Stephanie Link has made predictions and I mean to test them. So far she’s been correct: the ‘hug dots’ were displayed at the registration desk, bright and motley in their stickered grids, social indicators to be affixed to names. Though she wishes them ‘abolished’, Link admits the hug dots have occasionally helped. In the scheme, a green dot = ‘hugs welcome’, yellow = ‘ask before hugging’ and red = ‘no hugs’. Blue dots denoting marital status are available upon request.
I have selected green.
I am now struggling with my puzzling name-tag in the very back of the dim Hospitality room of the sumptuous Hilton hotel, which is crowned by a tall pyramid of glass at its marquee. Through the spanning window of Hospitality comes the drear of north-eastern autumn in Dedham, some corporate module of Boston, to and from which heavy trains shuttle tired businesspeople, those without the salary required to sleep at the center of the city’s technocratic core. Inside, a docile heavyset man, who apparently prefers his bare feet against the Hilton’s tile and carpet, has been trolleying various accoutrements hither and thither since I arrived. He is the Barefoot Man. At the far centre several male Mensans – newly acquainted – share drinks and refreshments after checking in. Link has already corrected my silly presumptions of what members of a high-IQ society like to talk about. What did I think? Particle physics? Epistemology? Hermeneutics? Not here. A radiologist talks radiology. Another Mensan touts his business model. Someone recounts deer hunting, in which ‘the weapon was a car’. A man of Asian descent, who seems to be one of the few not wearing glasses, repeatedly mentions that he’s a new member, and sips his diet soda while the rest enjoy beer. They talk education, politics, engineering, professional sports, college sports, the merits of the show House MD. One of them quaffs his drink and shares a cringingly bad joke. The new Mensan laughs gratuitously and says ‘Encore!’ He reminds everyone that this is his second Mensa event – ever – this Regional Gathering (RG) of Mensa’s New England contingent. His dot is green, like mine.
I’ve been dispatched to observe these Mensans, to chart the inner workings of a self-described ‘round-table society, where race, colour, creed, national origin, age, politics, educational or social background are irrelevant’. Mensa – Latin for ‘table’ – discriminates only by intelligence, at the 98th percentile across a wide battery of tests. Turns out that in the world of high-IQ societies, this standard is quite low. Intertel, ‘an international society of the intellectually gifted’, admits at the 99th percentile. The ISPE, the One-in-a-Thousand Society and the Triple Nine Society all admit to the 99.9th percentile. The Prometheus society trumps them, admitting higher still to the 99.997th percentile. The Mega Society, ‘most elite’ according to Guinness World Records, admits to the 99.9999th percentile. It has thirty members globally. Mensa, 110,000-members strong, is the only one with any real social activity.
With every greeted guest, Link’s fluttery laugh emits from the registration table at the room’s front. I’ve got the impression that she, for her gregariousness, was administratively selected to mediate or at least massage my perception of Mensa. Her matronly sensibility is known among Mensans. She provides hotel-sized toiletries to houseguests, pampers them with bed-making so errorless it would make a cadet blush. The man who introduced us is also widely known and adored. The LocSec – as he’s called – will arrive shortly to greet me, I’ve been told.
I soon hear Link utter his name as she leans over the registration table, her big eyes searching. She then twists to point and identify me. He’s wearing one of the two suits in the joint; stately, with thin red tie, the LocSec’s bleached and tight collar forces a crease of skin from under his neck. Our eyes connect, and he takes one direct stride towards me, only sharply, intentionally to turn at the refreshments trolley to select finger food and mingle with the Mensans he knows – which is evidently all of them. He takes his time. There is something seriously political about the man, nothing cynical but a sort of practised eminence.You can tell his handshake is firm before it grips you, he melds conversations together expertly, spatially, finishing the words of a salutation only to then begin those of a greeting – all in his stride. He doesn’t so much stand as forebode, maybe six inches from my prematurely extended hand, still speaking to the two older Mensans camped by twin bowls of pretzels and crisps. He says my name before he looks at me.
He pulls his chair way back for legroom, sits, immediately leans forward and retrieves a few M&Ms, gently threshing them in his palm. He gives me the Mensan bromides. Mensans are a ‘truly diverse and interesting group of individuals’; ‘Some are intelligent and did well in school, some are intelligent and didn’t do well in school.’
He asks me which school in Boston I attend. I tell him. He chews, replenishes his palm’s stock, chews.
‘You couldn’t get into one of the good schools?’
‘Apparently not,’ I say, unable to discern sarcasm.
There always seems to be an M&M in his mouth, yet by his speech alone you could never tell. He speaks of Mensans in the generalized, detached way common to any sort of leading figure. He boasts for them, showcases them. He says there’s a child among us, somewhere in the Hilton, an elfin Mensan whose teacher is trying to teach him astronomy while he teaches her about ‘black holes and space quarks’.
He stands, grips my shoulder, says, ‘Eat. Drink. Be Merry. And stay away from these two’, pointing to the elderly men sitting by the bowls, who laugh and nod knowingly. Link had said he was a character.
Stephanie Link had made all her predictions weeks before, in Boston, when the sky was storm-tousled and low. I was early and hadn’t yet seen Link in person or a photo, so I waited and scanned the coffee bar where we’d arranged to meet. I soon felt stupid stalking the boisterous lounge using my eyes to plead with strange women who seemed like they could be meeting someone. It was a kind of social stupidity, a position of ignorance, shame. I made two women visibly uncomfortable before giving up the tactic. Not long after, Link called. She was behind me.
