“Dr. Leonard, I know that you’ll be shocked when I tell you my secret. You probably won’t like me anymore.” With a flushed face and racing heart, I confessed.
“I’m not a very intelligent person. I’m actually pretty dumb. I’ve just been pretending that I’m smart most of my life. I’m a good actress and have everyone convinced that I’m smart.”
Dr. Leonard looked puzzled. “What are you talking about, Erica? Of course you’re intelligent. You’re very intelligent. I read your file. You took honors courses in high school and got straight A’s. I read the enthusiastic letters of recommendation that your teachers wrote. You’re doing very well academically with excellent evaluations from your college professors. And you have the distinction of speaking several foreign languages. There’s no way to fake those kinds of achievements. I think—”
I interrupted, “My sisters skipped grades because school was too easy for them. They went to college when they were sixteen and got big scholarships. One sister is in graduate school at Harvard and a second sister is at Yale. A third sister, Susie, scored so high on her IQ test that Mensa invited her to join their exclusive high IQ society.
“As for me, I only got small scholarships for college. And I never skipped any grades. I wasn’t smart enough. I had to work hard in school. My sisters could read a thick book in a day or two. It takes me many days to read a book. And I never dared to take an IQ test. I didn’t want to know.
“My sisters were the intellectuals in the family. I was the athlete, tall and strong—with the weaker brain. My brother, John, liked to taunt me by calling me an ‘Amazon,’ with a tone of disdain, especially after we had physical fights that I won.
“Somehow I managed to fool everyone into thinking that I was really smart—everyone except my family,” I stated with conviction.
Dr. Leonard had a bemused look on his face. He asked me to give him examples of times when I first began feeling stupid. I had a hard time remembering specific incidences. The feelings of being stupid and not good enough pervaded my entire childhood.
After some moments of silent reflection, I remembered that my younger brother, John, called me a stupid idiot during fights and often made fun of me.
I recounted an incident that happened when I was eleven years old and John was eight. I heard him talking to one of his friends about World War II. He mentioned that he had read in a history book about a war hero who was hit by shrapnel. I interrupted the conversation and asked John who Shrapnel was. He said that Shrapnel was a famous general in World War II and then burst out laughing and called me stupid because I hadn’t heard of shrapnel. He said that I had a small vocabulary. Humiliated, I asked my father if he knew General Shrapnel. He said that there was no such person.
As Dr. Leonard cleared his throat, I saw him purse his lips to suppress a smile.
“I remember something else that really hurt my feelings. My father liked to do outdoor activities with me, like hiking and boating. He treated me like his buddy. One time when he took me sailing, I did something that almost made us tip over. He said harshly, ‘Don’t be so stupid, Rickie.’ My father was my hero and even he thought that I was stupid.”
Dr. Leonard intercepted the case I was making to convince him of my stupidity. He pointed out that I took literally what my family had said to me as a young girl. He asked me if I had ever called someone “stupid” simply out of anger or frustration—without meaning that they were literally stupid. I acknowledged that I had. In fact, I had called my brother “stupid” on quite a few occasions. But, my brother never believed for a second that he was stupid.
Dr. Leonard told me that if I spent my time comparing my intellect to that of my sisters, I would overlook my own unique strengths and my own kind of intelligence, and that I would never have the pleasure of appreciating who I am.
Because I totally trusted Dr. Leonard, I took his words to heart and considered the possibility that I might be genuinely intelligent after all.
It was time to move on to another topic. “Tell me more about your brother George,” Dr. Leonard said. “You haven’t spoken much about him during our sessions.”
“George and I, we both have something wrong with our brains. He has these little seizures where he stares off into space for a few seconds. His brain waves were tested and showed that he has petit mal seizures. It’s a kind of epilepsy. I think that I have the same problem because I stare off into space sometimes too. In fact, my friend and classmate in high school, John O’Connor, even noticed how I stare off sometimes. He said that I looked like I was thinking about something very deep. He thought I had a deep mind. I let him believe that.”
“But that could be just simple daydreaming. Did you ever get a recording of your brain waves—an electroencephalogram—to see if you really do have seizures?” he asked.
“No. I don’t want to get tested because I don’t want to know,” I said with my eyes cast downward.
“I’m going to insist that you get an EEG. I’ll call the neurologist and schedule it for next week. We have to get to the bottom of these fears you have. I suspect there’s no basis for them.”
“Well, even if I don’t have epilepsy, I know that I’m just like George in other ways too.”
Dr. Leonard looked intrigued. “Tell me why you think you’re like him.” He looked at the clock and said, “It’s okay if we go over the hour today. You’re my last patient.”
“I didn’t see much of George growing up. Of all my sisters and brothers, I saw him the least. He was sent away to boarding schools most of his early years.
“My older sisters were sent to boarding schools too. My mother wanted them to get the best possible education.
