The Smartest Man in America

Look, Maybe You're No Genius. But... Who Is? Really Want to Know? Total Genius? Esquire Found Four of 'Em. Including the Guy Who May Be (Drumroll, Please) ... the Smartest Man in America!

By Mike Sager

[Ta-da!] By some accounts, Christopher Michael Langan is the smartest man in America.

He is certainly the smartest nightclub bouncer in America, endowed with an IQ that has been measured at 195, give or take a few points, a score that puts him on a par with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Rene Descartes, three of the brightest minds in human history. A great minotaur of a man with a basso profundo voice, Chris is six feet tall and weighs 275 pounds. A former cowboy,

Construction worker, and Park Service firefighter, he has a fifty-two-inch chest, twenty-two-inch biceps, a cranial circumference of twenty-five and a half inches--a colossal head, more than three standard deviations above the norm. Known in his younger days to play a mean lead guitar, Chris has light-blue eyes, a dry-look Elvis pompadour, and a bit of a chip on his shoulder, something you come to understand once you hear his story.

"It ain't easy being green," Chris likes to say, resigned yet undiscouraged--the cocky, perverse, somewhat defensive assuredness of a person who has always been the smartest in any group, perhaps the loneliest, too. The distribution of IQs through the population forms a bell curve, with the very smartest on one side, the severely disabled on the other. The IQ of the average human is about 100. The IQ of the average college graduate is about 120. IQs like Chris's exist among us at a rate of roughly one in one hundred million. In a world designed for average, folks like Chris don't always fit very well. Forty-two years old, he pulls down $6,000 a year. He lives in a tiny, cluttered one-room cabin overlooking a field of heavy machinery in Eastport, Long Island--a short drive from the tony Hamptons--which he shares with his cat, Ramona, and his 1985 shovelhead Harley-Davidson, parked near the sink in his kitchen.

Thanks to the magic of the World Wide Web, Chris knows he is not alone. Over the last fifteen years, about a dozen affinity groups for people with superhigh IQs have been formed. More exclusive than Mensa--which accepts those with a minimum IQ of 132, one of every fifty people--clubs like the Triple 9 Society, the Prometheus Society, and the Mega Society (with IQ requirements of 148, 164, and 176) provide electronic fellowship to an eccentric, far-flung population known as HiQ Society. Though the clubs, like all subcultures, have become a petri dish for ego squabbles and political infighting, they nevertheless supply the comfort of fraternity in a world that doesn't think fast enough, doesn't get the reference, doesn't get the point.

Welcome to the HiQ Nation. Walk a mile in the shoes of genius. Physicians and Ph.D.'s, bar bouncers and postal workers, cosmologists, philosophers, mothers, and mimes, their brain powers haven't exactly taken them to the places you might expect.

Chris's mom was a spirited young woman, the black-sheep daughter of a wealthy shipping executive, who frequented San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, rubbing shoulders with the Beats. His dad, the story goes, died of a heart attack before he was born. To this day, Chris isn't sure if his mother was telling the truth.

Chris began talking at six months of age, reading at three years. He skipped kindergarten through second grade, started his schooling in third. Though his IQ was never tested when he was a child, he says, "it was simply recognized that I was some kind of kid genius. My schoolmates saw me as the teacher's pet, this little freak." When he was five, his mother--who'd in the meantime married and divorced a struggling Hollywood actor and given birth to two more sons--married a mean, hard-drinking tyrant. "He figured the best way to raise three boys would be to set up his own military platoon," Chris says. "Living with him was like ten years of boot camp, only at boot camp you don't get the shit beaten out of you every day with a garrison belt, and in boot camp you're not living in abject poverty."

At six each morning, his stepfather would sound reveille on a bugle, line up his little soldiers at attention, heels cocked at 45 degrees, thumbs along trouser seams. He'd stand before each of the boys and feign a punch, usually a right jab that he'd stop an inch or two shy of their noses. If one of the kids flinched, he would sock him for real. Chris's body was always covered with welts. The fresh ones were pink and red, the older ones black and blue, the oldest green and yellow. "I looked like a Jackson Pollock painting," Chris remembers.

