February 13, 2002
11:11 PM   Subscribe

Is Justin Chapman a misunderstood genius (at age 7) or just an average little boy pushed beyond reason by an abusive, mentally ill mother?
more thoughts inside...
...with thanks tocrabwalk.com
posted by anastasiav (29 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I saw the Rocky Mountain News link on crabwalk.com and was shocked … my sister and I had the pleasure of meeting Justin and his mother at the Hollingworth Center in 2000, and I have never met such a personable, interesting, and – most of all – self assured young man.

My sister (now a teacher for girls gifted in math and science) also began to read very young (age 3) and by age 6 her favorite book was Romeo and Juliet, which she would act out for guests. While she was no where as gifted as young Justin here, she was significantly above her peers and most of the adults around her. For years, despite my mother's best attempts, the public school system in our small Maine home-town would not take my sister's gifts seriously – accusing my mother of somehow forcing her to read physics textbooks (ever try to force a nine-year-old girl to read physics?) and using Sam’s lack of achievement in school (due to her obvious boredom) as “proof” of her lack of gifted status. At age 11, she attempted suicide, telling us later that she felt as though she would never be able to escape our rural community. At age 16, she was accepted by MIT. My mother always wonders how Sam’s life would have been different had we had access to the Internet or had she been able to home-school Sam during her elementary school years (something that was simply not an option for her as a single mother in the late ‘70’s/early ‘80s).

As you can imagine, Justin’s story, as reported by the Rocky Mountain News, sets off all kinds of bells for me – how easy it is for the disbelieving local authorities to blame the mother; how easy it is for a gifted child to fall into despair (in Justin’s case with some fairly weird Flowers for Algernon-like overtones); how easy it is for those who wish to ‘debunk’ such a child can find their ‘proof’ in what may be simply a frustrated child’s refusal to perform on cue. People who have never had a highly-gifted child in their family can simply never imagine the stresses involved, for parent and child alike. A four year old who can read and comprehend on an adult level may still wake up screaming from typical childhood nightmares, and can be driven to distraction by the simple fact that her (or his) motor skills have not yet caught up with her (or his) imagination and desire. The parent is torn between having a college professor at the dinner table one moment, a typical (or even regressed) pre-schooler the next.

I hope this family – the whole family – are able to get the help and support they all need.

posted by anastasiav at 11:16 PM on February 13, 2002

My question is, where do these kids end up? You hear a lot about them when they are younger, kid geniuses and all, but do they ever grow up to lead normal lives and are they successful?
posted by banished at 11:25 PM on February 13, 2002

That's profoundly disturbing. I was a "gifted child" before the term existed (at least in this neck of the woods). I read aloud by age two, could do long division at four, and had read all of Burroughs' Tarzan series by six. The public school I attended offered to move me directly from kindergarten to third grade within a week of my enrollment, but my parents felt I would be ostracized since I would be the smallest in the class by far (didn't happen, I was always the biggest kid in my class and usually bigger than those a grade ahead), so they allowed the school to put me into first grade instead. I was still bored to tears and made straight A grades without trying. However, I also had the opportunity to be a child without my parents trying to push me into early adulthood.

This kid supposedly has a voter registration card at seven? Crimony. Seven-year olds should be skinning their knees on the sidewalk while roller skating, and trying to catch fish in irrigation canals, not pondering the differences in political parties. It's no wonder this poor kid doesn't know who the hell he is, he's never had a chance to start developing a personality.

Even though I didn't blossom into the next Einstein, I'm a fairly normal, well-adjusted adult (aside from spending too much time on MetaFilter, but that goes without saying). I don't feel like I lost anything by not going to college when other kids were learning how to ride a bicycle, in fact, just the opposite. I feel sorrow for this little boy. Thirty years from now, he'll still be as intellectually gifted as he ever was (assuming it's not some elaborate hoax, I'm not convinced either way), but if he misses out on being a child, he's going to be a sad shell of an adult human being.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:45 PM on February 13, 2002

i too was known as a gifted child, but thank god i wasted it on comic books, or i'd be a burnt out shell of an animal by now.
posted by jcterminal at 11:59 PM on February 13, 2002

I'm sorry but after reading that article it really seems that the mother has pulled off a hoax. I mean IQ scores do not just drop 150 some odd points between tests. That's why they're standardized. Not to say that the kid won't have emotional and psychological problems either way -- it's a sad case no matter what the truth turns out to be.
posted by pinto at 12:26 AM on February 14, 2002

Chapman's skepticism about public school education -- most children ought to be able to finish high school at age 10, she said -- has driven her to educate her son on her own. And at some personal cost.