She gracefully refused my offers of coffee, tea, at-least-something. It was anyway evident that the hyperkinetic, jocular Mensan had little need of it. Her hair was red, face-framing, and she had glossy eyes, slightly recessed, big, at once attentive and vulnerable. She gesticulated with smooth, arcing gestures, used them to track her thoughts, pausing to ask, ‘Does that make any sense?’ Her voice was brassy, percolated with the static of a coming cold. For this she apologized.
Link joined Mensa in 2003 to alleviate her post-undergrad malaise, the loneliness of being displaced from her Cincinnatian home. She’d moved to Orlando to be a teacher, due to a shortage in the profession, abandoning her brief stint as a chemist, a socially limited job that she summed up as being ‘isolated in a fume hood all day’. In Boston she now research and developed for Proctor & Gamble, specifically labouring on razor design for its subsidiary Gillette. A vocation of Newtons/m2, blade angles and glide (n.), her job of late involved the ‘formulations and whatnot’ of shaving, but never abrading, thousands of delicate male faces. Besides friends and boyfriends, she even met her husband at a Mensa meeting, and followed him to Germany and lived there for two years until he suddenly died. Afterwards she moved back stateside. She makes a point not to waste her vitality, emphasizes action over deliberation. I’d always regarded this sort of naivety as socially disastrous, but then considered that Link might just mean it when she says she joined Mensa for solidarity, friendship. She shrugged at my prods at intellectual elitism, human desire for hierarchy.
‘I’ve found two camps,’ she declared. ‘Some people join Mensa as a social outlet, and others do it to prove “I did it! I got the card!”’
I asked her if it was in her possession, this card.
‘Yeah,’ she smiled. ‘Do you want to see it?’
‘I’d like to see it.’
She laughed, dug through her handbag. ‘I don’t even know why I carry it. It’s not as if anyone ever asks for it.’ She retrieved it, said, ‘Are you ready – bam!’ slapping the card on our table.
‘They say that only 20 to 30 per cent of any chapter is actually active. I know that in Boston Mensa’ – here she consulted her phone then peeked coyly over it – ‘I checked the numbers today, in case you asked.’
‘In case I quizzed you,’ I corrected her.
‘Yeah,’ laughing. ‘So there are 1,142 members of Boston Mensa, but our Facebook group only has about 300 members.’
Admittance to Mensa is permitted in one of two ways:
Option 1) is submission of prior evidence, in which the aspiring Mensan provides record of satisfactory results on one of nearly two hundred tests that Mensa accepts: the GRE, the Standford-Binet, the LSAT, the Miller Analogies Test (MAT), the SAT, the PSAT, the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT), the ACT Composite, the GMAT, the California Test of Mental Maturity (CTMM), the Army and Navy GTCs, the CEEB, the OLSAT, the AFQT, and the Woodcock-Johnson Test of Cognitive Abilities, not to be confused with the Woodcock Johnson Achievement Test, which is not sanctioned or acceptable. And so on. All documentation must be in the original or notarized in copy. Tests must be administered by neutral third parties – teachers, professors, private psychologists – and all results are subject to appraisal by Mensa’s in-house ‘supervisory psychologists’.
Option 2) is to take a test designed and administered by Mensa International itself, a test not all that different from an IQ assessment. The LocSec is proctoring the Boston Chapter’s testing session at this year’s Regional Gathering. Link did not take the second option, preferring to provide prior evidence. Very prior evidence. ‘So,’ she said, ‘my test scores are from, like, second grade,’ her voice and head low, as if the room was bugged. These ancient scores haunted her a few years back, when she decided to get her MBA. ‘The GMAT is one of the qualifying tests for Mensa. I was nervous. I thought “What if my GMAT score wouldn’t qualify me for Mensa any more?” Can I still show up to meetings?’
I knew she could, still.You only had to qualify once. But that wasn’t the point.‘My score was still good enough…but, I don’t know,’ she hesitated. ‘It was almost like I was more nervous about that than getting a good score for my application to business school.’
These Mensans perplex me. I find broaching my own boundaries hard enough. To map them against another’s seems, to me, a formula for green-eyed rage and shame. We parted and walked into the drizzle.
Link also predicted the cache of obscure strategy games, and here in Games, a Hilton room with the staleness and dimensions of a very large coffin, I see that she is correct. The boxes have been marshalled along a pristine tablecloth, glowing preciously under tiny dulcet overheads. Here we have Kakuzu, Stratego, Quiddler, Telestrations, Cornerstone, Coerco, TriBond, Rummikub, Anomia, Eleminis, UPWords, Kings Cribbage, Dixit, Clever Endeavor and Flashpoint, the only board game I’ve ever seen with a byline.
One faction of gamers is huddled around the board of Innovation: two older women, a man and a younger woman – green dot, green dot, green dot, red dot, respectively. The younger woman, still wearing her denim jacket with polychromatic scarf, is at the centre of an unmistakable milieu, in which someone trying to teach a game can’t quite resist her desire to also win that game. She overwhelms the others with the game’s jargon, announces complicated moves and asks if they understand what she has just done to them. Do you understand? Do you? She has a trove of Reese’s cups, which, she admits, could be used as bribes. A flake of chocolate is smeared at the corner of her mouth.