By the time he was twelve, Chris got into lifting weights. "When you're the littlest and the smartest, and you're wearing rags, and you come to school with a fat lip and all these marks on you, you're treated like scum by the rest of the kids. I just decided enough was enough. I developed my strength, worked on my hand speed. I learned how to beat up kids that were twice my size. I got a reputation for being a tough guy. By that time, I was mostly doing independent study--they didn't know what to teach me anymore, but nobody was going to take me out and put me in college on the fast track, so I just did what they told me. I went to study hall and worked on my own, taught myself advanced math, physics, philosophy, Latin and Greek, all that. Meanwhile, all the parents were taking their kids out of study hall because they didn't want them anywhere near me. They thought I was going to beat them up."

One morning when he was fourteen, Chris awoke to a flash of white light, followed by intense pain across his eyes. He jumped out of bed half blinded. Just home from an all-night drunk, his step- father had wrapped his garrison belt around his fist and punched Chris while he slept. Since he was four years old, Chris had never once talked back. It was always, No, sir, Yes, sir; he'd never even said boo. Now he just went mental. Chris flew at him, knocked him across the room, against the wall, out the door. He beat down the old man in the front yard, told him never to return. He didn't.

Chris's adulthood continued in much the same vein. He got into college on a scholarship. He lost the scholarship when his mother forgot to sign the financial forms. He took a year off, earned money fighting forest fires, enrolled at another college. Then his car broke down in the middle of winter. He had no money to fix it. He had to walk fifteen rural miles in the snow every day or face failure. At neither school were officials willing to give him a break. "There I was, paying my own money, taking classes from people who were obviously my intellectual inferiors," he says. "I just figured, Hey, I need this like a moose needs a hat rack! I could literally teach these people more than they could teach me, and, on top of that, they have no understanding, they don't want to help me out in the least. To this day, I have no respect for academics. I call them acadummies. So I guess you could say that was the end of my formal education."

Over the years, Chris developed what is known in the literature as the double-life strategy. "On one side, you're a regular guy," he says. "You go to work, you do your job, you exchange pleasantries. On the other side, you come home and you begin doing equations in your head. You kind of retreat into your own world--you make it work for you the best you can."

When Chris isn't busy doing temp work as a bartender, or training such summer luminaries as writer Tom Wolfe at the local health club, or wrestling with spoiled, flush-pocket drunks, or chatting up the young ladies--the very young ladies, his self-avowed major weakness--he is often found hunched over his homebuilt computer, drinking tepid tea from a spaghetti-sauce jar, working on something he calls the CTMU, his Cognition-Theoretic Model of the Universe. The result of ten years of solitary labor, the CTMU--pronounced cat-mew--is, says Chris, a true "Theory of Everything," a cross between John Archibald Wheeler's "Participatory Universe" and Stephen Hawking's "Imaginary Time" theory of cosmology.

Simply put, the CTMU explains the meaning and substance of reality. It resolves--once and for all time, he says--"many of the most intractable paradoxes known to physical science while bestowing on human consciousness a level of meaning that was previously approached only by religion and mysticism." A culmination of the modern logico-linguistic philosophical tradition, the CTMU "reunites the estranged couple consisting of rationalistic philosophy and empirical science." Though Chris has invited criticism of his theories from all quarters, he has yet to hear a valid argument against his conclusions or computations. Neither has he found a publisher.

"There are a lot of bad breaks you can get in the real world," Chris says philosophically. "A lot of very smart people are going to get a bunch of those breaks--it's the law of averages, you know? It's just going to happen. And I was one of the people it happened to, simple as that. I'm not complaining, I'm just telling it like it is. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be ordinary. Not that I'd trade. I just wonder sometimes."