Age 10?

Sure he isn't a crack baby?
posted by trioperative at 1:08 AM on February 14, 2002

The truth seems to lie in between- he's no William Sidis, but he's almost certainly brighter than average. I won't derail into my usual high-IQ rant here (that Linda Silverman is a fraud if she speculated on a near-300 IQ; who did she think she was testing, the Traveler from ST:TNG?), but I think it's worth mentioning that kids, even average kids, can be much smarter than we give them credit for. Our educational system is a joke, and it's my unsubstantiated opinion that what kids (ostensibly) learn by age 18 they could be learning by age 13 or 14. I'm reminded of the wonderful film "Stand and Deliver", to remind us of how easily we let young minds stagnant when we assume that they just aren't smart enough.

Nevertheless, it sounds like the mother is behaving much like that classic parental archetype, the wished-he'd-been-a-football-hero father who pushes his athletically gifted son beyond the brink. She pushed her kid to be something he couldn't be, and he broke down because of it. Is he bright? Yeah, probably a little more than average, and I wish our educational system would pay more attention to gifted kids instead of ignoring them, assuming their intelligence alone is enough to get them by without being challenged or encouraged. But this kid is not Doogie Howser, and shouldn't be held to some impossible standard.
posted by hincandenza at 1:34 AM on February 14, 2002

There's a discussion about what happened to some British child geniuses here and here.
posted by kerplunk at 1:38 AM on February 14, 2002

My guess is -- follow me here for a moment -- this case is a little like Enron. There's was some real brilliance and novelty at one point, but then also some fraud to meet expectations that are divorced from reality.

The kid might be brilliant *and* burnt out, and now manipulating the system to get his childhood back. He could have real mental problems/limitations which spring from the same unique brain that assists him in other ways. (I'm reminded of the Wired Asperger's Syndrome article from a couple months ago.)

Justin (or his ghostwriter) is completely right about the oppressive, destructive effects of one-size-fits-all public schools, though. I agree with John Taylor Gatto when he says, "School is like starting life with a 12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned."

posted by gojomo at 2:40 AM on February 14, 2002

Raising kids is a long term proposition. A balance has to be struck between providing the environment that will enable a child to capitalize upon his natural tendency to learn certain things at certain times, and providing a socialized environment where he can learn to interact constructively with other kids his own age – and hopefully, with other people, whether kids or adults, at his own ability level. I have four kids, all of them in the GATE (gifted and talented education) programs in their schools. My oldest just received his SAT scores yesterday – 800 math, 650 verbal. My youngest tested at an 11th grade reading level when he entered kindergarten. We strive to help them realize that intellect is a natural gift and should be developed and nurtured and applied. Some kids can shoot a basketball, some can run fast, some are smart. Make the most of what you’ve got.

We opted not to try and accelerate them in grade level, but instead to work with the school systems to create programs to provide appropriate materials. It’s working. My youngest now has far more in resources and programs available to him, thanks to the trails blazed by his older brothers.

As to what happens when highly gifted kids get older, other things being equal, they normalize. IQ scores by their very nature are biased to exaggerate differentials in intelligence at young ages. A 5 year old with the mental ability of a 10 year old would score 200 on a standardized IQ test, but a 15 year old testing at a 20 year old level would score 133. In practice, the problem is with that tricky phrase “other things being equal.” If parents isolate the child and stress his difference from “normal” children, then the ability of the child to integrate with society is impaired. This leads to depression, bitterness, anger, and potentially even suicide.

The critics cited in the articles are correct, in that none of the existing Stanford-Binet test provide enough differentiation to be able to quantify a score of “298”. The problem is that most mass-produced IQ tests are “centered” on normal. Thus the differentiation between an IQ of 100 and 120 might be determined by a series of 20 questions, but the difference between 150 and 170 is determined by only 2 or 3 questions. There are several specialized high-IQ tests that do a better job.

