The Life and Death of a Prodigy (The New Yorker)
The 1/16 New Yorker has a long, sad story from Blood Relation author Eric Konigsberg on the suicide of Brandenn Bremmer in March of last year. It's worth picking up a copy (the story was not available online when I checked).
Brandenn was 14. He liked video games, the Middle Ages and composing music. He had an IQ on the old Stanford-Binet Form LM of 178, though there's some controversy about that test and Linda Silverman, the educational psychologist who gave it to him. In 2001, an 8-year-old boy she tested who had scored "298-plus" threatened suicide and was found to have been coached on the test. An earlier test found Brandenn had an IQ of 146, but that was probably low, as he didn't like the whole testing process (small, gifted children, no less than other small children, don't necessarily hide their feelings!)
But the number doesn't matter. Nor, really, do the various fingers one can point in blame for why this young man decided life wasn't worth living. Konigsberg is careful not to throw his weight behind a particular thesis. Brandenn had a rough life, even if it didn't seem so from the outside. He was a social boy, but because his parents thought he was a prodigy who wouldn't do well in a standard gifted program (the article says Silverman told them this), he was homeschooled and took correspondence courses. Homeschooling works well for many kids. But extroverted kids who don't have brothers and sisters at home may need a lot of time with other kids if they are homeschooled. Brandenn's parents led a fairly monastic farm existence in Nebraska -- just them and the animals. In emails and conversations before his death, Brandenn said that he was lonely, bored and depressed. He was happiest at get-togethers for other gifted students. He was probably a perfectionist and quite sensitive, like many highly gifted kids. All these things together, coupled with the general angst of teen life, and the trials of being different, may have pushed him over the edge. His access to the .22-calibre rifle he'd been using to shoot skunks that got into the barn made it easier.
None of these factors would have been easy to change. The Bremmers had roots in that small Nebraska town that went back generations; moving so Brandenn could be part of a program for the highly gifted somewhere would have been difficult, even if it would have given him the peers he needed. Perhaps the family should have been more open about the definition of Brandenn's peers (as gifted prof Tracy Cross of Ball State says in the article, "I don't believe there's much difference between a person with an IQ of 160 and one with 170 or 180." Maybe that's not entirely right, but Brandenn likely would have made good friends with kids with IQs in the 150s, whatever his tested IQ was.) Maybe he shouldn't have had such easy access to a gun, but a rural child who's been shooting, without incident, since age 6, seems trustworthy. Maybe the boy should have been in treatment for depression. But teen troubles come and go quickly, and Brandenn was good at hiding any long term suffering.
Which leaves the reader wondering what can be gleaned from this horrible story. Maybe nothing. Not all deaths teach us something. Two years before I attended the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities, the school suffered through a spate of suicides and attempts. This was around the time of Kurt Cobain's death; researchers have found suicide can be "contagious." The school cracked down. We used to joke that any hint of depression could get you sent home. That was a problem because many students went to boarding school precisely because their home situation and local schools were intolerable. Going back really would make you depressed. Unfortunately, we live in a world where gifted children have trouble fitting in. They're different. And unfortunately, some people who feel different may find it's not worth staying on this planet.
But that's not unique to prodigies. A girl I knew at my first high school committed suicide as well. Perhaps the one lesson that can be taken from Brandenn's story is that gifted kids, like other kids, need to be with kindred spirits to feel like they have a stake on this earth. It's harder to find such friends for highly gifted kids. But it's worth trying.