Close on Chris's heels in raw intelligence is Steve Schuessler, with an IQ of 185, which ranks him higher than Charles Darwin and Bobby Fischer, around one in ten million. A contract researcher for a nonprofit environmental think tank, Steve stud- ied mime for several years with a disciple of Marcel Marceau. On his Web page, Steve notes that he's a Baha'i vegetarian windsurfer. His voice is thin and reedy, the words carefully enunciated. He has the sort of flighty aspect of the joyously effeminate, a tendency to flutter and float his hands to and fro, to cock his head coyly, to giggle and mug. In practice, he says, he is steadfastly heterosexual, with a penchant for supple young students of dance and yoga, two of his long-standing enthusiasms. It's been more than two years since his last sexual encounter. He hopes to break luck soon.

A recovering agoraphobic who once made a local name for himself playing blindfolded chess, Steve will sometimes set the goal of going to a party and seeing whether he can be the last one there, dancing the craziest. In his spare time, he runs Web sites for two of the HiQ societies. He is greatly looking forward to setting up an appointment with a psychologist who wants to PET scan his brain. Steve is anxious to find out if he has larger-than-normal inferior parietal lobes, as Einstein did. Either way, he plans to post the result on his Web site as soon as possible.

Though Steve responded quickly to a request for a magazine interview, he refuses to divulge his age, explaining that he is rabidly opposed to ageism. When he was six, he explains further, tests found that he had the intellectual development of a twelve-year-old and the emotional development of a four-year-old. "People's expectations about one's development are pinned to age rather than to capacity. This is something I really feel bad about: people's expectations for life's little guideposts and progressions. It seems to me that HiQ people either get a doctorate at nineteen and then burn out at a young age--they become hermits and collect subway tokens or whatever--or they'll wait and investigate many, many different ideas and paths and maybe get an advanced degree at the age of fifty or sixty.

"There is a little lizard called the axolotl. It's one of my favorite Scrabble words. It's a strange little creature that looks like an immature salamander throughout its entire life. But if you treat it with drugs a certain way, it will turn into what appears to be an adult salamander. There are those who view lack of emotional development as staying childlike. I didn't use the word childish. But there is a certain curiosity, a certain believing in the moment, that a lot of people lose by the time they're seven or nine years old. I feel like I've probably never lost that. I still have a childlike sense of wonder and curiosity."

Other out-of-bounds topics include the names of his parents, his place of birth, the universities he's quit. When questioned directly, Steve refuses to share any specific details about his life, past or present, preferring to respond with streams of interesting factoids and well-informed opinions, giving the impression that he is not so much a complex human personality as he is a walking amalgam of disparate bits of information. He prefers to explain his life experience by way of elliptical anecdotes from his three favorite movies, Little Man Tate, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Good Will Hunting. He mentions the scene in which the kids in the class throw away the birthday invitations handed out by the young genius. The scene in which the young genius is lonely and alone in a crowd. The scene in which the premed girlfriend becomes upset because her janitor boyfriend understands organic chemistry better than she does. Ask Steve a question he doesn't like and he freezes for painfully long minutes, squinting his gray eyes intensely, staring into the unfocused middle distance, the muscles in his jaw clenching and relaxing. One detail he volunteers without prompting: He colors his wispy, elbow-length hair with Clairol's "lightest auburn." He carries a ponytail scrunchie in the right front pocket of his pants, a comb and a round brush in the right rear.

Steve lives in med-student housing near the University of Houston. Though his two-bedroom apartment appears more like a warehouse--boxes and furniture and computer parts all over the living room, dining room, and second bedroom--Steve's room is a dim study in timeless utilitarian order, the blinds drawn, the space dominated by a futon, some bookshelves, and a pair of networked computers that carry an enormous 26 gigabytes of memory--he calls it his TAN, his Tiny Area Network. As he owns no car, he relies on friends to get around the sprawling city, most usually a guy named Bill, whom he met while working at Kinko's.

Though Steve has studied subjects as diverse as quantum physics, classical philosophy, Latin, Greek, electrical engineering, communications theory, and the history of exploration, he has no college diploma, and this makes him feel somewhat inadequate and defensive. "The blessing part of high intelligence is that it seems that you're equipped with a telescope and a microscope, and other people have binoculars and a magnifying glass. The curse part is probably when you have a feeling that there is so much that you could be doing but haven't lived up to the possibilities.

