Counting Triumphs, Ctd

Apr 13 2011 @ 1:25pm

A reader writes:

My mother, born in 1934, was, I suspect, hyperlexic. But she made her own life on her own terms, and was for the most part happy. She died last year at age 75. My sister (a clinical social worker) and I had, as adults, always felt our mother was on the autism spectrum, but as we came to learn about Asperger's, her behaviors didn't quite fit (no monomania, for example). I am reasonably sure that, in actuality, she suffered from hyperlexia, although "suffer" isn't the right word. "Experienced" might be better.

She taught herself to read, fluently and at a high-school level, before she was two years old. That I know of, she had no friends in childhood. Her brothers — my uncles — were outgoing and popular. My mother was solitary, because she wasn't able to engage other children. When my grandmother would arrange for potential playmates to visit, my mother would lead the visiting child proudly to her bookcase, offer the visitor a book, and sit down with one to read herself. I don't know about her speech in early childhood, but her activities certainly suggest hyperlexic tendencies. If she had ever once seen a word, she could spell it perfectly from memory forever. She wasn't permitted to participate in spelling bees in school, because it would be "unfair" to the other children. All her life, she enjoyed tapping out letters and words with her toes, silently, inside her shoes, so no one would notice. She enjoyed long words which fit in numerically with her toes (which she tapped in groups.)

My grandmother laid out her clothes and dressed her each morning until she left home for college. She entered Bryn Mawr at age 16, graduated summa cum laude in Ancient Greek, won a Fulbright to study in Athens and was admitted to Yale's PhD program in Classics. She suffered a nervous breakdown in her first semester of graduate school, left, and did not return. She told me once that studying Greek in college appealed to her because of her great facility with translation, but that when the time came to write an original paper in graduate school, she panicked, knowing she could not do it.

My grandmother found her work at a publishing house, editing a dictionary (Funk & Wagnall's.) She liked the work, lived at home, took the bus to work and back, and gave my grandfather her wages for safekeeping. She had almost no outside life. For recreation, as always, she read. By this time, though, she did have a few friends from college. Her social abilities had slowly expanded over the course of adolescence. One of her friends introduced her to another Classics scholar (my father.) At her death, they had been happily married for two weeks short of 50 years.

Her personality was utterly frank and blunt, very shy, practical-minded, and kind, though she always had great trouble seeing things from other people's point of view, understanding jokes, or detecting any conversational subtlety. She was awkward in social situations, and desperately avoided parties, etc. She preferred reading to any other activity. She read all the time — ALL the time — and could finish a book each day. Her favorites were dense works of historical scholarship.

"Ask Mommy about Merovingian dowry customs," was typical of how we teased her. Because if you asked, she would tell you and tell you, until you said, "Enough!" She could borrow all the books she wanted from Brown University's library, where, as a cataloguer, she had the pick of their new acquisitions, and, in the fields that interested her, read them all: 20 or 30 books each month. We carted them back and forth to the library in canvas tote bags.

She didn't care much for fiction, enjoyed Agatha Christie for the plots. Her work as a cataloguer drew on her reading comprehension of English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portugese, Latin, and Greek (the modern languages mostly self-taught just by reading), and her dense knowledge of the intricate minutiae of European and U.S. history. Cataloguing is not well paid, nor highly respected within the academy, but it was work she enjoyed very much and excelled at.

Naturally, being her child was not a "normal" childhood. But she was an attentive, caring mother. My sister and I had to make our own ways, socially, but in other respects were well-equipped and emotionally secure. In the 1940s, my grandmother had brought my mother, then about age ten, to be examined by a psychiatrist at Columbia University. He foretold a very unhappy, isolated life, given her evident extreme intelligence — based on reading tests — and social deficits, especially since she was female; I have seen his written report. Luckily, he turned out to be wrong.