Soon the others stop playing and just sit, except the one male, who agrees to finish the game only if they end it early. They’ve been playing for hours and there is dinner – ‘tacos!’ a drunk Mensan screams – and you can already see the Barefoot Man scuttling around with TexMex viands. Soon people leave Games altogether, only one of the older women remaining with the domineering tutor. They begin discussing dating etiquette, relevant sociological experiments, anthropological oddities, team-building exercises. One thing Link did not predict: Mensans prefer a procedural discussion of social dynamics more than any other topic. The young outlast the old; the older woman tries to end their conversation with a platitude, ‘There is no ‘I’ in team’. But, alas, upon hearing it the younger woman gets very excited and corrects her. There is – in fact – an ‘I’ in team, and the older woman waits while she spends the next few minutes drawing an illustration, a proof:
This young woman’s name is Crystal, and she finds me moments later in the foyer, tidying notes as everybody enjoys tacos. A certified accountant, Mensan of ten years, Crystal quite literally found a new family in Mensa. Both her parents died when she was young, and after she qualified for Mensa she met her ‘adopted’ parents at another RG, in Prague. She has unruly blonde hair that breaks passing light into colour and a small voice that often trails into a whisper. The smear of chocolate I’d noted earlier is actually a scar at the corner of her mouth.
‘In elementary school some guy kept pulling me out of class, and I didn’t trust him at all. He was asking me questions. But I didn’t trust him. I remember, he poured water from a short, fat glass into a tall, skinny glass and asked ‘Which one had more?’ I folded my little arms and said, ‘More what? More height? More width? Or more water?’ He said ‘More water.’ And I said, ‘Well, the first glass, because there are still drops of water in it.’ Then he said, ‘Assuming, all the water from the first glass is transferred into the second glass which one has more?’ I said they’d have the same amount.
‘And later, when I was at home, I noticed a little piece of paper with my name on it. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to see it, and I thought, ‘Oh this must mean I’m smart.’And my Dad, cool as a cucumber, looks over my shoulder and says, ‘Oh no, sweetheart. You have to score at least 200 to be considered smart.’1 ‘So I grew up knowing I wasn’t smart because I wasn’t 200. A secondary schoolteacher told me I was smart, but I remembered this incident.’
Eerie how much Crystal’s story echoes the fears of Alfred Binet, the French psychologist who invented the first psychometric test. A progenitor of what we call the IQ test today, the Binet-Simon Test was originally commissioned by the French Ministry of Education to identify students in need of special education. Binet was quick to say that this was all it was designed to do. It was not a test that measured the native intellects of children, intellects that could be ranked, sorted, threshed. Despite this, a Stanford psychologist named Lewis Terman revised Binet’s test and created the Standford-Binet test in 1916, a test which became the most pervasive method for ranking the American population for decades on, especially after it saw success during the First World War.2 Binet feared the stigma such psychological labels could impose – the self-fulfilling prophecy of not believing, but in Crystal’s words ‘knowing’ that they were a little dimmer than the rest and having a number, such as 200, as unequivocal evidence.
Her father was evidently wrong and Crystal is still acclimatizing to the fact of her smartness.
The Barefoot Man scampers by, followed by a woman who advises me not to believe anything Crystal says. She rests an arm on Crystal’s shoulder and they both laugh.
Crystal says, ‘I’m practising flirting right now, Anne! I don’t have my book on me. I’m on my own.’
Anne squints, looks to me with portent, nods. ‘Well, all right,’ she says, retreating.
Book? I ask. What book? Crystal explains she owns a compendium of pick-up lines, which she has challenged herself to use. Some of the lines aren’t really pick-ups, more like extremely nice compliments. Others are ‘job-specific’. Some are strange and don’t make sense to Crystal. Some are risqué, as she says, comments on how someone’s clothes would look just great on your bedroom floor, and such. Crystal says she needs to learn to deliver the sexually charged lines in such a way that she sounds like she doesn’t mean it, but sort of does. She tests out a few on me.
One thing Link had not predicted: Mensans don’t employ or register much irony. The exception being the LocSec, of course.
‘Here’s another sad little story for you,’ Crystal says. ‘But don’t worry. I think I’ve had a fairly happy life.
‘Do you remember the toy when you were young, the yellow box with the different holes in it – squares, triangles, stars – the toy with shapes, and you could put the shapes in the correct holes?When I grew up I felt – a lot! – as though somebody were trying to shove me into a shape in which I didn’t belong.’
I ask her if she thinks that had something to do with her IQ.
‘Well, yes.’ Crystal has a theory for why smart people are ostracized: ‘Smart people … they’re born smart, like someone is born with blonde hair. It’s genetic. In our society we look up to people who are born with artistic ability, we look up to people who are born with athletic ability, and we shame and put down people who are born with a high IQ.’
To illustrate where this minority lies, she draws a bell-shaped curve with her hands, the shape that has been a point of scientific, academic, racial and political tension for nearly a century.
In the early 1900s, after ignoring Binet’s warnings, Western psychologists began asking questions of human intelligence. Is it a thing, a number? If so, how can it be measured? Charles Spearman, a British psychologist, thought it could and so employed the statistical method that is still used by psychometricians today: factor analysis, the basic idea being that all permutations (or ‘factors’) of intellectual ability – verbal, mathematic, linguistic, associative, comprehensive, etc. – form the base of a pyramid, and by using statistical analysis these base factors can be correlated to an even smaller layer of factors or, simply, to the next layer of the pyramid. And that layer can be correlated to an even smaller layer above it. And so on. Eventually, Spearman’s theory asserted, we can eliminate all other factors but the one at the very top of the pyramid. Spearman called this the general or g factor.