"It's easy, when you're interested in lots of things, to get sidetracked. You start studying one thing, and that leads to the next thing, which is also interesting. Before you know it, months have gone by and you're very far afield. I enjoy the sharp upward learning curve associated with new knowledge, but, frankly, I often become bored with the tedious plateau associated with expertise."

Unfortunately, Steve says, expertise is far more marketable. "You want to find work where you can utilize your talents," he says, "but how do you put on a resume that you're probably going to see things more clearly, have better ideas for strategies, have a better overall view than anybody else in the entire company? And do people really want somebody like that? Highly intelligent people are not seen as team players. They're seen as loners with their own ideas, as people who are difficult to deal with. Some people get more despondent and isolated as they age, and it's very, very difficult. Others take that as a challenge--how to interact with other people, how to talk with other people. I kind of took that route. I took a lot of drama courses, read a lot of things. If you become actively hostile against the environment around you, that's like a certain kind of hell."

Gina LoSasso is a short, garrulous woman with a heavy Brooklyn accent and purple eye shadow that matches the fancy satin bra strap peeking out flirtatiously from the shoulder of her floral blouse-and-shorts ensemble. Though she is by no means the smartest woman in America--that title goes to Marilyn Mach vos Savant, the Parade magazine columnist--she is way up there, with an IQ around 168, higher than that of Mozart or Thomas Jefferson. Since men with extremely high IQs (and men with extremely low IQs) are fifty times more plentiful than women, Gina estimates, the incidence of females in the population with an IQ similar to hers is about one in 3.4 million.

Forty-three years old, twice divorced, the mother of two--a twenty-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son--Gina recently received her Ph.D. in clinical neuropsychology from Wayne State University in Detroit, having completed her bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs in just under five years. She earned a great number of her undergraduate credits through something called the College Level Examination Program. She'd pick a test that seemed doable--marketing, management, literature, computer science, biology--get one basic textbook on the subject, study it, take the exam. She averaged about two tests a month. She scored in the high 90's on all the exams except biology, which she still managed to pass.

By way of a first-time e-mail introduction, Gina opines that highly intelligent women make the best lovers. She believes that her high libido and her high intelligence are both related to a higher-than-normal percentage of testosterone in her system. When she was young, in fact, she wanted to be a boy, refused to answer to any name other than Billy. These days, she thoroughly enjoys being a girl, especially given the man-woman ratio in her circles. Gina is currently the only female on the list of the top fifty American players in the International Correspondence Chess Federation. A member of the 1986 U. S. Chess Olympiad Team that competed in Dubai, Gina lived in Brussels for many years as a professional chess player, traveling the European circuit. Her second husband, an international master whom she married when she was thirty-two, was fourteen years her junior.

Before she found chess through a correspondence league associated with Mensa, Gina managed a weight-loss clinic, flunked out of three colleges, attended computer-programming school, sold copiers, made sand-art terrariums, sold candy behind the counter at a movie theater. As soon as she played in her first chess tournament, she realized two things. First: This was what she wanted to do with her life. Second: Her marriage to her first husband--a construction worker from the old neighborhood in Brooklyn--was over. She felt the same way when she was accepted into her doctoral program. The night after she received her degree, she informed her second husband that she wanted a divorce. Gina has never had a problem letting go, forging ahead, concentrating on her own needs, making tough decisions, like leaving her daughter behind to pursue her dreams of playing chess. She abhors hanging around.

Though she tested off the charts in standardized examinations as a child, she hated school, often refused to go, barely graduated. Because she liked to talk and goof around a lot, and because she was on the cute side, and, later, because she had that thick Brooklyn accent, people always thought she was an airhead, and she liked it that way, because she was self-conscious about being too smart, didn't want to be thought of as a nerd. In fact, she became somewhat of a hellion. As a young teenager, she frequently hitchhiked to Greenwich Village. She'd pick an apartment building, gain entry, listen at doors for the sounds of a party in progress. If one sounded interesting, she'd knock. She spent much of her fourteenth year in a residential drug-treatment program.

