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Stephanie Tolan        

Interviews by Douglas Eby

Stephanie S. Tolan writes novels for children and young adults, is co-author of the book "Guiding the Gifted Child", writes about giftedness for Advanced Development Journal, is a contributing editor of Roeper Review, and a consultant about highly gifted children.

Tolan's most recent novel (for young adult and adult readers) is "Welcome to the Ark" -- which she has described as being "about 4 children (ages 8-17) whose profoundly different minds land them in a mental institution (no, they aren't psychotic but in Dabrowski's category of individuals whose psychoneuroses are indicative of high moral potential), where they are able for the first time in their lives to connect, and discover hitherto unexpected mental connections with each other and with kids in other parts of the world.

"My publisher calls this book science fiction but only because my publisher doesn't personally know any of these kids. By now, of course, those who've read my posts already know I'm not a scientist!"

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It was really working as a consultant about children that I suddenly realized there was this vast population of gifted adults. We were working to avoid damage to the children, and it was very clear to me that one of the problems the parents were having trying to advocate for their kids was that they had never dealt with these issues themselves.

The parents had the issues, but nobody had really been there to help them deal with them.

One of the very common threads in any discussion group of parents about gifted kids is the great frustration of knowing that the parents of handicapped kids got a federal mandate that said their kids had to have certain kinds of appropriate education, and every time parents of the gifted have tried to organize a political movement to mandate funding and attention, it doesn't happen.

And I began to see one of the reasons it doesn't is that people are very, very ambivalent about this issue. Parents of handicapped kids are not themselves handicapped, usually, so they're not dealing with their own issue; they are dealing with an issue that belongs to their children, where they can see the damage being done, and there's not a lot of residue of their own.

But the parents of gifted kids -- and in most cases, the mothers -- often refuse to acknowledge that they themselves have anything to do with this. If I'm at a conference about highly gifted kids, on the uppermost end of the spectrum, the parents will be there, knowing their kids are so different, and yet when I say 'Where did this kid come from?', the parents, if both of them are there, each point to the other one, or will say 'We have no idea. This kid was a total shock and surprise.' But women almost always say 'Oh, it's my husband.'

In fact, that was my husband's and my experience as well. There's a real paradox about this. We had a highly gifted kid, and we first of all thought he was perfectly normal; he fit the family. My husband had three other kids who were bright.

And we knew we were bright, so what our son was doing didn't seem all that unusual, except that he kept being noticed in public: people kept responding to him, and hovering, and asking about him. And we thought it was because he was really cute.

As he got older, he got to be something of a show-off, and he was excruciatingly funny, and he would play to his audience. It was a little embarrassing. But we thought it was looks, and charm and humor, and that's all.

It wasn't until I was doing a poetry workshop for fourth and fifth graders when he was in kindergarten, and I realized I had to keep stopping to explain to the kids the language I was using, and I never had to do that with my son.

And I began to suspect there was something strange going on. So when we had him tested, and the psychologist said 'This is the brightest kid I've ever tested in my life', we were completely terrified, and we looked at each other and said, 'How did this happen?'

My husband and I figured what must have happened was that our genes combined and doubled, so we had this kid who was way brighter than either one of us, until we told my husband's parents about his IQ score, and they said 'Oh, well, that's about the same as his father's.

So I immediately said 'See, it's your fault' and it wasn't until considerably later that I began to discover that I was one, too, and that all we had done was have a kid that turned out to be very much like us. But we didn't know.

My husband's mother said he got the highest score anyone had seen in his school district on an IQ test, so they sent him off for one year to this special school, and he thought probably the reason was that he was a difficult kid.

Because very often we are considered to be difficult in classroom situations. It was the only year of elementary school he could remember, and he dearly loved it. He never understood why he was there, and of course, nobody told him why. And the year after that he went back to regular school, because it turns out it was a pilot program for gifted kids that was only run for one year.

When my husband and I met, I was one of those people who got straight A's all the time, and I was this honors student at the university. He used to say he was the plodder.

It took us many years to put together the truth about ourselves, and of course in the meantime there was no way to take adequate sorts of measures to see that our child was getting what he needed, because, first of all, we didn't know how different he was, because we didn't know how different we were, and we didn't know that what seemed normal for us didn't seem normal for everybody else.

And second of all, we believed all those myths about gifted people, and didn't know we were, and we had all these hangups. In both our cases, it was denial. It really was an inability to know who we were, and an unwillingness to admit it. Denial was such a major thing with me, because it was just bloody dangerous to be very bright, so you had to not be, so there were always these reasons.

I got an 800 on an SAT and my way of dealing with that was just to forget it. I was astonished to find, long after my son had been diagnosed, and my parents sent me a whole batch of old report cards, that there was a statement that I was the first person in my private school ever to get an 800.