‘There is no ‘I’ in team.’ But, alas, upon hearing it the younger woman gets very excited and corrects her. There is – in fact – an ‘I’ in team.
Time, it seems, has only introduced more layers, more factors. The popular contemporary theory, CHC Theory, posits the existence of nine broad factors and over seventy base factors. Many psychologists, though, have come out in strong opposition to even the basic idea of one native, measurable factor. One of the common refutations – the popularity of which is owed, in part, to Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man – is that top-of-the-pyramid factors, such as g or IQ, are guilty of the reification fallacy. (It had been a while since my freshman philosophy, so I had to look this up.) Reification is the treating of an abstraction, like IQ, as though it were a real, concrete thing. Consider a statistical abstraction: say for every three Mensans who select a green Hug Dot at a Regional Gathering only 0.47 select a red Hug Dot. Now let’s make the abstraction concrete and commit the reification fallacy: If tonight I spot three green-dotted Mensans I should expect to see 0.47 of a Mensan – a sort of half-Mensan – red-dotted and scuttling among the rest.
That would be absurd. Many psychologists and scientists have argued that there’s no real difference between this and the idea of IQ or g or in adding someone’s verbal, reading, writing and mathematical scores – as done on the GRE and SAT – to some grand total.
Crystal rises to leave, then pauses, turns around.‘You should really take the qualifying test tomorrow,’ she says. ‘About 75 per cent of people who take it pass it.’
‘Really?’ I say.
‘Uh-huh,’ she says, then adds, ‘It’s self-selecting, of course.’
The most recent movement in psychology has steered away from factor analysis altogether, away from the very idea of the pyramid. Perhaps the most famous work in this vein is that of Howard Gardner, whose Theory of Multiple Intelligences has gained clout in the past two decades and argues that the correlations between the wide varieties of human intelligences – for example, between what he calls interpersonal and musical intelligence – are very weak, if they exist at all. There is no pyramid, so to speak.
Crystal rises to leave, then pauses, turns around.‘You should really take the qualifying test tomorrow,’ she says.‘About 75 per cent of people who take it pass it.’
‘Really?’ I say.
‘Uh-huh,’ she says, then adds, ‘It’s self-selecting, of course.’
The low-ceilinged hallway that splits the difference between Hospitality and Games is more cushioned than carpeted. Boots shush like slippers on them. The walls are thick and absorb the RG’s cacophony in little quivers. Posted rosters for ‘BACKGAMMON, COMPETITIVE ONLY!’ and ominous signs everywhere ￼for qualifying tests, held on the
SECOND THIRD FLOOR, administered and overseen by the LocSec himself. The spotlights and their ebullient bulbs are recessed in the ceiling; walking under them you feel sort of impelled to have a brilliant idea. In this light at the centre of the russet carpet is a number-two pencil – ExecutiveChoiceTM – perfectly parallel with the wall, sharpened, Scantron-friendly, its eraser so fresh you can smell it; the kind of pencil provided for tests all over the world. I pocket it and walk to the hall’s end to rest in a plush leather seat in the empty lounge with the overstuffed couch and cherry-oak table. It feels like I’m sitting at a desk, though.
I have with me some sample questions from the Mensa qualifier and figured I’d try my hand. After fifteen minutes I abandon the first problem and reluctantly move on to the next, which I solve quickly and feel a washing relief I haven’t felt in years, one I can physically feel – a warmness, like a drink on an empty stomach. I revisit the first problem, struggle again, then notice some old but familiar things: my hand is trembling, appetite gone. I turn the pamphlet upside down and become irate when I see the answer – because, personally, I don’t consider ‘milepost’ a word that anybody would or should know. I toss the pamphlet on the chair rest. A red-brick mantle runs up through the Hilton’s stairwell to the skylight at the ceiling, which opens to another glass pyramid. I’d forgotten how self-conscious test-taking makes me, how much I resent being measured.
As an undergraduate, I studied physics. Quite honestly, I think I chose to do so because it seemed the ‘smart’ thing to do. I thought of myself in those terms, as did many of my peers. This was not the best time for me. I refused to study with others. I lied about grades, scores. I hoped that others would perform poorly so that I would, by comparison, seem smarter. For the first time in my life, I envied people. Shelves of melodramatic novels could be written about the anxious and agonizingly piteous lives of insecure physics students. This much I know.
One thing I can say about students who identify with their ‘smartness’ is that they quickly understand the comparative nature of contemporary intelligence – something Mensa knows very well, wittingly or not. Declaring yourself ‘smart’ is not quite the same as announcing your age or weight. For when a person says he’s ‘smart’ we around him feel somehow implicated in the assertion, insulted on some deep and visceral level. The logical response becomes, ‘smart compared to whom, sir?’ It is an exclusively comparative assessment, for which to be significant people must be measured against each other. Think of it like a footrace. Or combat.