Gina's mom worked as a civilian employee of the police department. Her dad was an electrician and an alcoholic who left the family when she was sixteen. Often he'd build elaborate wooden and electronic puzzles that he'd take to work for the purpose of stumping his coworkers. When Gina solved the puzzles handily, he'd become angry. He'd storm out of the house, head for the local pub.

Puzzles and games have always been Gina's passion and forte. She loves playing Scrabble, breaking tough encryption codes. She often plays computer games like Jezzball and Myst for upward of six hours at a time. One of her favorite activities is riding her exercise bike while staring at her Lava lamp. It helps her clear her mind, she says; it's also great for her thighs. She keeps the bike in her bedroom, beside a large four-poster bed with a gauzy black canopy and sexy silk sheets. She is skilled at calligraphy, macramé, and jewelry making. "When people like me want to do something, we just do it," she says, typically unabashed. "From learning a musical instrument to learning how to tile your bathroom. You just get the books and you figure it out. It's a real empowering feeling, knowing that you can do almost anything you try. The hard part, of course, is trying. When I know I can do a presentation better with little or no preparation than the average person can with all kinds of preparation, it's hard for me to get motivated. I can be very industrious, but I have a lazy side. Or not lazy, really. It's just, like, I wanna do what I wanna do, you know?"

In a way, she believes, high intelligence works against you, because mundane things are very difficult, and the world is full of mundane things structured for the average person. Waiting in line, paying bills, filling out forms, taking required courses, driving her son to school, answering routine questions, following arbitrary rules--life to her can sometimes be excruciatingly dull. Another difficult obstacle, she says, is finding the patience to communicate properly with others. Though she is a people person of the highest order and has many good friends, she isn't always easy to get along with. She expects those around her to make leaps they sometimes fail to make. She easily becomes impatient: Why should she have to belabor a point to make herself understood? Sometimes she feels like snapping her fingers--Come on, come on, keep up! And though she hates to say it, she can't stand watching her son play chess. Although he's already an accomplished player, having won his first trophy at four, and while she has for him a mother's pride, the kids' game is so slow it annoys her. They don't see the moves. It's really frustrating. Sometimes she just wants

to stand up and scream: Knight takes queen, fer chrissakes! Like many of her HiQ fellows, Gina is very competitive, an admitted obsessive-compulsive. Upon a first meeting, she gives you a three-ring binder with section tabs--a compendium of personal tidbits, FAQs, and background readings. She likes to be in charge. She likes to be the center of conversation and attention. She has a need for order and control. Often, when she buys a pair of shoes, she ends up returning them to the store because the right shoe is not identical in every way to the left. She loves to argue, has a difficult time agreeing to disagree. She believes that there is always an answer waiting to be found, and she will go to great lengths to dig it up, to prove herself right. Maude was Edith's cousin! Muhammad Ali was more popular than Pele! Currently, Gina is embroiled in an ongoing dispute with her new boyfriend, a ponytailed HiQ postal employee she met on the Web. The argument arose after he made an obscure joke about losing his Thomas Pynchon doll. Gina didn't get it. The boyfriend said she must be an idiot. She countered by sampling her doctoral colleagues, who didn't get it, either. Her new credential is very important to her, partially because it is a label that everyone can see. It says, with little need for interpretation, that she is certifiably smart. When you're special, you want people to accord you that extra bit of deference and respect. It's hard when they don't know you. Those three little letters go a long way. Though she didn't include this bit of information in the personal essay on her application, it goes a long way toward explaining the reasons she stuck it out for the entire, tedious process of earning a doctorate.

Since her boyfriend lives in Virginia, they communicate mostly by e-mail and phone. Gina also has a torrid ongoing e-mail correspondence with Chris Langan, the bouncer/cosmologist, though they've never met. She has printed out both sides of the correspondence; she keeps the hard copies in a three-ring binder beneath her desk--a blue, HiQ version of Love Letters. She is moving soon to Connecticut to take up her postdoctoral studies at Norwalk Hospital, a ferry ride away from Long Island. The next three-ring binder has yet to be filled.

