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The Fonzie Factor

The Fonzie Factor

Amidst all the advice being given out in national media about how parents should discuss the Newtown killings with their children, there is one group of people who are left out: the parents, siblings, and extended families of those who suffer from symptoms similar to those the shooter reportedly exhibited from childhood onwards.

Every time something like this occurs, those families must wonder if one day it will be them expressing their heartfelt sorrow. Some may wonder if they are living with some kind of monster that might reveal itself through their child’s actions at any time, and wonder if they have done all they can to contain it.

Your children are not monsters. Misunderstanding is.

The national dialogue is now supposed to be all about gun control, so I’ll say a bit about that before getting back to what I see as a more important issue related to what I call “the Fonzie Factor”. I’ve written previously about the one decisive action President Obama needs to take: Issue an Executive Order mandating that all guns be painted pink. Yes, even those carried by law enforcement officers.

An April 30 deadline should work; after that date, any gun that doesn’t conform will automatically be confiscated and destroyed, whether licensed or not. Be bold, Mr. President. We expect nothing less of you at this time.

So, what is this thing I call “the Fonzie Factor”? Fonzie is the character from the TV sitcom Happy Days, who introduced the world to a new way of describing children who did well in school: “nerd”. The term, which was derogatory, was particularly associated with children who were good at science and math. Although the sitcom was set in the 1950s, it aired in the decades when computers were becoming a familiar part of daily parlance if not yet daily life.

At the very time that the United States needed to have children honing basic math skills to prepare them for the careers that would await them, an entire society turned those children against achieving well—because they didn’t want to be seen as a nerd, shunned by their peers. Math and science are still not popular in schools in the USA.

The reporting about the perpetrators of mass killings is similarly fixated with what can only be described as their nerdiness. The picture that emerges of the loner, highly intelligent but with only vestigial social skills, is nowadays framed in terms of diagnosis of a psychiatric illness. The modern consensus seems to be that nerds aren’t just weird; they’re sick. And in America, the prime way to deal with any sickness is to dish out pharmaceuticals. If it’s mental illness, some therapy and counseling will be thrown in for good measure.

But is the combination of intelligence and social ineptitude an illness?

I’d like to take you back to the late 50s and early 60s, to a small country town thousands of miles from the US in a nation that was one of America’s allies in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. When Sputnik was launched, showing that the Russians were far ahead of the US in the space race, the US government decided that the only way to compete was to fast-track academically bright students to careers in math and science. The IQ test, which had previously only been used by the military to decide who was or wasn’t fit to be an officer, was moved out into the education system—not just in the States, but in the education systems of its allies around the world. It is a flawed test, and always has been, but its use shaped society’s perception of who was and wasn’t “intelligent” for decades.

The year I sat the IQ test, three children in our small town of 5000 people scored so highly on it they were singled out for special academic attention. Needless to say, it did not do wonders for our peer relations. The other girl moved to a school in a bigger town, the boy worked on developing a tearaway (and therefore acceptable) persona, and I just got a big head and a sense of guilt for not even having to try very hard to do well.

I had a photographic memory. An audio one, too—I could recite the whole of the radio story The Little Tune That Ran Away backwards. I liked to catalog and list things. I didn’t like unexpected changes. In fact, my only way to deal with change was to institute it myself, because then I had control over it. If I felt threatened by change, I’d make some other change, even an illogical and self-defeating one.

I was self-absorbed and shy and awkward, and just didn’t pick up on the social signals that everyone else relies on to negotiate relationships with others. I preferred to be alone, cataloging my meager horde of books and creating library cards for them, even though I knew nobody would ever ask to borrow them. Or building a computer out of small squares of colored paper, matchboxes, and tiddly-winks, using instructions in a Reader’s Digest children’s annual.

In short, I was kind of like Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory—a character in this cultural era who personifies what is nowadays called Asperger’s Syndrome. (I’ll leave you to decide whether Sheldon has negated the Fonzie Factor or compounded it to the nth degree.)

But I was lucky enough to be growing up in a time before such diagnoses were made. My parents very sensibly saw to it that I learned how to interact with other people—at least in structured situations—by getting me a weekend job behind the counter at what is known in the US as a convenience store. They encouraged me to try my hand at things I wasn’t good at, and I learned to enjoy them nonetheless. Fun things, like playing the guitar. Things that didn’t rely on brainpower but on other, altogether different, skills.

All of which makes me wonder if any good is achieved by the diagnosis and pharmacological treatment of an “illness” that is entirely manageable by establishing foundational behaviors that will serve the child well in any situation, including if they get depressed about not “fitting in”.

Do the drugs do more harm than good? I’m of the opinion that they do if they take away the ability to recognize that what you are about to do is a very, very stupid thing, indeed. There have been many documented instances of people’s meds contributing to their sense of the “rightness” of their horrific actions. People who would not otherwise have harmed themselves or others. It’s as if the drugs cut their judgment brake lines, and they careen towards an outcome that seems to them, in their medicated state, to be inevitable.

Along with the national conversation about guns, there needs to be a national conversation about having a balanced view of academic achievement, and about the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Are we over-diagnosing, over-counseling (which forces even more introspection), and over-prescribing? Is the pharmaceutical industry encouraging the medical profession to invent illnesses just so they can sell products?

Asperger’s Syndrome was recently, amid much controversy, removed from the psychiatrist’s “bible” as a category of its own on the autism spectrum, and will now be lumped in with autism itself. Largely so that insurance companies will pay out for the treatment costs involved. If that’s not crazy reasoning leading to a potentially disastrous outcome, nothing is.

I know what autism looks like—in my first job as an adult, I worked with autistic children. They were deeply unreachable in terms of social interaction. Far removed from someone with just the abysmal social skills and obsessive interests that are characteristic of Asperger’s Syndrome.

And anyway, who among us has not been blushingly awkward and just a tad obsessive about something at one time or another in our lives? Who among us, when they see someone who experiences those things to the nth degree and has a difficult life because of it, or who sees the anguished parents of someone whose behavior seems that of a monster, cannot say and mean it:

There but for the grace of God, goes you or I.

Along with our wishes for Peace, Love, and Joy this Christmas, let’s also wish for understanding.
--PEACE—

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