Yet there’s a price. Anyone who defines themselves by a measurable characteristic – the sprinter, the weightlifter, the IQ jockey alike – is going to dread the day, as I did in college, when they hit their ceiling. The day you painfully learn that some folks are measurably, inherently, immutably, inarguably smarter than you. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
As college became a flickering memory and I learned that the world of jobs and money and politics did not care one iota for how smart I was, I found the temerity to question the mental tyranny of my undergraduate days. This proved somewhat illuminating. Every human being possesses an intelligence; there’s no arguing that. They differ, undoubtedly, and we should be grateful they do, for the very texture of our culture depends on those differences. I believe that people like Alfred Binet knew enough to know how little we understand about human intelligence – an ignorance that has not been corrected since his day. Throughout linguistics, perceptual psychology, neuroscience and cognitive philosophy, the human mind has emerged as astoundingly sophisticated even in its most basic aspects. To say nothing of consciousness and creativity, the ways in which you unconsciously assemble a coherent picture of the world from your senses, visually focus on simple objects, or understand this sentence are not well understood. Though what is understood about our shared, ordinary intelligence reveals fantastic intricacy and depth.You’re already smarter than we know.
The version of intelligence we colloquially mean by ‘smarts’ or ‘brains’ or ‘brightness’ is our ability to work on the edge of human understanding.
The version of intelligence we colloquially mean by ‘smarts’ or ‘brains’ or ‘brightness’ is our ability to work on the edge of human understanding. The Games room holds many examples of puzzles that human beings aren’t innately adept at solving; but therein lies the fun of it – people enjoy cerebral challenges, seek to expand their minds. Certain professions (e.g. logicians, theoretical physicists) are perhaps the most extreme practitioners of this sort of fringe play and are commonly regarded as our most brilliant souls. But they represent just one kind of intelligence, and it’s premature and unhelpful to place it upon a pinnacle. I have no doubt that people who labour in factories will know things about the world that I will never grasp. As will politicians, dancers, phlebotomists, luthiers, chefs, biologists, the homeless, gardeners, hotel managers, inmates, athletes, electricians, IRS agents, soldiers, cabbies, upholsterers, and on. Every human vocation harbours an immensity of insight, novelty and particularity, which is precisely why we find them interesting; the special knowledge so obvious to them comes to us as total surprise. But it might generalize further. Consider the mental world of a typical chemist and that of someone who suffers a cognitive pathology. Is one necessarily less rich than the other? Is it inane to think that someone with ADHD or severe Down’s syndrome is capable of thinking in ways that I cannot? I’m honestly not so sure.
So what is the purpose of arranging these intelligences hierarchically? Different academic disciplines offer various answers to this question. One of the more compelling and imperforated ideas is that a given society’s theory of intelligence will reflect a set of values – often unquestioned – that the society maintains. You don’t have to think terribly hard to realize why someone who excels at quantitative analysis might be regarded as ‘smarter’ than someone who excels at acrylic painting – and as a pleasant side-effect the quantitative analyst is likely to enjoy a cushier lifestyle.
But this widespread evaluation damages far more than materially rewards. Here’s a well-known fact about the human psyche: if an individual is victimized enough she will not only submit to it, but will come to believe the terms of her victimization are correct. The bullied child often thinks that he carries some unique defect; ultimately he not only accepts his appalling circumstances but believes that they are justified. We perpetrate crimes of this nature against ourselves the world over, all the time. The realm of intelligence and our ideas about it are no different. I bet you’ve personally seen the human cost too.
It’s a quiet violence, but we all know the symptoms of someone marinating in their intellectual inadequacy. At sight of a bad grade or failed task, their face will crumple, eyes soften, shoulders droop; the volume will drain from their voice as they shrivel into themselves, intimating all the minutiae of someone who has suddenly become chilled. It’s like witnessing a person walking into a glass door; that special wounded confusion of someone abruptly denied a destination they assumed they could reach. They find their place.
From my vantage in the lounge I can see the illuminated lettering of five exit signs. I had to recount them a few times. Link emerges from the stairwell’s bottom, dressed for her upcoming talk, in high black boots and shimmery stockings, a comely jacket. She didn’t expect to see me sitting here, alone, and seems confused. Her eyes widen, ‘Oh. Did you just take the test upstairs?’
Link’s talk, with the exception of meal time, is the most popular RG event so far. Everyone is here, it seems, including the Barefoot Man, the LocSec and Crystal. When I arrive seats are no longer available; people stand, crane. Two inventive Mensans lie supine on a narrow counter.
The crowd represents the best demographic of Boston Mensa I’ve seen yet. Enough persons to fit a bell curve, you could say. Most are fairly old, average age hovers around the upper fifties. Nearly everyone is white. Glasses are more often the case than not. The average Mensan is slightly overweight (Link’s prediction). Women have slight numerical superiority.
Link has everyone in the room transfixed. The young Mensan is presently dancing – shimmying, really – beer in hand, other hand to the ceiling, to the music of a television promo she’s projected on to a screen. Link spent the summer of 2012 competing in ABC’s The Glass House, after the show’s casting agent, looking to fill an archetype, approached the LocSec, who in turn thought of Link, his indefatigable membership co-ordinator. And Link, affable and uncynical as she is (plus not one to scoff at the show’s ultimate purse of $250k) figured why not. She explains this to the crowd, shaking out her last itch to dance.
The LocSec sits just behind her, his fatherly shadow caught by the projector, barking out instigations and interruptive stories of his own, which people seem to enjoy.