I belonged for several years to a couple of the ultra-high IQ societies, but ultimately let my membership lapse because the overwhelming sentiment present among their memberships was bitterness. One thing they did do successfully though, was study this problem. See, for example, this article on the problems with growing up gifted entitled “The Outsiders”. I don’t want that for my kids, so we’ve tended to err on the side of socialization when it conflicts with development of the intellect. Ultimately, it would be best to be able to have both age-appropriate socialization and intellect-appropriate instruction, but that isn’t fully here yet. I think we’ve made the right choice. So far, my kids are pretty normal, popular and happy guys. For a parent, that’s a win.
posted by JParker at 3:10 AM on February 14, 2002

I suspect that Justin is, to some degree, a human Clever Hans.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:52 AM on February 14, 2002

This whole thing breaks my heart...this kid does not have the emotional maturity yet to deal with what he perceives intellectually-and the adults around him aren't mature enough or perceptive enough to help him???

My God have mercy on him....how profoundly sad....
posted by bunnyfire at 6:20 AM on February 14, 2002

Our educational system is a joke, and it's my unsubstantiated opinion that what kids (ostensibly) learn by age 18 they could be learning by age 13 or 14.

I definitely agree.
posted by rushmc at 6:59 AM on February 14, 2002

I've always thought there is a simple secret to raising very smart kids in a manner which assures that they don't fall to far outside the social mainstream: make sure they play competitive sports.

If a child is a talented athlete, s/he will have relationships and win respect which, for better or worse, does not accrue to a smart child out of virtue of their intelligence. If a child is not a talented athlete, s/he will (a) learn the necessity of disciplined work to improve substandard results, something which even the brightest child will eventually have to apply to their intellectual endevors and (b) will have the crucial experience of "ordinariness" -- making one's way in the world as a regular schmoe with one's necessary share of disappointments and compromises.

Many of the most bitter and most unhappy smart adults I know are crippled by their profound feeling of specialness and their profound anger at the world for not recognizing their specialness with the goodies they seek (this includes those whose brains have made them successful but who've never gotten the respect / fellowship they crave).
posted by MattD at 7:23 AM on February 14, 2002

Geniuses don't embed MIDI.

posted by Karl at 7:32 AM on February 14, 2002

Talk about way too much pressure on a child!

My Mom was faced with three children who had special needs. My sister is mentally retarded. My brother has reading comprehension learning disabilities. I was classified as gifted. She worked very hard with our schools to make sure we remained with our peer groups while receiving appropriate educational programs (IEPs) as mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (Being gifted is not necessarily a disability but the act can be applied to the situation.)

I have to agree with Crash and JParker. While Justin may very well be an exceptionally bright little boy; he's still just a little boy who deserves a childhood. Without the socialization skills developed through interaction with other children his age, he'll remain isolated and lonely. There's something to be said for having to work through situations where not everyong is on the same level. My sister may not be able to read the books I do; but I can not compete at the same athletic level she does. Without socializing with other kids, Justin may not learn that other people can add something of value too and that he doesn't have to be the best at everything he attempts.

No matter what, this child needs help.
posted by onhazier at 7:39 AM on February 14, 2002

Justin's mother says that, not long after he began treatments to stimulate hearing in his right ear, Justin began to regress, forgoing Legos and science kits in favor of toddler toys. His photographic memory disappeared and he also began acting like a 2-year-old, she says.

Now isn't this kind of odd? It almost sort of fits the mythology of genius; the tradeoff of faculties for exceptional intelligence. We worship Hawking like a shaman, in part because of his handicap. They say that Einstein ran into his wife at a bank and did not recognize her and that he couldn't calculate bus change.

If this child's hearing deficiency was nuerological, and it was treated, I wonder if it might have triggered this odd regression the article talks about.

And I don't know about you, but if I touched the hem of genius and was then cast out to the sand box months later... perhaps I would have difficulty wanting to go on living as well.