"I'd love to clone myself, I really would," she says, smiling at the sound of it, continuing anyway. "I would know how to raise me to reach my full potential. I think sometimes that if I'd been raised by a normal family, with opportunities to go to the best schools and stuff like that, I might have been a neurosurgeon or something by now. But then again, there's a side of me that's very creative and undisciplined, and maybe it's better to embrace that. Look at all the fun I've had. I've partied a lot. I've dined with heads of state and heroin addicts. I've lived in Brooklyn and Brussels, traveled to Moscow and Dubai. I've had a very broad, incredible life. I'm very philosophical about my whole experience growing up in the inner city and struggling and being different, because I'm here now, and I'm at a really good point. I have a Ph.D., I have great friends, good family. I can say that everything worked out."

Ronald K. Hoeflin is a mild man with graying hair who wears his watch on a string around his neck. Fifty-five years old and legally blind, he lives in Manhattan, renting a $106-a-month apartment in Hell's Kitchen. He has three cats--Big Boy, Princess, and Wild Thing--and a collection of faux art deco lamps, curvaceous female forms holding colorful globes, that lend a bit of a bawdy air to his tiny, ultraneat bachelor pad, decorated entirely with furniture found abandoned on the streets. Framed on his wall are three mandalas, photocopied from a series of twenty-four drawn by a patient of Carl Jung. The colorful works are symbolic of the patient's creative struggle and development. Though Ron can't make out the detail without his magnifying glass, the mandalas give him comfort in his solitary labors, he says, as does the crystal statue above his desk--Atlas hefting the world.

Sweet-natured and eager to please, Ron readily volunteers the fact that he has no friends. He seems nervous and awkward in public; he often goes days without meaningful conversation. When he does speak, the words gush so rapidly that he sounds as if he's using a foreign tongue; understanding him takes a bit of practice. Once every two or three months--whether he needs it or not, he jokes--he goes on a date with a woman from Long Island. He's also begun corresponding with a woman in Florida, who has promised to come visit. "I'm looking for a bright woman who'd like to have bright children, if any such woman exists out there who can tolerate my low vision, modest income, and shyness," he says.

Ron's father was an electrical engineer and ballroom dancer who worked his way through college playing the violin in dance bands. His mother was an opera singer. Born and raised in St. Louis, Ron spent his youth "running around the neighborhood like a wild Indian." Due to his poor vision, he was never much of a reader; neither could he see the chalkboard in school. Nevertheless, when tested, he was found to be several grades ahead of his class, the fifth brightest student in his entire district. Though he remembers being upset that he wasn't the smartest, all the adults were pleasantly surprised. No one, including Ron, could explain how he knew so much--where he'd learned all the big words and complex theorems. It was as if the knowledge had come to him a priori.

Though Ron dropped out of his first three colleges, he now has two bachelor's degrees, two master's degrees, and a Ph.D. in philosophy. He modestly claims an IQ of only 164, though he says that arriving at a final number is tricky. "I've gotten scores ranging from 125 to 175, depending upon what cognitive abilities they're tapping into," he says. "The fact is, nobody really knows exactly what you're supposed to be measuring when you're measuring IQ."

Ron is a self-taught expert in HiQ testing. He is credited with creating two of the world's most difficult IQ tests, the Mega and the Titan. Ron is fascinated with human potential, human limits. He is interested in world records of every kind: running times, weight-lifting rec-ords, home-run tallies, the number of digits of pi a person can memorize. Since 1979, he has founded four HiQ societies, mostly because he was interested in the psychometric possibilities of forming such groups, given the numerical rarities involved. He makes his living putting out monthly journals for two of the clubs and also by scoring his tests for twenty-five dollars each. That he lives in one of the most expensive cities in the world with annual earnings of about $7,000 is perhaps the truest testament to his genius.