The template of The Glass House is familiar and simple: fourteen contestants abide with one another in a communal house, with live-feed cameras recording every banal detail, every sob and toilet visitation (!), every tantrum, sexual escapade and argument – and inevitably some sort of politics emerge. The show makes a big thing of ‘viewer participation’. As such, the format allows the viewers to decide where the contestants sleep and what they eat and wear. Viewers also decide which contestant gets ‘evicted’ each week. The last contestant remaining gets the bounty. And for what appear to be purely metaphorical reasons, the swanky and modernistic set-house is made entirely of glass. Link describes it as a weird ‘sociological experiment’.
The Glass House, as a show, is unsurprisingly awful. Most Mensans seem to believe this, and if you press Link she’ll concede it. But like all television that purports reality, its awfulness has almost nothing to do with the cast – that is, the real people – but with the caricature the show imposes on them. Here, in The Glass House, we have the incorrigible narcissist; the cosmetic-obsessed menopausal mother; the lovable overweight gay man; the jaded cocktail waitress; the direly insecure nymphet; the sardonic, moralizing police sergeant; the self-deprecating mid-life male; and Link. Where do you think she fits in this line-up? I do wonder what the casting agent had in mind when he or she approached LocSec of Boston Mensa, querying for contestants.
Link has a theory: ‘I was the know-it-all, brainy, logical one. Chu-chootu-chootu –’ so goes her mimicry of computers from the 1980s. Technical sounds. Intelligent sounds.‘It’s sort of funny,’ she once told me. ‘The casting call on the ABC website asked questions like,“Do you always have to be the centre of attention? Are you the life and soul of the party? Do people either love you or hate you?” But the flier they distributed to Mensa asked,“Are you a strategic thinker? Do you like problem-solving? Do you always have to be right?”’
Link had decided, per strategy, to keep her involvement with Mensa from the other contestants. She couldn’t think of a tactful way to announce it, and in her experience doing so almost always engendered resentment.
‘Snobs,’ she said, ‘don’t get far on socio-televisual competitions.’
Her strategy failed, though, as one of the other contestants had heard elsewhere that Link was a Mensan and brought it to the fore. Link’s still a bit sour about this, thinking it hurt her chances of winning.
Humiliating mental and physical challenges seem to be a staple of reality television, and The Glass House is no exception. The exigencies of its weekly competitions are complicated, so much so that the editors repeatedly use the same contestant to explain the rules to the viewer. It was Link. If this isn’t evidence enough of what the show thinks of her, have a look at the complete transcript of Stephanie Link during introductory Episode 1. Running time: 59 minutes:
I’m Stephanie. I’m 32 years old. I’m a scientist living in Boston, Massachusetts. I’m not one of those wannabe models, actresses … fake people. I’m a real person.
I was so super-excited when I saw the challenge because I’m smart and that’s definitely going to be helpful. I am in Mensa. So I definitely think my brains are going to be a big part in solving that challenge.
The omnipotent audience of The Glass House evidently agrees with this portrayal; in a later episode they vote Link most likely to have been ‘the nerd’ in high school. Link, hardly surprised, thought it was a laugh.
There is one moment in the show that shatters her caricature, one she doesn’t discuss now during her presentation, when the recent and precipitous death of Link’s husband is revealed to her housemates. She wells up, struggles for words through crying, and you get the impression that if you’d been there with her, if you weren’t subjected to a melancholy score and stark reaction-shots of other contestants, if the whole thing didn’t precede a commercial break and you weren’t watching it happen on reality television, Link’s story would have been moving and sad. But the show couldn’t broach such a serious subject without leveraging it as a point of tension between two other contestants. Indeed, when Link violates her designated role as ‘the smart person’ and becomes human, the show, in turn, is as disrespectful to her as it could ever be.
I once asked her if she felt the show had handled anything poorly. She said no.
Toward the conclusion of The Glass House, Link was offered $32k to drop out early. She made what she called the ‘rational, logical choice’. She took the money. Link had feared she’d been too successful with the show’s challenges to win the audience’s sympathy and votes (ultimately, the police sergeant won – which Link had predicted.) Generally, she feels ‘people don’t endear themselves to smart people’.
Even Link does not escape this social bind. Late in the season, nearly an entire episode is dedicated to a scene of her crying – over something different this time – struggling to expound some social dynamic with the other contestants. During their discussion, she uses the word ‘reciprocity,’ by far the most SAT-ish word in the entire season. The juxtaposition is not incidental. The Link of The Glass House seems as articulate as she is hysterical, as brilliant as she is socially incongruous. There’s a bizarre balance to it. In the show’s logic, for her every IQ point above the norm, Link seems to lose a point in some other crucial capacity. But this lopsided persona is not the Link I’ve met, and see now, enchanting this crowd of Mensans.
Before she finishes, Link implores everyone to stay for her talented friend’s presentation, yet another Mensan, recently limelit by national television, one J. Mark Inman, multi-instrumental musician, singer, executive film producer, philosophy PhD candidate, all-trades artist, who at 32 years, he explains, lives with his parents and has spent the last of his money on this Hilton overnighter. He is presently unsheathing wires, monitors, hubs and cables behind Link, and despite her pleas around two-thirds of the audience has risen to leave, presumably to catch the last half-hour of Oreo flavour-grading. I want to follow them, at least out of the door. Link has already lobbied for Inman’s presentation, but when she said he’d be recounting his travails on The X-Factor, I struggled to keep my upper lip uncurled. I hope to exit surreptitiously when Link leaves for a fresh beer and Inman is still mired in equipment – and boy he’s got a lot of it.