First of all, I'd forgotten, and if it ever came up, I said 'Oh, that must be a mistake' and I simply wiped it out of existence. And all the things after that, like a Masters thesis my professor said I ought to publish because it would turn the critical world on its ear. But it never occurred to me to actually do what he said and get it published. It was like 'That's not something one does.'

It was okay to get A's, because you knew you didn't have to work very hard for them, so it didn't mean anything. That's just 'dumb stuff.' And graduating Summa Cum Laude from a university 'can't mean anything' because, after all, it's a state university.' There were a billion ways to not know.

In my case, I didn't even begin to confront this denial until perhaps three years after my son was diagnosed, and he came home with yet another example of being humiliated in school. He was an eight year old in a fifth and sixth grade classroom, and his teacher hated having him there, and went after him at any possible excuse.

He came home one day telling me this story of humiliation, and I went to call the teacher, but when I went to pick up the phone my hand was shaking so hard, I dropped it, and I thought 'If that teacher walked in, I might actually commit homicide here'. I was so angry.

I was just in a hysterical rage, and it occurred to me for the first time that that rage was coming from somewhere other than 'Mother Tiger Syndrome': it wasn't just that my child was being hurt.

That was the first time I really understood some of the things that happen to a child whose needs are not met in school, or who is humiliated by all the kinds of things teachers can do to humiliate kids -- sure, that can happen to any kid, but in this case it was a kid who was unusually bright.

And one of the responses we tend not to realize as adults is happening, is that the child is in rage, but there is nothing for them to do with that rage. Some kids do 'throw themselves against the bars of the cage'; there are kids who disturb class and get violent and so on, but most kids don't exhibit that rage, they just shove it down.

But my denial was so intense that I took the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale once for a friend who was getting certified in testing, and I was just really angry when I was finished with it. I told her 'Here I've been working with these gifted kids all this time, and these IQ tests are just stupid; they can't say anything about intelligence.

It's just a trivia quiz. And it's incredibly easy.' And she pointed out I had answered all the questions right but one, in the shortest possible time -- but to me that just said this was a stupid test.

It wasn't until a number of years after I took that test that I connected with pain for the first time. I was at a conference on Leta Hollingworth, and someone quoted a poem of hers about a lonely pine on a mountain, and how much easier it is not to be on the top of the mountain, where the winds blow at you, but down in the valley among all the other ones, so you're protected.

Well, I burst into tears. What happened that moment was the collapse of all the repression and the forgetting, and I remembered suddenly the things about school I had never remembered before.

I used to say I was quite happy in elementary school, but then I remembered what had been done to me. I literally cried for six solid hours, because I was re-experiencing the humiliations and the attempts to get back at me, the things that had been inflicted on me as a kid, let alone just never understanding what was going on.

One of my powerful memories was trying to figure out why anyone would have us circling these letters on the page, and I couldn't figure out why anyone would care to read about Dick and Jane, who were doing these incredibly boring things.

I never understood why other children thought things were fun that I didn't think were; why they treated you the way they did; why you felt about them the way you did.

The other thing about remembering all that is you can't do it without changing something in your contemporary life. You can't go through that and come out the same person, doing the same things.

Once you know this, one of the things it says to you is that this world is in worse shape than you thought, because if you're incredibly bright and you don't know how to fix it, then nobody does. And worse than that, a lot of the dumbest ones are the ones who are in control.

So I understand why a lot of people don't even want to know they are bright. They don't want to deal with it when they're children, or as parents you will say 'Your child is gifted' and they will say 'My child is ordinary, and even if my child is not ordinary, I am not going to subject them to any sort of different thing; I'm not going to make her weird' -- and all that is just the complete inability to confront what is very difficult to confront, and then have to do something about it.

It is very difficult to get past the denial, and the fear of it, and the cultural thing about 'elitism' that makes people shy away, and the shame for being who you are.

The difference with the book I'm working on about gifted adults and the people visiting the Gifted Women Forum and message boards on America Online is that they already know who they are, but most adults who are gifted don't know.

The other danger is the Mensa mentality, which knows, but makes it the centerpiece of everything. You swing from 'I'm ashamed' to 'By God, I'm the brightest person around, and I can't talk to any of you because I'm much too bright.' Both ways are equally dysfunctional: either to deny it, or to make it the only thing about yourself. And they both come from low self-esteem.

The reason I thought the IQ test I took was so stupid was not just because I knew the answers, but because the best tests in the world only scratch the tiniest little surface of what the amazing complexity of the gifted mind is capable of doing.

So people who kind of obsess about a test score are also obsessing about one narrow kind of mental processing, that they then say defines them. What they have trouble doing is getting over the basic shame that says who I am is not good, that what I do takes precedence.