(And as far as the whole WWIII things goes... I think it's creepy.)
posted by Pinwheel at 8:53 AM on February 14, 2002

Hmmm - lot of red flags here. This kid was supposedly enrolled in college - if we had any quotes from one of his college professors who remembered discussing class topics with him it would be more believable, but everyone who was impressed with his work seemed to be internet contacts - pretty easy to fake someone out on the net. The IQ tests don't mean that much. I was in Dr. Stanley's SMPY program and my IQ was measured somewhere between 150 & 180, depending on which test you believe. (Translation - I do well on multiple choice tests.) Nevertheless, I couldn't have written those articles or functioned in college at age 7. The kid is probably pretty smart and there's nothing wrong with the mom pushing him to function at his peak, but if she was drilling him to participate in a deliberate fraud, that could definitely take it's toll on him emotionally. Of course, if he really did have that level of intelligence, it would be tough to relate to anyone around him, which would also be rough. The answer will become clearer as time goes on. If he really has that level of intelligence, he'll be able to display it in the future without coaching or translation from his mother. As Dr. Stanley said, that level of ability doesn't just vanish.
posted by tdismukes at 8:54 AM on February 14, 2002

Since there is absolutely no independent, in-person evidence of this child displaying intelligence to others while not in the presence of his mother, it looks like a scam job.
posted by yesster at 9:19 AM on February 14, 2002

great link anastasiav.

i want to believe that this kid is a genious but from the article the mother seems to have a pattern of lieing or at least saying things that when checked on can't be proven. she can't find his voter registration card, she has a master's degree and ther eis no record of her enrollment, the list goes it. to be able to give presentations in front of audeiences and perform better on intelligence tests, even if memorized, takes an advanced ability so i think this kid must have some sort of advanced intelligence. unfortunately, he doesn't have parents like JParker and it's going to make figuring all of this out very difficult.

as a side note, where can i acquire the movie, tv and book rights?
posted by suprfli at 11:21 AM on February 14, 2002

I learned how to read when I was 2--big deal. Kids develop at different paces. Some kids are really good at tests; I was one of them. Yes, it made school more boring and frustrating. It was good practice for real life, frankly.

Isn't anybody concerned about the mother's belief that her child has "psychokinetic powers" and can "predict the future?" Apparently not.

Also, geniuses can spell "Emerson." In fact, geniuses don't recite the same two quotes obsessively. When I was 8, I knew a lot more quotes than that. Some of them were even in French and Latin. Note that I am not a genius.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:16 PM on February 14, 2002

I learned how to read when I was 2--big deal. Kids develop at different paces. Some kids are really good at tests; I was one of them. Yes, it made school more boring and frustrating. It was good practice for real life, frankly.

Isn't anybody concerned about the mother's belief that her child has "psychokinetic powers" and can "predict the future?" Apparently not.

Also, geniuses can spell "Emerson." In fact, geniuses don't recite the same two quotes obsessively. When I was 8, I knew many many more quotes than that. Some of them were even in French and Latin. Note that I am not a genius.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:17 PM on February 14, 2002

Note that my lack of genius-hood is displayed by my posting the same rant twice. And yet my IQ is over 200!
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:17 PM on February 14, 2002

Is there such a thing as Intellectual Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy?
posted by yonderboy at 3:46 PM on February 14, 2002

So given that genius children seem to develop into relatively normal adults would it be reasonable to assume that there's a standard set of skills that people learn and different people just learn them at different rates? (Rather than the assumption that intellectual development is a constant process and that those with an early start will develop even farther as they get older)?
posted by davidgentle at 4:19 PM on February 14, 2002

Is there such a thing as Intellectual Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy?

No, but oddly enough- that was the exact phrasing I was going to use in my earlier post! I ended up cutting it and using the more ubiquitous failed-father-tries-to-succeed-through-his-son archetype...
posted by hincandenza at 6:35 PM on February 14, 2002

davidgentle, that's a really good point. Same is often true of prodigies in other areas (mozart being a rare exception). With that in mind, actually, one can't help wondering how much parental (& other) expectations have to do with one's development. I think we often do forget how intelligent children are, commonly because of their emotional and social immaturity.

Environment probably has a lot to do with it. I remember a friend of mine being really impressed by my young british cousin, because he was so articulate for a 12 (-ish) year old - but I think part of that is that people in the UK commonly use a wider vocabulary than americans - not that they have a wider vocab (necessarily) but that they use more of the available words.
posted by mdn at 11:18 AM on February 15, 2002

Justin Chapman's mom admits faking his test scores (NYTimes).
posted by liam at 9:51 AM on March 2, 2002

According to the NYT article:

A psychiatric evaluation of Ms. Chapman by a court-appointed psychiatrist, the report of which she provided to The Times, said she did not have "any typical type of psychosis."

...what a load of crap that is.

I still say Intellectual Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.
posted by yonderboy at 1:43 PM on March 2, 2002

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