Link, however, returns double-quick, sort of falls into her seat, beer in hand, swaying a bit. I am here for the duration. The pockets of Inman’s dark and ankle-cuffed jeans are bulging with electronic apparatus. His hair is brown, thick, moppish, and his eyes alternate between beady and soft, almost pained. He’s removed his leather jacket – collar flared – and has begun lifting what seems an excessive amount of heavy equipment off the dolly he trundled in. He proceeds to unveil twin KRK V8 speakers, wattage at 180 rms, elevated on stands the height of podiums. ‘Bad speakers are one of my pet peeves,’ he says. Unfortunately, he encounters major technical difficulties and tries to appease his waning audience with self-deprecations as he troubleshoots. The Barefoot Man gallops forward and offers assistance.
Those remaining in the audience eye the towering speakers as if they might suddenly explode. I’m sandwiched between an elderly gentleman who I believe is either asleep or having mild respiratory issues and a woman who seems to have no filter between her internal monologue and her speech. She recently sat beside me and asked who this Inman person was and what he was going to present, and before I could explain she grabbed the programme out of my hands and squinted at it. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to stick around for this.
‘What’s your talent?’ she calls out to Inman, still struggling to set up. People are advising him to use Link’s speakers, which are the size of staplers and have fallen over on the projector’s table. Inman is not keen on this idea, even as his laptop seizes up.
Dance around!’ she says, laughing. She wears a centipedishly-segmented down coat, fluff-lined loafers and has gnarled fingers. ‘Just ad lib for us! You’re a Mensan, you don’t need a computer!’
Repeatedly, Inman’s eyes dart her way in that unmistakably pleading way. I’m starting to think there’s something wrong with her.
‘What was the world like before computers?! You’re a Mensan, you don’t need a computer!’
After a while, Inman reluctantly consents to using Link’s middling speakers and soon presents to us a screening of his bizarre moment of fame on The X-Factor. He first gives the viewers his personal formula for success:
J + Mark + X + Factor = $5 million
Then, on screen, hailing from stage-right, coolly, Inman says, ‘Hello Chicago’, eyes sparkling manically, hair positively vitrified in gel – a person wholly different from the flustered man in the room with us before. ‘I had a plan,’ he’s told us. It soon becomes obvious that Inman’s X-Factor performance has begun long before his chosen song – Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. There is a social strategy at work. When Simon Cowell enquires, ‘Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?’ and Inman responds, ‘At the helm of a renaissance’, it’s clear that Inman had decided to adopt some kind of unnerving persona, as that sometimes works on national talent shows. And it does. After Inman’s ‘trip-hop’ rendition of ‘his least favourite Radiohead song’ the judges are flabbergasted not by his talent but by his strangeness, by his socially engineered effect. He is permitted to the next stage of the competition, where he is promptly cut. And this would have been all well and good, this peculiar anecdote from a Mensan whose formula of personality differs radically from that of a successful X-Factor contestant (which everyone sort of knew all along), that would have been fine if Inman wasn’t so direly disappointed in himself for not getting further in the competition.
‘Your voice is too soft…’ the woman beside me says.
He showcases some of his music for us, and I realize he thinks of this presentation as less of an opportunity to share his art and television experience, perhaps even to self-aggrandize a little, but more a last-ditch plea for support. More than once he asks us for money.
The first track sounds wretched through Link’s speakers and each crackle elicits a slight wince from Inman, but you can still hear it: a slow, auto-tuned rock ballad à la Freezepop, with the interjecting ambience and dense emotional registers of Radiohead. The woman beside me burps, twice, and a few moments later I can feel wetness from her unshielded cough. She zips up her winter jacket and shivers.
‘Is it all New Age music?! All of it?’ she says.
Inman corrects her, then plays us some riskier material: two tracks, one on piano, the other on a heavily delayed violin, both very atonal, sort of like Schoenberg, maybe Webern. Atonal music tends to be an acquired taste, which does not escape her beside me.
She begins laughing at him.‘Hard to listen to…’
Other Mensans have begun glancing at her, nervously.
‘I’ve done stuff that’s even harder to listen to,’ Inman retorts. Now the audience erupts, Link’s brassy laugh cutting through.
‘Why would you want to make music that’s hard to listen to?! My God!’ the woman says. ‘The object of music is to make people want to listen to it.’
‘I guess I would consider this ‘artistic’ music … it’s more about exploring the sonorities.’
‘Well, I guess.’ She then assures us that she’s been to all of the ‘Yale concerts’, so she knows good music.
‘I’m sorry,’ Inman, lowering the volume, ‘I don’t want to make you gag.’
People laugh again, with about half the mirth.
This gets to be like watching a drawn-out stoning, and it occurs to me that Inman has handled this situation far better than I ever would. I’m not as socially durable. I don’t even have the gumption to ask her to cover her mouth when she coughs.
Inman pitches again for financial support. She asks if he has a business card. He retreats to his dolly, rummages, then returns with a stack of them. The card is thick, black-on-black, so much that you expect it to be heavier than it is – pretty swanky, but the letters of his email, number and address have to catch the light to be readable.
‘A terrible design. Do you have something we can read?’ laughing, again.
He ignores her, incredibly. But after he notices that his time has almost expired he becomes distraught. ‘I didn’t do anything,’ he says and just lets that last word smoulder.