What you've got to learn eventually, and what I tell kids, is that who you are is who you were meant to be, all by itself. You don't have to do anything with it. You don't have to discover the cure for cancer, you don't have to go to the moon, or develop a new physics.

You just have to be who you are, and if you can believe in who you are, then what comes after that happens all by itself. It's like a daffodil opens up and -- guess what? -- it's a daffodil. It doesn't have to try to be an orchid, it only has to relax into opening.

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  Additional interview:

Stephanie Tolan on pathologizing the gifted

The issue of pathologizing giftedness is very important to me as I work with parents -- just the insistence that gifted kids, with their high levels of psychomotor overexcitability (Dabrowski's stuff) have ADD or ADHD is enough to have huge numbers of kids not only misdiagnosed, but inappropriately drugged!

The issue of pathologizing giftedness is, of course, far more complex than that, but that's the one that almost every parent I talk to has had to deal with, either as a casual observation/suggestion or as a very serious threat -- your child can't come to school any more until you have him (or even her, now that the "disease" has spread to girls!) medicated.

I do not think, by the way, that this is something that affects only mental health professionals who don't have much experience with the gifted. I think it is very common among people who work with the gifted, just because as mental health professionals they deal with pathology, are accustomed to looking for it, and label anything that they perceive to have a downside for the individual to be a problem that needs to be solved.

Some of the very greatest gifts bring an inevitable downside which you cannot "cure" without curing the gift at the same time.

The larger world does not connect ADD with giftedness at all. Occasionally they mention creativity. And ADD is now the current 'in' thing to be as an adult, as well. It was only little boys, then it got to be little girls, then grownups as well. Very many creative people go around now announcing they are ADD.

I could announce that I am, too. But I happen to know that I'm not; I'm just highly creative, and it does have a nasty tendency to make the little details of ordinary life a little more difficult.

I used to say my son functioned like a short circuit because he was sparking all the time. It's web thinking, it's connected thinking. You take two steps down a path and you see a junction, and you may end up very far from where you intended.

And it may be a wonderful place to be, but it isn't what you intended, and if you're in an environment like a school that says you must attend to these things, in this order, then a highly creative, a highly gifted person is going to have difficulty with that.

And it's so much more complex than that. Dabrowski points out that psychomotor overexcitability is one of the pieces of giftedness, so they have this incredible energy, and they're bored out of their minds in school, and they're expected to follow straight lines from 'A' to 'B' to 'C', none of which they can handle, so it looks like pathology, and they get drugged.

It may be true that some adults really have ADD, but I find it so unlikely. If you look at the list of characteristics of ADD, and the characteristics of gifted, they are virtually the same. What I find interesting is that if you're bright enough -- now, I don't happen to be able to do this, but I know people who can -- they are quite capable of seriously attending to many intellectual things at the same time.

I prefer to have the radio off when I'm working; I prefer to have quiet in my life while I'm doing something I really want to pay attention to. But I know of incredibly bright people who are able to do an algebra problem with their right hand, and write a poem with their left, at the same time, while music is playing.

Now that's one of the classic signs of ADD: 'wanting to do more than one thing at a time' or they bounce back and forth between multiple tasks. I do the bouncing; I don't do them all at the same time.

But I don't see a way of distinguishing between what is called ADD -- or ADHD, which is where the psychomotor stuff comes in -- and what is simply the normal way for a person to function who has extreme intelligence, that works like a giant web. You hear it all the time. I was talking recently with someone who was a very bright person, clearly delineating something, and then suddenly stopped completely dead, and said 'Oh I don't know where I was going with this because I just took two side trips on the way to it, and I don't remember what the first was.'

Well, yes. That happens all the time. I do that in speeches I'm giving. I'm standing up in front of three hundred people and halfway through a sentence, I discover I don't know where it's going anymore, because I stopped to put in a parenthetical statement that led me to a whole new place.

I really don't know if there is a disease 'ADD' for adults. I have seen it in children. I've seen children who are severely disabled by it, and it may very well be that the only difference is the level of disability.

Barron's study of writers showed them to be both crazier and saner than regular folks. They also tend to be highly gifted and have high IQ. And his point is that, going by the MMPI (which I think is a beastly instrument anyway, but is commonly used), they have a greater level of neurosis or psychosis, they also have so much ability that they do not come across as constantly pathological.

So, if there is such a thing as pathology unmitigated by ability that allows you to function with it, then I would say that's a pathology.

But for gifted people, it is simply how they function, and it's the world that is out of sync for them, not them. I identified myself as manic-depressive in my first encounter with psychology in high school: I found a description and I said 'Oh God, that's me.' Of course, I was also sixteen.