Seven days a week, at precisely three in the afternoon, Ron walks to a Wendy's restaurant fifteen blocks from his place. He orders a chef's salad and a large iced tea, then retires upstairs to the second-floor dining room, sits at his regular table by the window. After reading The New York Times and the New York Post, he reads exactly ten pages of philosophy--no more, no less--searching for examples to include in the book he's been writing for the past seven years, Decoding Philosophy: Cybernetic Patterns in Philosophy and Related Disciplines--A Theory of Categories. An expansion of the ideas explored in an essay for which he was awarded a prize by the American Philosophical Association ten years ago, Ron's book offers a revolutionary new system for categorizing and analyzing all of the world's known philosophies. Handwritten on six-by-eight-inch notepaper--printed neatly in black ink, corrected with white streaks of Liquid Paper, edited with scissors and tape--the book runs about one million words. He keeps it filed in manila folders on two shelves in his apartment. Though he is aware that the book is much too long to be published, he forges ahead. Within the next year, he hopes, he'll be finished.

Ron owns a computer but has never hooked it up, which adds to his sense of isolation. Though he has a reputation among fellow HiQs for being a technophobe, it's not the technology that daunts him so much as it is the idea of embarking on a whole new area of interest. Many years ago, he eschewed the notion of regular employment because he thought he would be squandering his time, that he wouldn't be improving himself in any way. While some HiQ types prefer to rip open a new gadget or enthusiasm, ditch the instructions, and wing it, Ron is the kind who wants to read every word in every manual before he'll start anything new. As it is, he is known as a prodigious letter writer. "I've been using the mail for fifty years," he says. "Why stop now?" He feels the same about his financial position. "I'm sort of used to it," he says. "It's a trade-off. Money on one hand, leisure and independence on the other. I'm not really enough of a people person to become wealthy, so I figure, what the heck, you know? I'm used to my condition. I have food and shelter and clothing. You don't have to be a genius to know that those are the most important things of all."

Ron's outward life is a series of comfortable routines. By putting the mundane tasks on a sort of deeply entrenched autopilot, he says, his mind is free to ponder larger questions. He always takes the same routes to Wendy's, to the post office, to the grocery, to the bank, always goes at the exact same times, says the exact same things to the people who serve him. Every night for dinner, he buys two pieces of fried chicken, a can of corn, a can of peaches. Food is food, you know? Fuel for the body and mind. Later in the evening, while watching one of the five premium cable movie channels that are his only extravagance, he enjoys a scoop of strawberry ice cream. He loves the quiet of the dark, stays up all night watching movies, listening to classical music, writing essays. He sleeps until one in the afternoon. "I'm not saying it's a good life or a bad life. It's my life. It serves its purpose," he says.

When Ron was in sixth grade, a girl in his class invited everyone to her birthday party. When he arrived, she looked at him and said, "Ron! I didn't expect you to come!" He doesn't remember now whether he stayed at the party, but he does remember the feeling he had, the lesson he learned. "Even though people invite you, it doesn't mean they are sincere about it. The truth is that people with average intelligence are a bit resentful. Throughout their entire schooling, they've had to compete with these people who seem to find it easy to get straight A's, and they're working hard just to get B's and C's. If you were normal size, and you had to spend every day of your life out on a football field being run over by a three- hundred-pound guy, you'd start to resent him. It's just like that.

"There's a theory about genius--it's sort of like the tragic-flaw theory of tragedy. You see it in a lot of cases of highly intelligent, highly creative people. For example, Sir Isaac Newton's mother abandoned him at the age of three to remarry. Her new husband didn't want young Isaac around, so he went to live with his aunt. He never recovered from this abandonment, could never achieve friendships with anybody throughout his entire life. His creativity in mathematics was really his way of saying: I'm a worthwhile person!

"I think that's what a genius, typically, will try to say through his work. He or she is saying, 'Even though you may not realize it, and even though I sometimes hate myself, I'm going to try and prove to you that I have some reason for being alive, that I have something important to contribute.' It's like you're born out of sync with the world, and you have to try to adjust. Your way of compensating is taking your greatest talent and just pushing it to the limits.

"I don't know how people with low IQs get along," Ron says. "I've had it so hard--and if I've had it hard, how do people with less ability have it? It seems like a miracle that people can find a way to live if they don't have any special talents."