‘…I was working with the speakers all that time…’ He looks up at us. ‘I’m so sorry…I didn’t even get through half of it.’
He reluctantly concludes with a song featured on his upcoming album. He hits play and retreats to his seat, leans forward with his hands married at the fingers and crossed at his knees. The song is cheery, warm, major-keyed and complexly layered – like a gentle variation on The Flaming Lips or Karen O and the Kids. At this juncture, whether we in the audience enjoy it or not seems irrelevant.
Inman’s eyes soften and ears perk at the sounds over which he’s taken such delicate care. With every wrinkle on his face released, his posture slack, therapeutically calm, he stares at that non-specific angle that intimates a mind at work with something it loves.
When we all leave, someone is whistling Inman’s melody, and I wish that was where it ended.
Two people find me tidying my notes in the lounge with the leather chairs and the pyramidical skylight. One, an older Mensan I’ve seen carting around electronics and Tupperware all day, sits beside me and without a word falls asleep. The other is J. Mark Inman, who bustles in, rests his hands on his beltline, then sits behind me, like a psychologist would. ‘That went terribly,’ he says. ‘I was so flustered.’ I crane my head around the arm of the chair and tell him I enjoyed the last song he played for everyone, said it reminded me of The Flaming Lips. He smiles, thanks me. We talk a bit and discover some surprising things we have in common. For one, we were both born on 13 September. We both think the Radiohead song ‘Idioteque’ is gorgeous and don’t understand why more people don’t like Tool. We both would like to make a living doing the thing we love.
Coming down the hall, cradling her laptop, she arrives, sliding along the floor in her loafers. Without compunction she sits with Inman on the love-seat and asks him if he needs money, because she needs a new investment. She more or less dangles the prospect before his nose. He says of course he could use the money. He’s broke. She then interprets this as an opportunity to edify him, says he needs to focus, to work on his voice (too soft!), to ‘grow up’, market himself properly. She hands him a book – Fame 101 – which parses and methodically explains the social construct; she wants him to know she knows the author. He asks if he can keep this copy and she says no, he has to read it tonight and return it. They start an abstract debate on modern music, self-branding and social media. The man next me to me shutters occasionally in his sleep. It’s sort of amazing how long these two can argue without repeating themselves; I start hearing counter-counter-counterpoints. A bell hop arrives to inform her that all of her luggage has been moved to a new room with functional temperature control. She does not thank him. The bell hop mentions the room number and Inman says, with shock, ‘That was my room … last night.’The last night his money bought him.
Their argument continues, but Inman soon loses his nerve, again. ‘I have a lot of work to do,’ he says, cutting her off. ‘A lot of work to do.’
Ultimately, though, as Inman leaves to get me a copy of his recent album, she gets the last word.
I leave her tweaking her investment portfolio on her laptop, muttering.
Dumbstruck, tired, I figure I’ll let these Mensans enjoy the waning evening unobserved. Tonight they have some sort of thematic ball planned. Drinking is ramping up, a burly DJ has arrived, costumes have emerged, the Barefoot Man is afoot, the LocSec does his rounds, out of his suit. Another of Link’s predictions confirmed: Mensans do indeed seem comfortable here, wholly themselves. Walking down the hall, I rub my eyes – opening them to see Link dancing just before me, waving her hands. I start, lean my back against the wall, and we both laugh. Her eyes are glassy, and I ask if she’s having a good time. She asks if I’m leaving, and when I reply yes, we shake hands. She then announces a social imperative, as dictated by the Hug Dot scheme, and gives the only hug this green dot has ever got me.
Outside, the sky looks like a concussion: bruised grey-blue folds of cumulous, a wash of tinny red from the evening; no stars yet. At the fringe of the Hilton’s landscaped campus spans a commuter lot, empty, across which I amble and scuff, alone, waiting for the next train to return me to Boston. I would never take the LocSec’s test or any “intelligence” assessment; even if I somehow knew I’d ace it. I contemplated the idea as some premeditated writerly gimmick for all of ten minutes. I enjoyed meeting these Mensans, but I’m content leaving my precise measurement forever shrouded. Though in college, I might have considered it. But as I remember, back in the heyday of my arrogance, it wasn’t so much the nerves or the nausea or the sleeplessness that hurt as much as the self-contempt. It’s an emotional paradox most young adults encounter: the surest path to feeling inferior is to imagine yourself as superior. Because the best English synonym I knew for “smart” was simply “better,” and specifically seeming “better” in the eyes of others. It’s interesting to ask how much of our intelligence is busy trying to convince other people of the immensity and confidence of that intelligence – it’s interesting to ask myself now. What kind of mind is only viable once validated? And how can something so empty have so much weight? And do these Mensans, if any, feel this weight? For me, and maybe just for me, designating myself “smart” was radically dishonest. I am not and have never been confident with my understanding of anything. I’ve been called smart but have never felt smart – not once. People occasionally admit to sharing my bewilderment, and I find that relieving every time. It’s the truest condition our minds share: ignorance, confusion, and fraternity. Though those are hardly the bywords of any elite society.
1.^ It’s unclear what test this score belongs to, though it’s certainly not a standard IQ test, as 200 is literally off-the-charts and would disappoint only the cruellest of fathers.
2.^ My historical summary here isn’t the half of it. See Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test for a detailed, comprehensive treatment of the bizarre American meritocracy.