But I recognized it immediately. Later on, I learned a little more about it, and I would not call myself seriously sick. I am, however, a person of intense feelings and mood swings. I get depressed extremely easily. But by now I've learned how to handle it, and I'm pretty much cured of the depressive part. And I was never all that manic.

But, I know real pathology because I've encountered people who are seriously manic-depressive, and they can't function.

And that's very different from the gifted person who's maybe functioning always at a level of depression that other people would consider pathology, but who manages to cope anyway.

If a person can survive on lithium, but not survive without it: that seems to me to be genuine pathology. And it's probably all continuum stuff anyway. It's probably that you're so far out on that continuum that you can't put it together to lead a reasonably functional life.

So much of pathology is in the eye of the culture. If you fit you're culture, then you're sane. Now that doesn't mean I don't think there are any insane people.

There are these figures about how many poets are depressed: well, yes, because these are people living in a very dysfunctional world, without skin. Their whole selves are about seeing into the pain of existence.

Of course they're going to be depressives. And when you add the fact that poets are not supremely respected by the culture, and usually have to struggle to survive or do something that is not what they would rather do, it can be very difficult.

When you get to the level of depression where you are seriously considering suicide, even then... I have stood with a bottle of pills in one hand, and the phone in the other, calling my therapist, and she'd say 'Well, look at it this way: you're on the phone; you could be lying on the floor now, having finished all those pills. But you called, so are you suicidal, or are you just desperately depressed?'

And her conclusion was that I was desperately depressed. And I managed not to commit suicide. But some people do; lots of poets have, because it just gets too bloody painful to live in the world. And I don't necessarily think that's a pathology. You may see it differently if you want someone in your family to hang around forever.

Having "skinlessness" is being in the world with such innate empathy and compassion that the pain of others creates equal (and sometimes greater) pain. I had a wonderful therapist once who told me that though I had come a long way toward learning to cope with my own skinlessness, if it were removed, I would no longer be able to write my books.

She was right. It's a tradeoff; many mental health professionals do not understand this. There is a pathologizing of pain. We want people not to be in pain, so we set about to take their pain away. But much of the pain of the world is critical to growth.

As a novelist, I understand that you have to deal with conflict, you're going to have to deal with emotion, and certainly pain is a big issue in that way of life.

And my therapist commented that if you were able to cut that off, to stop your empathy with other people, your ability to feel other people's feelings, or to project other's feelings, or to imagine yourself in someone else's situation, you would have to not be a writer anymore.

Well, I wasn't willing to give up who I am in order to get so-called well, even though it was painful. A lot of gifted people struggle with that. I suspect all of them do. In my novel "Welcome to the Ark" there are people who simply move into their heads, and that's their protection.

They just cut off emotion and feeling and they just live in intellectual realms. These are highly gifted kids who are in a mental institution, almost every one of them misdiagnosed.

One of them tried to commit suicide. One of them announced that she was an alien in a public place, and her parents put her there. And one is a mystic who's labeled a schizophrenic, and another is a super brilliant, super pained kid who's labeled autistic, neither of which are accurate diagnoses. The whole novel is about misdiagnosis and the pathologizing of unusual gifts.

I think it's critical not to identify yourself as sick, if you can possibly avoid doing so. I think there are a lot of ways to handle the extreme inconvenience of the differences between being gifted and not.

When I took medication for depression, I'm not sure it worked. I know I didn't like its side effects; it was before Prozac and Zoloft, so it was much trickier stuff. I'm not sure those aren't also super tricky. For me, it wasn't worth it.

But I think it's possible even to resort to some kinds of interventions, certainly talk therapy, or finding other people like yourself as an intervention. Or even medication, without defining yourself as 'flawed' and 'crazy' because that adds to the problem.

It is really important to realize that one's gifts are what were meant, and that if that has a downside, you have to learn to deal with the downside, but not to turn yourself against yourself.
 


Based on telephone interviews created for the Gifted Women Forum on AOL [1997-8], created by Douglas Eby.  

> More articles by Stephanie S. Tolan on this TalentDevelop site.

> Related articles: 

Helping Your Highly Gifted Child - by Stephanie S. Tolan

Is It a Cheetah? - by Stephanie S. Tolan

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Portrait from Stephanie S. Tolan Web Site

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Books

novels by Stephanie Tolan :
Welcome to the Ark
     Surviving the Applewhites

James Webb, Stephanie Tolan. Guiding the Gifted Child:
   A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers

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  Related Talent Development Resources pages :

High Ability site

Giftedness / High Ability articles

giftedness : books

HSP & gifted books

intensity / sensitivity

intensity / sensitivity resources : articles sites books

introversion / shyness.

introversion resources : articles  sites  books

perfectionism

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