted by Peach at 2:08 PM on November 5 [1 favorite]


all your people with your "potential" can just fuck RIGHT off while I am over here trying to be happy for a change.

I know there must be people in talented and gifted education who regard bright children as something other than containers for achievements and credentials, but sometimes it's hard to keep believing that
posted by thelonius at 3:15 PM on November 5 [7 favorites]


All of the good ones feel that way. It usually isn’t the teachers who get excited about that stuff.
posted by Peach at 5:13 PM on November 5 [2 favorites]


Also, my "fuck potential" comment does NOT show that even allegedly "brilliant" people always proof read and catch typos.
posted by Samizdata at 6:57 PM on November 5


This is an example of how you can be one of the most brilliant people in the world, but that destitution will still wreck any dreams you have.

Even without the shooting, she is still living on the margins, with unreliable heat and plumbing at home, having to commute long distances to school and struggling to pay for textbooks and other expenses that tuition scholarships don't cover. Assuming the statistics are accurate, her 1-in-5-million intelligence means that she is the ONLY person born that year with her level of genius.

If this isn't an indictment of our economic system and the way we educate people, not just the 1-in-5-million geniuses, I don't know what is.
posted by deanc at 6:56 AM on November 6


I know there must be people in talented and gifted education who regard bright children as something other than containers for achievements and credentials, but sometimes it's hard to keep believing that

I was so goddamned lucky. Granted, I had a shit family for whom my only saving grace as a girl-child was that they could brag about my grades. But I somehow crossed some of the kindest, wisest teachers in school. Seeing that I whizzed ahead of other kids, and enjoyed explaining how I'd managed it, my first-grade teacher asked if I'd like a formal (hehe) position as mentor to kids who needed extra attention. It became A Thing that went on throughout elementary school – kids warmed to me quickly so would approach me with questions spontaneously. When they'd ask for help I'd give it. Teachers supported it. The most influential teacher was another in elementary school who our class was able to have for two years since she had a son a year younger than us (she wasn't allowed to teach him, as his mother). She never once made a big deal out of academic achievement; it was much more important to her that we get in touch with who we were and make choices based on that. She was really good at bringing that out in people; she still is, in fact. Thanks to Facebook (I can dislike its practices while acknowledging the human side; it may have our current words and likes to mine but it will never have the full depth and breadth of our background) we're in touch again, and she unfailingly approaches people as people rather than collections of achievements.

The patriarchs' manipulation of history to serve their own ends has age-old parallels, not the least of which is how older Greek myth-makers did the same with Promethea's namesake's specifically-created (*cough* by male writers *cough*) feminine companion. A great deal of Greek myth reflects the pitfalls of misogyny, sometimes in spite of itself – take Cassandra as another example. Consistently accurate foresight, proven time and again, and yet not a single person believes her? Is that the work of gods or of a society so sick with patriarchy that it's unable to witness its own blindness?
posted by fraula at 7:01 AM on November 6 [4 favorites]


I should add that for the most part, base-level "genius" if the Mensa-variety is as common as dirt. The world is built by the merely above-average willing to focus and obsess on those things that naturally intelligent generalists will never get a chance to make a dent in. It part this is because making a "dent in the universe" requires working through a lot of frustration and difficulty that many highly intelligent people aren't accustomed to, because everything was comparatively easy for them. The need for generalists is relatively small, but at the same time, it would be nice if universities made room in each department for a couple generalists with interdisciplinary interests alongside all of their, "we are looking to fill a biophysics faculty position for a researcher focusing on neural fields applied to protein folding" openings. But keep in mind that the number of people who want to be generalists far exceeds the number of people who would make valuable contributions as generalists.

Plus, honestly, I want my hand surgeon to be someone that has seen nothing but hands for 30 years and knows every last subtlety of them when he has to put my hand back together rather than someone who is a generalist surgeon that decided to cultivate an interest in hands over the last couple years.
posted by deanc at 7:21 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]


I do wish we weren't so obsessed with early achievement. It seems to strike some essential flaw, some regret in the adult soul that is unhealthy for everyone, not just the prodigy. I am reminded of high school athletes and all the older people who sit and watch them and worship their "potential." What does it matter that some come to achievement earlier rather than later? Why is it so important that the "bright" be cultivated in hothouses and brought to flower early?
posted by Peach at 7:37 AM on November 6 [5 favorites]


This is like one of the unexpurgated Grimm Brothers fairy stories. A tiny kid with no life experience beyond being homeless in San Francisco was allowed to chose Montana as her family's destination, and has suffered for that choice ever since. The real tragedy is that she has not had the opportunity to be around other brilliant people and see the creative ways they find to function in a world of people who are not as smart as them--or the ways they fail, which are cautionary tales for observant young brainiacs.
posted by Scram at 1:57 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


Well done insulting the largest university in Montana!
posted by elsietheeel at 2:22 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


Thank you for pointing out that the "real" tragedy was that she did not live her life in the way that might have maximized gains for others. And the idea that she just "needs" a Mefite to reach out to her to cultivate her intelligence from upthread? Do people even read the links down here?
posted by sockermom at 4:43 PM on November 6 [7 favorites]


I read the article and this whole comment thread twice, and I'm left unsatisfied. Some people here get it. Many, including the author of the piece, look directly at Promethea and still fail to see her. deanc gets it with the comment that Mensa-variety genius is common as dirt. I'm a genius, I assume most of the commentors in this thread are.
Promethea is not like us. 'Smart' or 'intelligent' are not accurate words for someone like this - she has the depth and breadth of knowledge to see connections that literally no one else can. She can understand things that no one else ever will. She doesn't need to work in academia. She's not smart. She's not a mirror to look at and see your own potential.
She's a different substance entirely - more akin to a secular prophet. It's right there, in the name she gave herself. Pythaitha.
posted by smokysunday at 11:06 AM on November 8 [2 favorites]


I mean, none of us know anything about this person! This thread is a projection-fest of our own anxieties, ambitions and childhood traumas! Like any discussion really.
posted by latkes at 5:25 PM on November 8 [5 favorites]


Promethea is not like us. 'Smart' or 'intelligent' are not accurate words for someone like this - she has the depth and breadth of knowledge to see connections that literally no one else can.... She's a different substance entirely - more akin to a secular prophet. It's right there, in the name she gave herself. Pythaitha.

Ok but what if you are a person like her?

She's not the only one. I'm not as accomplished as her, but I was also discouraged and had my spirit broken at a far younger age. Age 6, in fact, was when I was told to stop reading books and start taking on full-time childcare of my siblings.

I can tell you now that if Promethea spends the next decade or two of her life in quietude, locking down her mind, working at a simple job and living a simple life, it may help her heal from this immediate PTSD. But it won't end her 'gift' — which I would just as readily call a curse.

The thing will find a way to come out of her, with or without her permission. Maybe she will commit suicide, or she will turn to drugs and die of an overdose. Or maybe she will have another traumatic experience and her conscious control over her thoughts will break and a lot of things will all spill out in a flood, in public, and then she will end up in an institution, on high doses of anti-psychotics and benzo's, like the rest of us. Of the people I've known like me, all of these are common outcomes — far more common than getting that phd and a good job in academia. That's for people of more prosaic intelligence, as you said.

I mean, the meds do make it hard to think, slows down the brain and gives a nice floating feeling, so they allow me a certain amount of peace. And psychiatrists discourage patients like me from ever having children, so at least I'm free of the curse of motherhood.

The dose makes the poison, the culture makes the disability, the church makes the witch, the DSM-V makes the psychotic.
posted by it's FuriOsa, not FurioSA at 11:29 AM on November 11 [3 favorites]


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