“One time, when we lived in England, George ran away from boarding school when he was nine years old. He was homesick and tired of being hit at school. It makes me cry just thinking about it.”
Dr. Leonard interrupted, “Where in the order of your siblings did your brother fall? Was he the oldest?”
“George is the third child, after Vreni and Jackie. My parents referred to that first batch of three as the war babies. They called Susie, John, and I the postwar babies. My mother said that George was conceived just before my father left for the war. I bet that George was affected in the womb by my mother’s constant worrying.
“Mummy had come to America after she married my father in a tiny chapel high on the Matterhorn in Switzerland just before the war broke out. During the war she raised her three babies virtually alone, while living with my father’s mother who pressured her to do things “the American way,” like bottle-feeding the babies, since that was the modern thing to do. My grandmother told her that only poor and uneducated people still breastfed. My mother resisted and breastfed in spite of her mother-in-law’s disapproval. She told me that she felt totally alone and overwhelmed. At one point during the pregnancy with George, she received news that my father had died in battle. She grieved her loss, heartbroken and fearful. A few weeks passed before that information was proven to be false.
“When she went into labor, the last stage went awry. George’s head got stuck in the birth canal. As time passed, there was evidence that he wasn’t getting enough oxygen because the heart rate began to drop. The gynecologist understood the urgency of the moment and forcefully pulled George’s head from the birth canal with forceps.
“My father came back from the war when George was almost three. When they met for the first time, George was terrified of him. He ran and hid behind my mother each time my father approached him in his uniform. They never formed a father-son bond.
“George was sensitive and shy. Some of us younger kids teased him mercilessly. I could see him withdraw even deeper into himself. My mother was the only one who showed some real understanding and compassion toward George in those early years. While she freely hit her daughters, she never laid a hand on either of her sons.
“After being in his second boarding school in the Swiss Alps, George came home to our family as a teenager to continue school in the States. School was difficult for George, especially math, a subject my father had taught before the war when he tutored MIT students. My father tried to tutor George, but repeatedly lost his patience when George couldn’t come up with answers to the questions and just stared into space. My father had no understanding that George was doing the best he could. But he did understand that George disliked him.
At one point, the math tutoring in the dining room degenerated into a near brawl. My father hit George and then chased him around the table where they had been working. I screamed at my father to stop. He stopped in his tracks, sobered by my screams. He left the house and spent the rest of the evening alone in the garage at the far end of the back yard. When it began to get late and he didn’t come back into the house, my mother told me to go and get him. He told me how sorry he was for his behavior. But he needed to say those words to George. I don’t think he ever did.
“That was when I realized that if I wasn’t smart enough, or if I had a handicap, no one would love me, not even my father, and that I would be treated the way George was treated in our family. I got really scared that deep down I had the same problems as George. I vowed to keep those thoughts a secret. I reassured myself that I was a good actress and I could keep the secret safe inside me.”
After recounting the story, I began to sob inconsolably. I felt a wave of deep sorrow wash over me. Dr. Leonard let me cry and then asked, “What about the seizures?”
“My parents finally began to wonder if something was wrong with George’s brain and made an appointment with a top-notch neurologist in the area. When George’s electroencephalogram was reviewed and compared with my sister Jackie’s EEG that had been obtained for comparison, it was clear that George had a type of epilepsy commonly known as ‘petit mal’ or absence seizures. They speculated that it was caused at birth when his oxygen supply was cut off, and then he had the added trauma of being pulled forcefully by forceps from the birth canal.
“The seizures happened many times throughout the day, and every few minutes when George was tired or stressed. His seizures were only visible if you looked carefully. They lasted a few seconds. During those moments, George had a blank look on his face. Sometimes his eyes rolled slightly backwards or the eyelids fluttered. At the moment of the seizures, all the information in his brain was discharged, gone. No wonder he had trouble in school. The neurologist prescribed medication that helped make the seizures less frequent.”
Dr. Leonard asked, “So, why is it that you think you have seizures?”
“Well, I stare off into space sometimes and I lose track of what I’m doing. I thought that maybe I was having the kind of little seizures that George has.”
Just as I said those words, something big released within me. Exposing my deep secrets for the first time to the light of day made them lose their power over me. In fact, I laughed out loud with the realization that the fear of the consequences of not being good enough or smart enough had resulted in a crazy, irrational conviction that had informed much of my life.
Dr. Leonard reassured me, “You saw how George was treated and you became terrified that you would be treated the same way. Kids do all sorts of things to win their parents’ love when it’s not offered unconditionally.
“Unfortunately, we need to end here. We’ve gone an extra hour beyond the scheduled time. I have to get home. My wife will wonder where I am. We’ll talk more about this at our next session.”
I wondered what other misperceptions, misunderstandings and mistakes from childhood were driving my life and needed to be discharged into the light of day.
I eventually got the EEG that, as Dr. Leonard predicted, was entirely normal.